CHAPTER ELEVEN - THE PILOT
Darkness and then light. Shafts of light that blinded him and then disappeared. Jaced was reminded of a curtain being pulled back and then falling shut again. Light and dark. He heard a clicking sound like metal against metal that seemed to morph into the shake of a cobra’s tail.
Where was he?
Something--no, some things--were wrapped around him. Coils? Tentacles? Snakes? Squids? All options were terrifying. But no, the coil-tentacles were metal. Or something like metal. Maybe they were chitin like bug-armor. That had him thinking of the Khul. The centipede-like Cetixes. He remembered what Gehenna said about what the Khul did to the ones they caught. They infected them.
Was he infected?
He hurt. Everything hurt. Not just his head. But every molecule of his being. Maybe there were Khul larvae already in his system, squirming through his tissues, nesting in his brain, swimming in his bloodstream, getting caught in his heart before being pumped out to the rest of his body. He wanted to scream, but all sounds cut off in his throat.
He was being moved. Carried. Not by Khoth though. Not any longer. Were the Khul taking him to their needle-like ships? Where was Khoth? He wouldn’t have let Jace go without a fight.
“Khoth!” His mother’s voice rose out of a shaft of light. “Commander Khoth! Please let my son go!”
Khoth! Khoth is here?
Jace twisted his head to the side. He saw flashes of light between the tentacles. Was Khoth there? And where was his mom? How could his mom be anywhere near the Khul? It wasn’t safe! Not safe!
You’re safe. I’m here with you, Gehenna whispered.
Jace drew in a shuddery breath. Gehenna was here. Khoth was here. His mom was here.
But where is here?
Khoth was wherever “here” was, though he couldn’t see him. Well, that wasn’t exactly true. With the flashes of light through the--coils? Tentacles? Metal? Chitin?-- he caught sight of Khoth’s legs and feet. Sometimes his hands and waist, too. His view of the floor--that glossy black-blue that reminded him of a night sky just calling to be explored--told Jace that he was still in the Osiris. But no longer on the prisoner level.
Khoth responded to Jace’s mother presumably, “We cannot. We are saving him.”
Saving me? Jace’s mind whirred to life.
Memories of Khoth and Thammah getting him past the human military, the massive Osiris, creeping across the cavern, and then slipping inside the ripped skin of the spaceship flooded him. He wasn’t in the hands--or coils--of the Khul. But what--who--was carrying him?
“You don’t understand!” His mother’s voice rose. “That’s where he was hurt! It’s dangerous!”
Hurt? When? Jace wondered. It hurt to wonder. Like it had hurt to laugh. He had been reduced to pain and the light and the dark. Don’t worry, Mom. Khoth and Gehenna have got this.
“It’s dangerous! Don’t do this!” His mother’s voice was ravaged by pain.
“Colonel, should we fire?” a male voice asked.
Fire? Fire what? Guns? Oh, no, Mom, Khoth’s a friend!
“No, you’ll hit my son! Stand down! Khoth, don’t do this!” she repeated.
Her voice was cut off with a snick. A door shutting?
“Gehenna, your systems are weakening. Is your life linked to Jace's?” Khoth asked.
Gehenna’s life is linked to mine? Jace mentally gasped since it seemed his body could not handle doing that.
Yes, Jace, Gehenna answered him. It is.
So if I had died bringing Metal Rain then you would have, too? He glared, again, mentally, at her. Why didn’t you tell me?!
Because there was no other choice for you to make. Live or die, we were going to do so together. It was only right since… well, since I made so many choices for us both before, she answered, which perplexed him as he only recalled her offering him paths and he had chosen what to do in the end. And I did not want to unnecessarily worry you.
Unnecessarily?! Jace balked at the very idea of this. His whole life he had been fragile, at best, with death something he often thought might take him early. Now, here, he was finding out that he wouldn’t be the only one affected by that fragility. I wouldn’t want to hurt you, Gehenna! I wouldn’t want to take you down with me!
Jace, you are not responsible for me, Gehenna sounded very firm about this. I was the one… well, the Osiris was the one really, because it needs a pilot, all of the Precursor tech does… just a single pilot would change everything.
Jace frowned, mentally, and said, I do not understand. You’re not making a lot of sense here.
There was a pause and then Gehenna said, Your mother was pregnant with you when this room was last opened.
There was a hiss and various mechanical sounds. Grinding. Whirring. Something opening perhaps?
This is the Osiris’ Core, Gehenna stated, though she sounded incredibly weary and breathless as if she’d been running uphill for a long time and was simply out of energy. This will allow us to have a complete connection soon, Jace. And not just me and you, but you and all of the Precursor tech… well, theoretically. In time. But there was some damage--
Damage? He parroted.
Don’t be afraid.
Jace hadn’t been until she said that and wondered what he should be afraid of exactly. This unknown damage? The connection? The Core? What she was about to say about his mom?
There was a young scientist who worked here before you were born. Her name was Dr. Helen Rancic, Gehenna explained clearly and concisely. She was investigating this part of the Osiris when a door that had been shut, suddenly opened.
The door we just went through?
There was the sensation of moving, gliding over the blue-black floor, and then the floor ended and there was a pool of electric blue in view. It was the color of Thaf’ell eyes, he thought. But there likely was no connection between them other than that both were beautiful.
The pool was a huge tank built into the floor. There were conduits leading into the tank. Coils of all different colors with needles and barbs on their ends bobbed almost like lazy snakes in a dull current. These coils hooked into the tank’s walls, attached to cylinders, filled with who knew what.
Gehenna continued, Dr. Rancic should have called others. She certainly shouldn’t have gone in alone. She shouldn’t have gone in at all. But it was so very exciting and she was always one to leap before she looked.
Jace could easily imagine that. A door in a spaceship suddenly opens! Dr. Rancic might have seen it as an invitation. Maybe the Osiris was reacting to her, her specifically. He could imagine her hesitating on the threshold. Her lips parted to call to others, but then… maybe she saw the glowing pool and she couldn’t help but go in without saying a word.
So she went inside and the process to become the Pilot was started, Gehenna told him.
And, for a moment, he had a vision of what had happened. He could see a woman with black culottes, a white button down shirt and a long white doctor’s coat. She had on black shoes. She was on the edge of the pool. She was trying to get away from the pool. But there were things coming out of the pool, ripping through her clothes, trying to reach skin. Jace blinked and the vision faded.
Your mother heard the commotion, Gehenna continued in a voice that was strangely light yet filled with dread and sorrow. She often came to the Osiris by herself to simply absorb the wonder of it. She was its caretaker. She wanted to also be the person who extracted more of its secrets to help the United States of America and the world.
There was another vision. He saw his mother in her uniform. One of her hands rested, unconsciously, on her protruding stomach. He saw her head lift and her eyes widen as she heard Dr. Rancic screaming. So much screaming. His mother lit off like a shot.
“Corridor 5! There’s an incident in Corridor 5!” His mother shouted into the walkie talkie she’d unclipped from her waist.
She was so brave, Gehenna stated with what sounded like respect. She saw what was happening to Dr. Rancic and still went inside. She didn’t wait for backup. She didn’t hesitate. Later, she regretted not hesitating. She felt she had forgotten about you. But that wasn’t true. Because you take after her, Jace. Neither of you can help but act bravely when others are in trouble.
Another vision of his mother. She raced to Dr. Rancic by the pool. There was a coil--not completely unlike what surrounded him--but this one was clear that was attached to the base of Dr. Rancic’s spine. Another was fastening itself to the top of her spine. His mother tried to yank them off. Dr. Rancic screamed.
“NO! DON’T! THEY’VE DRILLED IN!” Dr. Rancic shouted.
A third coil was rising up from the electric blue water. And another. And another. They were going to pull Dr. Rancic down into the pool.
His mother took out the pistol that she carried. She grabbed one of the coils that was attached to the doctor, pressed the nose of her pistol against it and fired. There was a deafening noise of the shot. Jace’s ears rang even with the memory of it. Fluid the color of a sunrise poured out of the injured coil and it reared back like a serpent. His mother shot the other coil.
“Go! Go! Get out of here!” his mother commanded Dr. Rancic.
His mother pushed Dr. Rancic back towards the door while she covered her with the gun. But the coils were not interested in Dr. Rancic any longer. He saw the instant his mother realized who they were interested in. The coils were looking at his mother’s stomach. At him.
No… Jace whispered.
His mother lifted her weapon even as she was turning to run. But she knew she wasn’t going to get out of there in time. She got off a single shot but it went wide. Then one of the coils launched itself towards her stomach.
Drilling in… Jace shuddered.
His mother’s scream had chills racing up and down Jace’s spine. Where had it drilled into him? He knew it had.
That scar… at the base of my spine… that… that’s it, isn’t it, Gehenna?
It was a small hollowed out spot that he only knew about because the military doctors had thought maybe something about his spine was causing the headaches. To him it had just been a birthmark, nothing unique or interesting, and that they were barking up the wrong tree. But, of course, they knew what had happened to him in the womb while he’d been kept in the dark.
Yes, Gehenna’s voice was soft. Guilty. I had chosen Dr. Rancic. I had gotten the doors to open. I thought that I was in control. The Osiris was asleep, but then… then it woke up.
When YOU opened the doors? Jace asked.
Yes, Gehenna answered and said nothing more.
But why did you… why did you do that? Jace asked, but then he thought of the cell and thought he knew. She had been trapped. She needed a Pilot to get her out of there. Dr. Rancic had been her shot to get out of prison.
I had no idea that the Osiris would do what it did! I should have realized that my crude access was never going to be enough... She broke off.
Why did Osiris go after me and not my mom?
Your mother didn’t have to shoot it. It would have let Dr. Rancic go, Gehenna continued in a rushed voice, not answering him. You… you were a much better choice. So much better than anyone else.
He blinked. So… you wanted it to connect with me--
No! I would never have done that! Not to a baby! The Osiris chose, she said. It was going to--to remove you from your mother.
Another vision. Blood blooming on his mother’s shirt. She went down onto her knees. She grabbed the coil and placed the gun against the coil again, but this time Osiris wasn’t having that. Another coil knocked his mother’s hand away. The gun went flying. She let out another gasping scream and grabbed the coil with both hands, trying to pull it out. Her mouth opened in another scream, but this time silent. More blood flowed over her pregnant belly. Her eyes sought out the gun, but it had slid far out of reach.
The coil attached to his mother--attached to him--started to pull them into the pool. Other coils were rising up out of the pool. Their ends, which all had barbs on them were coming towards her. His mother saw them coming and she dug the heels of her shoes into the floor and tried to pull away from the pool. But her shoes slid on the slick surface. There was a squeal as she was dragged into the pool. Her heels, her ankles, her calves. All into the electric blue water. His mother scrabbled with her fingertips against the floor, but it was no use. He felt her strain, giving everything she had to keep them out of the pool.
But it wasn’t going to work.
Her thighs were in. Her waist was under. She let out a yell just as her hands reached the end of the floor. The other coils with the barbed tips rose up above his mother. They were ready to strike. They were going to cut into her to get him. The barbs whirred.
And then they stopped and fell to the ground like dead things. His mother gasped. She was floating in the tank. Gasping. Panting. It was only then that soldiers stormed into the Core.
I got back control. Just at the last minute, Gehenna whispered.
The vision ended. All he could see were coils and the flash of light and darkness. Then he twisted his head around farther and looked down. He saw that they were over the pool.
It was all my fault, Jace, Gehenna whispered. I knew how special your mother was. I had no idea how special you were… are. I think that the Osiris played me all along.
How so? Jace asked, still stunned at what he had seen and she had said.
She let out a bitter laugh. I think it only let me believe I was opening the doors for Dr. Rancic when it was really opening the doors for you. My crude attempt to make Dr. Rancic into the Pilot was… well, like I said, when you were there it cut off my control. We both needed one another for a time. It needed a power source and I needed… well, cooperation.
Jace blinked. He suddenly could understand what had happened. It waited until Mom was alone.
Yes, and when you were viable outside of the womb, Gehenna sighed.
It had to act because it knew she wouldn’t bring a baby into the ship.
Yes, I think it did just that, she agreed.
He wondered at the cold, precision of the Osiris’ thoughts. Was it thinking now? It must be.
So is the Osiris an AI, too, like you? he asked.
No, not like me. Nothing is quite like me, she said the last almost sadly. But it is very smart. Clearly, it can strategize.
Yeah, he agreed. But you were able to stop it. In the end, you stopped it.
Yes, but the cost was high. You’ve been paying for it all your life, she told him. It had begun the process but not completed it.
Jace thought of his migraines, the auras, the tinnitus, the weakness, the months in hospital, the drugs, the lack of a life, the lack of a future.
But now I do have a future...
He should be furious with her. He was… and wasn’t. Because yes, she had taken a normal life from him. But he thought about what he had been able to do against the Khul. If he had been normal, he likely wouldn’t have worked at the Con-Ve. He wouldn’t have been there today to save Walter and all those other people. He wouldn’t have had the ability to do it.
No one can do what you’ve done, Jace, or what you’re going to do, Gehenna said. The Osiris chose you. I don’t believe now that Dr. Rancic would have been… accepted as a Pilot. There have been countless others that have entered the Osiris and it didn’t react to them. But it did to you. I don’t say this to try and escape my responsibility for what happened to you--
If I connect, I can help people, right? He interrupted her.
Yes, more people than you can imagine, Gehenna’s voice grew excited. She tamped down on that. Once you truly understand what the Khul do, you’ll see how necessary it is that they be stopped. I tried to help once, well, it doesn’t matter. You’re the one that will do it. With Khoth’s help.
Jace hadn’t heard from the Thaf’ell Commander in some time. He heard the clank of his boots and Khoth’s legs came into view.
He’s special too, but in a different way. At least according to the Exarch, she murmured. But now… now the choice is before you. Will you become the Pilot?
Jace saw the coils in the pool starting to stir.
It’s either die or connect, right? Not much of a choice, he pointed out to her dryly.
No, and you--you probably hate me, Gehenna said uncertainly. But we’ll be connected for life, too.
You should know how I’m feeling, he told her.
I’m not looking. I don’t want to know, she admitted, sounding small and uncertain.
I’m not sure how I feel, Gehenna, he confessed. I used to think I wanted a normal life, but now, seeing all of this… maybe I wouldn’t change much. Not for himself anyway. But for others like his mom and Dr. Rancic, he wouldn’t have had them hurt. Yet that was in the past. That was unchangeable. Only the future was in flux. I want to be the Pilot.
Good, because it’s clear the Osiris wants that, too.
Khoth’s voice rose up, “Gehenna, the system appears to be activating.”
Jace drew in a deep breath, What’s it going to do to me?
A lot of very technical things, Gehenna said. You’ll be made stronger, faster, and, of course, you’ll be completely connected to the Osiris and… well, so much will change, Jace. Now, prepare to get wet.
The coils lowered him tenderly into the pool of electric blue water. Except it wasn’t water. It was thicker than water. Almost like a gel. The things that held him, that were carrying him--tentacles, except made of chitin or metal or I don’t know--released him fully into the pool. They were still above him, like those hanging bead curtains so he really couldn’t see what they were attached to. He floated on the surface. He imagined himself as a raft left in a pool after the kids had gone inside to have lunch, just floating aimlessly. He couldn’t move at all.
“This will complete the connection?” Khoth asked. The Thaf’ell paused and then said, “His body will be transformed? How? In what way?” Another pause, and Jace realized that he was hearing only half of a conversation.
Forgive me, Jace. I did not mean to exclude you, Gehenna said. I have so little energy, but we’ll both be better soon.
Jace wanted to say something to Khoth. He wasn’t sure what, but something, anything, to hear his own voice. He hardly felt real. But his mouth didn’t even open. That was actually a good thing, because then he began to sink.
Jace didn’t panic until his face sank underneath the gel’s surface. But then one of the coils from the pool was coming up and covering his mouth and nose. The gel was blasted out and air started to flow.
Not going to drown, that’s good! He mentally laughed. It was slightly hysterical.
And that was when he felt something stirring all along his spine from the base of his skull, every two inches, to the very bottom of his spine. He thought of the whirring barbs he had witnessed before just as he saw shreds of his clothes float upwards past him.
Will there be pain? Jace asked. He was already hurting. He was always hurting, but to have those barbs drilling into him and him unable to move...
No, it will inject a numbing agent, Gehenna said. I’ve explained pain to it. And it’s been watching and observing the humans.
Needles sank into his back. Heat spread throughout the skin around those pricks then he felt nothing at all. Crimson swirled upwards through the blue.
Blood. My blood. But I don’t feel anything at all, he murmured. It’s drilling into me.
His eyelids were getting heavy. The liquid was not bothering his eyes. But he wanted to close them. He wanted to sleep. He let his eyelids fall shut. Darkness again reached for him.
Yes, Jace, you should sleep, Gehenna murmured, sounding sleepy herself. And when you wake, everything will be different. Everything will be as it should be.