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…”

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