CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO: DUCT WORK
Khoth’s HUD showed him the heat signatures of the two Cetixes within the room that would give Jace and him access to the ducts. He watched them bustle around the much cooler human forms. His suit told him these humans were still alive despite their cool temperature. In fact, they squirmed with life.
The urge to flee was strong. To get away from this uncleanness. But there was only one way out and that was through. They were waiting for the optimum moment to burst into the room. These had to be quick, efficient kills. No sound preferably. Both of them had unsheathed their rahirs. But his gaze kept sliding to Jace.
Jace had surprised him. Though it was clear that the young human was horrified and shocked to the core by what he had seen, Jace had kept his head. The horrors in the Hive had shaken even Khoth’s Xa. It had hardened his resolve as well to defeat the Khul, but it had done something he hadn’t expected.
It had made Khoth not want to abandon the humans to this fate. For he had no doubt that the Khul would be back to harvest Earth, especially if they destroyed this Hive. The people’s faces in the tanks from the young woman to the plump elderly lady who Jace had clearly known still flashed before Khoth’s eyes. And now, when they entered this room, they would see more horrors.
I have to be ready if these are people Jace knows as well, Khoth thought. Killing those one knows... that would cause anyone to balk.
Another thing that had struck him about Jace was that he was willing to follow the young human’s lead. At first, as they had strafed low over the hangar bay’s floor to the door that would lead further into the ship, he had told himself it was an evaluation of Jace’s skills. But in a Hive there was really no room for error. The truth was that he had deferred to Jace. And he hadn’t been wrong.
With an almost preternatural ability, Jace had kept them just out of the Cetixes’ vision. When he had been inclined to dash forward, Jace would stop and the Cetix would turn just then. So if they had dashed forward they would have been seen, but stopping in what was the middle of the floor with no obstacles to the Cetixes’ lines of sight would have seemed mad. But it was always the right move. And they had avoided the growing number of Khul that infested the Hive’s hallways. So now he would trust Jace’s instincts--or whatever it was that was guiding him--and attack at the moment that Jace chose.
He sensed as much as saw Jace tensing. His hand tightened on his rahir. And then they were moving inside. The door whispered open. Khoth took in the room in an instant. It was circular with two individual pools into which there were two humans up to their necks in fluid. The Cetixes were adjusting lines that led into the two pools. It took Khoth a moment to realize that they were dumping larger larvae--likely ones that had burst out of other beings--into the pools so that they could feast on the humans. Khoth couldn’t even tell the humans’ sex in that moment. Their faces were twin masks of agony. But Jace, if he registered these things at all, did not react to them.
Like a ribbon of silk in the wind, Jace was across the floor to the farthest Cetix. His rahir slicing through the Cetix’s head so swiftly and silently that the creature was still moving, its hundreds of legs, clattering as if doing a dance against the floor. Khoth did the same. Cetix blood--acidic and dangerous in its own right--poured from their bodies. Jace neatly sidestepped the pools.
Now Jace was looking at the two humans.
His back was to Khoth so he could not see Jace’s expression. He was staring directly into one of the suffering human’s faces. It was a woman, Khoth realized when she spoke.
Her face was stripped of color as she gasped out, “K-kill m-me.”
Khoth shut his eyes for a moment for Daesah’s face was now overlaying hers with his sister’s voice saying the same thing. Khoth forced his eyes to open. He would end these poor beings’ lives so that Jace didn’t have to but it was already over. Both humans were dead. Their throats neatly slit.
“Find peace,” Jace whispered. It was so low that Khoth wasn’t even sure he had heard it.
“I would have done that,” Khoth said.
Jace turned to look at him then. His expression was so bleak, for a moment, that Khoth almost took a step back. But then he surged forward and grasped the arms of Jace’s suit.
“You do not have to kill your people, Jace, I will end their suffering,” Khoth found himself saying.
Jace gave him the saddest smile. “You want everyone to think that you feel nothing when you feel most of all.”
Khoth’s lips open to dispute that. But he didn’t. It was something that Daesah would say, had said.
“Thank you, Khoth,” Jace told him. “You’ve no idea… how much… how much that means.”
Jace surprised him again when, instead of breaking down and falling forward into his arms, Jace gently disengaged Khoth’s hands and was turning towards the far right corner of the room where the trap door to the ducts was located. He started to pry it up with the tip of the rahir.
“Gehenna,” Jace said, “how are you doing?
Fine, Jace. I’m playing hide and seek with the Omull! Despite there being no sound, Khoth could almost hear her delight in this dangerous game over her text on his HUD.
“Don’t have too much fun,” Jace told her. His voice was still leaden from what he had done and seen, but he was trying to act normally for the AI.
He is concerned about her feelings. So many would not think even an AI could feel, or even if they did, that their feelings were important, Khoth realized.
What do you need? She asked, and Khoth sensed an awareness in her of Jace’s true mood.
“We need you to make sure the Khul don’t come looking in this room to find out where their buddies are and raise the alarm on us prematurely,” Jace explained as he pried up a square section of floor, which Khoth grasped and moved to the side. “So can you lock the door or something?”
Yes! I can do that! The Khul language is still a little hazy for me, but I can also monitor their comms, she said.
“They have comms?” Jace sounded genuinely surprised by this.
Khoth found himself looking back at the long, segmented bodies as thick as he was around. He saw no sign of technology on them, at least nothing recognizable.
They communicate in many ways, she explained. Through body language and also through pheromones. But there is some kind of organ inside of them that… well, that vibrates. So it's like an internal, organic comm!
“Eh, well, I see,” Jace said. “No wonder it’s hard to understand!”
Well, yes, because it’s really monitoring each and every Khul to see if there are vibrations that--
“Not now, Gehenna. Another time, we’ve got to concentrate here and you’ve got to get that door locked, not to mention keep out of the Omulls’ sight,” Jace interrupted her as he ducked his head down into the opening in the floor and looked right then left.
Oh! I could do all of this in my sleep! She protested.
With genuine amusement in his voice, Jace drawled, “Don’t get cocky, kid!”
Ah, am I Luke Skywalker to your Han Solo? Gehenna asked, which sounded completely inexplicable to Khoth.
“I am always Luke Skywalker,” Jace informed her archly.
But--oh, well, nevermind, I’d like to be Vader! Do you think I could play Vader? She asked, this conversation veering into the even more obscure.
Jace chuckled as he lowered himself into the ducts with Khoth’s help. “You’ve got the helmet for it, Gehenna.”
“I believe we should focus on the mission,” Khoth said. “You two should have your conversation… later.”
“I think we’ve just been scolded,” Jace said to Gehenna.
He’s just upset that he can’t be Vader, Gehenna said and put plenty of smiley faces after that statement.
Khoth shook his head. He would never understand this secret language of theirs or the joy they took in it. He jumped into the ducts and landed lightly on his feet.
“I thought these would be smaller and we’d have to squirm on our bellies, but it's not too bad. Just got to hunch over a bit,” Jace said as he surveyed the passage ahead of them.
While Jace just had to lean forward a bit, Khoth was practically bent almost in half. His head would bump the ceiling of the curved duct if he was not careful. Unlike the corridors that had been flooded with amber light. These were dark, except for light that seeped through slit-like openings on the walls, ceiling and, occasionally, the floor. His HUD adjusted so that night vision was enabled. Also on the HUD, the route to the core of the ship was illuminated. A dot streaked forward to show them the twists and turns ahead.
“This way,” Jace whispered.
They were both careful as they walked on the thinner metallic-like duct material. It gave slightly under Khoth’s weight and if he released his weight from a panel too quickly, the material sprang up, making a metallic thunk-thunk sound. Khoth hoped it was his nerves making the sound louder than it actually was. This slowed their progress down.
He found himself looking out the slits to see where they were. Amber light played over Jace’s helmet as he, too, turned his head to look out of the duct. They saw more pools, more Cetixes, and more humans.
The first time they saw another set of pools, Jace’s hand went to the hilt of his rahir. Khoth had gripped his shoulder.
“Remember, when we destroy the core, we destroy the Hive, we destroy all of this,” he whispered.
Only then did Jace release his hold on the hilt and they crept on in this interminable darkness until the next flash of light and next horror of more pools.
Though they should have kept silent, Jace whispered, “Do the Thaf’ell believe in an afterlife?”
Khoth frowned. “After--after life?”
“Life after death. Like do you think that we go on? Our consciousness? Even after our body dies?” Jace asked.
“The Thaf’ell believe that all return to oneness after death. We are made of stars and to the stars we return,” Khoth answered when he realized what Jace was asking.
“But do individuals go on? I mean… not just turn into compost and feed the soil, which feeds the flowers, which feeds the animals… you know, like we, us, ourselves?” Jace pressed.
They were passing by another set of pools. For a moment, Khoth caught sight of one of the human silently screaming as larvae flowed into and out of his open mouth. Bright, cherry red blood poured out as well as his tongue was stripped off by the hungry larvae.
“In the past, we believed our ancestors remained near to watch over us,” Khoth said after dragging his gaze away. “So long as we revered them, went to their graves, and made offerings that they would remain with us. If they were forgotten then they would move on and leave to join the Great Consciousness.”
His HUD showed them that they were nearing the core. The duct was starting to narrow, or at least it seemed so to Khoth’s aching back. He’d noticed that the floor now was more stable, but also dust or bits of a powdery substance rose up with every movement of his boots. And there were also times when he encountered a sticky substance that caught the sole of his foot and forced him to pull at his boot.
Perhaps whatever kept the rest of the ducts clean does not reach this far, Khoth thought.
But another part of his brain thought he was seeing patterns in the sticky stuff. Like trails. Like something slithering along and leaving that gluey residue that when it dried became the powdery dust.
“What do you believe?” Jace asked.
“What do I--ah, you mean do I believe in an afterlife?” Khoth confirmed.
“Yeah,” Jace said.
“I believe when our bodies die that our consciousnesses cease to exist,” Khoth answered.
Jace was quiet for far too long for his liking after his answer. Finally, the young man said, “You’re probably right. But I… I want to believe there is something more. There has to be. All the people who’ve died for no good reason before they could fully experience life or make a difference…” Jace stopped and Khoth could tell from the emotion in his voice that this was difficult for him to say. “I want to believe.”
“I do not think there is any harm in such a desire so long as it does not cause you to ignore this life,” Khoth answered. “Some would say that there is no proof either way so either of us could be right or wrong. Others say that we have no proof of anything beyond us--no scientific proof--therefore, the nays would have it. But again--”
“Until this morning, I thought that aliens weren’t real either,” Jace interrupted him with what sounded like laughter.
“But that is not logical considering the size of the universe and--”
“It was because I hadn’t seen or heard of you. Most people would be able to say of aliens what you’re saying about the existence of an afterlife,” Jace pointed out. “Simply because one hasn’t seen evidence doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.”
Khoth frowned. His brow furrowed. Jace might have a point there, but--
“Whoa… what is that? Gehenna? What am I seeing here?” Jace asked the AI.
Jace had paused by three slits. Much brighter amber light--almost a golden light now--was painted over the front of his helmet. Khoth was perplexed as he stared at what appeared to be a reflection of something moving.
You’re in the core chamber!!!!!!! Gehenna’s excitement came out in her exclamation point use. There should be a central pillar where the Hive gets its energy and--
“Gehenna,” Jace’s voice was so strange.
Oh… oh, my, that’s not… uhm, that’s not what I was expecting! Gehenna cried.
Khoth came up to Jace and looked out the slits himself. The duct they were in was one of many that, like the spokes of a wheel, were all leading to a center of this large round room. The duct was no longer hidden beneath the floor or sandwiched between rooms, but instead was suspended in the air. Khoth saw that this room took up the entire height of the Hive. Hundreds of ducts were above and below them. They all lead to a central pillar of sorts.
Khoth wasn’t sure what he had expected. After everything they’d seen of the Khul technology, which was organic, why had he thought that their main processor for the Hive would be something else?
It pulsed and fluttered as electrical surges ran through it. It was membranous, perhaps hollow inside, and golden light surged and passed all along its length then spread into the walls of the chamber. Cetixes were everywhere. They crawled on every duct, using them as bridges to this pillar.
“Gehenna!” Jace’s voice was a rough whisper. “How the Hell is this going to work? That’s a--a--I don’t know what that is! But this chip can’t insert into it!”
No, no! It can! It will! What you’re seeing is just an outer shell that will dissolve once you place it against the pillar, she stated. It’ll insert itself!
“Once we… I can’t believe we have to touch that thing,” Jace muttered. “Well, at least the duct goes all the way up to it--”
“Gehenna, what is this… this duct used for?” Khoth asked.
He had moved his foot and what had come up was some kind of slime. It wasn’t a gloopy mass of the sticky, gluey material that he’d encountered in far lesser quantities farther back in the duct.
Uhm, I’m not sure--
“Air? Circulation of air? Or some kind of fluid, perhaps?” Khoth asked. “Or could it be a passageway for--”
I don’t really--
There was the tapping of hundreds of legs. A Cetix suddenly walked right in front of the duct’s slits. Both of them reared back. It hadn’t seen them, but Khoth’s heartrate had doubled.
“You don’t think the Cetixes crawl through here, do you?” Jace had turned toward him and the young human’s eyes were huge. “Is that what you are asking her?”
“No, they are too large. I think…” Khoth stopped speaking as he heard a far more soft sound.
A slurping, suctioning sound that came from up ahead. From the living pillar. Khoth unsheathed his rahir slowly as he scanned the darkness ahead. Jace had whirled around too. Both of them were holding their breath as they waited for what, neither of them knew.
Khoth’s gaze was drawn to the slits again as he saw movement on the outside of the membranous pillar. Some thing--some things--were slithering around the outside of the pillar. They had clear sacks and almost delicate-looking crystalline pincers on the end of their eight legs. They traveled over the outside of the pillar and were doing something to it. Massaging it? Lubricating it? Whatever they were doing, they moved constantly.
Some of them are in the duct, Khoth realized.
“This is not a duct, Jace,” Khoth told him as he saw the half dozen crystalline-sack creatures coming towards them, leaving a trail of slime.
“No, no, it is not,” Jace agreed.
Without further need for discussion, the two of them raced towards the creatures. Backing up was not an option. Waiting to see what the creatures’ defenses were, also not an option. Throwing themselves headlong into a silent, desperate battle? Only option!
The creatures reared back on their delicate limbs as they realized that two beings about five times their size were barrelling towards them with glowing rahirs. They would have to be careful not to hit one another when they swung their blades as the duct was barely wide enough for the two of them.
Jace made a stabbing, rather than sweeping, motion with his rahir which punctured the nearest creature’s sack. There was a pop as the sack burst and fluid poured out onto the floor of the duct. Khoth nearly slipped in the slickness and the tip of his rahir bobbled, but he managed to nick two of the creatures’ sacks. More fluid. More sticky, slipperiness. That took out only half of them. The others were making these high pitched shrieks now, their cries echoing in the duct, as they raced back towards the pillar.
“Oh, hell, no!” Jace hissed and the young human picked up speed, nearly elbowing Khoth out of the way. “We have to get them before they attract others!”
There was a boom behind them and the duct wobbled as something large landed directly on top of them. Khoth had only a second to roll away from a sudden claw that punctured the top of the duct, right where his head had been moments ago. It was made by one of the Cetix’s pointy legs that were more like hundreds of curved sabers.
“They know we are here,” Khoth said.
“You think?!” Jace laughed.
“Run! Full out! We must get the virus to the pillar!”
Khoth grasped Jace around the waist and practically carried the young human as he ran full speed down the duct. The crystalline creatures were destroyed with a sweep of his rahir. But the shrieks they had given out were now being echoed throughout the entire room by others of their kind. There were more booms as Cetixes landed on the top of the duct. He heard a crunching sound and knew that the way back was no longer open to them.
The end of the duct was in sight. The glow from the pillar was almost blinding. His helmet’s shield darkened the view so he was able to see quite clearly the Cetix head that appeared in the opening, blocking their view of pulsing pillar of flesh.
“Don’t slow down!” Jace cried.
Jace had brought out the draagves and started shooting. The Cetix’s head exploded and they both saw the centipede body slip off of the duct and fall away.
It was then that Khoth realized the duct ended in mid-air. There was just the fleshly pillar and the air. Khoth screeched to a halt, stopping them at the last moment from running right over the edge and falling to their deaths.
“What are we going to do?” Jace asked as he stared at the pillar and then at the ducts that were seething now with Cetixes making a rattling noise as their chitin armor clacked together.
There was another boom and the duct they were in started suddenly lurched downwards, nearly spilling them out of its limited security. The weight of the Centixes coming towards them was breaking it!
“Idea! Idea! I have an idea!” Jace cried.
Jace shoved his draagves into Khoth’s hands while he brought out the virus chip. The fleshly pillar was within reach. With a look of disgust, Jace slammed the chip against the pillar. The blue chip flared and then broke apart. Black lines suddenly spread out across the pillar’s outside. The pillar heaved as if screaming in pain.
“What is the next part of your idea?” Khoth asked.
“Jump!” Jace cried. “We’ve only got 10 minutes to get out of here!”
And at that, Jace grabbed Khoth’s hand and the two of them jumped from the duct.