CHAPTER TWENTY - THE PLAN
“Gehenna, what the hell is going on?” Jace’s voice came from behind Khoth. It was surprisingly controlled, but there was an edge to it.
Over the head’s up display, HUD, of his helmet, Khoth saw Gehenna’s response, I don’t know! It’s unclear if the Osiris has lost control of its blocking of the Hive ship or…
“Or?” Khoth asked.
The cursor blinked for a long moment and then, Or the Osiris has allowed this ship to take off.
“What?” Now Jace’s voice was a trace shrill. “Why would it do that?”
It wasn’t Gehenna who answered, but Khoth, “Because it wants us to destroy the Hive.”
That was the only logical explanation. From what he could tell, the Osiris was meant to battle. His sister’s journals suggested that the faction that had likely made it had determined that offensive action against the Khul was the best way to end the conflict. So what better way now than sending up the Pilot, an Alliance soldier, and a cleaning bot to destroy a Hive.
“It wouldn’t do that! It wouldn’t… would it? Oh, it kept talking about the mission or something. Maybe that’s this, but… dammit!” Jace groaned. “I’ve lost the signal to the folks on the ground! I can’t reach anyone! Can either of you?”
No. The Osiris may be blocking that, too. Or it may be the Hive! Gehenna spun her tentacles around her like a dress in her anxiety. I cannot tell. I will need to dive deeper into this to determine what is going on!
Khoth believed it was very likely that she would only figure it out much too late. They had to act now.
“Thammah? Flight-Commander Thammah, come in!” Khoth commanded.
But there was no answer.
“Osiris? Osiris, damnit? You can hear me, I know you can!” Jace was shouting, threatening the ship’s strange AI.
But Khoth knew that regardless of who or what had done this, there was only one solution. If they were going to get back to Earth, they had to do it by themselves. He started moving.
“Khoth?” Jace called, a little panicked. “Uhm, where are you going?”
He heard the clunk of Jace’s boots on the metal floor of the Khul ship.
“To the cockpit of this ship. We need to take control of it and pilot it back to Earth,” Khoth answered even as he began moving. “Going to the Hive is death.”
“Yeah, yeah, good idea to go home. Bad idea to go towards death,” Jace said, and Khoth was pleased to hear how Jace was controlling his breathing and focusing on the mission.
Khoth began threading his way between unknown machinery towards what appeared to be a ladder. The cockpit, as he recalled from training, was in the bowels of the ship, not the tip. So they should go down.
“Do you… ah, do you know where the cockpit is?” Jace asked.
“Down,” Khoth answered briskly.
“Do you know how to fly this ship?” Jace asked.
Khoth’s progress slowed slightly. “I… no, but--”
“Well, I do,” Jace said, sounding slightly triumphant.
We trained on this! Gehenna exclaimed excitedly.
She was following after them, tucking her tentacles close in as possible as if she was frightened of being infected by the Khul larvae, even though that was impossible in any form she took unless it was organic. The cleaning bot body was not in any danger.
“Yes, we did!” Jace agreed with her. “And I remember you thinking it was maybe overkill to think I’d ever be piloting a Khul ship, but I was like: I want to pilot everything!”
“Your enthusiasm for flying has paid off,” Khoth stated, feeling genuine relief. “That is an excellent thing. I will still go first to the cockpit in case--”
Jace’s scream had him whirling around--rahir brought up for a strike--when he realized that there was no Khul there to be struck down. Jace was looking into the clear faceplate of one of the pods, into the wide open eyes of one of the humans.
It was a woman. He gauged her age to be somewhere around Jace’s. She had blond hair that was slicked back from her head. The humans were encased in a kind of gel that started the softening process to make them easily digestible for the larvae. There was a hose that pumped air into the human’s lungs. The hose was shoved down their throats and a harder gel substance closed over the mouth and nose. The gel glowed a phosphorescent green. Through that translucent material the human’s eyes were a muddy color, but they were awake, alert and full of agony and fear.
“She’s conscious…” Jace breathed. “Not just alive, but aware.”
Khoth’s voice was thick, full of emotion, as Daesah’s face--which had had this same expression--flashed before his mind. No, not the same. Hers had been one of knowledge. She had known what awaited her. This young woman only knew an unreasoning terror. She, undoubtedly, felt the larvae moving underneath her skin, separating it from the fat and muscle and bone. Larvae would be nesting and growing in her organs, too, but not large enough yet to cause the cysts that would burst and release them. There was a muffled sound. It was coming from the young woman. She was trying to talk--or perhaps scream--around the tube that kept her alive in the gel.
“We’ve got to get her out of there!” Jace cried.
And his hands were going towards the release controls, a simple lever that would drain the gel and discharge the body from the pod.
Khoth grabbed Jace, wrapping his arms around Jace’s body, pinning Jace’s arms to his sides in a terrific bear hug Jace went rigid before he started to fight. Thrashing and kicking and full of indignation and anger.
“What are you doing?” Jace shouted. “Let me go, Khoth! She’s in agony! We have to--”
“Set her free, but not this way. Remember?” Khoth asked softly. “We cannot let her out of the pod. We cannot touch her. She is infected. There is only one method to aid her and it is not this one.”
Jace’s hard body suit didn’t allow him to feel Jace’s muscles go limp. But the young man stopped moving and sagged forward in his arms. He could hear Jace’s breathing--hard gasps, even though he hadn’t been truly exerting himself--over their comm. There was nothing else. No words. No crying. Just deep, deep breaths as Jace tried to control his Xi and Xa. Khoth let him alone to do it, offering only the strength of his arms to hold the young man up. When he was certain that Jace would not go for that lever again, Khoth released him and took only one step away. Just in case.
You were right, Mother. Bringing Jace here, showing him this, was the way to motivate him to fight, Khoth thought with almost despair. He will never forget this. It is being seared into his memory with every waking second.
The young woman’s eyes were bugging out of her head then as she realized that Jace wasn’t going to let her out. They were wide with pleading, wide with pain. Jace did not look away and neither did Khoth. They both needed to see what they were fighting for, even him. If they looked away, that would be cowardice. At least they could offer her their attention, even if she believed that they were abandoning her.
Three larvae--black squiggles beneath the young woman’s skin--slithered up her right cheek and then dove deep, going through an opening in her skull to nest in her brain. She jerked and shuddered as they disappeared. Her eyes rolled into the back of her head as if she were having a fit. She collapsed forward, floating and unconscious, and then her head lolled back on her neck like a too-heavy flower on a too-slender stem. Her right eye was now black as larvae circled within it.
Khoth’s stomach churned. He heard a sharp intake of breath from Jace. He reached up to touch his own skin and, thankfully, found instead the closed helmet. Yet, he still imagined the wiggling sensation under his own flesh.
“Gehenna,” Jace said, his voice cracked with anguish and rage, “while Khoth and I take control of this ship, I want you to--to end these people’s suffering. Can you do that?”
Yes, Jace, Gehenna answered and Khoth could hear that her tone was small and sad.
Khoth must have made a slight movement, because Jace’s turned towards him. “What is it, Khoth?”
“It will be safer if we eject the bodies into space after Gehenna is done,” Khoth said, “rather than return with them to Earth. I fear your General Intoshkin may not heed our warnings about the dangers of performing autopsies on the bodies.”
Jaced nodded jerkily. “Yes, you’re right about both things. He will think we’re smarter and can handle this better than the Alliance. Or he’ll think it's just worth the risk to know what we’re up against.”
“I believe you know enough about what we are up against, do you not agree?” Khoth asked quietly.
Jace nodded again. “Some part of me wishes… with the Osiris' greater technology--”
While I have not viewed all of the Osiris’ databanks, I found no indication that it’s function is anything other than a war craft, Gehenna stated.
“Don’t you know more about it? Weren’t you created by warring factions of Precursors or something?” Jace asked her.
A few long seconds ticked by before she answered, It is more complicated than that. I do not believe we have time to discuss it. We are already in orbit.
Jace jerked as if struck and his heart rate increased as did Khoth’s. “Well, we will discuss it, Gehenna!”
Yes, Jace, she answered, but was already moving in another direction towards the core, ostensibly, while the two of them started again towards the shaft with handholds that resembled a ladder. Jace braced his feet and hands on the outside of the rails.
“All the way at the bottom, right?” Jace asked.
“Yes,” Khoth confirmed.
He had a feeling that Jace knew better than he did where the cockpit was. He had only his memories while Jace had the AI. But just as he thought that, there was a little “bubble” from Gehenna on his HUD saying “FYI” and giving him the schematics of the ship. He thanked her, which got him a floating smiley face in return. He shook his head. Gehenna was… different. He wondered what her makers had intended her to be or do. Perhaps she was just a prototype model, one that had failed. Yet she had been imprisoned within the Osiris so that indicated she was dangerous. Unless the Osiris had simply trapped her in there itself.
Too many possibilities, Khoth mused. But we must get to the bottom of her and the Osiris’ origins so that we can control them instead of them controlling us.
Jace slid down the ladder and Khoth followed him. They went down three levels. Jace’s boots squeaked against the rails as he tightened his grip to slow his descent. Khoth did the same so that they didn’t end up on top of one another. As soon as Jace had cleared the bottom, Khoth slid down the rest of the way.
“Wow, ah, I don’t really want to touch this,” Jace was saying. “I don’t want to touch anything. It looks slimy.”
The young man was looking at a U-shaped control console that wasn’t metal, but appeared to be made of a segmented chitin. He realized as his suit scanned the ship, that what he had been assuming was calcanth or some variation thereof was not, but more of this organic chitin.
He recalled faintly from VI training that Khul ships were potentially grown as opposed to built. But since on a cycle to cycle basis he hadn’t had to worry about what the Khul ships were made of--the Precursor weapons took them down regardless--he had filed that information away in the deep recesses of his brain. He had been so emotionally compromised when he’d gone after Daesah, that he hadn’t even noticed this fact back then. Now, the skin between his shoulder blades crawled and he wished he remembered that training better.
“They grow this,” Jace was saying as he gestured around them. “Out in deep space, they…” Jace shuddered. “The Khul we’ve seen aren’t the only ones there are. There are others that use organic material, digest them and secrete this and other things. All the components, all the structures, everything we see came from one of them.”
Khoth nodded slowly. “In the early days when the Khul ships were examined it was theorized that they were organic, at least their interiors were and then they were cloaked in calcanth.”
“I would be amazed by what they can do, but since they’re just out to turn us into sludge to be used for their purposes, I’m just going to say that this is gross,” Jace said.
Khoth snorted. “I tend to agree.”
There was no seat before the U-shaped control console. The Khul were too large for this and their bodies were not made for sitting in chairs. Jace would have to lean forward considerably to adjust many of the controls that appeared to be joysticks made of flexible chitin pieces that glistened with a layer of slime. Jace suddenly pulled his arms close to his sides. His breathing was erratic again.
“Jace?” Khoth came up behind him and placed a hand on Jace’s left shoulder. “What is it?”
Swallowing hard between every few words as if trying not to be sick, Jace asked, “Did you know that there are pipes or tubes or veins or whatever throughout the ship filled with the larvae?”
Khoth froze and his gaze swept the windowless space--it was ovoid and the walls were crosshatched with what he had thought was a design, but now thought differently--but managed to say, “No, but that is all the more reason to get control of this vessel for if this ship is full of the larvae, the Hive will be full of larvae and fully grown Khul.”
“Right. Absolutely, right.”
His words had broken Jace from his horrified paralysis. The young man went over to the controls and--with an expertness that Khoth found quite impressive--started to manipulate the switches and levers as if he had been doing so all his life.
Khul language in red pictographs appeared on formerly blank spaces on the console. The Khul language had been difficult to decipher and, even now, it was believed that they were not fully understanding the deeper nuances of it as the Khul’s insectile brains were far different than most of the species in the Alliance. But Jace, at least insofar as those pictographs used on the ship, appeared to have no difficulty at all.
“Okay, okay, I think… yeah, I think I’ve figured out how to shut off the auto-pilot here,” Jace was saying, nodding his head in satisfaction. “Ah, got it! Yes, I… oh…”
“What ‘oh’? That does not sound like a positive thing,” Khoth asked.
A screen flickered to life in front of the console. It showed what was happening outside of the craft. They were in orbit around Earth. The planet glowed beckoningly below them. It was, admittedly, beautiful with its blue and white swirls, but it was far away. Ahead of them, however, was the Hive. It was far closer than Khoth had ever feared it would be.
“That’s not a moon,” Jace whispered with a trace of hysterical awe in his voice, “that’s a space station.”
“What do you mean?” Khoth frowned. “That is not a space station, that is a Hive--”
“I know! I know! It’s a movie reference--oh, forget it! It’s too hard to explain,” Jace said. “Moon, space station or Hive, we are too damned close to it! Does the Hive have weapons? Oh, of course, it does, but they’re not aimed at us as far as I can tell.”
“No, they do not want to lose their cargo,” Khoth guessed and his gut twisted.
The Hive was structured as a stretched circle, long on the sides and narrower on the bottom, with large, regular circular indentations all over the outside. The comparison to an Earth’s wasp nest was incredibly apt. They even were the brownish color that such nests were. But this nest was one-hundred times the size of the needle ship they were on. The Hive loomed before them as they flew ever closer to it.
“Can you tell if they are aware of us?” Khoth asked, imagining the Khul scanning them right that moment.
Even if the Khul realized they were there, they wouldn’t destroy this ship. One Pilot, one Alliance soldier and a cleaning bot would not be considered a threat. They would simply bring the ship inside of the Hive and meet them with overwhelming force. Then Jace and Khoth would be in pods, softening and screaming with tubes stuck down their throats.
I will kill Jace and myself before they take us, Khoth thought with sudden clarity.
He had no desire to die. He wanted to live. He wanted to fight and win. Jace was a marvel and that he should die after just showing them endless possibilities seemed… pointless.
I should not have brought him here, Khoth thought as well.
He had believed that it was safe. Relatively safe. But it had not turned out that way. By insisting that Jace come along--and then by not objecting to it when the young man enthusiastically agreed--Khoth had been handing the Khul the secrets of the Osiris.
I am going to have to kill us both. Khoth’s hand went to the hilt of the rahir. I am going to have to...
“They’re--shit, they’re scanning us!” Jace cried. His hands danced over the controls. “Gehenna, shut that scanner down or cloak us! Do something!”
I’ve cloaked our signatures to make us seem like we are cargo, she said briskly.
Khoth drew in a relieved breath and his hand dropped again. But this was only a temporary reprieve.
“We are going to be cargo if we do not get out of here,” Khoth reminded them both. “Can you not pilot us away from the Hive?”
Jace’s hands moved over the controls like darting birds. “I--I’m trying but… shit! We’re in a--a tractor beam!” Jace let out a hysterical laugh. “Of course, we’re in a goddamned tractor beam!”
“Is the ship not powerful enough to break free?” Khoth already knew the answer and, if Jace even attempted it, the Khul would know they were inside.
“No, no, it is most definitely not,” Jace told him and shuddered.
They both watched as one of the indented spots on the surface of the Hive opened and the ship they were on was pulled into it.
I will do this quickly. I will not let Jace suffer, Khoth thought as he realized now that they were going into the Hive and there was no chance of escape. I will not let the Khul have the information we possess.
Khoth silently closed a hand around the rahir’s hilt and was about to unsheath it. The armor was formidable. He would have to convince Jace to retract his helmet and then--
“I’ve got a plan!” Jace shouted. “Gehenna, can you keep up the cloaking once we enter the Hive?”
Yes, I can! She answered.
The screen before them split in two. One side was the image of them being swallowed by the Hive, while the other was showing them both schematics of the ship they were on. Jace suddenly pointed to one area that looked to be a slender space hidden behind some of the tanks.
“We can hide there,” Jace said.
“And then?” Khoth asked.
“And then we take this,” Jace held up the chip that was to destroy the human pods, “and we sneak it to the core of the Hive. It can be programmed to destroy the Hive itself. Then we sneak back to this ship, and in the commotion and hubbub, we get the hell out of dodge! Gehenna will stay here and make sure our getaway is clear!”
Khoth regarded him. “This is a very risky play. I calculate our odds of success are--”
“I don’t care what they are!” Jace held up a hand. “Because… it seems to me, we have two choices. We attempt this and get away or… you cut off my head like you’ve been thinking this past five minutes.”
Khoth blinked. “You knew--”
“Of course,” Jace said with a small smile. “You wouldn’t want me to suffer and you definitely can’t let what I know get into the hands of the Khul.”
Khoth blinked again. “You showed no awareness--”
“Because if this doesn’t work… Khoth, I want you to kill me,” Jace said with seriousness. Then with a flash of a grin. “But not just yet.”