Pathways (Part 09): Deadends

One time, long ago, war would have prepared a man for anything. As fire raged about him, people screamed in pain and confusion, and smaller explosions continued to rock the area, Arderin could only think that war had not prepared him for this.

He wondered what it had been like, thousands of years before, when war was personal. When you could see the face of the man you were about to kill. He had served onboard imperial warships for over two decades, fighting on the front lines against the Minmatar terrorists and Blood Raider heretics. He'd been part of the 7th Fleet, fighting in some of the bloodiest battles the Empire had seen in centuries.

But it was always at a distance. The enemy wasn't another human; it was a spaceship. Almost always so distant he could not even see it. Aim the weapons, fire the tachyons, see an explosion barely brighter than the background stars.

Of course, he had seen blood and death before. His ship had been on the losing end of fights more than once. He'd sat there and watched his comrades die slowly, as he waited for rescue from smoldering wreckage. He'd seen men blown into the vacuum of space slowly die from exposure. He had always been among the lucky ones who had been able to escape.

So he'd considered himself a hard man, someone who could take charge in a crisis and lead people to safety.

As he sprinted for an escape, he knew he was not. War had not prepared him to face someone wanting to kill him face to face. And these crazy people, with bloody tears running down their faces, wanted to kill him and anyone else they saw. He passed a woman desperately trying to pull a man from beneath a fallen beam. She yelled for his help, but Arderin ignored her.

War had not prepared him to face danger. It had prepared him to survive it. He turned a corner and tripped over something and fell to the ground. It was a body, mutilated. He briefly thought one of the explosions had done it. But as he tried to scramble to his feet, a pair of hands grabbed him.

Then another and another. They tore at him and hit him. He screamed and tried to escape, but their mad fury overwhelmed him.

The ground quivered. "What was that?" Sneila asked.

"An earthquake?" Jotin pondered. He had never felt one before.

"Impossible!" Lord Jerimiah said, his face contorted in a mix of outrage, fear, and anger. "This planet is geologically dead! It couldn't have been an earthquake!"

The three of them, along with several members of Lord Jerimiah's family, and dozens of guards, were sequestered inside a bunker hidden in the center of the manor. It was quite sturdy, capable of "surviving a direct orbital assault" according to the Holder. Jotin did not bother to ask why such a thing would be needed.

He also still was very unsure of what was going on. All Lord Jerimiah's security team had been able to tell them was a "large riot" had broken out. They were being kept here in the bunker for their own safety.

"Well, whatever it was, it was either big or close," Sneila said. "If we could feel it here."

Lord Jerimiah glared at her. He opened his mouth to say something when the captain of the Holder's security forces, Commander Kozoki, ran over. The commander looked harried. "M'lord," the man said, bowing deeply. "We have just received word that the spaceport has been destroyed."

Everyone's face dropped. Lord Jerimiah went white. "Destroyed?" Jotin asked, as it seemed no one else could muster the words. "How?"

The commander shook his head. "We're not sure yet. There was a series of massive explosions."

"The rioters?" Jotin pressed.

The commander briefly glanced away nervously. "Possibly," he said, though he said it in a way that made such a thing seem unlikely. "I don't see how they could have orchestrated such a coordinated bombing, however."

Lord Jerimiah threw his head back and began to cackle. Everyone froze, their blood chilled by the mad sound. One man began to giggle along with him. "Lord Jerimiah?" the commander slowly broached.

"The terrorist cell," he said, laying his hand on his forehead, his laugh slowly trailing off. "The one we had been tracking?"

"M'lord, I don't think they could have mobilized to strike so soon."

"Of course not, you idiot!" Lord Jerimiah snapped. "They had planted explosives at the spaceport! I knew this! So did Captain Sendul. We were planning on waiting for them to make their move to detonate it, then catch them and everyone involved with them all at once!"

"Terrorist cell?" Jotin interjected. "What terrorist cell?"

The commander looked over at Lord Jerimiah, who had sat down in a plush chair with a defeated expression. Lord Jerimiah simply waved him to explain. "For several months, we have been aware of a group of Minmatar terrorists who have been infiltrated our slave stocks," the commander explained. "We haven't been able to root them out, yet, or discover the full extent of their infiltration."

Jotin nodded. "So, are they behind the riots?" he asked.

"Unlikely," the commander said. "We learned of the terrorists because they had attempted and failed to subvert many of the slaves to their cause. Unfortunately, they were careful to conceal their identities from those they attempted to turn, so we could never pinpoint them. But it seems impossible that they could have caused such a widespread uprising."

"Widespread uprising?" Jotin wondered. "How big is this thing getting, exactly?"

The giggling man, who had not stopped when Lord Jerimiah did, suddenly burst into loud laughter. Everyone turned to look at him as he doubled over, clutching his sides and he laughed. Lord Jerimiah rose, his face twisted with rage. "What is so funny?" he bellowed, walking briskly toward the man.

The man suddenly stiffened up and lunged for Lord Jerimiah. Before anyone could react, the man was on top of the Holder, clawing and flailing wildly at him. Lord Jerimiah screeched like a wounded furrier as his security charged forward. They grabbed the man and started to pull him off Lord Jerimiah, but the cackling assailant merely turned and began swinging at them.

He reached for his sidearm and pulled it out, but instead of firing it simply swung it like a club. The grabbed one of the security officers and began to swing the weapon at him, a loud crunch sounding as it cracked bone in the officer's head.

There was a brief, high pitched whine, and the madman released his grip on the officer and stumbled forward, not quite falling. After a second, he had regained his balance and turned toward Commander Kozoki, who had his pulse laser aimed at the man. He lurched toward the commander, who fired again. The man ignored the burning cavity the weapon left on his shoulder and continued forward. Commander Kozoki fired again and again and again.

Finally, the sixth shot hit the man in his face, replacing it with a smoking crater. The man still managed to take a step forward before toppling to the floor, unmoving.

Commander Kozoki kept his weapon out and turned back to Jotin. "This thing is getting Apocalyptic," he said.

"What the hell just happened?" Cierra asked as she and Gita rushed back toward the safe house.

"How should I know?" Gita growled. She was limping. The two had been close enough to the spaceport to be knocked over by the force of the blast. As they lay stunned on the ground a chunk of flying rubble landed on her leg. She hadn't looked at it, but she could tell it was badly bruised and possibly worse.

"You were the one who was supposed to blow the spaceport up!" Cierra answered.

"Yeah, but I clearly didn't blow it up! It blew up on its own!"

The two turned down an alleyway and nearly ran directly into Commander Rottan and his men. "Gita!" the commander exclaimed.

"Commander Rottan!" Gita gasped. "What are you doing here?"

"What happened?" Commander Rottan asked. "We heard the explosion!"

"I wish I could say I succeeded in my mission," Gita answered. "But I did not. Before I could reach the spaceport, it exploded."

Commander Rottan shook his head. "It must have been the explosives we had hidden there," he muttered. "But how could they have been detonated?"

"Wait," Cierra interjected. "You had explosives hidden at the spaceport?"

Commander Rottan slowly turned to her, as if he had not realized she was present. "That's right. We have been working on this mission for months. We had planted explosives all through the spaceport. They were merely waiting on us to detonate them."

Cierra growled, "But if you had explosives planted there, why did you send Gita in with that mini-nuke!" Suddenly, her eyes went wide. "Oh crap, the mini-nuke!" She turned to Gita, who had a similar dawning expression of horror on her face. "Where is it?"

"I don't know!" Gita said, patting down her clothes. "It must have fallen when the explosion - "

"Don't worry about it," Commander Rottan said. "It was a fake."

Gita and Cierra both turned. "What?" they said in unison.

"It was a fake," the commander said. "You were a decoy, Gita. The spaceport has equipment that blocks incoming signals. We couldn't have remotely detonated the bombs, so we were going to use you as a distraction so we could sneak in, disable the jammers, get out, and detonate the bombs."

"What?" Cierra gasped. "You were going to use us as a distraction?"

Commander Rottan nodded. "It was an acceptable sacrifice, though you were not initially part of the plan. We needed to destroy that spaceport."

"And what about one of your own men, huh?"

"I needed my own men. Besides, if one of them had been caught, it might have been traced back to us. We couldn't blow our cover here. Not when there was so much more to do."

"That is - "

"No," Gita said. "Commander Rottan is right. I was expendable."

Cierra whirled to stare at her. "But you - "

Before she could finish, someone tackled her to the ground. Everyone stood in shock for a moment as a man none of them had seen before, giggling to himself, rabidly swung his fists at her. Cierra struggled against the man, when Commander Rottan grabbed him and pulled him off her.

The man swung at Commander Rottan, who easily ducked the haymaker and delivered an uppercut to the man's jaw. The man staggered backward, only to immediately swing another fist at the commander. The commander grabbed the man, hurled him to the ground, and kicked him in the head. The man fell unconscious from the blow.

"What the hell was that?" Cierra gasped, pulling herself to her feet.

"No idea," the commander answered. "But I don't think he was alone."

He pointed to the end of the alley, where a dozen people, all emitting various forms of laughter, began charging for their group.

Part 10

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