CHAPTER NINETEEN - ALIVE
Jace let out a laugh that ended in a wheeze as the hard exo-suit synched over his synthskin undersuit. It reminded him of the Mass Effect armor mixed with the cool retractable helmet of the Lost in Space movie from 1998.
“Can you breathe?” his mother asked as she moved her hands over the hard material.
“I imagine this is sort of like a corset,” Jace said.
“No, Jace, if this was a corset you would be asking to sit down,” his mother said with a twitch of a smile. “There were fainting couches back in the day for a reason.”
The suit suddenly adjusted, easing off his chest, and Jace could draw in a deep breath. “Ah! It’s better. I don’t know what changed.”
You complained, the Osiris responded.
He blinked and then laughed. When his mother looked up at him, he explained, “Osiris told a joke. Well, I think it was a joke. It seems it controls even the suits.”
His mother blinked. “It controls the suits?”
“Uhm, it made it looser.” Jace gestured to the white suit with the green markings along the sides. It pretty much matched his undersuit.
“That’s a lot of power, Jace,” she said suddenly and glanced over her shoulder, looking to see if anyone overheard them. “More than we had any idea it could have.”
They were alone in one of the Armory rooms away from the others while he dressed. Khoth was also upgrading his suit, but he wasn’t with a wholly friendly audience. The general was watching that Khoth didn’t take anything more than the suit and weapons that the Osiris offered. Jace was pretty sure that the general would have preferred he take nothing. But that wasn’t going to happen.
A screen had appeared with chairs in the Armory for the others to watch them when they entered the Khul ship. He, Khoth and Gehenna would be taken out to the ship by soldiers in a Jeep. The others would stay behind. Safe. Sound.
Osiris had frosted the glass walls in this room to give them privacy. Of course, Jace had no idea such a thing could occur. One of so many things. They were solid white now and glowed softly. She looked back at him and gave out a soft laugh.
“You look good, honey. Like some space marine,” she said. “Just like we always… always dreamed.”
Jace grinned. “Do I?”
He struck a pose with hands on hips and chin lifted. She laughed and then shook her head.
“I can’t believe you’re…” Her expression crumpled for a minute. “Well. You look so well.”
She cupped his cheek and her eyes were wet with tears. She rarely cried. She was cast iron in a lot of ways. She had to be in order to run this facility. And now when he knew what she really did, he was amazed at the weight of it on her shoulders.
“It’s okay, Mom. I’m okay. I’m better than that. I--”
She hugged him fiercely. Her face was pressed against the right side of his head. She spoke with an almost desperation that she had been holding back before. “I kept you away from the Osiris because of what happened here before you were born, but now I think… Jace, I think… did you suffer all this time needlessly?”
Jace swallowed. He probably had. The Osiris would have helped him when he was a boy. All those days and nights of pain. The migraines that kept him imprisoned in darkness. The tinnitus that had been like a drill in his head making it impossible to concentrate on anything. The auras that had blinded him and had him backing away from the light. The thought that he could have had this years ago. That they wouldn’t just be discovering the Armory on the day the Khul came to kill them.
But that was all 20/20 and it was the past. There was no changing it. And there was too much good now to dwell on it. He was a freaking space marine.
“Mom, you didn’t know. You thought you were protecting me,” he told her as he pulled back from her embrace so that they were eye to eye.
“I can’t quite believe it's real,” she told him as she smoothed her hands over his head.
“Me neither. I don’t even know… this body hardly feels like it’s mine and yet… it feels so right too,” he told her.
The grin that seemed to be lurking behind every word since he had transformed came out as he realized that he was well and, more than that, he was athletic. And he’d never been able to count on his body for his life! But now he could use a laser sword against Khoth! Khoth who was “superior” and could balance on one finger like a champ! He used a laser rifle like a champ! He could control an entire space ship with his mind! There were two AIs at his beck and call!
No, you are the Pilot, Osiris whispered.
Yeah, so I, uhm, pilot you, Jace pointed out.
So long as you are on mission, Osiris answered and Jace felt it drift away from him and knew he wouldn’t get it to answer anything more.
If this mission is about saving humanity and stopping the Khul, I’m on board with that, Jace thought.
He focused on his mother again. “Does the president know about this place? And the aliens and stuff?”
She gave him a wry look. “Now there may be some presidents that you want to know about this. But all of them? Think of their temperaments.”
Jace grimaced. “Yeah, I can see why you wouldn’t want all of them to know. But that means… there’s really a Deep State?”
“Not like the conspiracy theorists think. But there are people in the government and private sector who know and have passed that knowledge down to others who are deemed fit to know. Money from black bag projects funds us,” she explained. Seeing something in his expression, she added, “It’s been controversial that we’re not out in the open.”
“People would love to know this. That we’re not alone,” he said.
“This will sound trite and you’ve heard it many times, but people are dumb, reactive creatures that fear what they don’t understand,” she said with a sad smile. “Individuals are smart and open minded and eager for something new. We couldn’t allow politics and fear to run this place, Jace. It was--and is--too dangerous.”
Jace nodded after a moment. “I understand. But this can’t stay secret any longer, I don’t think.”
She drew in a deep breath. “Yes, we have a contingency plan for that. It is already starting.”
Jace didn’t know if he felt relieved or worried. The more people who knew, the more people would want to control what he did, would want to examine him, experiment on him…
I will not let them, Osiris said.
Jace’s eyes opened. You won’t.
They would impede the mission.
What’s the mission? I didn’t get a chance to ask you before, Jace said.
I will keep you safe, Osiris said and then submerged again.
His mother hadn’t noticed his inattention, but perhaps like had been the case when he was speaking to Gehenna, time slowed and for her it had been less than a second.
“I was thinking about what happened to you earlier when you fought Khoth,” she said.
“Yeah, what about it?” Jace didn’t like thinking about what had happened. It had just been low blood sugar and lack of hydration, but it had scared him. It had put him back to where he had been. He never wanted to go back. Never.
“Your new body needs more calories to operate, more hydration, and likely more sleep, too. We… you need to be more cognizant of that,” she said.
He nodded. “Yeah, you’re right. I need to be more careful. I’m sure that Khoth will have some space paste.”
He shuddered. His mother laughed.
“Don’t. Your poor father was so sick,” she said.
He grinned. “Is all alien food like that?”
“No, some of it is quite good. There is this fruit that is similar to grapes, but they’re this rich blue and they taste like a mixture of raspberries and bananas. They’re delicious,” his mother said with a smile at the memory. “The Alliance won’t share much with us, but they have shared their food.”
“And clearly Thammah has loved ours.” Jace grinned.
“That is a woman of my own heart,” his mother said. “Her love of Slim Jims is second only to yours.”
“Khoth played food cop and threw one away!” Jace sounded absolutely outraged to his own ears.
“Yes, well, he probably saved you from yourself,” she said and ran her hands over his arms. She became sober again. “There’s so much we don’t know, Jace. There’s so much that’s going to happen.”
“I know.” He rolled his shoulders back. “A lot is at stake.”
“Yes. Yes.” She nodded looking overwhelmed for a moment before she pulled herself together. Her eyes focused on his. “The desire to shield you is so strong. But I know that you’re so much smarter than I was at your age. Everything you’ve gone through… in a way it's made you a prime candidate for this. You think deeply, Jace. You see people and their motivations. You’re brave and kind.”
“Mom.” He grew uncomfortable with her compliments.
“I don’t give compliments easily or often, Jace. And I’m not just saying this as your mother. Because I have to be more than your mother and you have to be more--”
“Than your son? I think that’s a good part of you in me. It’s why I’m not freaking out. Well, not freaking out much.” He grinned and shrugged.
She chuckled and nodded. “I’m sure in a week we’ll freak out for real. But for right now, we need to keep it together.”
“Right. I can do that,” he said.
“I know you will.”
She embraced him once more and that was when he saw Khoth in the doorway with Gehenna hovering behind him with Thammah. His exo-suit was similar to Jace's, mostly white with blue on the sides and patterned across the front. His long hair hung over the shoulders of his suit. The beads in his hair clicked together. His blue-on-blue eyes met Jace’s.
It was time.
He and his mother broke apart. His father brushed by Khoth and went to him and his mother. His father put a hand around the back of his neck and looked at him for long moments, saying nothing.
Finally, he said, “Whatever you see in there, Jace, in that ship--”
“You’ll see it with me,” Jace told him.
“Yes, but being there… Training is nothing like the reality of flying,” his father said and leaned forward, kissing his forehead. “If you need us… if you need anything…”
“I’ll be okay. I’m going to be helping those people. And we need to see the enemy we face,” Jace told him, surprised how certain those words came out as if he had been training to fight all his life.
You have been, Jace, Gehenna told him.
He embraced his parents one last time before turning to the counter where a rahir, a draagves, a laser pistol, several mines, forcefield chips to augment the suit’s defenses, and something that looked rather like a thumb drive that could be inserted into the Khul’s ship to end the suffering of all those inside. There was no slot. It was smooth all around and simply bringing it into the ship and pressing on the outer casing of the ship's core would unleash destruction.
It had been Gehenna’s contribution to their kit, but she was going with them. But just in case something untoward happened to her body, they would have the thumb drive to upload a virus that would, supposedly, be able to take down even a Hive’s defenses. He easily slotted each piece of equipment in his suit, slung the rahir and draagves over his back, slid the pistol into a side holster, before he finally took the drive and put it in a pocket over his heart.
“Ready to go?” Jace asked Khoth, knowing the Thaf’ell Commander was.
Khoth gave a brief nod. Jace gave a brief look at each person. His parents gave him watery smiles as they laced their hands together. Thammah saluted him in a rather ironic, loose manner which he doubted was Thaf’ell, but more Top Gun. The general stepped up to him.
“You’re doing a service to those people inside the ship, Jace,” General Intoshkin said with a kindness that Jace was surprised by. “I’ve been in combat. And I’ve also sent soldiers into combat. I will honestly say that it's much harder to do the latter. What you will do… you’ll be ending suffering.”
Jace couldn’t quite believe that he would be killing people in less than 30 minutes. He couldn’t quite get his head around it. Even as Gehenna told him over and over again that, truly, all he was doing was saving them from intense pain. It didn’t seem real. Maybe it would when he was there.
That’s why I have to see this. So what happened to them doesn’t happen to anyone else. That I’ll be able to make the hard decisions ahead, because I’ve seen what awaits anyone the Khul capture, Jace told himself.
But still he couldn’t quite believe it.
He simply nodded to the general and strode over to Khoth, Gehenna and Thammah.
“You sure you don’t want to join us, Thammah?” Jace asked.
“Go into a Khul ship or stay here and check out the Krytoria 2? Hmmm, let me think.” She tapped her right temple.
“Okay, okay! Just don’t snoop around too much. The Osiris is willing to let us see some of its secrets, but not all,” Jace reminded her. The Osiris had actually offered to let Thammah investigate the hangar bay after releasing the weapons and armor to them. “Enjoy yourself. But not too much.”
“Oh, yes, I do all things in moderation,” Thammah assured him.
“The Slim Jims would suggest otherwise,” Khoth replied dryly.
A soldier, whose name was William Farmer, stepped up and gave a real salute, though none of them was officially in the US military.
“I’ll be the one driving you to the ships,” he said.
“Thank you. Lead the way,” Jace said.
Immediately, Gehenna listed off all William Farmer’s accomplishments. She also gave him a rundown of his family. Mother was a school teacher--fifth grade--and his father worked as a truck driver. She even offered him William’s medical history, his parents’ medical history, his grandparents’ medical history and...
Gehenna, do we really need to know this all about poor William? He’s just driving us about three miles, Jace told her as they followed William out of the Armory, though some hallways and out of the Osiris itself. Every step he took, he felt the distance from who he had been and who he would be. It feels a little… invasive.
But he could have a myriad of medical problems that could impact his ability to drive us safely! she informed him.
If that happens you can take over the driving for him, Jace suggested.
Gehenna brought two of her tentacles together as if rubbing her hands together once more. Really? You’d let me drive?
I’ll make a deal with you, if dear William keels over from some medical malady--or Hell, for any reason whatsoever--I give you permission to drive, Jace told her. You can crawl right over William’s prone body and grab that wheel!
Oh, Jace, you’re so silly! Gehenna laughed. I wouldn’t have to physically use the steering wheel, brake and gas pedals, I’ll just have the Jeep’s computer!
Jace’s lips twitched. Okay, right, sure.
Gehenna hummed happily as they rode up in the elevator. They were at the top in seemingly no time. As they stepped out of the elevator, Jace turned to Khoth who had been holding himself very stiffly. Jace didn’t get the sense that Khoth was tense, more that he was preparing himself.
“This ride took more time when we were going down,” Jace said to him.
“You were dying. Everything felt like forever,” Khoth answered.
He’s right, Gehenna said guiltily. You actually did die for five minutes--
I don’t need to know, Gehenna! Jace interrupted her, not wanting him and dead in the same sentence. My mom was right. I really will have to freak out at some point.
“Have you ever done this before, Khoth?” Jace asked.
“Only… once,” Khoth answered.
His sister, Gehenna filled in.
Oh, man, maybe I shouldn’t ask him then--
But Khoth continued on, “When people are taken by the Khul, we do not attempt to rescue them.”
“They’re already infected and they can pass that onto others?” Jace recalled.
“Yes, and there is no way to cure them. For a long time, we attempted to find a way to stop or reverse the process,” Khoth told him. “But that only ended up infecting whole cities, sometimes whole planets.”
“Oh, my God,” Jace breathed.
Their conversation was interrupted as William took them, not back the way they’d come to the medical facility, but instead down several corridors that lead to a set of doors. The doors took them out onto a tarmac where a Jeep waited. There were two other soldiers waiting by the Jeep. They again saluted. Khoth ignored it while Jace waved awkwardly.
William slipped into the driver’s seat while Gehenna somehow folded herself into the front passenger seat. William gave a look of horror, but then he rigidly looked forward and pretended there wasn’t a 10-foot tall metal squid beside him. Jace didn’t have the heart to tell her that she was scaring William even as she tried to communicate with him. William was sweating heavily and gripping the steering wheel with white-knuckled fingers.
As the Jeep pulled away from base, Jace looked back towards it. The base looked so unremarkable. A dusty, dry place in the middle of the desert. Aircraft hangers that looked rusted and old, battered by the elements. Undistinguished low off-white buildings that looked to have been built in the 1970s dotted the flat plain. Nothing about this place indicated the wonders of the Osiris below.
Khoth surprised him by filling the silence, continuing his experiences with the infected.
“We never were able to do anything for the infected and the cost to even try…” Khoth shook his head and the beads clacked in his hair.
“So what did you do? What do you do?” Jace asked.
“We destroy the ships. We do not normally go inside. The risk is… high. But we should be fine,” Khoth said.
“Why?” Jace asked, wondering if he should have asked this before agreeing to go inside of the Khul ship.
“The infections are only in the beginning phases at this stage. When they remove them from these vessels to the Hives and place them into the tanks to soften their skin is when the infection truly takes hold,” Khoth explained. “Their skin rips at the slightest touch which releases the larvae… I think you can imagine the rest.”
“Uh, yeah… definitely. Not touching anything inside the ship,” Jace said, swallowing bitter bile that rose up in his throat.
The Hive is the mothership. It is circling Earth right now, Gehenna explained and showed him the image of a vessel that looked like a wasp’s nest.
Jace’s stomach roiled some more. He saw William’s shoulders tense as well. William was listening intently, but Jace didn’t blame him. He was amazed at how professional the soldiers had been. Aliens. Space craft. Giant metal squids. And whatever he would be considered in the soldier’s eyes.
“Why haven’t the ships returned to the Hive?” Jace asked. “Or do they need pilots?”
He had killed all the pilots and he felt even better about that then he had.
“No, they should return to the Hive once full or when an order is given by the Hive,” Khoth stated.
Gehenna was the one that answered, The Osiris puts out a field that interferes with Khul’s vessels.
“We believe the Osiris--”
“Is keeping them here,” Jace filled in. “Okay, makes sense. Oh, man…”
“What?” Khoth asked.
Jace had caught sight of where they were. Just a few blocks away from the Con-Ve. His stomach clenched as he saw the empty streets and signs of the former firefights. He could see the needle-shaped ship that he had passed along with Sami and George. He wondered if they were okay. Were they back home or had the Army kept them on base to interrogate them and make sure they wouldn’t tell anyone the truth of what had happened?
“I was just here this morning,” Jace said softly. “And everything is changed. Including me.”
Khoth surprised him by reaching over and touching the back of his right hand. Even with the armored gloves on he could feel that touch. Gehenna had twisted around in her seat and was looking down at their hands. Jace felt so grateful for that touch. He looked over at the Thaf’ell Commander, but the moment he did, Khoth removed his hand and was staring out the window as if that momentary touch hadn’t happened.
The Jeep’s brakes squealed as if in reluctance to stop this close to the still-smoking Khul ship. The gangway remained down. The inside was filled with a velvety blackness. What was inside there? Were people in agony in there? Was he really going to kill them?
“We should have our helmets up and shields engaged,” Khoth said after silence fell again. “Also, you should have a weapon handy. The pistol or rahir would be best in such close quarters if there are any Khul inside.”
Jace’s mouth was dry. He just nodded. Then the three of them exited the vehicle.
“Stay here, William,” Jace instructed.
William nodded jerkily. He definitely wasn’t leaving the Jeep. Jace wouldn’t have been surprised if he took off back to the base or simply kept driving until he’d put thousands of miles between himself and the Khul ships. Looking at the long, narrow, matte black ships, Jace wanted to do the same. But instead they were going in.
He merely had to think about the helmet closing over his head and it did it while Khoth had to touch a part of his suit right over his heart to cause the helmet to come up. Khoth unsheathed his rahir while Jace took out his pistol. His hand was much more steady around it this time around. Gehenna twisted to the right and left, her tentacles swaying nervously.
I should go first, Gehenna stated. I will be able to sense any life signs once we’re inside.
You can’t sense them from here? Jace asked.
There is some… interference, she answered uncertainly.
That worried Jace a bit. But it wouldn’t stop him from going inside. After hearing what Khoth said, he didn’t want the poor people inside to suffer any longer than they had to. So the three of them approached the gangway. Gehenna glided ahead of them up the metal grating. She disappeared inside the gloom. He could just barely see the lights in her squid head.
Gehenna? Jace asked, nervous the moment she was inside that ship, and tempted to call her back. There was a little of that electronic fuzzing for a moment which caused him to jerk upright. Gehenna?!
I’m here, her voice flickered in and out. No Khul. Just… people.
“What is it?” Khoth asked, putting a hand in front of Jace.
Jace hadn’t realized he had taken two steps up the gangway. “There’s interference. And I… I’m having tinnitus again.” The high whine of the drill was in his ears. The terror he was backsliding though was more easily pushed aside this time. “I think it's the Khul ship.”
“Should we abort?” Khoth asked. “Should you remain outside?”
“It’ll never be completely safe,” Jace said after a long moment considering this. “I need to go inside. I need to see.”
You can come in, Gehenna sounded so sad. I think you should.
“Gehenna says it’s clear,” Jace told him.
The two of them then strode up the gangway and stepped into the gloom of the Khul ship. For a moment, the whine in Jace’s head became deafening and he saw auras even in the dark. A headache spiked through him and he nearly went down, but Khoth grabbed his arm.
“Jace?” Khoth’s voice was threaded with alarm.
“I--I--I’m okay. It’s just. I don’t know. It’s gone now. Passing,” Jace said as he managed to keep his feet.
Cold sweat coated his face. Something wasn’t right. But what was it?
This whole place isn’t right.
Even with his helmet up and purified air rushing into his suit, Jace still smelled--or imagined he smelled--the sharp, metallic bite of blood and pain. Lights on either side of their helmets switched on automatically, even as Jace was suddenly aware that he had some kind of heat-sight as well that was not part of the suit, but part of him. But his eyes were fixed on the pods that lined the walls of the Khul ship. Only a few dozen of the hundreds were filled. Jace recognized the Naruto-runners from earlier that day. Their eyes were open. Their mouths parted in agony. He saw dark shapes move underneath their skin.
He only got out, “They’re alive. They’re really alive.”
Before the light from the ship’s doorway was cut off as the door slid shut. Then the Khul ship’s engines rumbled to life.