CHAPTER SIXTY-TWO: BIG GUN
Khul…. 11 Hives… overwhelmed…
That was what came through from the Osiris. A jerky, incomplete stream of words that could only cause terror in Jace’s soul. Then pain ricocheted inside of his head and Jace let out a gasp.
The auras smeared the air around him. Tinnitus whined like a thousand hornets in his ears. A headache split his skull open. Or that’s what it felt like. He fully expected to see his brain spilled out onto the floor. It was so bad. He must have wobbled because Khoth’s hand shot out and grabbed him, steadying him.
“Pilot?” Khoth asked.
Jace blinked and fought through the pain, focusing on the moment. An image seeped through his connection with the Osiris. It was a full color, live feed from his ship.
Eleven Hives arrayed themselves in a line as they shot out from the gate. His mother’s ship--clunky, old, and sub-standard because it was Nova’s parting shot at him--was directly ahead of them and was dwarfed by the Hives. Then countless Thylacine-class fighters flew out from Hives in endless waves.
Laser fire obscured the black space between the Hives and his mother’s ship. Her shield lit up like it was set on fire, but unlike the Osiris whose shields absorbed and used the hits to continually fuel its defenses and offenses, hers would soon drain away to nothing. And the shields wouldn’t be on fire. The ship would be. Cut into a million pieces. Bodies expelled into space. Dead in moments with frozen breath in frozen lungs.
A massive blast came from the Osiris that vaporized the Thylacine-class fighters in a wide arc around his mother’s ship. Space was black again. His mother’s ship made a bee-line towards the Osiris, hiding behind the massive, one of a kind Colossus-class ship like a toddler behind its mother’s legs. Jace gasped in relief and tasted something hot and coppery running down his throat and out of his nose. But he didn’t care.
Osiris, thank you! Thank you! Thank you!
The live feed from the Osiris flickered out. Jace could not see the battle progressing. He heard nothing from the Osiris to tell him that all was well or that things were going to Hell, which was more likely. But the pain remained.
Jace clutched Khoth so hard that his bones creaked with the effort. He was completely cut off from the Osiris. Alone. Lost. It was like he had been in the Hive. But this was different.
“Jace, you’re bleeding.” Khoth was using the sleeve of his uniform to blot Jace’s nose.
Osiris? Goddamnit! I thought you could multitask! Talk to me! Jace cried, even as he knew it was pointless. Unlike on the Hive where it had just been him and Khoth in danger, now everyone was and he was not in the right place to fix it. Gehenna, are you getting anything?
The Khul have engaged some kind of field dampener, Jace! It’s going to make it hard for us to communicate with the Osiris even out of the labyrinth! Gehenna answered.
This is what happened when I went into the Khul ship!
Yes, it appears their tech and your, uhm, well, your--
My disabilities? They’re messing things up! Fury filled him. The helplessness he used to feel at being limited flooded back. Here he had god-like powers, but no, no, his disabilities swarm back in to stop him from helping. I get it, Gehenna.
Jace, you’re healing! You’ll be able to break through this--
But not now so not soon enough! I need to be up there! Jace cried.
“I’m okay,” Jace finally got out as he realized Khoth must be truly freaked out to be calling him “Jace” instead of “Pilot” in front of everyone. “I’m okay. There are 11 Hives and over a thousand Thylacine-class fighters above Haseon.”
“Eleven?!” Khoth’s father cried out. His shock and fear caused him to lose control of himself for just a moment.
“We’ve never seen so many in any system together,” Khoth remarked. “Your estimate of Thylacine-class fighters may be low. I have seen a single Hive with over 500 fighters.”
“Osiris didn’t give me a count. I just estimated,” Jace said.
“Sounds like they’ve come here to make a point,” Davies said.
“Yes, and that point is that none shall stand before them without facing their wrath,” Dr. Hayter whispered and crossed himself.
Jace wiped his nose and saw blood smear over the back of his hand. He stared at it as if mesmerized.
Amana got up from her knees and handed Jace a handkerchief. “Here. Let me help you.”
“Thank you.” Jace cleaned himself up.
Osiris saved Diane! Oh, thank goodness! Gehenna cried. But why did the Khul have to come now? When we’re down here and unprepared?
All good questions.
We should have known they would come, he told her bitterly. We should have been prepared. I shouldn’t have been sightseeing--
Jace, you weren’t! You were doing what you have to do to get the Alliance on your side, Gehenna cut off his self-recriminations.
He didn’t agree with her completely, but he recognized that this chain of thought would not help anything now. But he wondered truly why the Khul were here when they had never attacked so far into Alliance space before. Was it because he was here? Did they take this risk in a mad rage after what he had done on Earth?
More good questions he didn’t know the answer to. But answers would have to wait. Action was necessary.
He messaged Khoth over the comm privately, I’ve lost contact with the Osiris.
Khoth messaged back, We need to get out of this labyrinth.
That’s not the only problem. The Khul are using some kind of jamming technology and the damage caused by me being taken away from it when I was a baby are causing additional connection issues, Jace sent back, wincing at the admission. So I don’t know if going above ground will help.
We can do nothing down here in any case. Our best bet is to get to the Osiris, Khoth sent.
“We need to get upstairs and back to our ship,” Jace told the others.
“You can’t possibly be thinking of taking a dropship back to the Osiris in the middle of a firefight with eleven Hives,” Typhon objected.
That was a point. A very good point and Jace felt like a fool suggesting it.
“We need Moturin fighters. Whatever you can offer to get us up there,” Khoth stated.
“It is safer down here than in space right now, Khoth. We cannot put the Pilot at risk,” Typhon insisted. “He can communicate with the Osiris remotely, can he not?”
Except, of course, Jace could not. But he was not going to tell Typhon that. Khoth made a movement that could have meant anything, but Typhon took it as assent. For the very truthful Khoth, Jace was incredibly impressed how easily he had led Typhon astray.
“I know you wish to be part of this battle, Jace, Khoth,” Amana said quietly, “but my brother is right. The Pilot’s safety is paramount.”
They were at an impasse. What they were saying made sense. But they didn’t know everything. Maybe it would still make sense even if they did. Yet Jace was like Captain Kirk, always on the away team, never staying on the bridge, safe and sound, where he belonged.
Osiris? Osiris? Can you hear me? He tried again even though he knew it was no use. Osiris, please take care of everyone.
Nothing. No images. No tart replies. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.
“I still need to get up above,” Jace said. “Being here is not an option.”
“Of course.” Typhon bowed and gestured for them to proceed him from the room.
Jace cast one glance back at the database. It showed him an image of the Osiris almost mockingly. This was definitely one system where he couldn’t find access to his beloved AI.
Beloved? Oh, boy, I’m glad Osiris didn’t hear that, Jace thought.
Aren’t I your beloved AI? Gehenna asked as she bumped against his legs. More than the Osiris, surely!
Yes, most definitely, Gehenna. That goes without saying, he assured her.
But the Osiris did a good job with Diane. Saving her like it did, Gehenna admitted.
Yes, and it needs to keep everyone safe, Jace told her almost as if in prayer.
They started out of the room. Jace tried to quicken his steps, but to his horror, he found himself leaning against Khoth heavily. Sweat dotted his brow. He felt every person’s eyes upon him as his weakness asserted itself.
Here’s your savior! He can’t even walk to a lift! But I’m going to save you all! Jace thought bitterly.
Davies came up beside him. “What do you need?”
“Nothing. There’s a dampening device being used by the Khul. It happened before when I took the Hive out. But it causes… issues. Plus all the broken Altaeth tech here feels like someone is stabbing me with dull daggers in the brain.”
“That’s quite evocative,” Dr. Hayter mused. “You’re quite the linguist yourself, Pilot.”
“Thanks, doc, but I’d prefer having my full abilities instead of a large and fun vocabulary right now,” Jace admitted.
“But your great power comes not from your physical form, Jace,” Khoth corrected him. “It is your connection to the tech and your ability to use it.”
“And your ability to inspire people, Pilot,” Davies said. “Those are the things that matter.”
Jace frowned. These things were actually true. As a warrior, he was great--when his body was working--but he was just one man. But as the Pilot, he was so much more.
And I don’t just have access to the Osiris. I have access to all Altaeth tech. All of it on the planet. This planet, Jace thought.
“Thank you both,” Jace said. “I needed to hear that.”
They reached the elevator. The sirens had stopped, but Jace could tell from all of the alerts going out on comms that the danger was hardly over. Just the blaring sirens had stopp: N d. The elevator began to lift.
“The. Khul have never come here before,” Amana’s voice was higher and tighter than normal. One of her hands tugged nervously at her selchitte.
The other Thaf’ell held themselves stiffly, not showing any emotion whatsoever, but Jace was certain she reflected what they all felt.
“What brought them here?” Thadden asked softly.
“We know what has brought them here. The Pilot.” Typhon indicated Jace with a jerk of his head.
“Are you blaming this attack by your long-term enemy on your main hub on the Pilot?” Davies asked.
Davies’ heart rate and breathing rose, as Jace realized, he prepared himself for action. He thought that Typhon was accusing Jace of causing this and that he’d have to physically defend Jace against an attack. Dr. Hayter was even frowning and looking fierce for the academic. Khoth was very still.
“I am not blaming the Pilot for the attack. He has shown the Khul that he is a formidable enemy. Far more than the Alliance. They must eliminate him quickly before he grows into an even greater threat,” Typhon explained. Seeing Davies’ clenched fists, he added, “I am not your enemy, Lieutenant-Commander Davies. I have wished all my life to meet a being such as the Pilot. I will do everything in my power--including giving my life--to keep him safe.”
Davies regarded him silently for long moments. “I pray you’re not lying, Justiciar Moturin. Because the Pilot is your last, best hope here.”
“I know that better than you,” Typhon answered.
“But how did they get all the way to Haseon? They would have to go through the gates of at least a dozen highly secure systems, wouldn’t they? We should have had notice they were coming at least, even if they weren’t stopped before!” Amana pointed out.
Poet or not, she put a finger on what was wrong here.
“Perhaps they are not as highly secure as they once were.” Khoth met Jace’s eyes and Jace knew he was thinking of his mother and the secrets about their faltering military.
“Could their dropships land on the planet?” Amana’s voice was shaking.
Jace thought of what had happened in his little hometown of Sunrise with just a dozen dropships compared to what eleven Hives could bring to Haseon’s surface.
Typhon put a comforting hand on his sister’s shoulder. “The planetary defense systems will protect us.”
Jace’s mind touched the broken and under powered systems that controlled the entire planet. “No, no, they won’t.”
Even Khoth seemed to pale at his words. Everyone stared at him with a kind of sublime horror. Khoth’s father performed that gage gesture and closed his eyes as if in prayer. He had reached out to Khoth and grasped his son’s arm.
“But I can fix that,” Jace realized. His head shot up. Pain had him seeing stars, but he pressed on, “Take me to the main control room.”
Typhon nodded and pushed another button on the lift even as the doors were already opening. It zipped up another floor or two before opening again. Khoth had to practically carry Jace out of the lift. Leaving the labyrinth hadn’t helped. Now that every system on the planet was on red alert he could feel every problem with them. Every empty power cell. Every cut line. Every system that needed updating. The labyrinth had shielded him from the full impact of those systems’ needs. But no longer.
“What is wrong with the Pilot?!” Amana cried. “He needs a doctor--”
“No, no, Gehenna and I need to get--to get to your control room. Please, now,” Jace got out.
Right! Jace, I can plug in and you can use me to access all of the systems, Gehenna cried.
Khoth lifted Jace into his arms and carried him, running down a hallway that was just a blur of auras. He shut his eyes and concentrated on the broken systems. While he could access everything remotely easily with the Osiris’ assistance that was cut off right now, he needed to work through Gehenna this time.
A door whooshed open. Jace felt the air on his face. He heard dozens of voices in the control room speaking to the ships above Haseon’s skies. Gehenna rolled by, causing some commotion as she literally ran a man off his seat to expose a port. She plugged in with a solid thunk.
We have access, Jace! It’s all yours! Gehenna offered.
And Jace let out a sigh as he saw the entire network spread out before him like one giant, planet-sized schematic.
“What is he doing?” Amana asked.
“Accessing the planet’s defense grid,” Jace answered without opening his eyes.
He hit those systems first. He was able to access the cameras on the satellites right below the battle. The Osiris was in the thick of the action. It’s shields were being pummeled, but though it had not yet had a chance to refuel, the enemies’ fire was doing the job. One of its massive forward guns glowed a hot purple before a beam exploded from the end and shot straight towards the nearest Hive. It cut the bottom of the Hive off. The bottom floated free and Jace focused in to see countless Khul bodies floating into space.
But the gun that had done so much damage was on cool down. Jace knew from his earlier research that without the refueling, the gun would take ten Earth minutes to recharge. A lot could happen in 10 minutes. In fact, a lot had already happened.
Of the dozen Colossus-class ships that High Commander Staed had arrayed against them, already one was inoperative while two more were greatly injured. But the Thylacine-class fighters were not surrounding those ships to take them out piece by piece. No, they were attacking the grid, which was already down to 10% power in some parts.
Gehenna, we need to get the grid powered fully up and functional! Jace warned.
I can reroute power from non-essential services, Gehenna said as she showed him the lines that could be turned from their current purpose to power the grid.
Jace started to move within the system, cleaning out bugs, sweeping away patch code, and bringing the machines that powered not only the shields, but other military defenses the Thaf’ell had no idea about, back online after thousands of years.
These were built to last, he thought with satisfaction.
The power started to flow up to the shields and spread over the planet slowly but surely. Just like the Moturin Compound, the shields had been at 30% to begin with, an electric blue. Now they were a thin yellow as they dropped dangerously low.
Ooh! Jace, do you see this weapon?! Gehenna sounded thrilled.
It was a massive gun located beneath one of the old sports stadiums.
I do. I’ve already started to warm it up. One blast can disintegrate a Hive, he said. Shields first, though.
The thin yellow shields suddenly flooded blue.
“This is incredible!” An unfamiliar voice cried. “The shields are increasing in power! They should be decreasing. I don’t understand this!”
“It’s the Pilot,” Typhon said with deep satisfaction.
Jace’s head was throbbing less. Khoth hadn’t let him out of his arms. His powerful Thaf’ell warrior cradled him tenderly and Jace could feel Khoth willing his own strength into Jace.
“The Skadden is down!” a Thaf’ell called out, their voice neutral, but Jace knew that there was grief there.
“The Nightal is incapacitated!” another added with a slight tremor that was brutally quashed.
“Those are some of our best ships,” Amana said. “The pride of the fleet.”
“They are fighting bravely,” Khoth answered her.
Jace knew that Khoth would have been aware of how many ships were being lost, too, but he had said nothing. Worse, Khoth would likely know--and be friends--with people on those ships. But he didn’t wish to worry Jace. Distract Jace.
And what about Khoth’s old crew? Were they on those ships? Which ones? Jace touched the crew rosters and found them. Most were on Staed’s ship. Though they had followed Khoth on a mad mission to save his sister, they were still the best. Khoth knew this. Khoth knew his friends were dying above them, but he held Jace in arms that didn’t tremble even the least bit.
“If the shields were not holding, there would be hundreds of dropships on Haseon’s surface already,” Typhon stated.
“We’d be overrun,” Amana whispered.
“Not going to happen,” Jace said.
“Pilot, do what you can! Please!” Amana cried.
“He will,” Khoth answered simply.
Jace ran down the lines of power and code and teased machines to run that hadn’t been touched in too long. They purred with happiness, or so it seemed to Jace, as he touched them. There was an almost sentient feel to all of the machines on Haseon. They were not cold metal, unfeeling and unthinking, but in need of warmth and touch like people. When he turned something on, it was more like waking someone from sleep. Their eyelids fluttered open and they saw him. Their eyes brightened with joy. Not alone! Not alone any longer!
Jace, they’ve been alone… oh, Jace, they’re a little like me, Gehenna said softly, sadly.
Not quite you, Gehenna. They aren’t as sophisticated, but there are AIs here. Everywhere, Jace realized.
And when they touched his mind, they understood what he needed them to do. They acted faster than he could, knowing these systems in a way he did not yet. The shield above the planet was all blue now and powering up.
“High Commander Staed’s ship in under heavy attack!” one of the Thaf’ell cried.
“He has lost rear shields!” another added in.
“The Osiris has cleared the area of Thylacine-class fighters, but more are coming. No…” The last was said in a soft breath.
Jace focused on the cameras again. One of the Hives was powering up a weapon. It was a high-powered laser that was the color of Earth’s sun. Gold and beautiful and deadly.
Gehenna, the gun! Does it have enough power to fire yet? Jace asked.
Almost! But the iris needs to open! Starting that! Oh, boy, the stadium is going to collapse, she warned him.
I don’t think the Thaf’ell will mind, Jace said.
The Osiris sent another blast of the big gun at the Hive that was powering up, but dozens of Thylacine-class fighters positioned themselves between it and the powering-up Hive. The fighters were vaporized, but the blast was drained of much of its strength so that it only scarred the Hive, leaving a long line of darkness along the outside.
Damnit! Gehenna, gun! Gun now, please!
“We just lost the Shasheen!” a Thaf’ell shouted.
“That’s more than half the fleet!” Amana cried.
“More ships are coming, but it will take several sub-cycles for them to arrive, Justiciar Moturin,” one of the Thaf’ell said.
“The Shasheen is coming down!” Another shouted and Jace saw what he meant.
The Shasheen had been herded towards a section of the planet’s shields. If they had been fully operational--or even half operational--this wouldn’t have been an issue, but since they were not, the hold points for the shield there were hit and destroyed. A section of the shield winked out of existence.
Gehenna, reroute shield power! Jace cried even as he helped the AI to get other hold points to stretch and more power surged into the rest of the shield.
But the Thylacine-class fighters were right there and started dropping through. The inner defense systems lit up and started firing at the entering enemy ships, but they were working at only 20% and the Thylacine-class fighters’ shields protected them from the scattered fire. He sent the small AIs as he thought of them to work on those as he focused on this matter.
“By the gods, they are inside,” Amana breathed.
The gun came online fully just as the iris under the stadium rotated open. The Thylacine-class fighters were still clustered by the shield opening, heading like a spear right towards the city center where he was.
Coming for me, are you? Well, let me give you the welcome wagon!
Jace sent a blast from the main gun towards the Thylacine-class fighters. It enveloped them in a green light that was almost blinding.
“What was that?” one of the Thaf’ell gasped.
“You have a big gun,” Jace said.
The planetary shield was about to close again, but Jace kept it open. The Hive that had its sights on Staed’s ship and Khoth’s old crew was about to fire. And the angle was just perfect.
Jace sent a blast from the big gun. It streaked up into the air so fast that it was a momentary green flash and nothing more. It burst into space and hit the Hive dead-center. The Hive exploded and Jace laughed.
“A Hive’s down! High Commander Staed’s ship is in the clear. I repeat, he is in the clear!” a triumphant Thaf’ell called out.
“Bless us,” Thadden whispered. “Bless us.”
“Bless the Pilot,” Khoth said.
“Now, not you, too,” Jace said without opening his eyes though he wished he could see Khoth’s beautiful face. But it would likely be just a blur of auras.
The shield above the planet was repaired and Jace was about to focus on powering them up and aiming for another Hive with the big gun, but that was when Gehenna alerted him.
Jace! JACE! One Thylacine-class fighter made it down! The Khul have landed!