A Challenger Appears

Now that a painting had been hung in Julianni’s office, it had felt a little more homey. She didn’t necessarily care if it felt as such, but she couldn’t help but feel as if the small bit of personal touch helped ease her day-to-day stresses.

The painting appeared as scene she had seen before in person, and one she had fallen in love with the moment she saw it. The hills, tricking across the land, complimented the autumn grass, each twist of the brushstroke having been meticulously done as God had when creating it. The waves of the ocean, curled in their white to light blue colours, crashed into the rocky cliff faces dotted in the distance. It was Heavenly. That Lord Iyhr had sent her the painting still warmed her heart; traditional gifts were that much more meaningful.

She smiled.

Her attention flickered back to her display to focus on her task at hand: monthly financials. Julianni let loose a sigh to see the Black Rise information missing. Once again, a technical malfunction was preventing the personnel member’s data from being reached. “I really need to speak with the IT manager about this,” she muttered softly to herself, raising her hand to push aside her hair and rub at her cheek.

An alert: someone was at her office door.

Julianni raised her head and glanced to it, seeing the shadowed outline of a feminine figure that, by all accounts, was rather tall. It was a form she was not familiar with. There were few women she’d met personally that matched the height as this one, save for DUSTers, of course. But it was no matter. Her finger pressed to the access button at the side of her desk and she stood, smoothing out the creases in her skirt.

Once the door opened, the recognition of just who it was happened immediately. While she’d normally have felt at least generally comfortable around the Internal Watch, lately, it seemed the opposite. Especially when she saw the woman’s expression.

It was a cool one, the pursed lips and professional posture that Sheyan Mazaki wore. Obviously, there was something bothering her, and even if Julianni had asked not to be disturbed, she had a feeling it wouldn’t have mattered.

“Mazaki-haani, it’s g-”

The Calmatar entered the room briskly without waiting for anything else to be said. Lithe, yet somewhat broad and athletic with her darkened skin, this woman was a shining example of Caldari and Minmatar stock. The most prominent of her features, however, was the quiet seething the woman was letting bubble beneath the surface.

“…Mazaki-haani?”

Again, there was no response. Julianni’s eyes lowered. What she didn’t see, doing that, was that Sheyan’s eyes flashed as her implants went active. Then, across Julianni’s screen, came a recording of Sakala’s words in what was labeled as the system of Nahyeen.

“Be a dear, when you see Jules next let her know I have a few gifts for her. Well a few bottles if you know what I mean.”

Julianni read over the words, her heart stopping. Had he really…

“Our men didn’t die just so you could go on a drug binge,” Sheyan finally said, her voice full of venom. The toxin that seeped into Julianni’s very heart. “You mean to tell me that after everything that happened, you’re still dealing with that man? No. Not a man. That gaairagi.”

Julianni froze. She didn’t know what to do or what to say. Now, things were public.

“No answer? I should have expected that.” The military officer turned on her heel, giving her back to Julianni. “I’m sure you’ll understand that I have to notify my superiors of what was said, regardless of my opinion on the matter.” The woman paused before the doorway, glancing over her shoulder. “And as far as that goes? You’re no better than Sakala.” With that, the woman left the room before Julianni even had a chance to reply.

Left speechless, Julianni simply stared at that screen. Just what was she supposed to do about this? What could she even have said? Her drug tests had all come back negative. They spoke for themselves. But still…this…was exactly what Sakala was hoping for. She knew it.

Now, she simply had to make the decision of if she was going to sit by and simply do damage control, or decide to play his game right back.

 

In The Web

A warm sensation across Julianni’s skin caused her to stir. It was a pleasant feeling, her body feeling as though it was slowly heating from some unknown coldness that had crept over her. As she opened her eyes, she found herself laying on the ground in the garden of the Degario manor. Confusion beset her as her dark eyes danced across the familiar and comforting scenery. It didn’t feel right, but it didn’t necessarily leave her with a fearful or bad feeling.

She slowly stood, brushing off small bits of grass that had found their way onto her plain clothing and into her hair. A small frown crossed her lips; Lord Degario would be most displeased if he’d learned she’d been napping in the garden. It took a bit of time, but she finally managed to clean herself of debris. Her attention turned towards the sun, letting its beams warm her face. That’s what the sensation was, she thought, and her frown turned into a small smile. Taking in a breath, she noted the strong smell of lavender. But this time, the combination of other flowers coupled with the scent of fresh air overpowered whatever bad memories had been trying to find their way into her mind.

Julianni didn’t let herself get too distracted, however, and soon she moved quickly towards the garden’s labyrinth to exit. She knew the paths well. The dead ends, the twists and turns, and the circles to be made never had phased her. The place was within her memory like a song close to a musician’s heart. Each corner she rounded, she knew she should be getting closer to her destination. However, in the back of her mind, it felt as if she would never reach it.

Time continued for what felt like an eternity. Exhaustion began to overwhelm her, and she felt her feet dragging along in their futile journey. Finally, when it seemed that she would outright collapse, she turned that last corner to the exit. The moment she did, instead of relief, the previous feeling of something not being right developed itself into an outright dread. Her eyes soon confirmed this fact as she looked upon not the Degario manor, but instead a corridor in a station.

The smell of the garden warped itself into one of a sort of metallic origin coupled with dirt and filth that an unclean station would have. Her surroundings had now melded entirely into the place, the comfort of the garden now left far behind. The dread slowly seeped into her very bones, and she knew she had to run. Though it was quite clearly a dream, she couldn’t stop herself from that primal instinct of survival.

All feeling of exhaustion left her as she began to flee down the hall. Like with the labyrinth of the garden, her destination felt unreachable. The hall only stretched and spun, the view of the bridge of a ship barely made out. She could see the other personnel, too. Toroko, Mikar, and the rest of the Internal Watch all were surrounding something. There was no way she could see just what it was, but she knew she had to warn them. They were in danger. It was a trap.

She cried out as loud as she could, but no sound would escape from her lips. Arms waving in the air, she continued running as fast as she possibly could, but it was no use. To her horror, she watched as a brilliant flash erupted from the group’s center, their bodies bursting into an assortment of pieces that could never be placed back together. Julianni screamed out in remorse, her voice now finding its way to carry on the nightmare’s wind.

It echoed softly at first, then began to build its way up to pierce her ears and bring about a pain at the front of her face. Though she covered her ears, it was as if it was instilled into her mind with no escape. A warm trickle of blood began to find its way out of her ears, eyes, and soon enough, her nose. The woman dropped to the ground as a darkness slowly began to envelop her vision, a mixture of blood and tears blurring what little bit she could see. As her surroundings grew darker, a familiar laugh dug its way into her skull and remained there until the nightmare ceased to be, bringing Julianni to consciousness again.

The darkness was still there. Unfortunately, so was the pain, and she groaned out softly from the discomfort of her shattered nose. It could have been a dream, she thought. However, everything felt so much coherent. Real. Memories of what had happened began to find their way back into Julianni’s mind and she grimaced in the darkness of what she guessed to be a blindfold. She tried moving her hands to no avail, seeming to find that they were tightly bound.

Everything finally made sense, and she knew that this scenario was no nightmare. Julianni silently cursed to herself her thoughts now floating towards the others that had been there. Had Toroko and Mikar made it out? And the other Internal Watch members? The mission had been a trap, just as expected. Despite their best efforts to combat it and be prepared, they were still taken by surprise. And now, she could hear that familiar laugh off in the distance elsewhere within…wherever she was. She clenched her teeth, shaking her head.

It was the laugh of Sakala, and now he had the upper hand.

The Plunge

The holo-display flickered to life, a various assortment of windows spreading bit by bit into a crescent pattern for full view. To the left was the typical numerical hell of notifications, stocks, and charts. The right display seemed to be reserved for communications: channels, a secure and controlled video feed, and section for quick access to mails. To the center display was what seemed an area of general workflow, easily adjusted and customized efficiently for what subject needed handled at the time. At this moment, an old mail was pinned to the corner, along with a war history report from CONCORD and Sanxing’s corporation symbol. What was most prominent, however, was highlighted text from a news story.

There have been a number of groups and individuals in the Federation who have called for the prompt resignation of Executor Hinkelmann, and the reinstatement of former Executor John Revenent as well as the rest of former I-RED leadership, including former Vice-Executor Korbin Lavius.

Julianni read, then reread the text over and over. Briefly, she glanced to the right at her mail notification flickering, letting out a small sigh. Her hand reached up to rub at her brow, closing her eyes for a brief moment. At least, it certainly felt like a brief moment, but the next thing she knew, her eyes opened again to find that some ten minutes had passed. Ten minutes wasted.

She stood, tiredly making her way to her tea set and placing her hand to the pot. Cold. Another small sigh escaped her lips and she shook her head. Though it would be another small waste of time, she knew she needed the tea to keep herself awake, and so she began to head out of her office, placing on as much of an alert and normal expression as she could muster.

The moment she opened her office door, she was met with two guards who immediately brought themselves to attention. Her brow raised. They were still here? Nevertheless, she offered a bow of her head and slowly began making her way down the hall to the lounge. As soon as she began to move, one of the guards began to as well, trailing right behind her. She paused, glancing over her shoulder.

“I’m just going to get some hot water,” she said, lifting up the pot of tea as if to show proof of her intention.

The Internal Watch member replied quickly and sternly. “Orders, ma’am.”

“I…er…I know there are orders for security. But…” She stopped herself short, simply shaking her head again. “Nevermind. I apologize.”

It was strange, really. One would think it would make someone feel safe to have such a security detail. However, to Julianni, it felt almost oppressive, especially since it had only increased over the last week. She didn’t believe for one second that I-RED’s enemies would act out against her. While she may have been a director and oversaw a number of things, there was a great deal more that she wasn’t privy to behind closed doors. She’d be useless for significant information.

The only other person that could act out was, as far as she knew, a significant distance away and she was sure he’d never be so foolish as to try anything again. He was smarter than that. No, if he had anything planned…

“Avala-haani?”

Her attention was brought back to focus and she realized her arrival at the lounge. The bartender looked at her with a raised brow, his hands held out for the pot of tea.

“Kalkiihanzu,” she answered, handing him the tea pot and then bowing deeply. “I was lost in my thoughts.”

“I noticed. Maybe you should get some rest. I can prepare some Onitseru Blue instead of your Matigu Green. I think it would do you some good.”

“Oh, no, please. It’s quite alright. I have a few more things to take care of. But I sincerely appreciate the offer,” she replied with a comforting smile.

The bartender smiled back, turning to refill the pot with hot water. “Very well. When you’re ready for rest, just let me know if you’re interested in the Onitseru.” After refilling the pot, he slipped it back across the counter. His eyes moved to the Internal Watch member, offering a dip of his head, but then looked back at Julianni with a small brow raised.

She offered no explanation, instead bowing and taking up the pot. “I’ll certainly do that. Rikaato.” Without another word, she quickly moved to head back to her office, guard in tow.

When she arrived again, the Internal Watch member took his position back up outside her office, ensuring the door was shut behind her. Each time she entered the office, the smell of lavender caused such conflicting emotions. Even though they had since been discarded, the scent wouldn’t disperse. While the memory of the flowers themselves had been a good one, it was now ruined with the affiliation to Dominius. Her stomach twisted, a familiar nausea creeping its way up. Doing what she could to shake it off, Julianni took a deep breath, setting the pot back into it’s place to let the tea steep properly.

Finding herself back at her desk, she took note of a new video request to the right, appearing to be from yet another Internal Watch member. Once accepting the request, the feed connected, showing the guard bowing. “Saisieni, Avala-haani. I’ve been asked to contact you in regards to Isoke-haani’s husband we have in holding. He is demanding to see someone about his wife’s disappearance.”

Julianni nodded, keeping her expression calm. “Very well. Let him know I’ll come down to holding by the day’s end.”

“Yes ma’am,” came the soldier’s reply along with an immediate disconnect.

Once the feed was cut, Julianni’s hand reached to rub at her face lightly, only to be interrupted by another video feed request. She’d initially expected it to be more business, but the name and the CONCORD portrait of Dominius Degario made her sink into her chair. The notification continued to blink until she stood and simply walked away from her desk, heading to her office door again.

The Internal Watch members straightened to attention as they’d done before, and her original escort then turned, ready to follow. She said nothing, and giving no protest; there would be no use. Hall after hall, elevator after elevator, she and the guard traveled through until they found themselves in front of the door to the small chapel.

Much to Julianni’s relief, the guard took up post outside the door without a word, but gave her a small nod. She mustered up as much of a smile as she could in thanks to him, then stepped inside. It was empty, as it generally was around this hour. As the look of relief washed across her face, she moved into a closed off, private prayer room to the side, shutting the door behind her.

It was a comforting place, to be sure, and probably one of the very few places she could take solace in. It was lit by candles, the soft light of flames flickering shadows across a miniature statue devoted to God. Perhaps too simple for those with expensive tastes, but it was all she needed. Slowly, she lowered herself to her knees, linking her fingers and lowering her forehead onto them. Her prayers began softly, reciting as she’d done so many times. For many minutes this went on until finally, they were completed.

Opening her eyes, she looked up to the statue and listened. One would think that a moment of peace and quiet would be cherished. In a life full of duties and busy days, a chance to simply relax and let the mind rest would of course be treasured.

To Julianni, the silence was deafening. It was a moment for her mind to pick apart each and every moment that had happened as of late. But the worst part of all, was the fact that those memories she’d once pushed away were now like a wound reopened, flowing freely with the raw emotions she’d felt from it all. No longer were her prayers in such private rooms a place of comfort. They were now a reminder of what she had to do in the past. Her head lowered and she placed her hands over her face, breaking down into tears.