Pathways (Part 06): Converging Trails

The door to Reena's room slid open. "How are you feeling today?" someone asked. That someone was not Tira.

"I'm doing fine, thank you," she said. "I don't think we've met before, have we?"

The person chuckled. "Of course we have. I'm Saya, the nurse who's been helping Tira."

"Oh, of course," Reena said. Tira's assistants changed every few weeks, so Reena never really remembered them. "Where is Tira?"

Saya didn't say anything for a few long seconds. Finally, she slowly spoke. "Tira had a bit of stress get to her," she said, her voice betraying the lie. "She may not be back for a while."

"Oh," Reena said, determined to get the true story eventually. "I'm sorry to hear it."

"Well, for now, I'll be your primary nurse. Are you ready for..." Saya trailed off and grunted a little.

"Something wrong?" Reena asked.

"Oh, just a bit of a stomach cramp. Nothing to worry about, I'm sure."

Gita walked slowly through the streets of the slums. They brought back memories that she had long hoped to forget. She looked over at the people leaning against flimsy walls and the children running around on broken roads with bare feet. Their clothes were dirty, some with unrepaired holes or other damage. More than a few looked sick. They hunched over slightly as they walked, or leaned against door frames and porch rails in mild discomfort.

Perhaps that was why she'd been chosen. Her familiarity with lives of pain and hardship. Her experience with people who lived for no hope for the next day. That was evident in the eyes of these people.

Of course, not everything was the same. There were no drug addicts, staring hungrily at her as she passed. There were no pimps, or rapists, or muggers with similar looks. There were just tired people, worn down. Some looked at her with passive curiosity. Others jealousy. Others anger. Most unsettling were the few who turned to their fellows with smiles, pointing at her as a sign of hope, a sign that one day all their strife would be for something.

She kept her head down and walked. She knew where she was supposed to be going. Her instructions had been very explicit and the directions exact. If she tried to deviate even slightly from them, she would have become lost in the maze of the slums and been hard pressed to find her way back again.

She wished she could have, though. She glanced behind her and sure enough, in the crowd of people, was that Gallente woman, Cierra. She didn't make too much of an effort to hide herself. In fact, in the dingy slave quarters, she stuck out like a sore thumb. Her clothes were nice, her hair done up, make-up on her lips, cheeks, and eyelids.

Unlike with Gita, the slaves could not keep their eyes off Cierra. It was likely the first time any of them had seen a Gallente up close. Perhaps it was the first time they'd seen a Gallente who wasn't some caricature at all. Many simply gawked. A few - the same who saw Gita as a sign of hope - looked at Cierra with disgust.

They all kept their distance, however, which annoyed Gita more than anything. All it would take is one slave to step out of line and accost the Gallente for Gita to slip away.

Gita simply put her head down and forged ahead. She was not long from her destination. Once she arrived, they could take care of Cierra.

When Jotin and Sneila returned to the meeting hall, they found Lord Jerimiah already there. He was not exactly waiting for them, as he was in the middle of an animated discussion with one of his servants. The Holder was too far away from either of them to hear, though occasionally a single word would be spoken with enough force for it to carry their way.

"What do you think they're talking about?" Sneila asked.

"Not us," Jotin answered. "He's angry. And the man he's speaking to looks like either a police officer or military."

Sneila raised an eyebrow. "Well, I hope it's not about us, at least."

The two calm sat in their chairs and watched the spectacle. The officer appeared to be telling Lord Jerimiah something, but Lord Jerimiah kept interrupting him and gesturing pointedly. After several minutes, the officer finally simply nodded and turned and left. Lord Jerimiah slumped back into his own chair and ran a hand over his face.

Then he noticed Sneila and Jotin and sat up bolt straight.

"Is there a problem, Lord Jerimiah?" Jotin asked firmly and with confidence.

"No!" Lord Jerimiah snapped. "How long were you there?"

Sneila and Jotin exchanged bemused glances. "Quite a while," Jotin said. "We were eager to get the negotiations back under way, but it seemed whatever you were dealing with demanded more of your attention."

Lord Jerimiah appeared quite flustered. He shook his head furiously. "No, no. Just a minor security matter, that is all."

Jotin quirked his head to the side. "Security? I hope there is no danger to these negotiations. Hyasyoda would not be very pleased if anything befell either of us."

"Of course not!" Lord Jerimiah growled. "It is none of your concern. We should get back to negotiating immediately!"

Jotin suddenly stood. "Lord Jerimiah, it is apparent that whatever has occurred has made you emotionally unbalanced. I am afraid I simply cannot negotiate under these conditions. My assistant and I shall be in my quarters. Please send for us once you have calmed yourself."

He turned and walked out. After recovering from her shock, Sneila stood and hurriedly walked after him. Lord Jerimiah was left seething in his chair.

Once he was outside, the tension left Jotin's body and he nearly slumped to the floor. He let out a deep breath as Sneila fell into step beside him. "That was impressive," she said. "I think you're really getting the hang of this."

"So you think I did the right thing?"

"Yes," she said. "You're right. He was very upset at whatever had happened. Most people would have assumed that now would be a perfect time to negotiate. He's distracted, he will be eager to get the negotiations over with, and he'll acquiesce to our demands."

Jotin frowned. "When you say it like that, it makes me think I did the wrong thing."

"But you've managed to make him angrier, by pointing it out. Now he has some time to stew about it." She nodded her head in enthusiasm. "If my read on him is right, he won't really calm down at all. He'll come get us after he feels like enough time has passed, but we'll still have even more of an advantage over him."

Jotin allowed himself a small smile. "Well, I'm glad you approve."

"I certainly do," Sneila said, giving a smile of her own. "You've surprised me, Captain."

"I'm full of surprises," he said. "Just you wait and see."

Zainou Biotech was not very pleased when a fleet consisting of Caldari Navy warships, a Nightmare proudly displaying it's affiliation with Sansha's Nation, and a rag-tag group of Amarrian pod pilots showed up at its door. They were, however, quite intrigued, especially when Alard asked for Fritz. Immediately, they rushed off to retrieve the man.

Adima expected someone impressive. Perhaps a brilliant researcher or a corporate executive. Instead, they were brought a small, harried looking young man who seemed to be barely out of the SAK.

"Fritz?" Alard asked as they sat the man down.

"Yes?" Fritz responded, seemingly unsure of what was going on.

Alard smiled wide. "It is good to finally meet you in person."

Fritz shook his head. "I'm afraid I don't quite know what you're talking about."

"You are AISitter on the Applied Cybernetics and Artificial Intelligence GalNet forum, right?" Alard asked, though the way he said it made it evident he already knew the answer.

Fritz's eyes briefly went wide. "Uh, no, of... of course not! AI research is heavily restricted and prohibited by CONCORD Mandate! I don't have any idea what you're talking about!" He turned to one of the navy officers who was providing security. "Can I go now? I really have a job to - "

Alard sighed. "Fritz, please. My name is Alard Hoturi. You know me better as TrueBeliever, from the same message board."

Fritz's eyes got even wider, so much that they seemed ready to pop from the sockets. "The Sansha crazy?! The one we always flame?" Once more, Fritz turned to the officers. "This guy is a criminal! What's going on here?"

"Fritz, just calm down a moment," Alard said. "I'm here because I need your help. Well, I need your boss's help."

Fritz's eyes couldn't get any wider, but he tried. "The Old Man? What makes you think I can get him? Or that he'd help you with... whatever?"

Alard smirked. "First of all, you don't make much of a secret of who you work for or what you do on the boards, Fritz. Everyone there knows you're Todo's latest caretaker. And the one who has kept his sanity the longest. Why, I'd say he'd have broken down and gone crazy himself without you."

"He's already crazy," Fritz grumbled, drawing unamused glares from the Zainou security. "Anyway, you're right. I am Mr. Kirkinen's attendant. What do you want?"

"We have a problem," Alard said. "A potentially deadly one that threatens everyone in the cluster. I don't have the brainpower to solve it on my own. But I think Todo does. I need to meet with him before it's too late."

"And why would he help you?" Fritz asked.

"Because, it's a challenge," Alard answered. "And your boss and my boss have more than a little history together. So I think he'd be very interested."

Adima was wrong. Fritz's eyes could get wider, and they just did, along with everyone else's in the room.

Cierra watched as Gita walked through the streets with a purpose. The turns she made were not random. She was watching for street names and landmarks and following them. "What are you up to?" she muttered to herself.

She barely registered the slaves all around her. She was glad something more important allowed her to put them briefly out of her mind. She thought she would have broken down if she really had to confront what she was witnessing, and she couldn't afford that now. Maybe once she got home to Nora.

Eventually, Gita arrived at a shack with several serious-looking Minmatar outside it. They had the look of slaves - free of tattoos, the weary signs of oppression - but the stances and expressions of freedom fighters. Gita approached them without hesitation, exchanged words with one, and was quickly ushered inside.

Several others began walking toward Cierra. "Uh oh," Cierra muttered, before turning and quickly trying to walk off. Someone behind her moved to stop her and she found herself cornered. Cierra sighed, then turned and smiled at what looked like the leader of the approaching gang.

"Look, we can talk about this," Cierra said. "I'm sure everything will turn out to be just a funny story!"

"Come with us," the man said in a deep, dangerous voice.

"Of course," Cierra said, taking a step forward. Before the man could do anything, she had grabbed his wrist, kneed him in the groin, and flipped him over her shoulder. He landed with a thud. She turned and began to run, expecting his men to be too shocked to stop her.

She was wrong. One grabbed her arm and flipped her to the ground as if she were a ragdoll. The wind was driven out of her as two other man came and lifted her from the ground, roughly holding her arms behind her.

Their leader, a grimace on his face, stood and walked toward her. "I said come with us." He turned and limped toward the building. His men dragged Cierra along.

Part 7

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