Pathways (Part 10): Back the Way We Came"So what do we do?" asked Jotin. "Simply wait here for each of us to succumb to whatever madness is spreading and end up like him?" He pointed at the smoldering corpse of the guard.
"What choice do we have?" Commander Kozoki asked. "It's possible most of us won't be infected. After all, we already have reports that nearly a third of the population has succumbed. What are the chances it can spread to more?"
"The way I look at it, what makes us so special that we weren't affected?" Jotin asked. "Maybe it simply hasn't done us in yet. I mean, everyone didn't go berserk all at once. There's no telling how long it might take to take down all of us. Staying here is a death sentence."
Commander Kozoki ran a hand through his sparse hair. "But even if we did leave, where would we go? The space port is destroyed. Even if we get there and find a ship capable of flight, we won't be able to get it out of the atmosphere without the space port providing a boost assist."
"Well, we can't stay here," Jotin insisted. "As we all go crazy one by one and kill each other. At least we can get to one of the ships and use its fluid routers to contact someone off planet and get some help sent."
"I agree with Jotin," Sneila said. "We have to move and do something. Staying here is a hopeless proposition. At least if we move, we have a chance of something good happening."
Commander Kozoki turned to Lord Jerimiah, who had until now remained silent. "Lord Jerimiah, it's up to you."
Lord Jerimiah peered at the two Caldari, then at the headless body of a man who had, until very recently, been willing to give his life and very soul to his lord. "No," he said. "We wait here. I have faith that God would not bring harm to me."
"You heard him," Commander Kozoki said. He walked over to a seat and sat down. "We wait."
Jotin shared an exasperated look at Sneila, then sat down himself.
It was chaos. These people were Matari, but they seemed little more than mindless beasts. They attacked without coordination or thought. They merely fell on the group like sick animals, too far gone to do anything but lash out and kill.
One of them was on top of Gita, swinging his arms wildly at her. The blows glanced off her mostly ineffectively, but with her bad leg, she couldn't muster the strength to throw the man off. She realized that if he kept it up, eventually her guard would fall and he'd be hitting her in the face and throat.
Suddenly, the man was violently thrown off her. Commander Rottan reached a hand down to her and pulled her up. She gasped in pain as she put weight down on her leg. The sudden attack had worsened whatever injury she'd sustained. She could barely stand and the pain on her face was evident.
"Come on, we need to move!" Command Rottan shouted, his voice barely carrying over the din of the fight. Gita realized that much of the noise was actually manic laughter. She glanced briefly over and saw the man who had been on top of her, cackling to himself as he rose from the ground.
"Commander, I don't think I can walk, much less run," Gita said. "You'll have to leave me."
Commander Rottan clenched his teeth. "I can't do that, soldier," he said.
"I wasn't even supposed to be alive. I'm a decoy. Leave me behind, save the rest of the unit."
"The situation has changed," he answered. "We leave no one behind here. Jenks!" One of Commander Rottan's men, who had already dealt with his attacker, rushed over. "Help Gita walk. We need to get back to the base."
Jenks nodded and put his shoulder under Gita's arm, supporting her. A moment later, someone else put herself under Gita's other arm. It was Cierra. "I've come this far with you," she said, "no way in hell am I splitting now."
Commander Rottan nodded. "Now people! Let's get back to base! Stay in formation, keep Gita in the middle! Let's move!"
The last of the attackers was thrown to the ground and the men formed in rows, with Gita, Jenks, and Cierra at the center. Commander Rottan took the lead as they briskly jogged back toward their base.
The longer they sat there, the more stir-crazy Jotin became. At least, that's what he hoped. He hoped that his rising dissatisfaction with their passive stance wasn't merely a sign of the madness that had afflicted the guard.
Just when he thought he couldn't take it anymore, Sneila stood. "I can't take this any more," she declared. "Sitting here won't do us any good!"
"You heard Lord Jerimiah," Commander Kozoki said. "We stay here."
"Screw that!" Sneila shouted, with more force than Jotin had ever seen her display. "Even if this bunker is air tight, we know that someone who had gone crazy was inside. So whatever it is that's causing it is in here with us! If you want to gamble your life, go ahead. But Jotin and I are going."
She looked down to Jotin, who stood and nodded. "She's right. I don't care if you people want to stay. I'm moving."
"You're staying here!" Lord Jerimiah ordered.
"You have no right to keep us here," Jotin responded. "We're agents of Hyasyoda Corporation, not your underlings. They might have to follow your orders, but we don't."
Lord Jerimiah seethed. "Fine! Go do what you want. Go and die to those mad hordes! See how much I care about it."
Jotin turned to Commander Kozoki. "You heard the man. We're free to leave. I'd like to request some weapons. If this place really is impenetrable, then you won't need them. But Sneila and I sure will."
"Of course," the commander said. He upholstered his own pulse gun and handed it to Jotin, then nodded to one of his other guards, who unslinged his pulse rifle and handed it to Sneila.
The two walked to the door, which opened with a touch, and walked outside. As the door slowly closed behind them, Jotin turned back and saluted Commander Kozoki. The commander hesitated for a moment before saluting back. They remained saluting until the door finally rumbled shut and sealed with a hiss.
Jotin turned to Sneila, who was holding out the pulse rifle to him. "Really? I figured you'd like the big guns," Jotin joked.
Sneila smiled nervously. "I think you have more experience with them than I do." He took the weapon and handed her the pulse gun. Together, they turned and faced the dark hallways.
It was quiet. Too quiet.
The group made it back to the safehouse without too much trouble. They occasionally came across the insane groups, but for the most part they were busy attacking each other to bother with Commander Rottan's people.
Only twice was there any difficulty. A woman charged them and tried to attack, but was swiftly taken down by one of the men. He gave her neck a twist and it snapped with a sick crunch. She fell to the ground, her arms and limbs still flailing and her laughter coming out in raspy gasps. She was still alive when they got out of earshot.
The second time, they came across a group assaulting a person. The person was crying out for help, so the men stopped to help. They managed to drive off the attackers, though Jenks received a nasty scratch across his face. But they were too late and the person had already bled to death by the time they finished. Gita spared only a brief glance at the corpse.
She had been trained to tolerate death, but the body was almost unrecognizable. It looked little more than a pile of meat, blood, and shattered bones. She was almost sick from seeing it, but the group moved on before she could dwell on it too much.
They all poured into the safe house and the men shut the doors and windows and barricaded them. "We've been prepared for the possibility that Lord Jerimiah would have discovered us and sent his guards to fight us," Commander Rottan explained. "We were going to take as many of them with us as possible."
One of the men examined Gita's leg. It had turned a deep purple and yellow and had started to swell. "Yeah, bad bruising," the man said. "I think there's probably a hairline fracture in there as well. Hold on." He rummaged through a medical kit and pulled out a small syringe. He stuck it into the bruise, which hurt like hell, and injected a liquid. "That should bring down the swelling and ease the pain," he said. "We've got a fracture brace in the other room. You'll be able to walk and run on it without making it worse, but the pain will still be there. Can you bear it?"
Gita nodded. "Yes, I can handle it," she said. The man nodded and ran to retrieve the brace. Gita turned to Cierra, who was sitting next to her. "Are you alright?" she asked.
Cierra laughed harshly, then cringed at how it sounded. "Sorry, yeah, I'm fine," she said. "I should be asking you that."
"I trained at the Republic Military School," Gita said. "I've been in much more pain than this. Our first year pod pilot classes were worse than this."
Cierra laughed. "Mine weren't exactly easy either, but I doubt they were as bad as a military."
"Probably not," Gita said with a smile. "Thank you for coming along," she said suddenly. "I don't know why you did it. But thank you."
"I have no idea why I came either," Cierra admitted. "I can't say I'm glad I did. I could definitely have lived without having to run from hordes of insane people. But at least we're both still alive."
The man returned with the brace. He affixed it to Gita's leg, then turned it on. She could feel the force field providing structural integrity to her leg. She stood and put weight on it. The pain throbbed dully through her, but it was tolerable. She nodded. "I'm good. Thank you."
"Good," Commander Rottan said, walking over and handing her a gun. "We can't stay here. We've got to head back to the space port and see if we can find any way to escape." He turned to Cierra. "You ever fired a gun?"
"No," Cierra admitted.
Commander Rottan handed her a small pistol. "Point and pull the trigger." He turned back to his men. "Alright everyone! We need to head back toward the space port! Let's go, people!"
The men formed up, Gita and Cierra with them, and poured back out into the streets. They were armed to the teeth. But the wild cacophony of sound, screams and explosions and the laughs of the mad, was enough to assail even the most staunch among them.
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