Submitted for the Pod and Planet Eve Fiction Contest on November 5th, 2017.
Somewhere in Delve
Staring at the ceiling with a distant, catatonic gaze, the corpse’s eyes seemed to have a glassy appearance. Hanging slightly ajar in a lazy, almost relieved state, the body’s mouth was slack against the clammy, blanch flesh, droplets of sweat still running down its face. The unprepossessing mass retained its death stare, and was a familiar sight to the Khanid, yet it unnerved him, as the body was not congruent to his own.
Unceremoniously pulled away from its standing posture, the body left watery blood that trickled down from the released needles in spattered, round puddles on the floor. Seemingly far too fluid, the crimson liquid had an unnaturally bright hue under the light that hung in the center of the room. Illuminated like a beacon, the Blooding Stand contrasted heavily against the shadows cast in the room’s corners.
Discarding his previous husk into a nearby chute, the bulky Blood Raider enforcers then moved to grab the Khanid man. Submitting to their firm apprehending, he didn’t struggle in the slightest - rather, he couldn’t. Lifted by his armpits, the workers set his torso onto the mount and fastened his abdomen and shoulders to its surface. He could see his reflection in a specially placed mirror: a limbless torso strapped to the stand in the surrounding mist, preventing any hope of escape.
Beneath the overhang of the stand, a woman approached and gazed up at him with a routine intent. Lifting what meager portion of his upper arm was still there, she slid the needle into the brachial artery, fastening it in place with a small adhesive. In response, he gave a gentle groan, swallowing dryly.
“Cold, huh?” The woman stated in a pseudo-compassionate voice.
The Khanid man turned to look at her with ice-blue eyes, his chapped lips pursing. The two exchanged a brief stare before the woman continued with her duties and inserted several more needles into the remains of his arms. A veteran of the long affair, Oberyn knew all too well what their purposes were. They were designed to exsanguinate him over the course of hours, or days, or perhaps weeks. He never knew exactly how long.
He felt weak; fatigued for the entire duration of his lengthy bloodletting. Just as the ritual draining of his blood kept its schedule, so too did the continuous fantasies of escaping, too befuddled to fully realize his situation by the lack of blood; the lack of limbs. He wondered why Tairei Namazoth, so high in her position, would personally conduct the Blooding, but never bothered to ask despite the fact that his host provided him with answers to all of his questions. A sad commissary to his captivity in the Blood Raiders station, yet she had questions of her own.
“Do you love me?” Tairei inquired with a wolfish grin, running her index finger along his abdomen.
“I took you in, dearest Ghost. You should love me, after all I've done for you - after all we’ve done for you. What did you do as an Uhlan, Ghost?”
“G-gun for hire… It’s cold…”
“So, just a mercenary, then? That attachment you were part of when we found you and cooked your Slaver Hound was, what, just a paycheck?”
Lowering his head and grinding his teeth, Oberyn’s eyes danced back and forth, his brows lowering and bunching together, clearly distressed.
“Right, the dog is a touchy subject - forgot. Eh, we’ll come back to it later,” Tairei said, shrugging.
“Why do you keep me alive?” Oberyn weakly questioned.
Glancing sideways, Tairei placed her hands on her hips in thought.
“You know, I usually don’t take prisoners. Thankfully your friends supplied us with enough biomass, but if Blooding was the only goal, why would we keep you alive, dearest Ghost?”
“Well, I don’t want to spoil the grand reveal so - here, hold this,” Tairei stated, holding an apple out to him.
Lifting his head in tiredly, Oberyn eyed the apple, confounded, before he turned his attention to her. Lips pursed tightly together in a sheepish grin, Tairei struggled to hold back her laughter as she pushed the apple against his mouth. The Khanid dubiously accepted the gift of food, biting down on it with his incisors. In spite of his predicament, she continued her line of questioning, forcing him to speak out the sides of his mouth.
“I’ll need you to stay a little more lucid during these little counseling sessions, okay, love?”
“Howh long hagh I gehn heah?”
“Going on four or five months, now, I think.”
Tairei pulled up a chair and set it down in front of her with the back facing him. Straddling it, she settled down and crossed her arms on the chair’s back as she spoke, “It’s okay if you don’t remember it all. The cloning process we’ve been using isn’t an exact science, I’m told.”
“Haw ahe you schtill chloninh ne?” Oberyn asked, struggling to keep his teeth around the apple.
“Come now, Ghost, I already answered that question,” She toyed, before deflecting, “So, Cyber Knight, then Royal Uhlan. And at no point you ever sort of… Wondered what you were doing with your immortal life? Just bounced around from job to job, killing for money?” Tairei inquired.
“Yeag...” Oberyn replied, swallowing the excess drool as best he could.
“And that was your grand purpose in life? Kill shit, and drink yourself to death? It’s almost ironic, you know that?” She cooed as one of her enforcers approached, handing her a chalice. Sipping from the chalice gingerly, she never broke eye contact with Oberyn. As she lowered the vessel, Oberyn noticed a distinct stain of red on her upper lip and had a shocking revelation of her definition of irony. He dropped the apple from his mouth, and Tairei glared.
“Break his fucking jaw,” She directed.
Leather creaked as the belts tightly fastened Oberyn’s overly-skinny right arm to the table before him. Securing the buckles to prevent the mercenary-made-subject from escaping, the enforcer then slid the his fingers inside a metal contraption. He had never seen this new construct before, but knew it was going to hurt. Across the torturer’s table sat Tairei, who rested her chin lazily in her palm with her weight shifted to one side. As Oberyn’s ice-blue eyes gazed about the room to search for anything different - differences in the room often meaning new forms of pain - the dim light above them gently flickered. The floor was still covered in old, dried blood. His blood.
“Give him the apple,” Tairei insisted.
“He’ll break my fingers again...”
“I don’t care what he’s going to do to you. Give. Him. The apple.”
Lifting his gaze to the hooded man in his periphery, Oberyn fearfully considered the order. Only recently given his arms back with his most recent series of clones, he could barely remember how to use them. However, this fact did not stop the torturer from routinely breaking Oberyn’s digits when he failed to co-operate. Slowly, he began to lift his shaking, bruised left hand with the apple in his loose, weak grasp, and offered it to the figure beside him. The man took the apple just as slowly and immediately set to eating it, smacking his lips loudly with little concern for etiquette. Leaning close to Oberyn’s ear so he could hear the full extent of the wet crunching, the man practically stared through him.
“There, now was that so bad? Isn’t charity a good feeling?” Tairei said, delightfully clapping her hands together as she leaned forward. Miserably focused on the floor as Tairei stood and circled the table, Oberyn could barely hear her whisper through the onslaught of open-mouthed chewing in his ear. “Don’t make me clone you again, Ghost. I don’t take prisoners, and this is a luxury I’ve never offered before. Co-operate, and we’ll stop breaking you.”
Struggling to combat the persistent feeling of anxiety, he gradually came to grips with his own lability. Slowly, but surely, she was breaking him, and his cooperation began to feel unnaturally just. Whenever he played along with their perverse game, the easier they were on his body, but the threat of harm still lingered at all times. Such was the case with his fingers loosely draped between the metal bars of what he assumed was designed to simply tear them off. On good days, he only had to watch a holovid of life with the Sani Sabik - how the Empire was wrong, how they oppressed and disenfranchised their belief. One particular video was so often played that he could recall the words from memory, but he was beginning to have difficulty with each new clone, as though the words were on the tip of his tongue.
Jumping in shock at the delicate touch of Tairei’s fingers against his cheek, he lifted his head to gaze up at her as she sat on the edge of the table. She was smiling, but he could feel something deeply wrong with the way her eyes lacked the gloss of a soul, revealing a liar’s compassion. Conflicted, Oberyn opted to savor what tenderness she offered as a brief reprieve as the torturer activated the device his hand was secured to.
FWST-8 II - Blood Raider Logistic Support
“The Sani Sabik isn’t all about blood, sweat, and tears. Well, mostly about the blood, but you know,” Tairei said as she waved her hand in dismissal.
The pair walked along the market streets with a slow pace. Every person they passed seemed to briefly worship Tairei, who reveled in their admiration with a blissful look. The freckled woman walked with a certain bounce in her step, contrasting Oberyn’s more dutiful trudge, his head held low and glancing out the corners of his eyes.
Sprawling in every direction, the bazaar was quite loud as the many voices coalesced into a cacophony. Large, dim, red diodes illuminated the busy intersections amidst a galaxy of other lights, casting humanesque shadows against the kaleidoscope of color. Merchants sold their wares in expertly crafted booths designed to display, but curiously not secure.
The market itself bustled with foot traffic as each Sani Sabik practitioner happily frequented their favorite wares. Diverging from myth and rumor, the Blood Raiders were clearly still human at their core, made legend by the extremes of a select, violent minority that championed the image of their people. Whereas Oberyn might have guessed that many of them were young, few were, as Blood Raiders were seasoned in the science of medicine by consequence, living long lives as a result. Living long lives as normal denizens with normal ambitions, and normal routines.
“The Empire will butcher their babies like livestock,” Tairei abruptly stated.
“What?” Oberyn replied, caught off guard.
“You know it’s true. You worked for them. It’s no secret that Tash-Murkon fielded Royal Uhlans for their deniable ops, and I’m sure you’ve done your fair share of harm to the world. You remember what they paid you to never speak of again, now imagine what they’d do to these children for free; out of spite. Thankfully the Drifters took care of that bumbling bitch from Sarum, but we need to be on even footing with our enemies.”
Oberyn lowered his head in thought. Grumbling uncomfortably under his breath, his brows bunched together, the former Uhlan shifted his attention once more to the people in the market. Indeed, he saw the children, content as they could be in such a hectic place. Amongst his earliest contracts as an immortal mercenary was an off the books defense of a destitute holder from a small Matari penal battalion. Grimacing at his memories, he realized that he once took pride in his platoon sending a band of Syrikos Hounds to kill suppressed Matari soldiers. He could only imagine what they could do to unarmed, innocent practitioners of the faith.
“What must I do?” Oberyn responded, looking at her with focus.
“You were a Cyber Knight - the foremost authority on encryption breaking.”
“Yes - but that was before I was an Uhlan. It’s been a long time since I’ve done anything of that nature.”
“True. We baited you on accident. With a jammer of all things,” Tairei giggled, while Oberyn let out a restrained sigh through his nostrils. “Oh come now, that was funny,” Tairei continued.
“Yes, I suppose so,” Oberyn deflected, not wanting to explain that he could not remember what she was referring to.
“We’re planning a big operation with our Guristas friends out in Pure Blind. A little something to shake up the balance of power in the cluster. The Big Four have had a little too much time in the sun, so we’re going to steal technology meant for a more powerful adversary.”
“Precisely. We need someone who can break their encryptions, and that someone happens to be you.”
“When do we start?”
Cut off by the sudden alliance of noise into a singular voice, the two glanced over at one of the many holoscreens in the marketplace. Displayed on the screens was a room that Oberyn had become accustomed to: The Blooding Pit. His blood ran cold when he saw a shadowy figure step into the camera frame, not out of fear, but reverence, as though he had just witnessed the coming of an angel. His hair lifted up on end when he heard the voice of none other than the leader of the Blood Raiders himself.
6NJ8-V VII - Moon 2 - Guristas Logistic Support
The group looked quite diverse despite being militaristic and uniform in appearance. Flaunting custom decals and callsigns on their suits, the pilots contrasted harshly against the officers, of whom most were veterans of the Caldari Navy, and conformed to a more traditional attire. Amongst the front of the group was one man who stood out, if only for his distinctly casual clothing. With prominent brunette brows and a devious smirk, the man looked as though he were plotting something at all times. It didn’t take him long to notice Oberyn, turning his head with a devilish grin.
“Didn’t think you cultist psychos had anyone pretty in your ranks. Pleasant surprise, that,” The man stated, looking Oberyn over fluidly.
“Kaikka, this is Ghost. Ghost, is this Kaikka Peunato, a Gurista officer. You two will get along fantastically, he has a taste for you burly sorts. Maybe after this all over you two could be a thing,” Tairei stated, beaming, as though hitching them.
Oberyn shook his head, initially brushing it off as lascivious behaviour for its own sake. Never a pious man, the notion of prurient acts did not bother him as would be expected of those in the Amarr Empire or the Khanid Kingdom. Nevertheless, he turned toward Tairei with raised brow, as if unable to understand her practically encouraging the notion.
“Oh, one of those sorts,” Kaikka said, not losing his grin despite his brows narrowing slightly in judgement.
The Khanid’s behaviour activated a new side of Kaikka, who crossed his arms defensively over his chest and stared with a peculiar, almost disappointed demeanor. Oberyn matched Kaikka’s posture, canting his head sideward and gritting his teeth, his jaw muscles bulging.
“I’m not sure if you two are flirting or sizing each other up, but if you could stave off of either for now, that’d be great,” Tairei joked, rolling her eyes.
The lights dimmed and darkness enshrouded the collection of Sani Sabik enforcers and Gurista pirates. Tairei waved her hand at the crimson hologram that shown at the center of the room, showing a three-ringed station that looked vaguely Gallente in design. Kaikka gave a sideward, judging glance toward Oberyn as he presented himself in the light, and began speaking to the collection.
“Mordu’s testing facilities. We got a hint that Chemal Tech offloaded a bunch of their Upwell-branded blueprints here for safekeeping. Now, we’ve had a lot of run-ins with those do-gooders at the Legion, as most of my boys already know, so this’ll just seem like a routine skirmish for them,” Kaikka motioned toward a particular part of the station hologram. “We’ll attack here along the docking port, approaching from the the P5 Belt. That’ll focus their attention away while our Bloodies do their part.”
“Bloodies..?” Oberyn whispered to Tairei.
“Blood. Buddies. Bloodies.” Tairei winked, to which Oberyn groaned.
Kaikka continued, “Sarikusa has called for all Sani Sabik loyalists to bring on The Crimson Harvest. That’ll take the headlines and buy us plenty of time. While we hold off the Legion Lackeys, the Raiders will insert one of their operatives who will then steal the schematics that Upwell has in there using a Transneural Extractor, a little something we nabbed from the spooks at the Society of Conscious Thought. Raider’s will get first chance at whatever they find, and we’ll get our share afterward.”
“What?” Oberyn replied, shocked, with a puzzled look on his face.
“I didn’t say anything.” Tairei responded, raising her brow at him.
Low, thudding vibrations rippled through carbon-colored suits as they carefully lowered themselves to the exterior surface of the facility. Flickering azure sparks reflected off of the visors of each helmet that vigilantly stared as the metal hull began to melt. The scouring wasn't meant to fully burst the hull, but to act as a guideline for the secondary explosives that were already being secured in place.
Finally done, the figures gently stepped back into the looming black. Of all the dropsuits, only one stood out, bearing a single red handprint on the shoulder to indicate its bearer's status as a leader. He casually glanced at the golden filigree decorating the station’s walls, briefly scoffing in disdain at the pretentious display. The man gave a nod of his head to his companions, and with a jarring burst of soundless light the wall exploded outward. Objects, people, and anything that wasn't bolted down escaped in a flurry of decompression.
“We've started on the cloning facility,” The crackling, menacing voice spoke into the helmet.
5ZXX-K V - M17 - On approach to Mordu’s Legion Testing Facilities
“About time. When Omir said ‘Rise Up’, he didn't mean next year, boys. Sending our precious Ghosty-boy in.”
The freckled girl removed her headset, setting it down carelessly as she turned about face. With a few empowered steps, she neared Oberyn’s dropsuited figure at the end of the Engraver-variant frigate’s cargo bay. Gently coaxing his arms to lift, she began to secure spare magazines and batteries to the attachments on his dropsuit before glancing up to him. Soon after, she procured a rifle from a nearby storage compartment and handed it to him, glancing up at his head. His helmet was open, exposing a disgustingly pale, hairless figure beneath that held little resemblance to anything human despite some distinct hints. The face of his combat clone.
“A face so ugly even God forgot you. Are you ready?” She asked.
“You know I hate when you call me Ghost,” Oberyn said, in an eerie, unfamiliar voice.
“Awhhh, does our little blood bag have feelings? Sorry, dearest, but you'll have to deal. I like it, and that's all that matters,” Tairei toyed, “Ghost.”
With an abrupt metal slam, Oberyn’s helmet snapped shut to cover his face. A flash of light in the optics ignited the HUD inside the helmet, readying a connection to the crudely joined Raider-Gurista Tac-Net system. Wincing as the suit began to graft to his spine, he could feel the metal and electronics intertwine with his nervous system. In an instant, he acquired a new addition to his senses, particularly the haptic feedback from the suit, which allowed him to feel the air around him through the iron colored armor plating.
Standing a solid meter taller than Tairei in her comparatively more human stature, the weaponized monster looked down at her with a stoic gaze from his helmet. Beneath the helmet his hairless brows pressed together as his eyes searched her gaze, pursing his lips in desperate hope.
Tairei swung about, grasping a sanguine glass and raising it to her lips, staining them. Careless as she were, a trickle of the crimson treasure ran slick down her chin. She cooed, savoring the taste as she lifted her hand, gently pressing the top of it against her lip. Briefly wondering if this repeated display were intentional, Oberyn considered that perhaps it was to remind him of his place. It did.
When Tairei’s eyes finally came to Oberyn, she dismissively waved her blood-smeared hand toward the door as she spoke, “Run along, now. I've an incursion to run on several borders; I've not the time to coddle you.”
Letting out a huff of air through his nostrils, Oberyn turned about face to step toward the doors leading out of cramped vessel and into the airlock. For a brief moment he felt pitiful, pining for the attention of a woman who was too busy to give him the affection he desperately craved. A moment alone - any moment alone together would be enough; like a fix for an addict.
Hissing air snapped him out of his daze, causing him to lift his attention to face the hermetically sealed door in front of him as his hearing began to dampen. He could visibly see the air rushing out of the doors as they slowly slid apart. Stepping forward, he felt the magnetic attraction of his boots lessen until he began to float outside of the shuttle, the full scope of the triple ringed station coming into full view against the backdrop of a beige moon.
Drifting into the black of space, Oberyn ignited the external boosters on his auxiliary dropsuit attachment with a grunt from the sudden recoil and in an instant he shot toward the testing facility. Beneath the menacing, teal colored eye of the Cloud Ring nebula, the Guristas’ distraction was well into effect. Explosions glimmered beyond the dim red glow of the system’s main sequence star reflecting off of the station’s walls.
Apart from several patrolling and transiting vehicles around the station’s exterior, his path inside was clear. Firing the breaching charge from his shoulder launcher, the small device spiraled outward toward the station’s wall at nearly double his inbound velocity. With a flash of light his entry way was violently formed. Ejecting the auxiliary attachments on his dropsuit to separate himself from the boosters. Igniting the inertial dampeners of his suit, he barely squeezed between the emergency shutters that sealed the now decompressed hallway, landing with a solid ‘thump’ of his magnetic boots attaching to the metal beneath the carpeted floor.
Hearing only his own labored breathing, he traversed the broken corridor of the dark internal super-structure. Strobing hazard lights illuminated his suit in a series of flashing images, giving him just enough visibility to see where he was going. Nearing the now closed blast doors that segregated the obliterated corridor from the rest of the station to prevent decompression, he examined a nearby panel. Grinning and scoffing at the archaic security system, the Cyber Knight made short work of the encryptions and bypassed the airlock entirely.
“Despite all of Upwell’s and the Legion’s boasting, it seems that they’ve fallen prey to the greatest shortfall in security: Me,” He sarcastically proclaimed through the short range communicae.
“Ghost, shut up and do your job,” Tairei snapped back in a static fuzz.
Oberyn shook his head. Now safely behind the confines of the less wrecked part of the structure, he disabled his magnetic tether and opened his helmet to breathe the air, savoring the smell of spent explosives and ash. Darting into the shadows of a set of vertical pipes, he patiently waited as the Upwell soldiers rushed toward the exploded corridor. Breathing a sigh of relief as an acknowledgement that his experimental armor hadn’t shown on their sensors, he slipped behind them and made his way to the archives.
Adrenaline pumping through his veins, Oberyn desperately began to secure the cable to the back of his helmet. Injecting the input line inward, he gave it a firm twist to ensure that it was fastened before grabbing the other end and sliding it into the archival server. He was allotted only a few meters of space, but it was enough to work. Pivoting on his heel, he readied his rifle against his shoulder as the alarms began to flare, signalling his breach into the Upwell Consortium’s archives.
Above all, Oberyn needed to buy time. Every blueprint and schematic that Upwell stored in the database was downloaded indiscriminately. Slowing the process was his dropsuit, which acted as a bridge to extract the data and simultaneously inject it into his memory. Unnerving as the experience was, he was more concerned with his swaying aim, unsure of why he could not steady himself. Briefly, he became distracted with some distant memory - a memory of his hands being destroyed by Tairei. He shrugged off the thought in disbelief.
The door on the far side of the room opened abruptly and both Arkombine clones and Legion baseliners stormed into the room. Bracing himself, Oberyn smashed his finger against the trigger, spraying a wall of lead at the ensuing horde. Clouds of red hung in the corridor as several clones had immediately taken the brunt of his high caliber gunfire. Surviving the onslaught, the remaining responders took cover behind the wall, shouting at one another.
Breathing heavily and his pupils dilated, Oberyn’s mind danced between focusing on firing, questioning why he was panicking, and the glimmering sensation of the Transneural Extractor at work. Memories of a past life began to flash into being in rapid succession.
Shaking his head violently, he crouched down, placing his elbow on his knee in an attempt to steady his wavering hand. Seeing a flash of movement, he fired out of instinct, watching an unarmored guard fall to pieces from the rounds. Oberyn shouted at the top of his lungs, his eyes wild as he began to lose track of reality around him. The Arkombine soldiers, suspecting he was injured, mounted a fast offensive, but were shot down in due haste by the insane Khanid.
Destroyed limbs. He focused and remembered. He remembered his arms being flayed; being drained. In the moment of revelation of Tairei torturing him for months, he lowered his rifle, his mouth agape in utter shock. Quarreling with himself, he became his own inquisitor, questioning if these memories were his, or someone else’s. Questioning how he could have forgotten such an important detail, he lifted his head just as the Arkombine soldiers began to fill his chest cavity with bullets.
Rapidly bleeding out on the floor with his back against the computer’s base, he could barely keep his head straight. The lingering tunnel vision and a constant sensation of hearing loss gave him an all too familiar feeling, but something felt missing. Scanning his arms for the needles that drained him, he found none - only blood-stained, marred armor plating. Rolling onto his knees, he struggled to lift his arm and feel for the cable connecting him to the database.
“Tairei…” He groggily whispered into his helmet as the Upwell security forces slowly neared.
“Got it, pulling you out now,” spoke an unfamiliar voice.
Abruptly, he felt a stabbing sensation in the back of his head - or perhaps the base of his neck - he could not tell. What followed was terror in the form of a feeling not unlike being sucked out of existence through a straw. Senses failing him, he felt the world turn to black, and felt reality draw quieter than he had ever experienced.
“What about him?” A woman’s voice.
A man’s voice, “His memory is fractured pretty significantly. I did tell you it wasn’t an exact science, and not to push it. We just used a human being to transmit a shit load of data. It barely works for snatching pilots mid-battle, let alone someone with that much freshly injected memory.”
He opened his eyes and stared at the ceiling, puzzled. Questioning his death, he searched for the differences - differences meant pain. There were wires, cables, and all manner of machination attached to him. He wasn’t being drained of blood, but something else.
“Citadel schematics, but no point defense for it,” The woman uttered angrily.
“I suppose it will have to work,” The man responded with a chuckle.
They betrayed him, but he couldn’t even remember who he was.