Fall From Grace

Zdenko Mahyisti glanced up from his neocom, the soft blue glow casting his face in a contrast of light to the shadowy interior of the shuttle speeding for Myyhera. After making a cursory sweep of the cabin just so that he could prove to himself that his eyes could see distant objects, he looked back down to the screen. His face, frozen in time, was staring back at him, a large gray triangle obscuring part of his face. After setting the audio so that it would play directly into an aural implant, he tapped on the triangle.

“Dearest Sister, 

In the event that you receive this message, I am incapacitated, but most likely dead. I have left everything I have to you, stored safely in a bank in Dam-Torsad. Use what you need sparingly, live off of the interest as best as you can–but I don’t need to tell you that. You’re a smart girl. I’m so proud of you. I hope that you can forgive your brother for not doing more. 

I love you. Stay strong. 

Yours forever, 

Zdenko”

He nodded to himself. It wasn’t the best letter in New Eden, but it would do. In truth, he laughed at himself for even making the recording in the first place as he set a timer on his neocom. In twenty-four hours, if he did not deactivate the timer, the message would send automatically. But why such a contingency? He glanced over to his traveling companion, upon whom he rested his hopes.

Katerina Tzestu Sakakibara was a capsuleer. Her eyes were of an emerald green, her hair a brilliant fire of a red. Her clothes were dark and a far cry from noble attire–no flowing lines of gold or droplets of pearl. She wore a stoic expression, betraying no clues in her body language as far as apprehension or even curiosity were concerned; the perfect mask of silent disinterest. He wondered if all Pandemic Legion pilots were similar. But despite her disposition, if there was anyone who would talk sense into Lord Reginald, it would be her. And yet, he turned his head so as to not linger on her form for longer than would be proper, before she could confront her husband, she would need information.

The shuttle touched down quietly on one of the less-used shuttlepads into Lord Reginald’s Holding, skirting past security protocols under authentications for humanitarian aid. Lady Katerina had agreed to the arrangement when they had entered Myyhera. He was thankful that she had acquiesced, at the very least–it meant that she had at least a modicum of trust in him.

They exited the shuttle quickly and silently, disappearing towards a rear exit before customs authorities even had a chance to spot them. The metal staircase down the back of the landing pad was filthy and reeked of the refuse from refugees recently cleared from the streets in favor of one of the housing projects erected on Lady Katerina’s wallet. The soft blue glow of failing lamps illuminated the steps, the pale moon shrouded by wisps of fog and mist.

When they reached the base, a low humming of a motor indicated a vending machine, which Zdenko took a few moments to regard. The selection was sparse and not particularly appetizing–it didn’t even have the latest flavors of Quafe. It was the brightest object on the street behind the shuttlepad, so he didn’t want to take any longer than he needed to. After electronically transferring money into the machine, he punched a few buttons, obtaining two sandwiches. As a gentleman, he was expected to provide, after all.

Sandwiches tucked safely into his satchel, he stepped up to the curb and tried to call down a taxi. The sidewalks were almost completely clear, buildings gently shutting off their lights for the inevitable sound of curfew. Most of the vehicles on the street were far too engaged with making it home before the announcements rang out on the loudspeakers and watchman drones strewn about the township to pay them any heed. Luckily, one brave taxi driver–probably one who was looking to eke out just a little more money at the last minute–stopped in front of the pair.

Zdenko opened the door for Katerina, then called up to the driver, “The overlook please, off of Champion Way.”

Once Katerina and Zdenko were situated, the driver chuckled, “Off for a night of fun, eh? Well, just remember that the curfew will be up soon. You need one of those special licenses to be out and about.”

Zdenko frowned apologetically to Katerina, who did not look amused. Nonetheless, she offered no correction to the cab driver, letting the vehicle lurch into motion toward the river that snaked through the township. They sat in silence for most of the journey to the outlook, time that Zdenko spent staring at the buildings of the township that had once been his home.

Exile. That had been their punishment. His punishment for being Relena Mahyisti’s nephew and heir. His sister’s punishment for being his sister. Stripped of title. Stripped of land. All but stripped of name. To become worse than a slave. He glanced over at Katerina again. She was impassive, but there was something reassuring in the mere act of accompanying him, of declining an offer of bodyguard from the Templar. He sensed, of all things, mercy.

The taxi came to a halt at the outlook, a small park that oversaw a bend in the river. Zdenko paid the taxi driver without fanfare, then walked with Katerina towards one of the hills. It was crowned by a large oak tree that offered shade during daylight hours, but would instead cast a concealing shadow in the darkness. They trudged along up the cobblestone pathway, the lamps not even lit due to the curfew. In the distance, loudspeakers rang out across the still night air, giving final warnings.

Zdenko sighed, glancing over at the red-haired woman, “On an evening like this, you’d normally see dozens here. Just goes to show how much things have changed.”

Katerina didn’t respond to the comment, offering instead, “It’s better the cab driver didn’t recognize me, you know.”

He nodded in agreement, “It’s a miracle, that is.”

When they reached the crest of the hill, he lowered himself onto his belly, then motioned for Katerina to do the same. She shot him a searching look, one that said “are you serious?” Nonetheless, she followed suit. The overlook provided an excellent vantage point of a bend in the river. Spanning the bend was a mason bridge, a small concrete jetty at the river surface where gondolas were moored. Street lamps illuminated the bridge, but there was no light down the steps that led to the river. Nothing stirred except the swaying of boats rocking against one another.

“It’s still a bit early,” He took out the sandwiches, then offered one to Katerina, “Are you hungry, Lady Katerina?”

The mists were parting slightly above them, revealing the endless heavens of New Eden. There was much he wanted to ask her: How many stars she had seen, what kind of people lived in the depths of null security space, the mystique and terrors of wormholes, the size of her world beyond his own. But none of those questions mattered.

She broke his thoughts, “I’m fine. What exactly are we waiting for?”

“You’ll see,” He responded, unwrapping a sandwich and taking a bite.

The texture was mushy, as if it had been sitting in a freezer that had thawed and re-froze several times. He tucked it back into the wrapper, thankful that Katerina hadn’t accepted one of them. He, of course, wanted to tell her everything. The purges. The disappearances. But why would she believed him? He was related to a woman–no, the heir of the Holder–who had plotted to murder her son.

After forcing down the bite of mystery meat, wilted lettuce, and soggy bread, he cleared this throat, then asked meekly, “May I ask you a question, Lady Katerina?”

“I believe you just asked one. But yes, you may ask another.”

He stopped himself from sighing, then summoned the courage to ask, “Do you love Lord Reginald? I know you married him, but do you love him?”

Katerina turned her emerald gaze to Zdenko, “You know what I was before our marriage, I presume?”

Zdenko nodded his response, though his answer was less than sure, “A capsuleer?”

“And what else?”

Zdenko shook his head, “The only story people in the Holding get is that you are immensely wealthy and benevolent.”

Katerina chuckled, “A commoner, my dear Zdenko.”

Zdenko looked shocked, before recovering slightly, “Ah yes, my aunt used to speak of you in such terms. Having never met you, I didn’t know if it was just another personal attack she was levying.”

“It’s quite true. And we didn’t marry for politics, nor was our marriage arranged. In fact I believe that Lord Reginald’s mother desired a union between your aunt and my husband.”

Zdenko nodded, “She mentioned that a few times as well. Fairly bitter about that, in many ways.” He paused for a while, then prodded further, “But you’ve yet to answer my question.”

“We didn’t marry for politics, I have no need of Reginald’s wealth, the title of holder means nothing to most capsuleers. What else is there?”

Zdenko smiled, “So you love him, then.” He nodded to himself, then made his way back up the hill. Peering down towards the river, he caught a glimpse of vehicles turning a corner, “They’re here.”

Part of him wished they had not appeared, feeling somewhat guilty for the crime of shattering Lady Katerina’s perspective on her marriage. He felt he was taking advantage of her, betraying her trust, leading her into a path that would leave her stricken with regret, sorrow, and despair. But most of him knew that it was necessary, that Lord Reginald’s excesses needed to be exposed. He wondered if his contact–the one who had revealed the location– was even still alive.

There were three black vehicles, each one bearing the personal coat of arms of the Sakakibara family. They parked on the side opposite to Zdenko and Katerina, dark-uniformed and heavily armed men and women exiting the vehicles and scanning for movement. Once they had apparently secured the immediate area, one of them walked over to the middle vehicle–a heavy police van designed for transporting criminals–and banged on the double doors. Moments later, the doors burst open and a string of five prisoners were led out of the van towards the staircase that led to the concrete jetty on the water below the bridge.

The guards manhandled the prisoners down the staircase, shoving them roughly despite the fact that the prisoners wore dark bags over their heads. Two of them were taller–presumably a man and a woman based on their clothes. Three of them were shorter, thinner, and of slighter builds. One of those three was barely three feet tall.

Zdenko recognized the man through a pair of binoculars he had pulled out of his satchel. He sighed, “The Ashra family. The father is one of my aunt’s loyalists. We thought he had repented, though.”

Zdenko shivered at Katerina’s reply, delivered with a calm, conversational tone, “I’d imagine they did.”

The figures were made to kneel next to where the gondolas were moored, the guards barking orders and threats to them that were barely discernible despite the still night air. As a fourth vehicle pulled up next to the other three, Zdenko pulled an audio earpiece out of his satchel, handling the rest of the device as if it were his most prized possession–at the moment, it was indeed his most expensive.

“You can’t hear what they’re saying,” He explained to Katerina, “Here, put this in your ear. It’ll amplify the sounds.”

Katerina took the earpiece and placed it in her ear, while Zdenko took the second one and did the same. The figure that emerged from the fourth vehicle wore a black a tunic. The air about him was intense, as if the very molecules about him shuddered in unity. There was only one man that commanded so much fear in the Holding. The head of Lord Reginald’s personal security: Kerr Azor. Zdenko watched and listened as Kerr made his way down to the water. The spymaster had obviously said something before he had activated his earpiece, because the prisoners were in a panic.

“For God’s sake, let my family go! I’ve already repented! I don’t know anything else!”

The woman kneeling next to the man sobbed, “Saskail? I’m scared. I’m so scared.”

One of the children–Zdenko paused, wishing it were not true–uttered in the darkness, “Daddy? What’s going to happen to us?”

Another chorused, “Mommy, I can’t see anything!”

Kerr stopped in front of the hodded Saskail, “We know you’re lying. We have footage of your residence. Name the names and your family leaves here unharmed.”

Zdenko tore his eyes away from the scene. Children. He was at once full of rage and at the same time powerless, frustrating him to no end. He glanced at Katerina to gauge her response, but she remained impassive. Searching for something else to look at–anything at all–he turned his attention back towards the vehicles, only to catch a fifth vehicle joining the others. It came to a stop. The guards all seemed to turn to it at once, bowing their heads as another figure exited: Lord Reginald Sakakibara. He wore dark, if obviously noble, clothes, barely glancing to the guards stationed around the bridge as he made his way down the staircase.

“Anything?” Reginald asked impatiently as he reached the assembly of fear.

“Not yet, my lord,” Kerr bowed.

“Lord Reginald?” The kneeling Saskail wailed, “Please, please just let my family go! They’re not involved in this! I swear it! On my ancestors’ graves!”

Reginald responded with dismissive incredulity, “Yes, yes, and you swear before all the angels and saints and martyrs as well.”

Zdenko watched Reginald remove a pair of black gloves from his hands, which he held over his shoulder, obviously expecting a servant to retrieve. The requisite servant did so, then replaced the gloves with a folding baton.  Reginald nodded his thanks to the servant, then extended the baton with a flick of his wrist, the weapon inches from Saskail’s bagged head.

“P-please. What is it that you want from us?” Saskail shuddered at the gust of air.

Reginald’s voice was cold and remorseless, “Names.”

“I’ve told you! I don’t know!”

“Turn them around,” Reginald commanded to the guards, stepping away, before scanning the line of prisoners arrayed before him. He pointed the baton at the second tallest child, “Take these bags off of their heads. Then, let’s start with… this one.”

The guards roughly gets the prisoners on their feet before forcing them back on their knees, this time facing Reginad and Kerr while the indicated child was pulled out of the line and made to face her family. Their bags were pulled off violently, Zdenko imagined that it was taking some time for their eyes to re-adjust to the light.

“Daddy? Mommy?” The girl asked right before she let out a yelp as a guard pulled back on her hair so that she stared at Saskail with fearful eyes.

Zdenko caught the entire scene, the whole thing making him sick. He turned away to look at Katerina, who was watching with the same quiet, calm demeanor. How could she do that? Were capsuleers really so detached from common suffering? Was this par the course for her?

“Wait. What are you doing to her? Stop this!” Saskail begged.

“I’ve been doing this far too long, Saskail,” He brandished the baton, referencing methods of torture–methods reserved for the dark recesses of secret facilities deep within the Holding’s interior, places where people disappeared for eternity, “I’ve learned that most men ask for a quick death, and so we resort to torture. I’ve found it’s far more effective…” He suddenly slammed the baton into the girl’s back, forcing her head back from the sheer force alone, “To let someone else bear the pain for them.”

“AAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH! DADDY!” The girl started to sob.

Zdenko nearly dropped his binoculars. He knew it would be bad. He didn’t know it would be like this. He felt bile begin to rise in the back of his throat, shutting his eyes so that he didn’t have to watch. And yet, he could still hear.

“STOP! STOP! PLEASE! PLEASE!” Saskail cried.

“You can make it stop,” Reginald responded quietly. There was another sound of steel striking flesh, “And only you know how.”

Katerina placed a hand on Zdenko’s shoulder, then asked, “Is there a way down there?”

Another high-pitched scream of agony. He opened his eyes, forcing back the urge to vomit. He swallowed the burning sensation in his throat, then pointed towards a path that led to the bridge, “You’d have to cross the bridge.”

As soon as he indicated the path, Lady Katerina sat up and began jogging down to the bridge. He sat up as well, trying to grasp after her. The sounds of screaming children, wailing, and begging filled his earpiece. He pulled it out and threw it on the ground before bolting after Katerina, “My lady, wait! This isn’t safe!”

Even without the earpiece, it was clear what was happening on the other side of the river. Zdenko did his best to block it out of his mind, but the voices painted a vivid picture.

“Nothing? Fine. Suit yourselves. You there, put a bullet in her head and drag out her baby brother.”

“No! No! Please! No!”

Zdenko stepped into a sprint, hoping to catch Katerina before she put herself in danger. These weren’t men they were dealing with. They were monsters.

A gunshot echoed through the bridge, followed by “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!”

He almost froze at the shot, then at the scream, but managed to maintain his stride by sheer force of will. There was too much at stake. Intervening now would only lead to disaster. He hated himself that he thought at that–a little girl was dead and all he could do was watch. But there wasn’t time for remorse. Their own lives were in danger. He caught up to Katerina just as she reached the first security cordon.

“Stop right there!” The guards raised their weapons, training them on the pair.

Zdenko placed a hand on Katerina’s shoulder, trying to wave off the guards, “We’re sorry. We’re sorry. We’re just a little lost.”

Katerina shrugged off his hand, then looked squarely at the guard, “Do you know who I am?”

Voices emanated from beneath the masonry, closer to the water.

“Not my baby! For God’s sake, just tell him, Saskail!”

“Clarelam! Our contact’s name was Ahrosseas Clarelam!”

Zdenko watched helplessly as Katerina continued to confront the guards. One of the guards lowered his weapon, his brows furrowed, “Lady Katerina? We were told you were in Huola.”

Another voice, a commanding voice escaped from the pitch dark below, “Excellent. the Empress thanks you for your cooperation.” There was a pause, then, “I don’t enjoy quests for revenge. Kill them all.”

“Do it and you’re all dogshit!” Katerina bellowed towards the water, but her call came too late.

The distinctive rat-tat-tat of machine gun fire perforated the night air, followed soon after by the high-pitched agony of wailing victims, before the macabre symphony ended with the slumping of bodies onto concrete. Zdenko clutched at his sides, ready to wretch.

“I am Lady Katerina Sakakibara,” She rose to her full height, putting on a noble air, “Move aside, or you and your family will be up there next.”

The guards hesitated for a moment, then parted for her. Zdenko followed close by, still begging her to reconsider confronting them so soon. He caught the stares of additional guards, their presence being reported throughout the detail.

He chanced another attempt to reason with Katerina, “We can’t be here! Please!”

But Katerina remained unperturbed, brushing by guards as if they were statues, or more accurately, obstacles and nothing more. It didn’t matter to her that they were armed. It didn’t matter to her that they were ready to kill at the drop of a hat. There was a fury burning in her gaze that was all-consuming, and if Zdenko shared even a drop of that conviction, he imagined he would have found courage in the way she carried herself. But the reality was that he feared for his life, his sister’s life. They had to get away.

He froze when he saw them, entering into a clearing that the guards had created at the top of the staircase. He stood completely still. Immediately in front of him was Katerina Sakakibara, her arms folded beneath her breasts. Not ten feet away stood Lord Reginald Sakakibara, who was placing his gloves back onto his hands.

“Kat? What are you doing here?”

“Oh, you know. Just watching my husband be the biggest retard I’ve ever had the displeasure of knowing.”

Zdenko raised his hands above his head, trying to demonstrate that he didn’t want to die because of Katerina’s tone. The guards, however, were fanning out to form a wider perimeter, obviously attempting to create a place where Katerina and Reginald could converse. In the meantime, five bodybags were moved up the staircase and inserted into the police van.

Reginald nodded firmly, “I’m performing my duties as Holder. You needn’t concern yourself with this filth.”

Katerina responded, “But I shall, don’t fret. After all, we’re a team, aren’t we? After all, we don’t keep secrets, do we?”

“Of course not. I meant to tell you, of course. I just wasn’t sure if you would understand.”

“Oh I’m sure you were worried about your wife’s sensibilities, as if natural. Shall we return to the manor?”

“Of course,” Reginald nodded, motioning towards the vehicle. He said to Kerr just as he began to walk in that direction, “We don’t need witnesses.”

Zdenko was surprised. He was surprised at how easy it was for the spymaster to put three rounds into his chest. He was surprised at how painful it was. He was surprised that he was sentenced to death just for observing. He didn’t understand. He still didn’t understand when his body hit the pavement, the gushes of blood staining his shirt and puddling beneath him. He was surprised that he hadn’t expected this would happen.

He gasped, “Oh God! Oh God, please no!” He turned his eyes to Katerina, his only friend as his life began to flicker, “I don’t want to die.”

Katerina glared at the spymaster, “Now, I’d appreciate if it your medics can fix your idiocy.”

Reginald shrugged, “He’s related to a Sani Sabik witch. He dies by order of the Empress. Now, let him die and let’s go back to the manor.”

Katerina pulled out her side-arm and leveled it at Reginald, “You’re related to a Sani, maybe I should kill you in the name of the Empress?” She pointed it to her temple, “Or maybe I should kill myself, since I am too.”

Undaunted, Kerr simply crossed to behind Katerina, aimed his pistol at Zdenko’s head and uttered, “Apologies, my lady. This is the most mercy I’m willing to give him.”

Zdenko heard the shot. That was the last thing he remembered.

***

On a neocom in Huola, sitting on a table in one of the Cerra Manor guest cottages, a notification popped up accompanied by a high-pitched alert that it was an audiovisual message. A blind girl, barely sixteen years of age, walked over to it. She had had much practice, having been born blind, so picking up a neocom was not all that difficult. Activating the message was even easier, as she could estimate where the touch-command was located based on the size of the neocom. She was proud of herself for that. Her brother was proud of her as well.

The message began to play.

“Dearest Sister, 

In the event that you receive this message…”

A Smoke-Filled Room

They had all risen when he had stepped into the room, past the two guards posted at the double-doors. It was a famous manor, or at least it should have been–the location of a treaty that ended a civil war eras ago. Little remained of that history beyond the nameless figures portrayed in paintings that lined the dining room he had just stepped into. Without even glancing towards those arrayed before him, he walked to the far end of the table, to his reserved seat.

They had been waiting for him, of course, at least an hour before he had arrived at Ohrota Hall. Though “punctuality was the politeness of princes,” being late served as a mirror, upon which the reflections of true feelings and loyalties could be better ascertained. Though never quite foolproof, those who stayed were often more loyal than the ones who left. He walked at a deliberately slow pace, silently reminding those present that he was indeed still the Holder and, if his intentional tardiness was not a clear enough message to that effect, he hoped to once again impress upon them that in matters of governance, he was the Holding’s ultimate authority. At the same time, his stately procession offered him observation to the assigned seating labels left on the fine china plates, his implants focusing on the empty seats: Justice, Faith, Public Affairs–offices that he would have to address in turn at a later time.

In many ways, he was surprised at how many remained out of the eleven or so that had been summoned. Eight to work with. Eight good men and women. Or one good man and eight spies. The good man, of course, was the head of his personal security and what remained of the intelligence institution that had once been the backbone of his power in Myyhera–Kerr Azor. The older capsuleer’s expression was gaunt, serious, continually working to preserve Reginald’s place in the hierarchy of the planet. His loyalty was unquestioned. And yet unquestioned loyalty was hardly sufficient for the task at hand–his personal security, formerly DENT, was in such tatters that he had resorted to outsourcing to protect Rebecca while he was seeing to duties in Myyhera–the mercenary Sahriah BloodStone and the Templar Thal Vadam.

He stood in front of the chair that had been left out for him. The words emblazoned upon the seating arrangement were a simple three: Lord Reginald Sakakibara. There was much to be said of people–mannerisms, dispositions, personalities, diction, all served as indicators, as windows into how that person thought and how they perceived the world. Writing, on the other hand, concealed hidden depths and meanings.

Lord Reginald Sakakibara.

It was accurate, yes, but it was also the bare minimum. They didn’t see him as the head of an institution. They didn’t refer to him as “Holder.” He was simply a man, more a boy, playing at being a noble. That perception was going to end immediately.

“Please,” He smiled to those attending, “Sit. We have much to discuss, tonight.”

There was a shuffling of chairs, wood scraping against wood, the settling of the elderly, and the uncertain glances of the more youthful. He had no counterpart on the other end of the table, a blank spot left for Faith. Undaunted, he continued his review of the rest of the table while the occupants situated themselves, briefcases and papers fluttering while pens were uncapped and neocoms booted up.

Starting clockwise, at his right hand, sat Kerr Azor, his head of personal security. Next to him sat the Lady Mayor of the Holding’s capital city, a minor Holder named Utaka Sakakibara, two or three branches away from Reginald’s in the lineage, and who somehow managed to keep herself above the turmoil that ravaged the heart of the Holding. By remaining unaligned to Naomi or Reginald during the internal struggles of the past winter, she had preserved most of the capital’s nobility from being ravaged by kameira. Her loyalty was dubious at best, but even maintaining her neutrality would ultimately be a victory.

Next to her was the empty seat reserved for Justice.

The next seat over housed a rather heavy man, fat from his throat forming a solid second chin. His name was Atair Chaktaren, representing unified working societies and guilds–it was ironic considering that would imply he actually worked, though by his girth, it was evident that that wasn’t the case. He was one of the few commoners on the Old Council, by virtue of how many skilled laborers were employed in the Holding’s factories. Their concerns were the concern of industry and therefore the utter backbone of the Holding. As if to expound upon this fact, he was bedecked in finery normally reserved for the nobility–the very buttons on his coat made of pearls.

Next to Atair was the empty seat reserved for Faith.

The Chief Provost Marshall was a severe-looking woman, her dark grey eyes those of piercing winter. Her name was Esala Arenit. Ostensibly in charge of the regular police in the Holding and their derivative reserves, Esala had begun expanding her powers once the refugee situation had escalated into the tens of thousands mark. Citing the need for greater local security measures, she had begun to form volunteer and civilian auxiliaries to the police forces. Combined with Kerr’s tactical support, she had transformed the peacetime police departments into entities that were more synergistic to a military police state in light of the extraordinary circumstances and recent open skirmish warfare with Sani cultists. Regardless, exhaustion was obvious in the bags beneath her eyes.

Doctor Sahnindem Pasru was an older, thin gentleman. He had served in his position for the duration of Reginald’s father’s tenure as Holder, and nearly half of the tenure of his long-lived grandfather. He had taken up the mantle as the chief of public health services, immediately enacting the housing and employment plans that Katerina had promulgated in the early days of the refugee crisis. While she funded his efforts, his organization had proved paramount in arranging resources in timely, effective manners. Now, however, many of those resources were being diverted away from the refugees who truly needed them. In all honesty, Reginald was surprised Pasru had not joined the other three absentees in boycotting the meeting.

Next to the doctor sat the seat for Public Affairs.

Finally, sitting next to Reginald was, besides Faith, the only person who could truly interfere with how he ran his Holding. His name was Colonel Hamen Yaddi, the commander of Imperial forces within the Holding. As a member of the Imperial army, Colonel Yaddi’s allegiances rose far beyond that of Reginald’s Holding, past his mother Eliana, and into the byzantine command structures of the Imperial military. As complex as it was, it was impossible to know or understand his true motivations or who pulled the strings, but it was nonetheless evident that Colonel Yaddi needed to remain unfettered in internal matters at all costs. The military, after all, was meant to defend the populace, not police it.

“I trust that you have all reviewed the most recent casualty reports regarding the festival?”

The Chief Provost Marshall, Lady Mayor, Chief of Public Health, and Colonel Yaddi all nodded silently. Kerr remained motionless, while Atair Chaktaren seemed more interested in what sort of tea was being served.

“To preempt any concerns regarding my mental state, I assure all of you now, that the situation is well in hand and entirely resolved.”

Impassivity. Now that was impressive. He was of course, referring to the rumors that Relena Mahyisti had attempted to re-write his brain neurology with nanites, creating a series of selves that would have sacrificed his own son in a Sani Sabik ritual. He knew it wouldn’t be easy regaining their trust, that he himself was not being influenced by external forces. But then again, if there were Sani sympathizers on the Old Council, perhaps it would seem reassuring.

“Very well,” He nodded after a few moments, “I want order.”

Esala Aranit, the Chief Provost Marshall turned towards him, “Order, my lord?”

“Quite,” He tapped on his neocom for a few moments, darkening the room and projecting a series of images above the table in holographic form, “It doesn’t matter where you are in the holding. The western port cities, the heartland, the border with District III. Everywhere you go, there is suffering, death, destruction, crime, and heresy.”

“My lord,” Doctor Pasru interjected, “It is to be expected with such a large influx of refugees. We’ve reached a tally of over one hundred thousand.”

“What it is, doctor,” He narrowed his gaze on the old man, “Is intolerable.”

He let a moment of tense silence linger over the room before continuing, “And as such, our intolerable circumstances therefore require a means to correct them.”

He turns his head back to Esala, “Provost Marshall, the situation on the ground?”

She sat up, ramrod straight, “My lord, civilian security forces are currently overwhelmed. Police casualties are at an astonishing five percent average, with ninety percent of our current forces working double shifts. Even if we were authorized to put every cadet at the police academies onto the street, at the current refugee intake rate relative to the levels of crime both petty and organized, we would be short on personnel. The bottom line? We need twice as many officers to police the streets as is–we’ll need even more should the refugee situation intensify.”

He turned to Doctor Pasru, “Doctor, the refugee situation?”

Doctor Pasru nodded, inputting his own statistics into the holographic image, “Public Health is stretched thin, as are all of the major offices, I would imagine. The good news is that Lady Katerina’s continual financial support has led to a ninety-five percent rate of housing for current refugees. The bad news is that the refugee level is predicted to escalate, mostly from District III’s interior, where the fighting has intensified.”

“Colonel Yaddi, our border control?”

“Yes, my lord. As Colonel, I have mobilized what reserves we have left to control the major passageways into the Holding. That said, one battalion remains at the central Township as our only true military reserve force. I would recommend additional troops from Lady Eliana.”

“Thank you.”

“If I may, my lord,” Utaka chirped, “I wish to address the matter of aid not reaching those in need.”

Reginald nodded, “By all means.”

Utaka turned to the doctor, “Doctor Pasru. Although we applaud Lady Katerina’s commitment to funding the Holding’s humanitarian efforts, we are nonetheless perturbed at the rumors that less than fifteen percent of her contributions are finding their way to the populace.”

Reginald sat back. So, Utaka thought herself a family member, unless “we” had somehow referred to the government she headed as Lady Mayor. All the same, although that word was interesting, the true blow lay in the character of the attack: Doctor Pasru.

The doctor sat up a little, peering at Utaka with an unflinching gaze, “This was the first time I had heard of this. I will commence an investigation immediately.”

“I would be grateful to be provided a copy of your findings,” Utaka nodded.

“As would I,” Reginald added, reasserting his influence.

The conversations continued into the early morning hours, though little was accomplished. They typically followed a pattern of stating a crisis, then calling upon various cabinet members as if they were schoolchildren to elucidate on their particular’s office’s specialties. By the time the meeting was entering its conclusive hours, debates had become fairly heated.

“I’m just trying to do my job, sir. If your workers continue to interfere with police investigations–”

“I’m sorry, Provost Marshall, but this Holding is in serious need of organized skilled labor. Allow us to conduct our own investigations.”

“But–”

“Provost Marshall?” Reginald interjected.

“Yes, my lord?”

“I believe we’ve had enough discussion for tonight.” He rose, signalling that the others should do the same, “I look forward to reading the reports.”

There was a shuffling of chairs, the heads of offices departing through the double doors. They all looked worn, especially the older individuals. Colonel Yaddi was the first to leave, exiting with military briskness. Joining him thereafter was Utaka Sakakibara with her noble glide and then the organized labor boss  Atair Chaktaren, waddling out through the double-doors. Reginald was almost surprised that he hadn’t tried to exit by walking sideways.

He thought for a moment, then requested quietly, “Provost Marshall? Doctor Pasru? And Kerr, if you would mind waiting a moment?”

The guards on the outside closed the double doors, leaving the four of them in the meeting chamber. The Provost Marshall remained tense while Doctor Pasru found his seat at the table though he hadn’t been given leave to sit.

“My lord, if I may extend an apology–”

“No need, Provost Marshall, you were merely advocating for your officers and that is merely a function of your duty,” He raised a hand, then turned to Pasru, “No, this is the meeting after the meeting.”

He nodded silently to Kerr, who had moved to behind the doctor. At the silent command, he unfolded an extending baton and used it as leverage to lock Pasru’s neck. The doctor immediately started gasping, grappling at the sudden action. He struggled uselessly against the cyber knight’s grip.

“What is the meaning of this?!”

“Doctor Pasru, as the Lord Justice is not present, I am hereby invoking my right as Holder,” He folded his arms, glancing to the Provost Marshall who was frozen in place, “I hereby find you guilty for embezzling funds intended for refugees. Your punishment is death.”

He gave another nod to Kerr. There was a crack, followed by the sound of Pasru’s body slumping to the ground. The Provost Marshall remained steadfast, unsure of what to do or say.

He turned to her, “Now then, you were saying something was hampering your investigative efforts?”

He returned to his seat, motioning for her to take her own, “There is much I would like to discuss with you.”

“Please, sit.”

Our Traditions Define Us

Reginald was flipping through another after action report as the vehicle coasted down one of his Holding’s country roads. The story never seemed to change: Casualty lists, potential ringleaders and masterminds, evidence obtained by the police that had become dead ends. There was no end to the chaos beneath the surface.

On the outside, the Holding was rebounding, the population slowly recovering from the short but devastating series of skirmishes led by Relena Mahyisti and Katerina’s brother Michael. Pin-pricks in the grand scheme of things–assassinations, kidnappings, acts of coercion. The mess left in their wake was that of a nobility paralyzed by fear of whom to swear allegiance. Many chose to proclaim their public support for the neutral option: Eliana Zateki. Largely exonerated for her role in the Sani Sabik insurrection and therefore ostensibly the choice of the Sakakibara Family, she was nevertheless an icon of lingering Sani Sabik influence–an influence that many were waiting on bated breath to emerge. The extent to which the nobility had sunk into acceptance of Sani Sabik agents in their midst was difficult to gauge, especially as the remainder of the DENT security network had been so completely disorganized in recent months. First, reeling from its near destruction at the hands of Alexa de’Crux’s kameiras, then, from serving as little more than public riot control during the early days of the refugee crisis, and, finally, as the silent and invisible victims of an underground war involving DENT agents, local security forces, Sani Sabik extremists–the rearguard of Relena Mahyisti and Michael Tzestu’s fanatics, dissatisfied refugees–of noble and common birth alike, and a mobilized network of slaves demanding freedom.

Cells of the Sani Sabik cult had rippled throughout the Holding, obtaining local dominance in areas where the refugee population had already stretched security forces to breaking point. Their cacophony lent itself to populations and townships already besieged by a growing criminal underworld created by gangs looking to seize opportunity on the backs of the helpless. As the sleek gray vehicle, driving in a caravan that included heavier armored transport, sped into the Myyheran countryside, the scenery changed from smaller, quaint, suburban dwellings, to the grander and older estates–estates Reginald knew their caretakers would swear dated back to Myyhera’s Reclaiming.

He turned his attention back to another series of reports: The border crossings were requesting additional troops as usual, local police forces continued to rely on officers working double shifts, the justice system was overwhelmed by freedom petitions, and somewhere in all of that, his spy network was still licking its wounds after the debacle in the winter. Nearly one year later and with his son almost born, his Holding couldn’t have possibly been in a weaker state.

“What kind of father are you going to be?

You can’t even keep yourself safe, how can you protect her?

And really, what kind of mother is Katerina?

She doesn’t even want to be one!” 

He adjusted his collar to distract him from the sudden onslaught of raw emotion that shot through his spine. It was the cold twinge of shame mixed with the regret of guilt, feelings that snaked through him as Lady Lianne’s words echoed like a harpy’s wail into his soul. He clenched his fists. He was angry, of course, angry that she had hit so close to him in a situation that had largely been out of his control. But what hurt more than her words themselves was that they were true. He tried to bury the welling emotions by seeking out a memory of happiness, though he had none that were recent, and those that were from the past were tempered by the outcomes of his present.

He took a deep breath, pulled out a handkerchief and clenched it tight in his fist, raising it to his face lest his inner turmoil overcome him. He was thankful that no one else was in the compartment with him. Weakness begot weakness.

Two options remained once the situation was boiled down into its component parts. The first was to allow himself be paralyzed by external and internal pressures, to abandon his Holding, to take up Lady Lianne’s offer to serve as one of her Holders. To leave behind the family heritage. To deny his son his birth right.

Unthinkable.

The second option was to take action. For too long he had allowed Katerina to shape the Holding’s policies, and while her approach was not a bad one, her even hand and just mentality had created an atmosphere of rule by love. At first, it had been a welcome change–the creation of a benevolent state enamored by his wife had offered opportunities and privileges that would otherwise have been non-existent. But the world is cruel, and those that benefited from kindness had soon chose to grab onto the fruits of Katerina’s generosity and hoard them for themselves, reselling equipment, food, medicine, and supplies at premiums upon which they grew wealthy. Estimates put Lady Katerina’s humanitarian aid at less than fifteen percent effective due to corruption in distribution, to the point that media broadcasts exalting her policies were beginning to ring hollow with the population.

What kind of father are you going to be?

It was no longer an attack as it was a question of progress. Sacrifices were necessary. Even for the nobility. Lady Lianne certainly knew of that. As the car came to a halt in front of an ivy-walled mansion deep in the country, he could only laugh at himself. Even now, after so many months away from serving as one of her CEOs, her lessons resounded within him. Her expectations driving him ever forward in a life and marriage where Katerina was growing increasingly distant. He stopped laughing long enough to place a hand over his solar plexus–the memory of Katerina’s strike fresh.

It had been a mistake, he surmised, to expect that they would live happily ever after. That he could shower her with gifts, dote upon her, and leave the Holding to delegation. He wondered if history would judge him as the culprit in the death of their marriage, allowing crisis after crisis to wreak havoc on their young marriage. At any rate, he hated himself for it. She would tell him not to fret, but the anger was real. The wish to turn back the clock. The heartbeat of time, anchored by its taunting metronome of forward motion, had etched itself into every organ, every fiber, every cell.

He stepped out into the cool twilight air, the mansion’s windows illuminated by soft yellow glows, contrasting against the pale blues and grays of dying natural light. Other cars were already arrayed in front of it–their doors bearing the insignia of the powerful. The Old Council–the men and women who ran the Holding on their fingertips.

He adjusted his collar for the final time, then pulled down on his coat, smoothing out the wrinkles of travel. Time was of the essence.

Revenge was on the horizon.

Exorcism III

“Shit, Regi!”

The carnage was over. The shattered remains of medical drones lay strewn about as if a hurricane had torn through them. Arody knew that something far more terrifying had obliterated them–the Templar Thal Vadam. Her eyes were glued to the monitors while defensive software was streaming through cyberspace to secure the networks governing Cerra Manor’s important systems.

Lord Reginald was convulsing violently on the operating table, blood spurting out of the wound in a spray of crimson. After several minutes his body lays limp, a calm feminine computer voice stating repetitively, “Patient in critical condition. Emergency care requested.”

Ameriya handed Templar Vadam a fresh pitcher of water, “Go ahead and take it, pour it in, so I can see what I’m dealing with.”

The Templar asked, “The wound?”

Ameriya nodded to the armored Templar, then turned to Katerina, “If  I can’t get a BSL V(N) suit, two options. Just scan and clone jump or hit him with an EM pulse and try to knock out the nanites.”

As Vadam poured water into Reginald’s wound, clearing away blood and loose pieces of gore, Katerina asked, “Sounds like it’d be hard to get that suit?”

“I don’t know if they have one or not.”

Arody sighed. Communications with the medbay had been choppy at best, so even though the full inventory was at her fingertips, there was no way to help the capsuleers and templar. She gasped at the sight of the wound once it was partially cleaned by the water–a mess of anatomy. Arody dared a closer inspection, zooming a camera into view. Shimmering metallic specks were on the edges of the wound. Her fears were confirmed with Ameriya’s observation.

“The nanites are repairing the damage, but that might not be a good thing.”

“What would that be bad?” Katerina asked.

“Well, they might be rebuilding it how they want it to be.”

“And there’s no way to tell?”

Ameriya shook her head silently.

Katerina sighed, “Do it, then.”

“Scan him?”

“Stop the nanites.”

“If I do that, he might die. My professional advice is to flash scan and have him wake up in another clone.”

“If I may offer a suggestion,” The Templar ventured in a voice that was cautious despite his obvious physical superiority.

“Of course,” Ameriya turned to him, her tail flicking just a bit.

Templar Vadam pressed a button on his suit, which opened a compartment, “I have two types of nanites. One repairs damaged tissue. The other can wipe a body clean of nanite infection, mainly anti-Sansha.”

Katerina nodded, “Worth a try, I suppose.”

“Go for it!” Ameriya squeaked.

Arody watched the Templar take a syringe and inject it directly into Lord Reginald’s wound. The atmosphere was tense. She imagined that the smell was horrendous–between the burning rubber and wires from the corrupted drones to the blood and gore from within the ICU. She wretched a little at the thought–the reason why she would never go into medicine.

“I feel really stupid for not thinking of countering nanites with more nanites.”

Reginald bucked involuntarily, his eyes shooting open momentarily. Templar Vadam looked to a number of sensors and monitors built into his suit to gauge the progress of the anti-nanites.

“I feel really stupid for not thinking of countering nanites with more nanites. I feel like a fucking moron.”

Katerina laid a hand on Ameriya, “No one else did. Don’t judge yourself so harshly.”

Ameriya nodded, then asked in a somewhat defeated tone, “Thal, do you have med scanners on that suit? Are they cleared?”

“I do. Hostile nanites are ninety-five percent destroyed. He’s getting stable.”

Arody was no doctor, so as the scene unfolded from her view of the medical bay monitors, she could only think in layman’s terms. From her observations, it seemed as if the nanites effecting repairs on Reginald’s body were hastily retreating to his brain, pursued by Templar Vadam’s anti-nanites. She shuddered at the possibility that Lord Reginald would have lasting brain damage. What would it be like to be manipulated by something so small?

“I have one more syringe,” Vadam told Ameriya.

“Keep that for yourself,” Ameriya said, before bombarding the Templar with questions, “Where ca I get more? Also, you have medical nanites to help repair damage, right? Can you give him some?”

After Thal had agreed and injected Reginald with additional nanites, Ameriya nodded, “Okay, come on out.”

“We need to destroy the book,” She said as Vadam exited the containment field. She looked over towards Katerina as she picked up a medsafe container, “This might be bad, but it might be worse if we do nothing.”

Katerina nodded, “I was just thinking that.”

“Should I do that?” Vadam chimed in.

As if she had expected him to, Ameriya stated, “Thal, can you put the book in here? And then dump it in a fusion reactor. It doesn’t have to be a fusion reactor, but something two thousand absolute degrees, at least.”

Vadam nodded, dutifully taking his quarry out of the medical bay. Arody expected Reginald to give into additional convulsions, but instead he lay peacefully, his condition actually stabilizing.

He awoke after some time, offering a weak first word. A part of Arody knew what that word would be, but she was happy to see her prediction confirmed. She lay back in her seat, resting her head on her hands. What a night.

“Kat?”

“Good morning.”

Exorcism II.5

“We just cleared the last gate, sir. Awaiting orders from Fleet Command Tactical.”

Reginald’s eyes were closed, though it was easy enough to interact with his crew on the Confessor-class vessel TES Brilliance. Retro-fitting of the Tactical Destroyer had required innovations to take advantage of restrictions on weapon systems as well as available CPU and Powergrid. Ultimately, the end-result was an anti-tackle fast destroyer akin to its cousins the Interdictors but with far more staying power and maneuverability. Designed with cutting edge technology derived from Sleeper technology, Tactical Destroyers were outfitted with three separate modes for battlefield capability transformations. They would need every advantage these modes could afford them as they plunged head-first into an inferno.

A series of numbers surged into his mind, calculated in nearly an instant through the combination of on-board computers and his own implants, “Warp-in coordinates received. Initiating warp drive. Set condition one throughout the ship.”

Though he was in a capsule, his body sitting in a vat of fluid and hooked directly into the ship’s control mechanisms through ports along his spine, he had made efforts to humanize his control of ships for the benefit of his crew. That was the reason why, as the ship reached the half-way marked, he dedicated processing power to projecting a hologram of himself–in full battle regalia–on the bridge.

He flickered into view, surveying the array of monitors and screens in front of him. Only the most vital systems had anyone at a console, most of the other functions handled by himself and automated mechanisms, though even these manned stations, as they were, were only an extra set of eyes in the event that he was bombarded with an overwhelming surge of data. The warp tunnel collapsed and they found themselves sixty kilometers away from the friendly fleet of Apocalypse Navy Issues supported by Triage Archon carriers and eighty kilometers from a hostile shield doctrine of Chimeras, Basilisks, Ishtars, and assorted Strategic Cruisers.

The fighting was taking place over a valuable moon, the large control tower sitting as a hapless spectator while capsuleer-led fleets clashed in front of its simple mining operations. An additional support fleet waited within its protective shields, led by his own alliance’s Predator Elite–one of the greatest fleet commanders in New Eden. Communications were difficult to decipher while the friendly fleet was applying their firepower onto target after primary target, while a fresh set of inquiries were emanating from Predator Elite himself.

“Do we have any fast tackle at all? Did anyone come in fast tackle?”

“Yeah, Regi is out there.”

“Regi!? Burn one hundred kilometers away from the tower.”

Regi. His mother would have thrown a fit that his corporation and alliance mates referred to him by a nickname, but there was something to be said about the freedom of piracy. This was how he was known in the alliance, an identity forged by his own efforts and willpower, not bestowed upon him by birth or title.

His hologram gave a series of notifications rather than orders, “Switching into Propulsion Mode, microwarpdrive activated, adjusting current vector to minimize incoming damage.”

The last move turned to be a life-saver as a number of long-range Ishtars focused their sentry drones onto the destroyer. A few grazing hits, but not enough to break the shields. The Confessor, urged on in Propulsion Mode and augmented by command links from a central command vessel, reached a maximum velocity of three thousand five hundred meters a second. And yet it seemed an eternity until they finally reached the appropriate location.

“Love you, Regi. Fleet take warp, fleet take warp.”

Reginald glanced at the battlefield, continuing his nimble evasion of enemy ships as his alliance’s support fleet entered the fray. He felt perhaps a little more invulnerable than he should have, though he had come prepared for an engagement of this type. Settled into his head as he lay in the pod were a number of illicit, “pirate” implants–a mid-grade Halo set. Working in tandem with one another, they reduced the Confessor’s already miniscule signature radius by masking the signature for other ships’ sensors, producing a smaller target, and therefore one that was harder to track with on-board computers alone. Combined with a significant transversal velocity, most rounds directed at him were simply missing or only barely grazing the shields.

“Enemy Republic Fleet Firetails inbound. It looks like at least two dozen!”

“New orders from Fleet Command Tactical, sir. All fast tackle is to engage Interdictors and eliminate Firetails.”

Reginald’s hologram nodded, before he urged the Confessor into a high speed arc back towards the center of the brawl. Most of the Firetails seemed to be designed for close-range warp propulsion jamming, forcing them into tight orbits around the multitude of friendly battleships arguing with broadside after broadside against the shield fleet in the distance.

Reginald started locking targets, focusing on one Firetail that was busy evading anti-frigate drones. The capsuleer in control didn’t even notice the Confessor’s approach, at least not until its laser batteries began to tear through the Firetail’s shields. In a matter of minutes, it was reduced to a wreck, the capsuleer’s pod waiting helplessly in space. A support Dominix’s smartbomb finished him.

Reginald almost felt himself shudder. The loss of life. While the capsuleer would wake up, presumably in a fresh Firetail with another crew, he wondered about the souls that perished. He then thought about his own crew. From his vantage point on the bridge, they seemed emotionless to the cold slaughter before them. Although their contracts had indicated they knew what they had signed up for, there was no telling if any of them were having second thoughts.

A wrecking shot from a Proteus slammed into the Confessor, the ship buckling under the weight of the volley. Ship sensors went haywire as shields evaporated and armor integrity dropped to below forty percent.

“Initiating armor repair sequence,” He cursed to himself, beginning a series of corrections to his mistake.

He had kept them in Propulsion Mode on their approach to the Firetail. Although the streamlined speed performance of the Confessor was excellent for skirting around the edge of the battlefield, in the center of the conflagration, where enemy vessels’ weapons were zero’d in one lumbering battleships, it afforded virtually no advantages. He threw the ship into Defensive Mode.

His ship’s camera drone offered a glimpse of outside space, showing that the Confessor’s speed-based appearance was quickly transforming into a heavily armored one. Antennae retracted into the ship while additional armor plating extended along the starboard and port sides, creating a less vulnerable vessel. Most importantly, however, with processing power removed from Propulsion, computing resources were dedicated to further masking the ship’s signature radius. Though slower, the Confessor was now a much more difficult target and after four more volleys that produced no result, the Proteus pilot switched to another target.

Reginald breathed a sigh of relief. They cruised after a few more Firetails, working in concert with Fleet-level Interceptors and frigate logistics support to dispatch enemy tackle. In between the quick engagements, he chanced a few more entries into Propulsion Mode, running down targets that were attempting to escape the confines of the blue, transparent spheres of Warp Disruption Probes. With the last Firetail dispatched, their attention turned to Sabres.

A suitable target was fifteen kilometers from their current position. They closed the distance easily, laying a Warp Scrambler into the Sabre’s warp drive, dropping its velocity to mere hundreds of meters a second. And yet, even with perfect tracking, the Sabre seemed to shrug off all of the damage.

“Enemy Sabre is receiving remote assistance. Basilisks spotted, sixty kilometers out.”

He queried Fleet Command Tactical, “Is anything being done about the Basilisks?”

He received no response. Communications were inundated with requests for repair from the Triage Archons when hostile Cynosoural Fields were lit–enemy Dreadnoughts.

“Dreads in, dreads in!” The Fleet Commander screamed, half-announcing the arrival of hostile heavy elements while ordering his own dreadnought wing into the fray.

Reginald switched into a channel for tackle ships. Information traveled far slower along these secondary lines, typically text-based intelligence that was outdated the moment it was entered.

>> Do we have an answer for these Basilisks?

>> No. Just got after Interceptors.

In the chaos of battle, pilots and captains were sinking into their colloquialisms and slang. Reginald chose not to blame them, instead aiming the Confessor towards a gang of enemy Interceptors as ordered. Null security space was still a new concept to him, but most of the enemy frigate pilots seemed to underestimate the piloting skills honed in the low security warzones. He was flying circles around them and they knew it.

His pride caught up with him.

“Sir! Multiple enemy ships preparing to engage.”

He glanced over at his battlefield tactical overview, showing that nearly twenty ships had locked his vessel. His velocity had dropped to nearly zero meters a second, created by hesitation while searching for fresh prey. Panicking, he chose an align point, beginning a warp initiation.

Ship sensors blared from a volley of at least fifteen vessels–shield and armor disappearing nearly instantaneously.

“Authorize overheating on armor repair!”

Time slowed. It was now or never. An enemy Interceptor latched onto him for a split second before its own high speed approach broke its orbit, “slingshotting” itself out of scrambling range. More damage notifications. A fresh warp initiation command. His crew was holding their breath. Not long now until the explosion. Seventy percent structure integrity, hull breaches on Deck Six. Leaking atmosphere.

Warp.

The battlefield stretched behind into the distance as the Confessor finally managed to force itself out of the chaos. He heard the crew cheer, tears in their eyes at their salvation. He breathed a sigh of relief.

Four more times they performed similar maneuvers. Providing anti-tackle support to the larger battleships. The engagement was eventually ended by a CFC Supercarrier and Titan fleet, causing the friendly battleships to disengage once Triage Archons were silenced one by one…

***

Sirens were blaring throughout the medbay, monitors indicating the critical condition the drone had forced Reginald into when it had plunged a scalpel into his chest.

Arody and Noghy were both screaming into their comms links.

“Get them out of there!”

“Security team to the medbay!”

“We have a network breach!”

Arody could only watch helplessly as Ameriya cowered behind Katerina, who in turn was backing them towards a corner away from hostile medical drones. Arody had never thought it possible, drones simply breaking away from control, operating by themselves, their programming overwritten.

Templar Thal Vadam easily broke through the chestplate of one drone, ripping out its internal components, casting its broken form into another pair of drones. She was mesmerized by his performance. He made it look so easy. So simple. Before long, Arody and Noghy were both staring speechless at the screen, the Templar standing amidst a pile of broken drone parts.

“I’m not sure what I’m more afraid of,” Noghy muttered, “Capsuleers or him.”

“At least he fights for the Empire,” Arody nodded in agreement, her body shuddering at the thought of similar super-soldiers fighting for entities like the Blood Raiders or Angel Cartel.

It took several minutes of awe before Noghy gave a coherent order, “Check the networks for other intrusions. Lady Lianne will want to know how that happened. And send teams to contain the panic.”

Arody nodded as she sat back down to her console, entering a series of commands to begin a general sweep of manor security systems. With the situation in the medical bay abated for the time-being, she chanced a glance at other cameras and monitors to assess the panic on the manor.

One camera in particular caught her eye. It zoomed down on Lady Kenzi Lianne, Lady Lianne’s cousin and heir. She was speaking to a crazed member of the medical staff, who was waving his arms around and speaking frantically before bolting for the Cathedral.

Lady Kenzi Lianne looked terrified.

Exorcism II

“… And I am going to do a quick scan of your brain.”

It had only been a few minutes since the Templar had entered the medbay. Ameriya was busy placing anodes around Kat’s head–a crown of wires and sensors. Ameriya turned her attention to a number of monitors, her eyes deftly glancing over lines of data and graphs of various shapes and sizes. But voices were muffled, actions appearing sluggish or hazy. It was as if Reginald’s mind was collapsing in on itself, fighting an internal war that could only end with death or insanity.

Keep him away.

“Okay, Kat, you can put your shirt back on. You’re clean. As a precaution, I am going to test myself, just to make sure,” Ameriya moved to take the sensors off of Kat, “While I do that. Thally, can you go in?”

Thally. That was Ameriya’s name for the source of his torment. Bedecked in his full armor, Thal Vadam looked everything a Templar should have looked, but his mere presence sent searing headaches through Reginald’s forehead and temples. Ameriya continued to work her medical magic–the equipment alien to Reginald and well beyond his cursory understanding of medicine. A forcefield adjusted in size to cover an entrance into the containment unit.

Vadam moved forward through the field and into the containment unit, following Ameriya’s directions to begin scanning the Pax Amarria. Every step he took echoed through Reginald’s mind like cannon-fire in a cathedral.

He started to convulse, but he didn’t care about that. He only cared about the words he could force out of his mouth, “Please, please get him away from me!”

“Thal, step back just a sec,” Ameriya acquiesced. Through the containment field, he could hear her converse with his wife, “I’d say knock him out. Thal’s the only one I would really feel comfortable going in there, unless Shalee has a full containment suit around here.”

He pulled against his restraints–Thal was still in the containment unit, and even though he was stationary, the pain remained, growing in magnitude with every passing second as headaches ravaged his mind, “For the love of God!”

Katerina agreed with Ameriya, “If it’ll help.”

As Thal finally took a step back, Ameriya asked the Templar, “Your suit is gas proof, right?”

Though Reginald could care less for their conversation–he could barely comprehend the words longer than fleeting seconds–he screamed again, “Get him away! Get him away! Please!”

He turned his pleading eyes towards Kat, his cheeks already wet with tears, “I’m begging you!”

Thal responded to Ameriya, “Affirmative.”

With that, Ameriya pressed a few buttons, flooding the containment unit with gaseous sedative. The pain started throbbing harder and harder in Reginald’s head, “No wait! Don’t… don’t… d…”

He fought as hard as he could against the invasive gas, straining against his bonds, but there was little he could do to stave off the chemicals. Urging himself out of the bed, the restraints stretching tight against his wrists, his body finally collapsed in a moment of abject failure. His eyes rolled to the back of his head and he saw nothing but black.

***

Timestamp: 6.13.YC116. 05:37:34.

Location: Cerra Manor Medical Bay

Entry: Patient admitted into facility for nanite infestation. Extent of infestation unknown…

Arody stared at her computer monitor for several minutes, glancing from time to time at the videofeed from the medical bay. On a normal day, the wall of monitors in front of her would display a multitude of angles and approaches for purposes of Manor security–a small fleet of drones patrolling the sky and shoreline as well. Most of those feeds, however, had been relegated to secondary stations and redundant systems, most of them involving the automated tripwire system that detected intruders into the Manor.

The screens on the wall now primarily showed the medical bay, with numerous secondary cameras and observation devices activated now that one of the more prominent “regular” patrons was undergoing medical treatment.

It was the graveyard shift. That meant that only she and her immediate supervisor, a man named Noghy, were on duty, though the security headquarters for Cerra Manor could easily fit dozens of personnel. Lady Lianne spared no expense in the security of her guests–there were rumors that there were other security headquarters operating with different staffs and equipment just in case one was compromised. Arody shook the thought out of her head–it was most likely just a tale people shared around the water dispenser.

She leaned back into her seat, popping open a can of Quafe. The sound of metal cracking metal followed by the sharp hiss of carbonation broke the solemn atmosphere of the security center. Moreover, it drew the ire of Noghy.

“Really, Officer Dahiva?”

Arody turned to face her superior, a middle-aged man with thinning hair and spectacles upon his nose. Another set of rumors said he had been shunted into this shift for failing to properly integrate with Lord Reginald Sakakibara’s security details when Cerra Cathedral was being constructed. Noghy always rejected those claims, countering that the incompetency lay on Lord Reginald’s shoulders. Lady Lianne, through her household affairs department, didn’t take kindly to those accusations.

“Apologies, Supervisor Lalmesras,” She gave a salute, rolling her eyes before taking a long gulp.

Of course, she wasn’t truly sorry. The fact of the matter was that this job was immensely below her capabilities. She had placed highly at a number of important schools in Huola. As her teachers and professors often said, had it been any planet other than Huola, she would be serving on the immediate advisory council of a Holder. But because it was Huola and the planet was rocked by endless conflict in its bloodstained skies, there hadn’t been many opportunities to run the Minmatar blockade and receive a finished education in the Domain region.

That was the official story, anyway. In reality, the Minmatar blockade was porous–the Valklears simply didn’t have the manpower to keep an endless watch on the surface. Instead, like most things, it had been the matter of money. Gaining entry onto a smugglers’ vessel required that she pay an amount commensurate with her body weight–in other words, the volume she was displacing of something else. Of course, smugglers tended to claim she was taking up the space of religious texts, and since religious texts could basically be crammed into any shape container, their value was priceless. Arody only had one shape. Even if she could rearrange her arms and legs to convenience her would-be transporter, with the blockade ongoing despite Huola’s liberation, prices were as exorbitant as ever. Even if she liquidated all of the assets in her tiny apartment, she only possessed the equivalent of 0.25 ISK. A pittance.

 Noghy just sighed, “Just keep tabs on all of them, would you? The Templar is on the move.”

Arody lowered her can of Quafe and typed a few commands into her holographic keypanel. The Templar appeared on dozens of cameras throughout the manor–she quickly filtered down the ones that provided the best angles to view him, then projected his likenesses onto the larger wall of monitors.

“What in God’s name is he doing?” Noghy asked aloud.

Arody raised an eyebrow, then glanced up at the monitors. The Templar seemed to be checking the door to Lady Lianne’s bedchamber, trying the handle. After several moments of examination, he grabbed the handle, pushing down vigorously. It broke.

At first Arody couldn’t believe her eyes. It was such a small demonstration of strength and yet she had never seen a man pull off a stunt like that.

Noghy ran over to a console and dialed for a household valet, “Come on, come on, pick up!”

Arody chuckled a little. She knew that Noghy would be deemed responsible for any damage to the Manor or surrounding properties during his shift. That chuckle soon disappeared when the Templar simply charged into the door, splintering it off of the hinges.

“Oh, damn it!” They yelled in unison.

Although Noghy would ostensibly be held responsible for the incident, it was common practice among the baseline staff to pay for damages out of pocket. It was their way of thanking Lady Lianne for her kindness–as far as Holders went, she was top-notch, and considering that they had once hosted a sociopathic Caldari that wore a coat of human skin onto the Terrace, as far as capsuleers went, she was benign.

Almost as soon as he had entered Lady Lianne’s bedchamber, the Templar was off, carrying a bag that Arody knew Lord Reginald’s sister had brought several hours earlier. Someone had to review the security footage, anyway. She sunk back into her seat, bemoaning the loss of another two weeks’ pay for replacing the door.

“Why couldn’t he have just called a servant to open it for him?” She rubbed her eyes with the palms of her hands, thinking of how she’d have to cancel that date with Hanek. Again.

She sighed away the loss of money then returned to looking at the monitors, turning the audio up to drown out the despair settling in her mind. The cameras were focused on the patient and those attending him.

“How long was I out?” Lord Reginald asked.

“Not long,” His wife, Katerina, replied curtly.

Ameriya, the cat-woman doctor stepped over towards the containment unit, “Regi? Can you tell me how you feel?”

Arody rubbed her eyes again. She’d likely never be on a first-name basis with any of the demigods that visited the Terrace, let alone call them by a nickname.

“Exhausted,” He shifted a little, his throat clearly giving him discomfort, “May I have some water? Everything feels sore. Stiff.”

Ameriya replied, “When Thal gets back, I’m going to have him hook up an IV, okay?”

The Templar entered, carrying his quarry from Lady Lianne’s bedchamber in one hand. Reginald shook his head violently, “No, not him. Not again.”

Ameriya directed Thal towards a corner of the medbay, then turned to Katerina, “You want to explain to him why it has to be Thal?”

As Katerina mulled it over, the Templar had set the bag down in the indicated area. Ameriya quickly activated a forcefield around it.

Reginald didn’t even give time for Katerina to reply, “Please. Can it be Kat? Or a robot? Anything? Just please, not him.”

Ameriya blinked, “Do the Amarr with med drones?”

“What’s wrong with Thal?” Katerina began, then laughed at Ameriya’s comment, “Of course we do.”

“Just not him, please. Please,” He cast a pleading look at his wife, “Please. Not him.”

Katerina turned away from the gaze, instead looking towards Ameriya, “Up to you, doctor.”

“Well, med drones,” Ameriya started to glance around, eventually opening a door, “Well, med drones. And I thought that was the bathroom. See that little figure? I guess it means med drone in the Empire. In Caille, it means the loo.”

Arody snickered at the comment.

Katerina let out a martyred sigh that was loud enough for the microphones to pick up. Arody snicked again. What a life it was to be a capsuleer.

Ameriya hummed as the Templar took a position against one of the walls, “You know, I learned how to read Amarrish from Imperial erotica. So, that either mean turn on, or wet panties. One of the two. I’m guessing it’s the former.”

Arody felt her face turn red at the comment as Ameriya activated one of the medical drones. She tried to hide her blush from her supervisor, who, thankfully, was busy assessing the damage of the splintered door that led to Lady Lianne’s bedchamber. Imperial erotica? Did the Empire even produce erotica? Why was she thinking about erotica? She shook her head to clear her mind, slapped her cheeks, then took a long gulp of Quafe. She wondered if Hanek read Imperial erotica.

“Oh, thank God,” Lord Reginald sighed in relief.

“Okay, robot,” Ameriya said to herself as she took the helm of a medical drone control panel, “So. We’re going to do a few things here. Firstly, you’re going to give the patient some water to drink. Kat, can you get the water?”

Katerina fetched a plastic pitcher and handed it to the machine, Ameriya beginning to walk it into the containment unit, “And it’s good you’re going to get stoned, because the robot is also going to set up a cath for you. But we’re going to have you good and drugged before sticking tubes up your…”

The audio flickered along with the monitors, but Arody was already blushing at Ameriya’s frankness. She shook her head again and started to run a diagnostic on the security system–it was rare for everything to flicker at the same time.

She glanced up at the monitors, watching the scene unfold as the humanoid robot slowly entered the containment field. It was a standard medical drone–pristine white plastic offering the look of a nurse or a doctor. It had no face to speak of other than the intricate camera systems meant to perform and assist in surgeries, but a large pink, stylized heart was prominent on its chest–a drone to provide aid and to save lives.

Lord Reginald attempted to sit up, licking his lips in anticipation for the water, but the water never came. The drone dropped the pitcher onto the ground; the hard plastic echoed off of the floor, punctuating the softer sound of water being spilled. Everyone seemed to look towards Ameriya, wondering if this was a joke she was playing, but her face was dead serious, her own eyes glued to the drone inside the containment field. The robot’s left hand retracted into its arm, a sharp scalpel specialized for accurate incisions replacing the appendage. Time froze.

Then, with little warning, the robot’s arm plunged directly into Lord Reginald’s chest.

Exorcism I

They kept him in a chair. It had been several minutes after Lady Shalee Lianne had requested his presence on the Terrace. The med-techs tending to him and ensuring he stayed under a cloud of sedation had protested, saw that protesting was useless, then bickered among themselves to determine the best way to fulfill their lady’s directive. Eventually, they had agreed that there was too much “risk” involved with allowing him to walk freely, so they sedated him again, hoisted him out of the bed–to which he had been strapped for the better part of three days–then lowered him into a hoverchair. Of course, they restrained his wrists and ankles.

After several moments, however, they determined that he was less than presentable to Lady Lianne. As such, they unstrapped him briefly from the chair, but only enough so that a servant could help him into clothes more fitting for a Holder. After discarding his convalescent attire, they put him back into the chair, then pushed him towards the sun-bathed Terrace of Cerra Manor.

There wasn’t much he could remember. There were discussions about his condition, words slipping out of existence as soon as they caressed his ears. Everything seemed brighter, fuzzier, less distinct. Even the cool water that Shalee brought to his lips was ephemeral, fleeting, while her soft voice melted back to just beyond the veil of understanding.

He was in a daze when he awoke to the bright white and sterile surfaces of a medical bay. From what he remembered from his brief–and largely unsuccessful–foray into medicine, he was in an intensive care unit. The soft beeping of monitors–heart rate, brain activity, blood pressure–lingered in the atmosphere, as if human voices were muffled or perhaps even forbidden. There were few other sounds aside from the vacuum seals on various doorways, his mind wandering into imagining decontamination scrubbers actively clearing staff of pathogens as they went through their daily routines. Suddenly, a surge of pain shot through his body, forcing it against restraints on the bed, as if he was being yanked skyward by an invisible force–his mind was aflame, searing headaches rocking him dangerously close to the point of going unconscious.

“Oh shit,” He heard a voice emanate from beyond the ICU, but only barely through the pain.

It subsided almost as quickly as it had arrived, receding into the archives of memory. He gasped for air, trying to turn his head towards the source of the voice. Her name was Ameriya, one of the more curious regulars at the Cerra Manor Terrace. She was wearing a crisp laboratory coat over a black bikini that would have been entirely out of place in Amarrian fashion circles–it simply didn’t cover much of anything. And yet, her propensity towards such clothing wasn’t what made her a curious addition to the Terrace. It wasn’t that she was a former research fellow at the University of Caille’s applied genetics department or that she held both a Ph.D. and an M.D.; a model researcher on the issues of gene therapy. It wasn’t even that she spent most of her time on the Terrace wearing see-through clothing, which oftentimes failed to veil her feminine features, which were accentuated by her Gallentean demeanor. Rather, she was curious in that she had feline characteristics and body parts. Her ears perked at loud noises or excitement, flattening at disappointment or sorrow. She even had a tail.

He watched her tap her lip for a moment, before she flipped a switch. The pain reappeared instantaneously, his shrieking reverberating off of the walls of the ICU. She didn’t seem at all perturbed, merely flicking the switch off.

“Alright, there’s that,” She said aloud, activating a series of controls that sprayed an aerosol sedative into the containment unit.

He felt his body fall limp, all of the pain subsiding immediately as Ameriya stated, “Alright, Regi. Now that I know what’s going on, we can see what we can do about it. But I need to talk to someone about it.”

“Just relax. You have a nanite infestation. I’m going to talk to your wife, hopefully she holds off on killing me enough to talk.”

He nodded best he could, feeling suddenly exhausted now that his body was in a state of relaxation. Frustration seethed within him at being unable to move freely, at being confined, of not knowing everything that had happened to him since his return from Delve, of being in what was akin to a drunken stupor that he could not shake away or shrug off.

Through the containment area, he heard his beloved’s voice cut like a knife through the hazy sense of disorientation, “What’s happening?”

He opened his eyes weakly, Kat’s voice much like a soothing salve. He turned and tried to smile at the blurry form on the other side of the containment field. He could barely make her out, but he knew she was there. He knew she was close by–the angel he had married.

“There’s some kind of nanite infestation in his brain,” He heard Ameriya begin to explain, “I’m not exactly sure what they are doing, since any sample that leaves the body self-destructs. I’ve got him mostly sedated right now. Earlier he went into some convulsions when I put up a forcefield.”

He heard Kat curse, “I fucking knew it.”

He chuckled to himself in his daze. There was something reassuringly human about hearing his wife curse, even after all of the attempts he had made to aid her forays into the nobility. The introductions, the social calls, the tea parties. And yet there was something distinctly Katerina in the way she spoke when she was candid–refreshingly so. Perhaps that was one of the intangible reasons why he had chosen to marry her in the first place.

He heard Kat sigh, her nascent nobility correcting her language, “Thank you.”

“Knew what?” Ameriya asked.

“I know who did this.”

“Well, that’s great, but that doesn’t really help cure my patient. Which is why I needed to talk to you.”

He heard a rustling at Katerina produced something for Ameriya to examine, “This is related somehow. It caused him tremendous pain when it left the room, or when it was touched.”

The Pax Amarria. A fresh one. Brought to him by Naomi and discovered by Kat only the night before. He felt something begin to tug at his consciousness.

“Shit,” He heard Ameriya say as her figure reached for the object before throwing it through a brief opening in the containment field so that the book came to rest on the floor next to him.

He heard its leatherbound cover skid across the polished white floor, a sense of euphoria suddenly overhwelming his mind. It was as if an eternal itch had finally been scratched as pain slowly faded into the realm of memory reserved for the forgotten.

“What is it?” He heard Kat ask.

“That might be a vector for the nanites,” He heard Ameriya sigh, “I need to run a test on you right now.”

“Typical. I should’ve known.” He heard Kat’s voice drip with annoyance, “Of course. Thank you.”

He turned his head to see Ameriya rolling a bed close to the edge of the containment field, “Can you take off your shirt and lay down on the bed? I need to do a spinal tap and then I’ll do a brain scan.”

He could only imagine the hesitation on Katerina’s face. A wave of shame overtook him, that night at the Lock, Stock, and Barrel. A few drinks–mostly Intaki Cream and God knew what else–mixed with blue pill. Three attractive women. And then suddenly the feeling of Ameriya’s lithe body pressing against him while he leaned his head against Shalee’s shoulder, the effects of blue pill heightening the sensations and searing them into memory. He remembered the look of disgust on Kat’s face when he confessed what happened, and how Kat had confronted Ameriya: Slapping her twice across the face at one of Shalee’s dinner parties.

Eventually, however, he could see the motions of Kat complying, Ameriya instructing her through the quick procedure, “Stay still and you will feel a slight pinch. Rest for a few minutes. I’ll be right back, stay on your side.”

Katerina sighed, remaining on her side. She was facing away from him, so she had to speak a little louder to make sure he could hear her, “See? That book is only evil.”

He frowned, answering weakly, “I’m sorry.” He tried to change the subject, ashamed at how he had actually defended the fraudulent Pax Amarria the night before, “Will I be able to get out of these restraints soon?I’ve been like this for days.”

“I’m not sure. Isn’t she…?”

“Isn’t she…?” He tried to query but his eyes closed in exhaustion.

“Okay, Kat, you can lay on your back now,” He heard Ameriya say, though her voice was accompanied by the sound of heavy footfalls punctuated by the clinking of armor.

“What’s with the armor?” Kat asked.

“Thally here is going to be able to go into the containment room, since he’s got a dustie suit…”

Reginald’s eyes shot open as he focused on the image of the Templar Thal Vadam. A familiar pain swelled from within him, pumping harder and harder into his forehead and temples. Through the influx of anguish, three words resounded loudly through the recesses of his mind, echoing off the chambers with the passion of a hapless beggar.

Keep him away.