Pathways (Part 04): Slouching Towards

The battle had been long. The Sansha ships fought to the last man. Well, or whatever they considered themselves, Adima thought. But it had been easy. Much easier than it should have been, considering the size of the fleet arrayed against them. Oh, Adima's corp lost a few ships - but they were mostly small, frigate-sized vessels. Sansha's Nation had lost an armada.

Only they couldn't have even been called that. They fought with none of the precision and cold logic that the Nation normally displayed. They charged in and died like suicidal terrorists. And, at times, they fired on one another. After one target was destroyed, they'd invariably switch back to Adima's corp's ships. All except for one.

Alard Hoturi. Now he stood in front of Adima and the rest of the corp's leadership. The story he told was beyond belief.

"It sounds to me that your slaves are simply breaking their programming," Vernus said with disgust. "God does not want men to be shackled to a machine, He wants them to willingly serve."

Alard simply shook his head, as he had so many times during the meeting. "No, we tested that," Alard answered, ignoring another remark about God. "They didn't break their programming. And besides, there were True Citizens, like me, who were affected. Everyone just wanted to kill each other."

"I don't pretend to know how Slave Implants work," Adima said, speaking up for the first time since the meeting started, "but perhaps there's some malfunction in them."

Once more, Alard shook his head. "That would suppose that the affected had the same models of implant. They do not. An entire planet turned on itself. Those who weren't affected escaped and the planet was ordered obliterated from orbit. But as you could see from the battle, somehow the infected got out. The infection has continued to spread through the Nation!"

Now he was repeating himself. He did so in a calm, even tone. It was devoid of anything Adima would call panic or worry. "We have to stop it," he said. But there was, deep down, something form of concerned urgency to him.

"Why should we?" Vernus asked. "As far as I'm concerned, Sansha's Nation deserves to be wiped out of the cluster. This infection is just finishing the job the four empires started centuries ago."

Another shake of the head. "Maybe that is true. But I fear it is not. I imagine this is not something isolated solely to the Nation. Perhaps my home was merely a testing ground, a place for whoever engineered this virus - and it is engineered, make no mistake about that - to see what it is capable of. Or perhaps it is ground zero, the starting point for everything else. Or maybe it is much worse. Who knows? But I am convinced that the Nation is not the sole target of this. And if something is not done, it may be too late for the rest of humanity."

"Why come to us?" Adima asked.

Finally, Alard showed some measure of emotion. A small smile, rueful and bemused. "You were the first ones who listened instead of trying to destroy me."

"And how can we help you? We're just a small corporation," Adima said. "We don't have resources or connections."

"I know," Alard said. "Obviously, I do not either. I cannot go to the Empire's authorities. I suspect they would view me with the same skepticism you do," Alard gestured toward Vernus. "Only I fear I would not be given even an opportunity to help. The Republic is useless. The Federation too. No, the only place I can go is home. Back to the State."

Jotin tossed and turned through out the night. He could not find comfort in the bed, no matter how much he adjusted things.

It was not that they were too simple; rather, the exact opposite. They were opulent. The bed was akin to a cloud in a dream, the sheets the gentle caress of playful fairies. To an Amarrian lord, it was perfection.

But Jotin was a Caldari soldier. There was no resistance to anything and it felt as if he were being slowly swallowed by a terrifying monster as he lay in the bed. Eventually, he had to climb out and lie on the floor which - carpeted in rugs plush enough that a man could walk across them barefoot and feel as if he was never touching the ground - still wasn't comfortable.

He was found there in the morning, the servants rushing to him in a panic, imagining that he had fallen out of the bed at night. When he bolted up and lunged at them, they mercifully fled. After the momentary wave of confusion and adrenaline passed, he stood and stretched.

The same clothes he had worn the day before lay scattered on the floor, dropped by the servants in their haste to escape him. They had been cleaned, however, so he dressed and walked out of the room. A pair of servants cautiously approached him. "Where's the shower?" he asked. One nervously led him to a room.

It could hardly be called a bathroom. It was filled with sweet smelling incense and delicate candles floating in a large pool. "What is this?" Jotin asked.

"The bath, m'lord," the servant said, with his head bowed.

"I'm not a lord," Jotin grumbled. "And I asked for a shower, not this."

"Lord Jerimiah insisted you be treated as an honored guest, m'lord."

"I told you, I'm not a lord!" Jotin snapped.

The servant looked hesitant, but explained, "You are a free man, so you are a station above me. You are a lord to me."

Jotin sighed, both at the slave's words and for not realizing he was a slave sooner. "Fine. Just show me where the soap is so I can get this finished."

"Oh," the slave said. "You would not be bathing yourself, m'lord."

"Oh no," Jotin growled. "Call me m'lord, force me to take a bath in a giant foofy swimming pool, make me sleep in a marshmallow... I can take those things. But I am not, under any circumstances, allowing anyone to bathe me."

"But m'lord, Lord Jerimiah insisted that - " Before the slave could finish, Jotin grabbed his arm and forced him out the door. He slammed it shut, then closed the latch, locking the slave out. The slave made a brief effort to get back in, but gave up without much of a struggle.

Or he was going to get someone to open the door for him. Jotin peered around the room, laid eyes on a plush chair - more of a throne, really - and grabbed it. He dragged it in front of the door, then began a search for soap. He eventually found something that might have been soap - it smelled so much of sweet rose petals he was unsure it actually was soap - and stripped his clothes off and waded into the water.

The water was warm, perhaps constantly kept at the temperature. Jotin wondered at the sheer audacity of this room. Even the most spoiled CEO, the ones he had heard about before Heth rose to power, would not have imagined such a room. But rather than spare it more thought, he simply began scrubbing himself.

It took only a few minutes. He wasted no time getting clean. Afterward, he dried off, redressed, and slid the throne to the side. The slave was waiting outside for him.

"This way to breakfast, m'lord," the slave said, walking down the hall. Jotin followed him down the twisting hallways until they finally came nearly ten minutes later to a grand hall. It had dozens of tables, including one incredibly large one at the front of the room. That one remained empty, while the smaller, secondary tables around the room had dishes and cutlery on them.

A woman was sitting at one of the tables. The slave was leading Jotin toward her. "Who's the woman?" Jotin asked.

The slave slowed down and turned with an oddly questioning look at him. "You don't know?"

Jotin frowned. "Of course not. I don't know anyone around here. I didn't even know Lord Jerimiah until yesterday."

The slave walked more briskly toward the table. "It is the woman you arrived with," he said.

Jotin was so stunned that he didn't remember reaching the table and sitting down. Now that he was close to her and the slave had told him, he recognized it as Sneila. But without that, he would have never known.

"What did they do to you?" he asked, eyes wide.

She smiled. "They woke me up, dragged me to this huge pool they called a bath, scrubbed me down, layered me in these clothes, caked me in cosmetics, and then dressed my hair."

"You didn't stop them?" he wondered.

"No. I don't think I could have," she said. "I said they didn't need to do all this, but apparently, Lord Jerimiah insists that all women staying in his house... Oh, how did they put it? 'Dress appropriately to their station.' And since I am, apparently, a capsuleer's right hand, I need to be dressed like a fine lady."

"I'm sorry to hear it."

She shrugged. "I think Lord Jerimiah just has a thing for Caldari women." Jotin quirked an eyebrow. "It might give us some negotiating strength if he does, at least. Besides..." She picked up a knife and looked at her own reflection in the metal. "I kind of like it. It's not often that I get to be dressed up."

"You look like some kind of doll," Jotin said.

"Thank you, even though I know you didn't mean it that way," Sneila said. "When I was young, one of the only toys my parents could afford were dolls. I used to dress them up and use markers to give them make up." She smiled and shook her head. "Oh, but we should really be eating. Not talking about my childhood."

"No, go on and tell me," Jotin said. "We can eat and talk at the same time."

The masses danced.

They were not a dancing people, but they danced regardless. The priest normally would have reprimanded them, but they had cause to be jubilant.

"The day is nearing!" the priest shouted to the masses. "We are nearing our final judgment!"

The masses danced.

Behind the priest, d
*d in fine clothes and shadows, sat upon a mighty throne an unmoving figure. It bore witness to the masses and their dancing. At some distant time past, it would have disproved, but such things were no longer of concern to it. The priest would have said below it, an outsider would have said beyond it.

"Our Lord long ago prophesied the path we now walk!" the priest shouted. "We now watch as the sinners falter and fall!" The priest turned to the figure upon the throne. "Lord, it is through your guidance that we now stand on the brink of paradise! We give out thanks and pray for you to deliver God's light upon us!"

The figure sat unmoved.

The masses danced.

Part 5

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