Pathways (Part 02): Distant Trails

It was a wonder the Amarr Empire had managed to expand as far as it had. At least, that's what Jotin thought as he passed through the grungy, dilapidated lower sectors of the city. It wasn't so much that it was poorer or dirtier than Caldari slums - in fact, those were the two areas that the Caldari and Amarr had in common - but rather the disorganization.

Caldari were efficient; organized. The Amarr were anything but. Ramshackle lean-tos abutted crumbling brick structures and cracked wood houses. The roads twisted and turned, swelling from little more than walkways to multi-lane highways and then shrinking back to trails. Jotin wondered how anyone could ever find their way around down here.

He was glad Lord Jerimiah had sent a cadre of guards to escort him through, as he would have never escaped the place. "Why isn't there an elevator directly from the spaceport to the top levels?" he asked one of the guards.

"Lord Jerimiah believes all subjects should see him up close when he travels," the man replied.

"That doesn't explain why there's not one for us," Jotin grumbled.

"Lord Jerimiah wants to avoid the temptation of having one available for him."

"It's not so bad," Sneila commented, looking out the window at the people staring at them. "It gives us an interesting view of the Amarr peasantry."

"Those people are not peasants," the driver said. "They are slaves."

"Oh," Sneila said, continuing to watch.

They passed the rest of the drive in silence. It took nearly an hour for the vehicle to traverse the levels. There were four in total; the slave's level, the commoner's level, the merchant's level, and finally the noble's level. The commoner's level had been little better than the slave's level, though at least everything seemed to be in a generally well-repaired state. The merchant's level had been the first real sign of prosperity, with buildings that were spacious and attractive.

The noble's level was truly iconic. As it was on top of the city, it was the only area with free access to the sky. The manors of the many minor nobles that served Lord Jerimiah were free to expand and build as they pleased. Many pushed their lavish estates to the very limits their wealth would allow them. Religious iconography was omnipresent and nearly everything had a golden finish to it.

And none of it compared to Lord Jerimiah's palace, which stretched elegantly into the sky. It was massive, the single largest structure on the planet. It could house an entire army, if need be. Slaves scurried around the outside and in and out of the various doorways like ants, all attending to some function or another.

"What a waste," Jotin muttered quietly to Sneila as they were driven through the gates. She merely nodded her head and sighed.

The vehicle turned down a side road, toward what looked like a large hangar, and came to a stop outside it. "Please wait one moment," the driver said as he exited.

The driver pulled out a communicator and said something into it. After a moment, he returned to the vehicle and opened the door for Jotin, who stepped out. Sneila followed him and the drive gestured toward a small door on the side of the building. "Lord Jerimiah will meet you inside," he said.

Jotin turned to look at Sneila, whose eyebrows were raised in surprise. "I didn't realize we were going to meet the Holder," Jotin said to the driver.

"Please head inside," the driver said, gesturing toward the door once again. Jotin shrugged to Sneila and headed inside.

The building wasn't a hangar at all. Rather, it seemed to be some sort of factory. The room they had entered had a large glass window looking out onto the factory floor, where workers controlled various machines and nanobot swarms. An Amarrian, dressed in fine, flowing robes and flanked by two guards hefting pulse laser rifles turned to them.

"You must be the Hyasyoda representatives," the Amarrian said.

Jotin extended his hand. "Captain Jotin Turugi, sir. And this is my assistant, Ms. Sneila Sokol. Lord Jerimiah, I presume?"

Lord Jerimiah looked down at Jotin's outstretched hand with a combination of bemusement and revulsion. "Yes, I am." Jotin slowly pulled back his hand. The Holder had a young face, mostly free of wrinkles or splotches, but his hair was light gray and had mostly receded from his forehead.

"May I ask why you wished to see us?" Jotin asked. "I had assumed we were simply going to meet with the shipping manager to ensure that the delivery was in order."

"Do you know what I use your parts for?" Lord Jerimiah asked, turning back toward the glass window. The guards kept themselves facing Jotin and Sneila.

"Not particularly," Jotin answered.

"From the list of parts you purchase," Sneila chimed in, "it would appear you're manufacturing control bunkers and command points."

Lord Jerimiah nodded. "That's exactly right," he said. "For the 24th Imperial Crusade. I've made it my mission to keep them well supplied in order to fight off the Minmatar horde and conquer in the name of the Empire."

"Really?" Jotin wondered. "I always thought that the Holders in the more lawless areas of the Empire like this didn't appreciate the Crusade, since it took naval resources that could have been used to patrol their own space."

Lord Jerimiah turned back to them and grinned. "Oh, yes, that's true. Ever since the Crusade started, the Navy has had to divert resources away from this system. But it is a small price to pay. After all, the Minmatar are a greater threat than, say, the Blood Raiders, don't you agree?"

"I suppose," Jotin answered. "But this does not answer my original question. What can we do for you, Lord Jerimiah?"

The Holder sighed and shook his head. "Ah, Caldari. Always interested in getting straight to the point. No time for niceties or simple conversation." Lord Jerimiah shrugged and clasped his hands behind his back. "Very well. The fact is, I want to alter the terms of the supply contract I signed with Hyasyoda."

"Well, I'm sure you can contact your representative and - "

"No," Lord Jerimiah said. "I want to negotiate with you."

Jotin stared for a moment. "Sir, I'm not authorized to conduct contract negotiations. I'm simply the courier."

Lord Jerimiah gave an exaggerated shrug. "Then get authorization. I hate conducting negotiations over video, with the other side light years away. It loses all of the... personal touches."

Jotin cleared his throat. "I'm sure if you spoke with your representative, you could get - "

"No!" Lord Jerimiah hissed, his face crinkling in a sneer. "I won't wait weeks for Hyasyoda to schedule one of their stone-faced drones for a visit. I want this taken care of now."

"I'm sure it wouldn't take weeks."

"Weeks, days, hours, I don't care. I'll allow you enough time to contact your corporate HQ and tell them what I want. Now go do that before I lose my temper." Lord Jerimiah turned back to the glass window again.

Jotin and Sneila exchanged a look. Jotin let out a quiet sigh and walked out the door, back to the driver. Sneila followed him.

"What are we going to do?" she asked.

"What else?" Jotin answered. "Call in to Hyasyoda and tell them what Lord Jerimiah wants. When they refuse to let us negotiate a contract, we'll go home."

The driver opened the door to the vehicle and the two climbed in. "We need to be taken to - " Jotin began, but the driver cut him off.

"I know," the driver said. "Lord Jerimiah has a video conference room in his manor. I will be taking you there."

"Very well," Jotin said, before leaning back in the chair and rubbing his temples.

The Sansha ships kept coming. Even as Adima and his corporation delivered death to them, they did not stop. They never once went for the gate, even though they could have easily escaped through it. And they fought with no coordination, never focusing fire. It was a slaughter.

But they still kept coming. Adima couldn't figure out why. It was almost as if the Sansha ships had been reduced to mindless animals, lashing out at whatever they could as long as it wasn't one of themselves. No one in the corporation could figure it out, despite continued speculation on the corporate channel.

"Maybe they've got some sort of malfunction," Sirric, a junior member, suggested. "Like a virus or something in their programming."

"They're not actually machines," the CEO, Vernus, said. "Though their implants could be acting up."

"All of their implants all at once?" Adima wondered. "It doesn't seem very likely to me."

"Who knows," Yashis, the fleet commander, said. "Who cares? As long as they keep coming, we've got a duty to keep blasting them out of the void. Send them straight to Hell, with their damned founder."

"Very true," Sirric said. "They are a plague upon God's creation! We should show them no mercy! We - "

A sudden request for a private communication came to Adima, distracting him from the corp channel. He didn't recognize the name, but accepted it anyway.

"Yes?" Adima asked.

It was a Caldari man. "I need help," the person answered.

"I'm a little busy here right now."

"I know," the man said. "You're shooting at the vessel I'm currently on."

It took a moment before Adima could muster the ability to speak. "What?" was still all he could muster.

"I am Alard Hoturi. I am a True Citizen. I need your help. Please, stop firing at this ship. If you notice, it's not shooting at your or your friends. If you agree, I'll even give orders to have this ship help your side out."

Adima quickly flipped his mind back to the corporate channel. "Everyone, cease firing at this ship." Adima quickly marked his target for everyone. "Something really weird is going on here."

"You heard him," Vernus said. "Avoid firing on that ship."

"Thank you," Adima said, before flipping back to the private channel. "Alright, it's done," he told Alard.

"Thank you," Alard said. "Something terrible is happening and the Nation isn't the only one in danger. But first, we need to destroy the rest of these infected True Slaves." He cut the channel and Adima saw a beam of laser fire lance out from the Sansha ship into another, destroying it.

The father groaned in pain as he lay upon the floor of his tiny home. His wife rushed to his side and knelt down. "What's wrong?" she asked.

"My stomach," he moaned. "It's like someone stuck a knife in it."

She rushed into the other room, where their teenage son was sitting. "Go call the doctor," she told him. "Your father is sick."

The son nodded and rushed to the communicator. He told the doctor his father had collapsed and was suffering from stomach pains. The doctor agreed it was an emergency and immediately left. The son leaned back and sighed, then stood and headed for his father.

As he did, he struggled to hide his smile.

Part 3

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