Pathways (Part 16): The End of the Road

This is a Scope breaking news bulletin.

As part of the continued reporting on the Tastella Outbreak, the Scope has just received word that the Imperial Navy is moving to blockade the entire system of Tastella as well as the planet that is currently experiencing the viral outbreak. Naval officials have confirmed the ship movement, but claim it is solely a precautionary move.

Captain Tanar Abjur, the fleet command for the blockade, had this to say. "This move is solely to ensure that the plague does not spread beyond the borders of the Tastella system. Initial analysis of the data we have received from the planet's surface indicates it is exceptionally virulent, with a near total infection rate. It does not discriminate based on race, station, or beliefs. Keeping it contained is the top priority of this mission."

Despite Captain Abjur's claims, sources high within the Imperial Navy who have spoken on condition of anonymity have told the Scope that the true intention of the blockade is an orbital bombardment of the planet. According to these sources, the Empire has declared Tastella a lost cause and that a "complete sterilization" of the planet is the only option.

From the few garbled transmissions that have been received from the surface of Tastella, it appears that the Navy's assessment of a total infection rate is accurate and that some of the infected are already dying from its affects.

As of yet, no explanation has been presented as to the nature or origin of this plague.

"They're going to destroy an entire planet?" Alard scoffed. "Typical imperial overreaction! There is no need to do that!"

"It is a logical course of action," Kirkinen-in-the-machine replied. "Perhaps if the Nation had followed a similar path, the infection would not have spread."

Alard shook his head. "Even if we had destroyed the first planet that succumbed, it would have been useless. The slave implants managed to control the populace for a while, but eventually they were overcome." He rubbed his temples. "And now I fear we were simply a test. If that news report was accurate, the plague is moving far faster than it did in the Nation. For us, it took several days from first infection to death. This plague is moving much faster."

"And you were not even the first test," Kirkinen answered matter-of-factly. "Some months ago a corporate mining colony for Hyasyoda came under a similar infection."

"What?" Fritz asked, speaking up for the first time in hours. Alard turned to him, somewhat surprised the man was still there. "I never heard of that!"

"Of course you wouldn't have," the machine said. His voice was flat and without emotion or inflection, yet still managed to sound condescending. "Hyasyoda destroyed the colony and suppressed any news of what happened, blaming the attack on rogue capsuleers."

"This would have been good knowledge to know before we started," Alard snapped.

"I had that knowledge," the machine answered. "It is an irrelevant point of data. The colony was utterly destroyed and Hyasyoda did not take any samples to analyze it for fear of the contagion surviving and spreading. They simply hauled the debris to the local sun and threw it in."

Alard rubbed the bridge of his nose now. "Well, if we are going to save this planet from the same fate as that colony, we had better find a break through soon."

"The planet is a secondary concern," Fritz said. It took a moment before Alard realized Fritz had said it and not the machine. "The populace is likely doomed no matter what we do. It's the rest of the cluster we need to worry about."

Commander Rottan and his crew had finally reached their destination, though it had not been one they were actively seeking. It was a small shuttlecraft, primarily designed for upper atmosphere transport, but capable of limited vacuum maneuvering. It had been one of the few ships not rendered inoperable by the blast, saved perhaps only by its small size. It had been placed in the far-west wing of the spaceport, the furthest area from the center. The debris from the blast had mostly missed it, and none that hit it had been powerful enough to puncture a hole in the hull, unlike with many of the other ships they had passed.

"With this, we can get off the planet," Commander Rottan said.

Gita hobbled over to the shuttle controls. She still remembered enough from her training to know how to fly it. She looked back at the rest of the soldiers and Cierra, all of whom seemed worn and hardened, yet filled with a small amount of hope. "In theory," she answered the commander.

"Yes, I know," Commander Rottan answered with a sigh.

"What's wrong?" Cierra asked. Of them all, she seemed the least exhausted, though also the most heavily affected by the events. Her forehead had been creased with worry lines beneath the layer of dirt, dust, and blood that had accumulated there.

"This ship isn't designed for extraterrestrial flight," Gita announced. "At least not an extended amount, maybe only to a transport at the edge of the planet's gravity well, not more."

"So?" Cierra pressed. She noticed that Commander Rottan was grabbing weapons and handing them to a few of his less-injured men.

"So," the commander replied, pausing his work briefly, "it relies on telemetry data from the spaceport to operate. It doesn't have a manual flight computer, it needs to be told where to go and how to get there from an outside source. Redundant systems are not the Amarrian strong point."

Cierra weakly sunk down into one of the chairs. Her face twisted so that it seemed she aged twenty years in a moment. "So we're stuck here."

"Of course not," Commander Rottan answered. "Why do you think I'm handing out weapons?" He took a step back and turned to the four men he had rearmed. "We need to get to the spaceport flight control room. We have only two people here trained to operate shuttles, and that's Gita and Cierra. You four, and myself, are the only ones still in combat condition. We need to get to the flight control room, provide power to the systems, and make sure it is sending telemetry to this ship so we can return and take off."

Each of the four men stood without a word. They were ready to move. They needed to hear nothing more.

"What will you use to power the computers," Gita asked.

The commander walked into the back of the shuttle, then returned carrying a large pack on his back. "This is an emergency generator," he explained. "We can use it to power the computer for about a half hour before its fuel is expended. That should be more than enough time for us to get you out of here."

"How did you know it would be here?" Cierra wondered.

The commander smiled. "Why, this shuttle is ours," he said. "You didn't think the Republic Military left us with no backup just in case, did you?"

"Unlike the Amarr," Gita added, "the Matar know about planning for the worst."

The commander nodded, then turned to his men. "Let's move!"

It had taken far longer than he'd have liked, but eventually Jotin found a ship undamaged enough to enter and scavenge for supplies. The medical kit was primitive and bare bones, designed primarily to combat reentry sickness and minor scrapes and bruises. He used nearly the entire supply of artificial skin to seal Sneila's wound and stop the bleeding, though he knew that it was only a temporary solution. She still needed critical medical treatment to survive.

Still, it had bought her a few hours, at least, and he hoped that would be all he needed. The two of them continued through the ruined spaceport, passing many ships and dismissing them as useful quickly. Most had suffered extensive external damage from the explosion and wouldn't be capable of even taking off, much less surviving a vacuum.

The few that looked stable enough to investigate further proved to be unusable as well. One had suffered a punctured engine and had leaked out all its coolant. It would explode readily once it left the atmosphere and had to rely on radiation alone to draw away its heat. Another had been gutted inside, almost as if the infected had turned on it like a person. One more was a capsule-fitted ship, a rarity among planetary vessels. Jotin knew it would be impossible to open the pod without the proper equipment, thus rending it useless to them.

"Jotin," Sneila forced out at one point, "I just... Thank you."

"For what?" he asked as he continued to carry her through the empty, ruined corridors.

"Not leaving me behind," she said. Her voice was weak and distant. "I didn't really want you to. I was just afraid you would die too."

"You're not going to die," he insisted. "Now keep quiet and save your energy."

Her lips moved as if she was saying something, but no sound came out. She closed her eyes, but from her breathing, Jotin knew she only rested. Still, the act urged him on. He had to find some way to save her.

He almost didn't believe it when he found it. A small shuttle, designed for intra-system transport. It looked mostly undamaged, except for a small hole punctured in the cargo hold. But as he investigated it, he found that the hold was cut off from the
*pit, which remained unbreached. He lay Sneila across the seats and sat down in the pilot's chair.

He was more amazed to find that the shuttle started up perfectly fine. Still not willing to believe it, he started the diagnostic scans on the ship's systems. The engines were old and in need of maintenance, but they were perfectly capable of flight. The computer systems were all working. Everything looked to be in perfectly working order.

He couldn't restrain himself and further and started to weep with joy as he punched commands into the shuttle. "Jotin?" Sneila asked weakly. "What's wrong?"

He wiped the tears from his eyes and turned to her. "Nothing," he said. "Nothing is wrong." Then he turned back to the control console and saw a message flashing on the screen.

"AWAITING CONTROL TOWER AUTHORIZATION" it read. His spirits dropped and he frantically looked for an override, but didn't spot one. He knew little of Amarrian computer systems.

He wanted to weep again, but he took a deep breath and pushed it down inside him. He turned back to Sneila. "Do you know anything about Amarr computer systems?" he asked. She shook her head weakly. "Well, I guess it's time for me to learn."

The soldiers and Commander Rottan reached the control tower without hassle. The infected had not vanished, but neither were they in concentrated numbers any more. Perhaps they had all begun to succumb to its final effects or perhaps they had simply realized that the space port held little more for them to slaughter.

Whatever it was, he was glad for it. What he was not glad for, however, was the state of the control room. He had feared this. He knew his men had planted explosives nearby. Destruction of the control room was one of their primary objectives, after all. He had not anticipated the totality of the mess.

Several of the computer systems were completely destroyed, their parts smashed under collapsed ceilings and support beams. Even those that were still operable had taken massive damage. His team exchanged solemn glances, but they began to assemble the generator and attach it nonetheless.

It was with some amazement that the computers began to activate. "Maybe they know more about redundancy than we thought," one of the soldiers said.

"No," Commander Rottan answered as he looked at the monitors. Error messages filled them. "None of the sensor data from the satellites is reaching these consoles. And even if it was, it doesn't look like it could calculate the flight paths properly anyway."

"Then we failed," another soldier said. "We can't get that ship off the ground."

"That's not true," Commander Rottan answered. "Someone could manually input the flight path data." He punched data into the consoles as he spoke, looking at the results it returned to him. His face set in a grim mask.

"We'd need a pilot for that," a third soldier said. "We'd need to head back and get Gita. She could do it."

"No time," Commander Rottan muttered as he saw some of the incoming data. "When I said that only Gita or Cierra could control the shuttle, I wasn't completely honest. I could do it too. I have pilot training." He turned to his men and put on a bold face. "Go back to the shuttle. I'll input the data. Once you're rescued, you can send help back for me."

The soldiers exchanged dubious looks. But they did not argue with their commander and began their return to the ship.

"We are nearing orbital bombardment range," the navigator said.

"Excellent," Captain Abjur stated. "How long until the entire fleet is within range and ready to deploy?"

"Fifteen minutes," the helmsman answered.

"As soon as we enter bombardment range, hold position," the captain ordered. "We will wait until all ships are ready. I want this vile plague to be wiped from the cluster in a unified show of God's holy might."

"Yes sir. Transmitting that order to the rest of the fleet now."

Captain Abjur clasped his hands behind his back in satisfaction.

"This is it!" Alard declared. "Look!"

Fritz peered over his shoulder at the computer simulation. Just as Alard had declared, the plague vector was being neutralized. "It's so simple," Fritz said. "It's amazing we missed it."

"It is not simple," the machine said. "You simply think it is because you do not appreciate its complexity. However, it will work."

"How quickly can it be synthesized?" Alard asked.

"I am already having it done," the machine replied. "If you hurry to your ship, you can get enough to Tastella to prove its effectiveness before the bombardment begins."

Alard's eyes went wide. "But the Navy. They will not let me go."

Fritz laid a hand on his shoulder. "I think we can take care of that." He smiled and turned to the machine. "With your permission of course, sir."

"Of course, Fritz." Fritz handed Alard his access card, then walked over to the plug keeping Kirkinen powered up. He briskly pulled it out and all power left the machine.

He turned back to Alard. "You'll have about ten minutes while everyone scrambles to get Mr. Kirkinen back online. Oh, and if you might possibly knock me out before you go."

"Thank you," Alard said as he grabbed a spanner.

Reena had her hands around his throat. Adima struggled to break her grip, but he couldn't. She was strong, stronger than her atrophied muscles should have been. She was laughing while she strangled him.

Tears were coming to his eyes. He looked around and spotted the scalpel she had dropped shortly before she attacked him. If he reached, he could grab it and fight her off. Her mad cackling echoed in his ears, a stark reminder that she was not the woman he loved. The mechanical laugh they had given her was not like her own at all, but this was even worse.

But when he looked into her face, he couldn't bring himself to reach for the scalpel. Her smiled at her and croaked out, "I love you." Then he closed his eyes as the blackness began to swarm him.

Jotin was weeping again now, out of frustration. "It's useless," he muttered. "I can't do it. I don't know how to override. I can't override!" He slammed his fist against the console.

"Jotin," Sneila muttered, "it's alright. We can find somewhere else."

He shook his head. "No. Nowhere else!" he shouted. His head was swimming. He felt sick to his stomach. He couldn't think straight. "It's hopeless, Sneila! Are we going to go back out there and look for another ship, only to find it inoperable for some reason! No. I failed you. We're both going to die here."

Sneila forced herself to a sitting position, pain wracking her face as she did. "Don't say that! You haven't failed. Not if you don't give up. Not if - "

Jotin slammed his fist down again, then stood, a hand over his face. "No, I... I..." His head hurt so much, he didn't notice as the console warning disappeared and was replaced with a green "LAUNCHING" notice. He started to laugh.

"Jotin?" Sneila asked. With a little shock, she felt the ship start to rumble. "Jotin!" she exclaimed. "The ship, it's launching! Can't you hear that, the engines are starting up!"

But he was laughing still. And harder. He moved his hand from his face and looked at her. She froze and her eyes went wide. Though pain throbbed through her body, she barely felt it any more as she moved slowly away. "Jotin?" she asked weakly. He took a lurching step toward her, his laughter growing more manic. "Jotin..." she whispered in terror.

The ship lurched as it left the ground and began its ascent toward space.

"Where is Commander Rottan?" Gita asked as the soldiers reentered the ship.

"He stayed behind," one of the soldiers answered. "The computers weren't fully functional. He's going to have to enter flight data manually."

"What?" Cierra gasped. "We have to go get him! We can't leave him here!"

Gita turned in a little surprised toward Cierra. "Cierra..." she muttered.

The soldier shook his head. "Those were his orders. Without him there, we're all stranded. If we get away, we can send another rescue party to retrieve him."

"How do you think that'll work?" Cierra shouted. "There's no way any rescue party loyal to the Republic will get to him! He'll be lucky if the Amarr just kill him!"

Gita laid her hand on Cierra's shoulder. "He knows that," she said. "We have to get away. We'll come back for him, I promise."

Cierra gritted her teeth and turned away. "Alright. Let's go."

Gita nodded and sat back down at the controls. She began sending data to the control tower and felt a small twinge of joy and sorrow as telemetry data was sent back. The ship began to power up and there was a rumble as the autopilot took over. The soldiers let out a small cheer that Gita joined in.

She whispered, "Thank you, Commander," and continued to send flight data back to the control tower.

"The fleet is in position, Captain," the helmsman said.

"Begin bombardment," he said.

"Bombardment beginning," the tactical officer replied. The captain smiled as he felt the shudder of the orbital lasers powering up and firing into the atmosphere. In only moments, the planet would be clothed in an uninhabitable firestorm.

"Sir, we're reading two ships exiting the atmosphere," the tactical officer said.

"What?" Captain Abjur asked in shock. "Get interceptors on them! Lock them down and destroy them!"

"Yes, s - "

"Captain!" the comms officer shouted. "I'm getting an urgent message from a Caldari shuttle that claims it is coming on behalf of Zainou Biotech! The message claims they have a cure for the plague!"

Captain Abjur set his jaw. "The order for the interceptor stands, but tell them to refrain from destroying the craft yet. Continue with the orbital bombardment."

"But, sir - "

"Look at the planet," the captain said, gesturing at the view screen. The atmosphere was glowing incandescent. "Stopping now would just mean a slow death for anyone still there. We must show mercy."

"Understood, sir."

The priest collapsed to the ground. "Why? Why have you not awakened?" he croaked. He could feel the blood tears coming down his face. "Why, Lord Ocilan? Why?"

Part 17

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