CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE: 10 MINUTES
The air whistled around Jace and Khoth as they fell-jumped from one duct to another. Multiple escape routes appeared before Jace’s mind’s eye. They were represented by orange lines that traced routes all of which led back to the hangar bay where they’d left the needle-like ship and Gehenna. This was exactly what he had seen when he’d faced off against Khoth in the Armory.
“Osiris?!” Jace cried as he landed on top of another duct.
But there was no answer. Whether that was because the ship AI was simply being stubborn, or it couldn’t communicate more than this was unclear to him. But he didn’t have the mental space to worry about it or figure it out. If the AI was being an ass though, they were going to have to talk when he got back to Earth.
“Has the Osiris reached out?” Khoth called.
“Not sure! But I know how we can get out of here!” Jace answered.
As Jace landed on the next duct, his feet slid on the rounded top. His arms pinwheeled at his sides as he sought to balance himself. Finally, he did. Khoth then landed beside him, but the Thaf’ell Commander hit the edge rather than the middle of the duct with his feet, and immediately began to slide off. Jace grabbed both of Khoth’s hands and pulled him up. They both wobbled as they sought to balance. Finally, they were securely on the duct. Jace glanced over the side and quickly jerked back as vertigo hit him.
“That’s a long way down,” he let out a semi-hysterical laugh.
“Inside! We should get inside!” Khoth yelled as the duct started to vibrate wildly as three Cetixes dropped down upon it and scuttled towards them.
But the escape routes--which kept shifting as more Cetixes arrived from all directions--did not indicate that they should get inside this duct.
“No! Come with me!” Jace shouted.
He took out his pistol and aimed at a Cetix on the next duct to their right. It lifted its head and showed him row upon row of jaws inside of its mouth. Jace fired right into the center of that mawing pit. The back of the Cetix’s head blew off and its body slowly toppled from the duct.
“Jump!” Jace cried again as he launched himself at the now vacated duct.
Khoth followed. The Thaf’ell Commander shot as he jumped, taking down a Cetix that would have landed on Jace and him. The centipede-like body brushed Jace’s back as it fell into the pit below them. There was an angry, rattling hiss from the Cetixes as their fellows died.
“I think we’ve made them angry!” Jace laughed, definitely hysterically this time.
“Indeed. And they seek to make us pay,” Khoth agreed dryly.
Jace pivoted to race up the one duct when a Cetix burst out of the interior of it and began to wriggle out towards him. Another dead-eye shot and it slumped forward, blocking the way both inside of the duct and beyond it.
The amount of routes to get out of the core was narrowing as the Cetixes swarmed. It didn’t seem like he and Khoth could move fast enough compared to the creatures. There were only five routes left when before there had been dozens!
“Over and down!” Jace shouted at Khoth.
He jumped and nearly slipped off the top of another duct. For one moment, Jace saw the pit yawn below him and wondered how far down the bottom was and what it would be like to fall all that way. But Khoth grabbed his shoulders and wrenched him back up. In the short time it took to do that, the routes out had slipped down to three.
The nearest exit was two ducts over, but it was up. These ducts were four feet higher than their current position. Jace brought both feet beneath him and jumped! He went higher than four feet and let out a shocked cry of fear as he thought he would completely overshoot the duct. But he landed in the middle of it. It rocked with his weight. Thankfully, though his body knew what to do and expect even as his mind did not. Khoth easily jumped up, making a simple leap with his much longer legs.
“Let me help you,” Khoth said.
Khoth grabbed Jace around the waist as he saw where Jace wished to go. The Thaf’ell Commander leaped and took them both up to the next duct. He let Jace go even as Jace thanked him with just a bob of his head.
“We can cut in with our rahir and--”
Jace got nothing else out as a Cetix uncoiled not a foot from his face, hanging down from an upper duct like a hideous serpent. It opened its mouth and hissed. Jace naturally ducked just as it emitted some kind of caustic fluid that splashed onto the duct between him and Khoth. He watched--as in seeming slow motion--the duct bent and separated at that exact spot, and Khoth started to tumble backwards.
“NO!” Jace cried and lunged for him, but missed.
Khoth twisted in mid-air and managed to grab hold of a duct below them. His rahir and pistol though were lost as he did so. They fell into the abyss. There was another warning hiss from the Cetix that was upside down behind him. Jace didn’t even think, he brought his pistol around and shot it in the head. It tumbled down and hit the duct he was on, shattering it. Jace had only seconds to grab hold of the duct one over. Khoth jumped to that duct and pulled him to his feet.
The routes out of the core had dropped to one.
“Where, Jace?” Khoth asked, even as he drew the draagves--his only remaining weapon--from its holster across his back.
There were so many Cetixes that it looked like the ducts themselves were wiggling and squirming with thousands of pointed, chitinous legs. The orange line showed him their final chance of escape.
“There!” Jace pointed frantically down and to the left.
Their escape route was through one of the ducts that must have broken long ago and was in the process of being repaired. There were no Cetixes there as it was just a nub of a duct sticking out from the core’s wall, barely large enough for them to wiggle through and far too small for a Cetix. They’d have to catch the lip of it and pull themselves inside before the Cetixes had them.
“Jace, they will be on us before we have a chance to get inside!” Khoth cried.
“Ah… I… there’s no other way!” Jace swallowed. “We have to go there!”
“Are you sure?”
“Trust me!” Jace shouted even as he wasn’t sure at all.
But the other routes were closed as Cetixes were coming from every direction. The Khul thumped onto the duct they were on top of. Jace fired. Khoth fired. Cetixes fell dead and tumbled off the ducts like insectile rain.
“No other way out! It’s our only chance!” Jace cried.
Khoth and Jace jumped from duct to duct at a full run, firing as they did so, not stopping to aim, but there were so many Cetixes that even their blind blasts were hitting the creatures. That was when Jace saw the timer in the right bottom corner of his HUD. They were already down to eight minutes to get out of the Hive! Jace pushed harder.
There was a slick, wet sound and Jace dodged as a section of the pillar sloughed off and fell over the duct. The color of the flesh pillar was pink and black now and Jace swore that even through the helmet’s filters that he smelled the decay. The duct bent then snapped off under its weight. Jace saw that there were black veiny lines appearing on the ducts, too, where it had broken off just like had appeared on the pillar when he’d thrown the “thumb drive” at it.
It’s spreading! Jace realized.
Of course, it was. That was what it was meant to do!
Only three more ducts between them and the last route out of the core now. He and Khoth barely touched the first two before landing on the third. Cetixes swarmed. Khoth’s draagves made a throaty, thunking whine as laser blasts left its muzzle and found their mark.
“You go first, Jace!” Khoth yelled.
“JACE!” And there was a command in that tone which Jace could not deny.
It was followed by a look from blue-on-blue eyes that said so much more than his simple name had in that alien mouth. He was the Pilot. He needed to escape. Khoth was not as important. But he was important. He was so important! Yet delaying the final leap would only cause Khoth to be in greater danger. So Jace shoved his pistol into its holder and jumped.
His hands caught the lip of the broken duct. He felt the material crumbling, giving way. With frantic speed, he hoisted himself up into the opening, the duct crumbling into dust in his hands. The Hive was truly coming apart.
Jace crawled in on hands and knees. He had thought to squirm around and give covering fire to Khoth as the Thaf’ell Commander jumped, but the duct was too tight. There was no way to do so. He had to go forward. His calves and feet were still sticking out of the duct! Khoth couldn’t jump until he was out of the way.
Jace crawled forward as fast as he could. The duct felt mushy and sticky beneath his elbows and forearms. He heard the whine of Khoth’s draagves. It sounded more frantic to his ears than before. Was it possible for Khoth to shoot faster than he had been?
Jace’s calves were finally inside the duct! He squirmed and squirmed and squirmed. His feet were inside. He kept going though because Khoth was tall and he would need to get fully inside the duct too. He imagined Khoth’s feet sticking out of the duct and being grabbed by a Cetix as it made a desperate last leap. He then imagined its weight pulling Khoth and it out of the duct and them both spiraling towards the floor of the pit. That had him moving faster.
Sweat coursed down Jace’s brow and dripped into his eyes. His eyes stung with the salt. His breathing was all he heard in his helmet. Had the whine of laser fire stopped? Had he felt the thunk of Khoth jumping and grabbing hold of the duct behind him? He couldn’t be sure. He had to keep moving.
Six minutes before the Hive went boom or simply disintegrated. He wasn’t sure which. The duct was definitely mushy.
“Khoth? Khoth, can you hear me?” Jace asked, breathing heavily.
He crawled a few more feet and the duct was curving to the right. This wasn’t at all the direction they had come in. But there was a bright orange arrow telling him that he was heading in the right direction.
He saw that in addition to the timer and the arrow that there were two dots now. One was red and one was green. He guessed that he was the red dot as it moved at his pace. The green dot wasn’t Khoth, because it was ahead of him. He then realized that the green dot was where he had to be in order to get out of the Hive alive. He scrambled frantically to catch up so that the red and green dots overlapped.
Slime from those bulging sack creatures was everywhere. It smeared over the front of his helmet, it coated his fingers, it suctioned the front of his suit to the floor of the duct. Sweat seemed to coat every part of him and he felt it soaking his undersuit and even wetting the palms of his hand in his gloves. But that sweat turned cold when he realized he hadn’t heard from Khoth. His earlier call had gone unheeded.
“Khoth?” he called again. “Khoth? Are you okay? Talk to me!”
The duct turned again and was now sloping upwards. He strained to keep his forward momentum. The green and red dots were pulling apart once more. He jammed his boots into the half-hardened slime and pushed off from it.
Gehenna?! He reached out for her.
Jace?! She sounded as frightened and anxious as he felt. Jace, you’re taking too long! You need to--
I know! But Khoth! I can’t reach him! Jace grunted out as he was practically climbing the duct now with his feet on the walls to brace himself as he hauled himself upwards. He’s not answering me. I can’t--I can’t get a hold of him!
There was a very long pause.
The sweat went cold as ice on his skin as he listened to that pause. He stopped climbing.
Jace, don’t stop! Gehenna cried. You still have a chance to--to make it!
What about Khoth? Jace wasn’t moving.
He’s… he’s… you’ve got to keep going, Jace! Gehenna cried. Keep going! You can make it!
Gehenna! Jace commanded. Where is Khoth?! TELL ME NOW!
He’s pinned behind you, Gehenna said with a wretched gasp in her voice. He turned off his comm. I’m guessing that he doesn’t want you to come back. Because if you do, you won’t make it out and--
That idiot! That big blue idiot! Jace swore.
You’re the Pilot, Jace. A lot more people than Khoth depend up on you, Gehenna said with such sadness in her voice. Khoth knows this and that’s why he--
We don’t leave people behind, Gehenna, Jace said and unbraced his feet from the sides of the shaft.
No, Jace! She cried. Oh, I knew you were going to do that!
He slid down so much faster than he had crawled up. He tried not to think about how hard it would be to retrace his steps, how much time he was losing right now. He twisted his head and realized that the duct had collapsed behind him. He heard muffled sounds of laser fire.
Show me the schematics of this place! He demanded.
Immediately, he saw that there was a room to his left and that Khoth was still in the duct but fighting two Omull. Without even requesting it, calculations flashed before his mind’s eye, telling him that he could bust through to the room with some well-paced pistol fire.
He got his pistol out of its holster and by turning and twisting his body was able to hit the weak spots that had the duct and room wall giving way. He burst out of the opening, firing where the heat signatures were even as he couldn’t see anything, but a dark haze from the particles of disintegrating Hive all around him. The two Omull went down. Jace swung his head around towards the heat signature that was Khoth. The Thaf’ell Commander emerged from the duct after using his feet to kick the wall out of the way.
“Jace, what have you done?!” Khoth growled.
“I’m saving you!” Jace snapped.
“No! You’ve just managed to condemn us both! I--”
“Gehenna, I want you to take the ship out of the Hive. Put it in orbit. Pilot it here,” Jace told her even as he sent a coordinate.
“What are you--” Khoth began.
Jace, I won’t leave you! Gehenna protested.
“We’re not going to make it back to the hanger bay, but we can literally blast our way through the Hive. Everything’s falling apart,” Jace explained even as he felt the floor starting to give a little beneath his feet. “We can survive in these suits in space. For a little while anyways.”
The thought of jumping into the vacuum of space had Jace’s stomach doing jumping jacks in his chest. But he knew it was the only way. And the Osiris--for he was certain it was the Osiris now--agreed. It was showing him how to make his insane plan work. The orange arrow showed him the exact direction they needed to go, where they needed to shoot the walls and how he could use one of the grenades he had to blast the Hive’s outer hull.
That’s an insane plan! Gehenna responded. But let’s do it!
Damn straight! Jace told her.
“The odds of this plan succeeding--”
“Didn’t I tell you I don’t want to hear the odds, Khoth?!” Jace let out another hysterical bark of laughter. “We’re going to make it!” He holstered his pistol and brought out his draagves. “Shoot where I do!”
And the two of them were shooting through walls and busting through into hallways then other rooms then more hallways. The Khul were in such a panic over what was happening to their ship that they weren’t going after him and Khoth. But when they did get in the way, the two of them blasted the Khul without hesitation. But the Khul were not the true danger as them came across a hallway that was filled with the gel containing the larvae. It was running down the hallway like a river of filth. Jace reared back. Khoth grabbed him around the waist and they leaped over the material.
Please let them not be able to drill through the soles of our boots! Jace repeated with horror even after they had left the river of larvae behind.
But the ceilings and floors were faltering too. And the heavy tanks that contained the humans and the larvae were starting to sink through. There was a terrible crack when they bashed into one room. Jace’s head shot towards the ceiling just in time to see a tank’s bottom start to emerge. He and Khoth fired straight ahead at the next wall as they continued to run and blasted through it just as the tank crashed behind them. He heard a wet splat as water and larvae--and maybe softening human--splattered on the walls, and floor of the room they’d just escaped.
He hoped to any god out there that the humans were dead. He prayed that they were before this happened to them.
“How much farther?” Khoth asked as one of his boots punched through the floor.
Jace helped him yank it out before they were blasting and running again.
“One more room! It’s a hangar bay!” Jace told him as they entered the final room before the outer hull.
Similar to the one that they had been brought into, this hangar bay though had no needleship as it was down on Earth. The hangar bay doors though were closed and Jace saw no way of opening them except with the grenade. He held up an arm to stop Khoth before he brought up one of the grenades that was attached to his belt.
“There are jets on the suits,” Jace told Khoth. “We should be able to navigate to the Khul ship.”
“Jace, the likelihood of us surviving and making our way--”
“It’ll work! Trust me!” Jace cried. “The Osiris has got this planned.”
“Ah, I see that my suit is now being operated by the AI as well,” Khoth stated.
“This is our only shot,” Jace told him.
“Yes,” Khoth answered.
They stared at one another through their faceplates.
“If this doesn’t work--”
“It most likely will not,” Khoth informed him dryly.
Jace swallowed. “Yeah, well, it’s been… awesome getting to know you. Really, if there is an afterlife, I’m going to tell them you were the best part.”
Khoth’s eyebrows lifted. “I will… do the same.”
There was no more time to say anything else.
Two presses activated the grenade. Jace then threw it at the hangar bay doors before grabbing Khoth and bringing them both behind some of the stacked and empty pods to use as a makeshift shield.
The blast had Jace’s ears ringing, but that was the last of his worries as he, Khoth and the pods were all sucked out of the huge opening that appeared in the Hive’s side. The two of them shot out of the Hive and into space.
The silence of space intensified the ringing in Jace’s ears and he couldn’t hear Khoth calling for him. In fact, he was struck dumb with both awe and fear as he realized he was floating in the void. The cold already wrapped around him like a lover’s caress even as the suit’s systems strove to keep it at bay. He turned his head and he saw Earth, hanging below him, like some bright jewel. He also saw Khoth and beyond Khoth, the needle-like Khul spaceship.
I see you both! I’m slowing! I’m--oh, the Osiris has control! Gehenna sounded both shocked and annoyed.
Don’t fight it. It’s controlling us, too, Jace told her as his suit’s jets were expertly turned on and off to direct him towards an opening in the Khul ship.
Jace relaxed and let the Osiris take full control. He and Khoth both were both brought back into the Khul ship. As the opening closed behind them and gravity was re-established in the door lock, he and Khoth looked at one another.
“That should not have worked,” Khoth said.
“I know, but it did,” Jace told him with a laugh. “The Osiris made it happen.”
“Yes, but even with an AI, the room for error was vanishingly small,” Khoth protested.
I do not make errors, the Osiris said, not only in Jace’s head, but it appeared on both of their HUDs.
“Really? Because we were just hijacked and taken aboard a Khul Hive!” Jace put his hands on his hips. “Unless you had something to do with that!”
The Osiris said nothing.
Oh, guys! Gehenna sent to them both, you need to see this!
Abruptly there was a feed showing on their HUDs that showed them the Hive. Both of them watched as, in silence, the Hive disintegrated and the small pieces of it broke apart and dispersed into a glittering sea of destruction.
“We destroyed a Hive,” Khoth breathed.
“Yeah,” Jace said as he watched as the Hive, the Khul, and the humans inside of it had all been turned into space dust. “Let’s get home, shall we?”
Khoth swung his head towards Jace and asked, “My home or yours?”
Jace sighed. He’d seen the enemy. He understood what they were facing. He couldn’t unknow the horror of what he had seen. The Khul had to be destroyed. “Mine first.”