[YC126 NECWC Prose] Sipping Vitoc on the Way to the Biological Reclamation Bay

Publius Cornelius Felix strolled down the station walkway, his boots clicking softly on the surface of the reinforced catwalk. He glanced off to the side, the glossy shine of the protective translucent metal contrasting well with the shining silver of the lining separating the view from the lower wall, meeting the floor in a contrasting pattern of checkered marks. Far below, he could see many groups of people moving in an orderly manner in the bazaar, with cameras and the occasional uniformed figure the only overt demonstration of power. There was a mix of different peoples there, many of them from far off regions and systems, with the distinct blue tint of Caldari uniforms and clothing contrasting with the silver-tinted Khanid garb. It was a place for like-minded people to trade, and as there were many outsiders, those held in bondage were nowhere in sight, and instead clergy, scientists, traders and tradespeople freely conversed and interacted with each other. As Publius made his way along the walkway, he saw a news crew of Gallente origin making their way down the main thoroughfare, their bright pink and yellow clothes garishly outlining their figures as they were met by a group of Caldari and Khanid officials, the latter in the distinctive uniforms of Khanid Innovation, their crisply pressed outer vests gleaming with the silver thread on their arms and wrists.

Publius passed a point of bright reflection, and he could see his visage reflected in the light, a calm and somber expression on his face. His black outfit was muted, with the sole exception of the silver-green hues of his pins, marking him as a senior clerk of Khanid Transport. Only a versed onlooker might notice that his scars were more uniform than normal on his face, or that his skin was unusually hale for someone of his middle-age. He was in a less used part of the station, and in the far distance he could hear the announcements regarding new technologies made available to the Khanid Kingdom from the Caldari State, a long litany that reminded Publius of the recitations he had heard while in Ardishapur Prime.

As the soft voice echoed in the far heights above him, Publius walked to a doorway. It had many warning markings on it, and the display next to it indicated it was completely out of order and dangerous to use, and referred the viewer to station maintenance. Publius reached out with his arm, presenting his silvered cuffs to the reader built into the display.

Immediately, the yellow-red of the display turned to a orangish hue, with large letters reading ‘OVERRIDE ENGAGED’ taking up nearly all of the display, as if embossed in stone. The doorway hissed, and Publius could see ozone released from the door. As it finished its cycle, the inner part barely lit by a flickering light, Publius stepped in, and glanced at the display while flicking his wrist. A mirrored surface above the display inside the cylindrical chamber glowed slightly, and in it, Publius could see his retinas shine slightly as he authenticated to the display, and with a chime that reminded Publius of bells of prayers, the elevator lurched and began its smooth, swift motion downward. As it did, Publius’ hand twitched slightly, and as it shook, he reached into his vest and retrieved a tobacco pack and a lighter. He lit a tobacco stick and took a long drag, breathing out the exhalation of toxicity into the air. He could see another display present a warning error, along with a notification that all forms of tobacco use were strictly prohibited in this area. Publius stared at the warning notification, its letters highlighted in bright red to provide emphasis, and he took another long, deliberate drag as he stared at the display.

There was another set of chimes, and the door opened, revealing a dark hallway lit with hand-lights, their dim glow along the walls providing the barest modicum of light. He could see that the overhead lights had long since been removed, and there were blood smears on the wall. The air was stale and the hall cramped, with many passageways going different directions. As Publius stepped out, a man in a combat uniform turned and looked at him. He wore the uniform of Mordu’s legion, with a badge of Khanid Transport on the right side of his chest plate. He stood idly as Publius walked past him, the bloody remains of several people behind him, with a group of people in white suits carefully dragging the bodies into disposal units.

Publius walked on, moving to a near hallway. As he walked in, he could hear the soft sobbing of a person, and as he entered, he could see several young children huddled as a woman in a caretaker’s outfit carefully guided them towards a portable medical unit, where doctors were waiting with diagnostic equipment.

“Easy does it”, said a woman to a young child with a clearly broken leg, injecting her with painkillers while preparing her for waking surgery. While dressed clearly as a doctor, her badge marked her as a member of far off Amarr and she had a calm, almost icy demeanor. Publius walked on, moving to a nearby room where several groups of people were gathered together. There were dozens of them, all of them rough looking and from the various empires. Mercenaries stood waiting.

One of them turned to Publius, holding a portable tablet computer. He passed it to him silently, and Publius looked it over. He immediately frowned, and he looked at the man and nodded. As Publius left, the door closed, and he could hear the sounds of muted gunfire and screams, as if far distant. With a deep sigh of contentment, Publius moved to another room, where a sign had been posted by the door reading “Containment”.

Publius reached over and gently opened the door, revealing a beautiful set of rooms that completely contrasted with the outer areas. Inside, he could see a man who looked quite young, with very old eyes. He was not bound, and the mercenary by the door was relaxed in his stance. The man was dressed in courtly robes, and he had the demeanor common to the True Amarr.

“Hello Varus”, Publius said. Varus looked at Publius with surprise, his hard, cold eyes slowly brimming with life and joy. “Publius”, he cried, “It is so very good to see you. I hope you can help me”, he added in lower tones, “It has been a nightmare, being interdicted by the authorities for lawful slavery in the domain of the Khanid Kingdom.”

“I can imagine how that must feel for you”, Publius said calmly. He surveyed the room. Although the outer rooms were dilapidated, nearly devoid of any colors or hues, this room had blue tile, and was wonderfully expansive, with a connecting kitchen, bathroom and what looked like an indoor sauna. At the far end of the first room was a mosaic depicting the symbols of the Khanid Kingdom. He could see wooden cabinets, their lamination gleaming brightly, and he noticed that Varus had a bottle of liquor next to him, the wafting of alcohol coming from the empty shotglass next to him. A pack of tobacco sticks was next to the liquor, unopened at present, with a box of matches next to it – an unusual luxury on a station.

Publius looked at Varus, studying him. He had a pinched, worried look on his face, and Publius waved his hand to the mercenary, nodding at him. The mercenary nodded in return, exiting the room and closing the door behind him. Publius took another drag from his tobacco stick, the ashes falling onto the tiles. He looked at Varus as he breathed out smoke.

“Would you mind getting me an ash tray”, he said to Varus. Varus seemed to brighten at the request, and with a murmur of assent, he stood and retrieved an ash tray from one of the wooden cabinets, a click echoing on the quiet room as the magnet latch was released.

“I wonder”, said Publius, “How old are designs like the magnet lash”, he asked, “How many things like that have been perfected to the point where they can use no further change?”

“You mean”, said Varus, turning and setting the ash tray down in front of Publius, who set his tobacco stick down at one of the cylindrical openings as he breathed out the smoke, “Like the fork, or the spoon”, he asked, curiously.

“Yes”, said Publius, “To be sure, the fork and the spoon would qualify as well, in my mind.”

Varus stared at Publius and suddenly let out a short guffaw, and grinned like a fool. “You certainly broach odd topics”, he said, “Well, yes, I would say some designs have been perfected, like the fork and the spoon.”

“What about improvements”, asked Publius, “Like, say, for instance, a fork that measures temperatures, with a spoon with, say, a repository of nanites?”

“Well”, Varus said slowly, “Those can be interesting, of course, but they are curiosities, at best. They have no real lasting value. There are many instruments for measuring temperature, and nanites are specialized tools meant for specialized purposes – they should not be used so trivially or so frivolously.”

“Yet”, said Publius, “Is it not within our realm of power to expend resources freely, for our own benefit, as we should so choose”, he asked.

“Perhaps”, said Varus, cocking his head to the side, “But, we have had this debate before – and I stand where I have always stood on things like innovation. Yes, invention and change has a place, but some things do not need to changed, and sometimes change results in unexpected outcomes, most of which are usually negative.”

“So”, Publius said slowly, “You would stand on your previous positions – that unexpected change is a poor thing – something to be avoided, unless it could proved it was a public good?”

“I would say an improvement – any real weal or boon – yes”, he added, hesitantly. “Publius”, he said, “What is all this about”, he asked, “You are posing very strange questions to me.”

“I am”, Publius said slowly, “Clarifying matters so we can move forward on this issue – this position in which you find yourself. Might we continue”, he asked.

“Very well”, said Varus. He looked at Publius. “Please, continue.”

Publius inclined his head slightly and sniffed. “Tell me”, he said, “What do you think of social innovations – social changes”, he asked.

Varus scoffed. “Social changes are social ills – reforms are things of ill omen and ill repute alike. I think you know where I stand on that”, he said.

“What of the treatment of people held in bondage”, asked Publius.

“Slaves, you mean”, Varus said, “They are slaves – property.”

“And how do you think property should be administered”, Publius inquired.

“I think that property should be administered properly”, Varus replied, guardedly.

“And what of innovations to such administration”, Publius asked, “What do you think?”

“I do not know”, Varus said suddenly, “I think you might not be here on my behalf. I wish to see a litigator – an attorney certified to stand before the higher courts. I do not think I wish to answer any more questions.”

Publius stood, looking at the far mosaic. As he stepped forward the mosaic, he reached for Publius and grabbed his arm.

“Think twice before you look in places you should not”, he hissed. Publius turned, his eyes flashing with anger, and he reached out with his forefinger and middle finger, and with a short twist he broke Varus’ nose. As Varus cried out, the door opened and two mercenaries entered, looking at Publius as he slowly lowered bloody fingers. Publius glanced at them, and then he moved to the far mosaic, carefully pressing a series of tiles in succession.

As the final tile depressed, the wall suddenly made a grinding sound and a hidden door opened, revealing a short alcove of a room. Inside, Publius could see a woman, bound and wearing rags, her eyes clearly gouged out. She opened her mouth and vocalized, and Publius could see that someone had ripped out her tongue. Publius sighed heavily, and as one of the mercenaries moved close, he turned and began to present his rifle at Varus, who paled. Publius held up his hand and shook his hand.

“Get the woman”, he said, darting a look inside and seeing the collars around several young children, perhaps twelve or thirteen at the oldest, “And these children out. Have them moved to Ardishapur, if you would please.”

As the mercenaries carried out his orders, Publius walked back over and reaching down, he finished his tobacco stick, placing the filtered end into the ash tray and stubbing it out. As the women and children were taken out, the blinded woman making muffled cries as she flailed about, Publius took a deep breath and began to light another tobacco stick.

“Publius, let me explain –”, Varus began, but Publius’ backhand knocked him down. Publius walked over, his hands balling into fists, but Varus held up his hands. “Please don’t hurt me”, he said, lifting his hands in a protective gesture. Publius slowly opened his fists. Walking over, he picked up his tobacco stick, but noticed it had broken. He frowned discontentedly, and pulling another one out, he lit the tobacco stick with his silvered lighter and sat back down.

“Get back in your seat”, Publius said harshly. Varus scrabbled up and sat down. His courtly robes were stained with blood, and he looked more like a frightened animal than a courtly retainer.

“That woman”, Publius said slowly, “is the former concubine to the aide of a Holder. Have you completely lost your mind”, he asked, “You tortured a favored person. Did you actually think it would go unnoticed”, he asked.

“She is property”, Varus hissed, “As were the children. It was my right to use the cranial micro-controllers, collars – whatever I like”, he shouted at Publius.

“What about social innovation”, asked Publius.

“What do you mean”, Varus said, his tone angry, but a hint of puzzlement.

“Those held in bondage, if property, are still property. Do you think it right you damage property so vicariously”, he asked.

“It is my property”, said Varus, “I can do with it as I like.”

“Can you, though”, mused Publius, “If you left lights flashing in the bazaar, you might be cited for being a public nuisance. If you dump toxic waste on a planet which can be terraformed or even inhabitable, there are significant financial and potentially perhaps punitive measures which may be taken against you. If you tortured a beast of burden or a pet animal, could you not be charged with cruelty against living things, as a sin against both humanity and providence alike”, he asked.

“Sin does not matter in the Khanid Kingdom”, Varus sneered, “It is all practicality, like the Caldari.”

“Slavery is inefficient according to the Caldari”, said Publius, “They say that since slaves do not have a stake in their future, they are not productive workers. Also, with the automation all our societies hold dear, slaves are largely a hindrance, and thus manumission and required service or at least contributed value to the state should be the norm if thralldom or vassalage is preferred.”

Varus’ lip curled with contempt. “Is that the opinion of the ‘Caldari’”, he spat, “Or your private opinion”, he asked.

Publius smiled slightly. “I would say”, he said carefully, “That the Caldari espouse such positions.”

“How very high-minded of you”, snarled Varus, “Emancipator”, he hissed, “Shall you free a number of the slaves, like Jamyl the first in her madness, or shall you attempt true folly and seek to free all of them”, he asked, lifting his chin at Publius.

“Jamyl did compensate the owners”, said Publius, “It was all quite legal.”

“Like me”, Varus said, tapping his chest, “I did nothing wrong.”

“You installed micro-controllers in children so you could make them believe it was alright to do terrible things to them”, Publius said, “Since you introduced a lie so great their minds could not conceive that it was correct, they all went insane and most of died of aneurysms. You attempted to accomplish what even Sansha could not – to accept something completely contrary to reality. Why would you do such a thing”, he asked.

“How would you know”, Varus snapped, “You and your high-minded sermons! Ever since you came back from Ardishapur Prime, you are a changed man. Once, you moved product for me and my friends, mass quantities of Vitoc. Was it worth it, this, this”, Varus said, reaching for words, “This betrayal”, he asked, “Will you find yourself in paradise after this life, in your mind”, he asked, “Have you become drunk on the wine of Amarr and have lost sight of this world in lieu of some possible next one?”

Publius took another drag of his tobacco stick. “I think”, he said quietly, “That if there is indeed a hereafter – and I hope that such is the case – you and I are both destined to dwell not in paradise, but in darkness. I have no pretense that I am worthy of salvation – I am simply seeking peace of mind before my final end, whether tomorrow or in the far future.”

“I see”, said Varus evenly, “Well, I have friends at court. Even with the woman in question, I feel confident that I will make it through the day.”

“I know”, said Publius evenly, and with a sudden motion, he reached out slammed his wrist against Varus chest. As he did, a thin syringe thrust out on a hidden spring, and Varus looked in horror as a white fluid from a vial emptied into him. He swatted Publius’ wrist away, but while bits of gritty fluid flew across the room, a spreading red glow in his robes showed that Publius had injected his heart full of the substance.

“What is this”, he asked Publius.

Publius smiled. He spoke in a recitative tone, his voice low, almost melodius:

“Horrors brought to life
Always in need of more stock
Pain like a sharp knife”, he said in clipped stanzas.

Varus thought for a moment, and then gripped his chest. “Vitoc”, he cried, “You gave me Vitoc.”

“In lower dosages”, Publius said, “It can be addictive, and is life-threatening if not treated. Yet, in high doses, it is a death sentence. It is, however, quite enjoyable. I am giving you my best going away present – a good death.”

Varus closed his eyes as his body began to react, his spine slamming against the back of the beautiful wooden chair. “Why”, he gasped hoarsely, “Why do this”, he asked.

“Because”, Publius replied, “I want peace of mind.”

“Not that”, Varus said, “Why is the court letting this happen? I am important, damn you”, he shouted, and then he roared in a mixture of joy and agony.

“That”, Publius said sharply, “Is because your actions will embarrass the court. Anyone in Amarr or the reaches of Khanid can accept the concept of demeaning another through bondage. Few will accept such barbaric cruelty, and none openly. You are a liability to the court now, Varus. Your death will close the door on a major embarrassment, and allow the Ministry of Internal Order to clean up the mess with no publicity. The mercenaries get paid, and anyone who cooperated with the investigation will get a lighter sentence, with the appropriate parties paying the appropriate prices.”

“And me”, Varus said, maintaining cohesion as his head snapped back, his eyes rolling into the back of his head.

“You will have died of an accident”, said Publius, “No one need know of your disgusting appetites. Your slaves at this very moment are being marked as abandoned and will be cleaned up and moved to Caldari space; there is no chance of scandal there, and they can leave out their days as productive citizens, sponsored by the Khanid Kingdom – though, of course, all of this signed off by civil servants, the signatory authority being a mere formality.”

Varus started foaming at the mouth, and his hand swept the table clean, sending the liquor, matches and tobacco sticks flying. “No, please, Publius, save me”, he said, shaking violently as he thrashed in his seat. His eyes rolled forward suddenly, and he locked eyes with Publius, his very being exuding horror at his oncoming death.

“Not yet”, Varus said in garbled tones, looking in Publius’ eyes. “Not yet, not yet, not yet, not –”, he stopped speaking, foaming drool flowing out of his mouth as his arm lay extended. Varus’ bowels freed, and Publius sat as the stench spread across the room.

Publius stared into the eyes of the dead man. He reached over, keeping the gaze, and grasped a match that had rolled out of the box and was left on the table. Reaching into his coat, he took out a tobacco stick, and struck the match across Varus’ face. He brought the match to the tobacco stick, and inhaled, his exhale releasing smoke onto the corpse.

“I will never be free of you”, Publius said softly, “You and your ilk will haunt me to my grave. I cannot believe I ever sold you Vitoc”, he added.

Publius stood and moved to the door. He opened it, and he could hear the commander barking orders in the distance, ordering a sensor sweep for other survivors.

He moved to the medical unit, and he could see an older woman with many healed scars. She looked at him. “I recognize you”, she said, “You’re that Vitoc clerk I met, long ago. What are you doing here”, she asked.

“Paying for my many sins”, he replied.

“Tobacco stick”, he said, offering her one.

She smiled weakly at him. “Don’t you know”, she said, softly, “Those things are toxic.”

Publius shrugged, putting the tobacco sticks back into his coat. “That is undisputable.”

“I didn’t say no, you know”, she replied wryly. Publius silently lit her tobacco stick for her, and she took a deep drag of it, slowly rocking back and forth, tears slowly forming down her cheek.

“Why do they do it”, she said, her voice weak and pained, “Is it not enough to capture us and own us? Why must they torture us as well?”

Publius looked at her. “I do not know”, he said, after a moment, “All I know is, I yearn for a day without cruelty and will do what I can to lessen it.”

She scoffed at him. “Do you think you will succeed”, she asked.

Publius shrugged again. “I did today”, he said lightly, “Take care.” He turned and moved to leave.

“Wait”, she said, grasping his arm. He turned to her, looking inquisitively.

“I know we are being sent off to Caldari, but could you send us to Gallente space? I would like to go home”, she said.

Publius smiled broadly. “Once you reach Caldari space, you will be allowed to go where you wish. The powers that be feel that this is a good way to end things.”

The woman breathed a sigh of relief, and one of the mercenaries gently tapped her on the shoulder and led her away.

As they left and the people in white began their clean-up, the doctor moved to him.

“Hello Doctor Amas”, Publius said, “Do you need anything further from me”, he asked.

“What you told that woman”, she said, “Is it true?”

“Yes”, said Publius, “They will have the means to go home or wherever they might wish, if it is in the reaches of the four empires.”

“No”, replied Doctor Amas, “I mean the part where the powers that be want this to happen. Is it true”, she asked.

Publius smiled. “Perhaps, perhaps not. Officially, they have no idea. This never happened, as far as they know – at least, insofar as the public knows.”

“What of the signatory authority”, she asked.

“The official line of inquiry would be that I purchased such authority illegally”, Publius said, “Capsuleers make excellent money, you know.”

“Ah”, she said, with understanding, “Well, that was something I was curious about. In any case, all that remains now is to extricate your friend for further questioning. How went your talks? Was he willing to make restitution for his crimes through collaboration with the Ministry”, she asked.

“I would say he is certainly in a position to make restitution”, Publius said, “You can check on him later, when time permits. In fact”, he added, smiling slightly, “I would say he is fully redeemed by now.”

“What do you mean”, Doctor Amas said, suddenly alarmed, “If feasible, he was to be captured, alive. Where is he right now”, she asked, angrily.

“Sipping Vitoc on the way to the biological reclamation bay”, Publius replied. Doctor Amas blanched and ran to the door. As she stood there, almost woodenly transfixed, Publius finished his tobacco stick, and crushing it in his hand, he put it into his coat to join the other remnant pieces, strolled out of the room and through the darkness, back towards the world of light that awaited him.