Pathways (Part 15): Final Steps

It was chaos all about them. Sneila and Jotin fired on the infected group, but it was like firing a laser into an ocean. Some of the water boiled off, but it was quickly filled by another droplet. "Run!" Jotin yelled after the horde got ever closer to reaching them.

Sneila turned and began to run back the way they had come. Jotin remained planted at the entrance to the alley and continued firing with his weapon. The infected people dropped with a few shots, but they were still coming and the weapon was beginning to glow red from the heat build up.

Finally, he turned and ran after Sneila. He hoped he had given her enough time to escape, but now he had little to do but escape himself. He didn't spare a glance behind him; he could hear the mad cackles of the infected as they chased after him. He wasn't gaining on them and they didn't seem to be giving up the chase.

He quickly rounded a corner and charged down another alley. There was an open door and he ran inside and threw it shut, then latched the bolt. He could hear the deranged laughs of the infected outside. After a moment, they grew quieter and more distant, until eventually he could not hear them at all.

He breathed for the first time in what seemed minutes and slowly approached the door. He unbolted it slowly and pushed it open just a crack. He could see nothing through the crack and after a moment, grew bolder and pushed it the rest of the way open.

The infected had passed him by. Whether they had continued down the alley, thinking he went there, or simply forgot about him in their addled minds, he wasn't sure. He had survived, for now. But he had lost Sneila.

He kept his weapon at the ready as he walked back toward the ramp. He knew it would be useless to search for her. She could have gone anywhere. But he knew she would continue down toward the space port as they had planned. He only hoped she would not encounter any more of the infected.

That hope was dashed almost as quickly as he had it, when a terrifying scream cracked the silence. Before he had even fully processed it, he was running toward the source. There was a twinge of twisted hope that the scream had come from some other poor unfortunate who had been caught, but as he rounded the corner and saw one of the infected crouched over a body, he knew it was Sneila who had been caught.

With a guttural scream, Jotin fired his weapon into the back of the creature. It fell forward and he fired several more times, punching huge holes in its torso with each shot. Eventually, it fell twitching and immobile to the ground and Jotin ran over to Sneila.

"Jotin," she managed to say, pain wrenching her voice.

"I'm here," he said, as he knelt beside her. There was a jagged piece of metal sticking from her gut. Blood covered the entire spike and Jotin could not be sure if the infected had stabbed her or if she had impaled herself when she fell.

He tore off his shirt and pulled out his own knife and cut it into bandages as well as he could. "This is going to hurt," he said. She gritted her teeth, but still let out a curdling cry when he pulled the shard out of her. He immediately tried to staunch the flow of blood, but he had only the most basic of medical training that was required during capsuleer training.

Still, once he had finished, he realized that at the very least she would not bleed out immediately. "We need to get you to the space port," Jotin said. "They'll have medical supplies there. At least we can get on board one of the ships there and find some."

"I don't think I can stand," she said weakly. "Leave me behind. Save yourself."

Jotin looked down at her and briefly considered it. She was right. She would only burden him and ruin his chance for survival. If he took her, the great likelihood would be that they both died, while if he left her behind, he at least had a decent chance of survival. It would be the practical thing to do.

Instead, he reached under her body and picked her up. She threw an arm around his shoulders to weakly try to support herself, but it did little to help. She was dead weight, though he cringed when he thought those words to himself.

"You're an idiot," she said to him weakly.

"We're supposed to go to that doll museum in Oimmo, remember?" he asked, bringing a pained smile to her face. "You're not trying to back out, are you?"

"Of course not." Each time she spoke, she cringed in pain. Jotin could feel the sticky wetness of her blood through her shirt. He tried not to think about it as he ran with her.

The remains of Commander Rottan's unit reached the space port. They staggered in, wounded and broken of spirit. They had lost several men on the way here, some to the infected, others to the infection.

Of the original dozen that left, only half remained, including the commander, Cierra, and Gita. "We made it," Commander Rottan said as they looked at the rubble of the space port.

"What did we make it to?" Cierra asked. "It's demolished. And look, you can see the infected crawling over it like maggots."

"It's still hope," Gita added. "If we can get to a ship, we can signal for help. Or even try launching." She knew the latter statement was merely borne of fancy. Without the space port's telemetry and computer assistance, no ship would be able to launch from the port.

Cierra nodded. "You're right, of course," she said. "I hope you're right, at least. And I think enough of me believes that to call myself optimistic at this point."

"Enough talking," Commander Rottan said. "Let's get moving."

They readied their weapons and began moving forward with purpose. Individually, the infected saw them and turned to attack, only to be cut down by a hail of gunfire. Of course, the noise of the weapons only served to attract more, and soon it became a running gun fight.

This time, the fight favored the Minmatar and not the infected, for it was one of range and speed. This was no close quarters combat. Commander Rottan's unit cut down the infected as they came charging down long aisles. It was a massacre.

Each time she pulled the trigger, Gita felt a small twinge inside her. It was one of disgust and regret, for many of those she was killing were Minmatar just as she was. Former slaves, cursed to live under the yoke of the Amarr and now cursed once again to lose their very souls to this vile disease.

Yet she also felt a small joy, for these things had been responsible for killing many of Commander Rottan's men and thousands who were not infected and thousands more who were. They were little more than disgusting animals, rabid slaver hounds who did nothing more than kill because they could think of nothing else to do with their remaining short lives.

She wondered how such a plague could even come to be. What human hand would devise such a malicious program to usurp humanity's very soul and blacken it instantly. It was a sort of vileness that she could not even fathom. Perhaps the Amarr were right and there were demons, but they were wrong in that they did not come from the depths of hell, but rather were born from the wombs of women in the guise of men.

This city was the largest on the planet, but it was not the only settlement. She wondered if the rest had succumbed to the disease as well, then figured they must have, lest some sort of aerial bombardment would have wiped out the city and the threat of the infection already.

They could be the last ones alive, still, she suddenly considered. At least, the last alive who could still be called human. She wondered what made them special and protected from the disease, and then remembering the soldier who had suddenly succumbed, if it was only that the infection had yet to take hold in them and twist their minds.

As she thought this, she was suddenly struck by how much she wanted to pray that she and the rest of the soldiers be spared and make it out alive, and she then knew the appeal of the Amarrian religion. There was always someone listening with the power to fulfill your wishes, though you knew not if they would come true or not. It was a comforting feeling, but she pushed it out of her mind.

Another large group of infected was in front of them and Commander Rottan gave the order to fire.

It seemed Jotin had been running for days, even though it had been a few hours at most. In this broken city, he couldn't tell the exact time. The sun was obscured from view and the artificial lighting that replicated the sun in poor imitation flickered intermittently. There was no sense of time here any more.

Sneila still breathed shallowly, alive but clearly fading. She was not going to be long for the world if she did not receive true medical care soon. But joy swelled in Jotin's heart as he finally turned a corner and found himself facing the space port.

"I hear gunfire," Sneila murmured. At first, Jotin thought she was simply delusional from the blood loss, but then he strained his ears and heard it too.

"I do too," he said, though she didn't seem to hear him. "There must be someone inside who is still alive. Someone with weapons who can help us." He spoke the words more to hear himself speak than for Sneila.

But almost as soon as he said them, the weapons fire went silent. It was worthless thinking about them now. He ran toward the space port and noticed the dead bodies lying on the ground. They were clearly the infected from the twisted grins still on their faces, but only a few had the tears of blood on their cheeks. Most still had blood slowly seeping from the same wounds that killed them.

Whoever it was with the weapons inside had just recently passed and had - whether they were still living or not - carved a path of safety. Jotin ran as fast as he could, though his arms were aching under Sneila's weight.

Once he entered the space port itself, he realized the path was muddled. Dead bodies lay strewn about the rubble of the destroyed port. He could not follow this path. He felt defeated, but he had reached his destination, so there was still hope inside him.

He chose a path and turned down it, not knowing that it led him away from Commander Rottan and his group. He knew that the way he walked was the way he had first come when he arrived on this planet only a day prior. He doubted the atmospheric shuttle was still there, but there would be some ships there, and they likely had medical supplies on board. He would find them, he was sure.

The people had collapsed on the floor. They danced no more and their eyes were wet with blood. The priest turned toward the figure upon the throne.

"Awaken!" the priest called out. "It is now time! Do it! Come back to us, our lord, and lead us into salvation as the cluster burns!"

The figure on the throne opened its eyes, though it did no further movement. The priest fell to his knees in ecstacy.

Adima leapt out of his shuttle into the docking bay. Pod fluid dripped off him still. He had not bothered to change out and was merely glad that the nursing station still had its docking equipment working. Without it, he would have been stuck impotently inside his pod, a creature of great power walled within its own skin.

The station was quiet, but it was an enforced one. There were dead bodies everywhere. Some had been savaged to death, while others simply had crumpled on the ground. Blood was omnipresent. Those who had crumpled had twin lines of blood running down from their eyes.

He had only briefly spoken with Alard about the effects of the disease, but he could easily tell what had happened. He wanted to double over and vomit, but kept it down through fear alone. He ran down the hallways, toward Reena's room.

He didn't dare look into the other rooms, because he knew what they would hold. But he continued to tell himself that Reena's room would be different, that she would still be laying there alive, that the infected would have passed her up for some reason. He knew if he looked into the rooms, that those illusions would immediately be dispelled.

One of the infected stood before him. He pulled out his small sidearm, the only weapon that was onboard the shuttle, and shot at it. It fell with a single shot and Adima noticed the tears of blood on its face. The sufferers in this facility had already been approaching the end cycle of the disease.

That gave him some small measure of hope. Perhaps the infected had become too weak before they reached Reena. Perhaps she was still alright. He threw open the door to her room, hoping for the best, expecting the worst, and was completely stunned by what he saw.

Reena was sitting up on her bed. At her feet lay the body of one of the infected, its throat slashed by a scalpel Reena still held in her hand. She turned to Adima with wide eyes and a smile on her face. She started to laugh.

Part 16

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