CHAPTER SIXTY-THREE: MECHA-JACE
“Can anyone hear me? Is there anyone out there? AT ALL?” Thammah’s voice suddenly rose up through his and Jace’s comms.
“Khoth, could you talk to her? Got some things going on here,” Jace asked, eyes still closed, face still pale and body still mostly limp in Khoth’s arms.
“Flight-Commander Pyrrhus,” Khoth responded, having to shift Jace in his embrace slightly to answer.
“Khoth!” Thammah completely forgot his title. “Thank the Altaeth! What is happening? I lost contact with the Osiris!”
“The Khul are using some sort of dampening device,” Khoth explained, wincing slightly at revealing this. “It’s cut us all off.”
“Damn! Is Jace--the Pilot--ah, doing okay?” she asked, clearly understanding the “all” part of that sentence to mean that Jace was cut off too.
Jace made a thumb’s up. Eyes remained closed though. He answered, “I’m dandy, Thammah.”
“Well, that’s a relief!” And she did sound relieved. “And was that a Khul ship landing here? Well, I’m going to find out about that in a little bit.”
Khoth heard the roar of engines. “You cannot take a dropship against a Khul lander. Do not be mad, Thammah!” He, evidently, had forgotten her title too.
“I’m not. Who would use a lander to go up against the Khul? No weapons for goodness sake!” Thammah chuckled and there was the whine as the ship she was in rose.
“Then what are you flying?” Khoth demanded to know.
“I stole one of the Paladins, of course!” She let out a sigh as if he was the most foolish Thaf’ell ever. “They were all arrayed so prettily at the space port. And no one was using them at the moment despite us being under attack.”
Khoth’s eyes slid over to the security forces in the room. They were pretending not to listen. But he thought he caught some smiles. Typhon needed to instill more discipline in the ranks, Khoth thought sniffily. Then he heard Jace give out a little laugh.
“That’s our Thammah,” Jace said.
“I’ll be in touch as soon as I have something to report,” Thammah said. “Oh, and could you let the flight command know that they shouldn’t shoot me down?”
“It’s already done,” Typhon said.
“Then I’m going to fly!” Thammah said and signed off.
“Ground forces are being dispatched to the location of the Khul landing as well,” one of the security personnel reported to Typhon.
Typhon nodded. “That is good--”
“They won’t arrive in time. We have to cut them down far before that or they'll start infecting the populace, potentially causing an unbreakable chain of infection,” Jace said as his eyes opened.
Jace’s eyes were that pure, neon blue where Khoth could literally see within them the workings of the systems that Jace had tapped into. Those eyes focused on him even as Khoth took in what he had said and felt himself go numb. He was not alone in his shock.
Typhon jerked slightly at Jace’s words. Haseon could fall. The Thaf’ell homeworld could be lost. One seed ship was enough. One Khul was enough. They all knew this. Other worlds had been abandoned and cleansed for less. But Haseon? Their Haseon? Seat of the Alliance Council? Would they have to cleanse it?
Khoth wanted to reach for his rahir and draagves, but he had neither of them with him. He needed to get his hands on some weapons. They would not be as good as the ones on the Osiris--and he would never again leave without them--but they would be something. Yet when he did get them, he would not be going after the Khul. He would not be defending the Thaf’ell or the Alliance. He would be staying here and protecting Jace.
Typhon was immediately ordering one of his security personnel, “Bring my personal weapons.” Seeing Khoth’s meaningful look he added, “Bring weapons for everyone.”
The security officer practically flew from the room, already barking orders into his comm for the things they would need.
“Since I fixed the shields on the Moturin Compound this is the one place the Khul can’t get into,” Jace told them, which caused some shoulders to relax. “But it's the one place they want to enter. But since that’s out, they’ll do whatever they have to in order to lure us out to them.”
“What do you mean? Why would they wish to get in here specifically?” Amana asked, but then she answered her own question, “They’re coming for you, Pilot. You said that before, but it’s really true. They know you’re here.”
Jace indicated that he wanted to get down. Khoth reluctantly placed Jace on his feet. Jace didn’t wobble again like he had in the elevator when he’d tried to walk, but he did hold onto Khoth’s hands tightly to help keep upright. A new sheen of sweat coated Jace’s face just from this effort.
“They are. That’s the only reason they revealed they could get past your defenses so easily and reach Haseon,” Jace said.
“How much damage to the other systems did they cause before they got here though?” she asked. “There’s still no word from anyone. I can’t believe it.”
She’d asked that before and Khoth felt a wash of anger at his mother. She must have truly weakened the systems if the Khul could bring 11 Hives to Haseon without alerting anyone. The Khul would have had to have destroyed their forces before they could send out a single alarm. Was that truly possible? It staggered him just to consider it.
“I wonder if they had to cause any harm at all,” Jace said as he indicated he wished to sit down.
Khoth helped Jace sit in a vacant chair. The Pilot let out a relieved sigh as soon as he was down again. Khoth kept a hand on Jace’s shoulder. Perhaps it was just a fancy of his, but it felt as if he was giving Jace some sustaining energy just by touching him.
“What do you mean?” Khoth’s father asked. “There are only limited ways to get to the Haseon gate. All of them lead through heavily guarded systems.”
“That’s what I thought, too, but some of the AI systems on your planet are telling me differently,” Jace said. “There are Master Gates. They’re rare. They’re far away. But they can literally open any gate they want.”
Silence fell at that. The Alliance’s whole strategy was to guard as many points of entry into the Haseon system as possible, but that was a vain and foolish plan if what Jace was saying was true. A Master Gate? A gate that could lead anywhere? But Khoth knew if Jace was saying it, it was true.
“AIs? We don’t have anything like that on Haseon,” Amana said, but faintly as if she too was beginning to understand that Jace spoke only the truth. No matter how impossible it seemed.
Jace smiled almost affectionately as if he was seeing those AIs before him and they were doing something funny. “You do. They’re everywhere. Not as fancy or sophisticated as Gehenna or the Osiris, but they’re here. They’re… talking a lot.” Jace shook his head. “They have a lot to tell us.”
“If the Khul have access to a Master Gate then they can continue to flood our system with Hives. Even your Osiris cannot defeat them forever,” Typhon said, anxiety crawling across his face for a moment.
Khoth wondered what the state of the war up above was. Jace had saved Staed’s ship where most of his former crewmates were. He had tried not to think of them. He was no longer their Commander. And to die protecting Haseon from the Khul was the most honorable of deaths. But that they could succeed and live was beyond what he could have hoped for. Jace had made that happen by accessing tech inside Haseon itself that had been hidden from them for millennia. It was inconceivable, yet Jace had done it.
“The Master Gates are separated from other gates by huge distances and nothing--and I mean nothing--lives around them,” Jace said. “I’m betting the Khul sent all their resources that were near it through, but I doubt that they had many more Hives in that area because--”
“Of the lack of food,” Khoth murmured, understanding where Jace was going with this.
Jace nodded. “But they’ll be sending more through in the future if they don’t succeed this time and we need to prepare for that.”
“They’re not succeeding this time or any other,” Davies growled and sliced one hand through the air.
At that moment, staff arrived with weaponry. First, they presented Typhon with his family’s weapons. They were unique and incredibly deadly.
Typhon’s draagves was a flat black metal with many scars. It had three different fire modes. A poisonous, acidic-type buckshot that could pepper the Khul exoskeletons with many small holes while the pellets would dissolve the Khul from the inside out, poisoning them as it turned their insides to goo. A second mode was a sustained laser, which could slice off Khul limbs and heads. The third was the more standard rifle, which would emit laser blasts at a high rate, but with a loss of accuracy.
Typhon’s rahir was double-bladed with a thin poisonous point that could be triggered in a close fight. It was retracted into the hilt at the moment, but Khoth had seen it put to good use in a battle that Typhon and he had both participated in. Despite calls for him to remain safe on Haseon--though that safety now appeared illusionary--Typhon had gone on missions from time to time.
The staff held up a selection of weapons for Khoth to choose from. They were fine, though he truly noted not as good as those on the Osiris, but he was grateful for them. Khoth took a red-edged rahir and a draagves that was modified with a grenade launcher in addition to the standard rifle.
Davies immediately followed after him. The staff froze as the human moved to take a weapon and then looked at Typhon as if to confirm this lesser being was allowed to touch their sacred weaponry.
Typhon nodded. “Everyone gets a weapon against the Khul. Can you use it, Lieutenant-Commander Davies?”
Davies fluidly grabbed a draagves that was on the top. He expertly spun the weapon, showing how he could use it as a club, and then brought it up and fired. He had aimed for and hit a small sign on the opposite side of the room with startling ease. Weapon training was continuously being provided on the Osiris and, evidently, Davies had taken full advantage of it.
“Yes, Justiciar Moturin, I know how to use it,” Davies replied with a tight smile and grabbed a blue-edged rahir.
Typhon inclined his head. “It was merely a question.”
“And that was merely my answer,” Davies responded.
Khoth did not think that Davies was reading disrespect where there was none. He rather thought that it was best that Davies and all the humans showed they were quite capable.
“We don’t fire the draagves indoors unless it's at an enemy, Lieutenant-Commander Davies,” Jace said with a small grin even as he leaned back heavily in the chair.
“Understood, Pilot. I apologize, Justiciar Moturin.” Davies performed a stiff bow.
“No need.” Moturin tipped his head though he stared for long moments at Davies as the human expertly checked his weapons as if he had been handling them all his life.
The servant quickly offered the weapons to Dr. Hayter even though the doctor with his soft stomach and glasses looked the least like a soldier. Khoth did not expect him to want a weapon, but the doctor chose a draagves with a long scope for far away shots. He, too, showed an amazing proficiency with it, sighting down the scope before bringing it down with a sigh of satisfaction.
“He’s quite a good sniper,” Davies said in explanation as he saw Khoth’s faint surprise.
“Yes, I know I’m not really anyone’s idea of a soldier.” Dr. Hayter patted his stomach almost fondly. “But I’ve always been a good shot, even with these glasses. It’s more my medium than far vision that’s affected.”
“Soldiers come in all shapes and sizes, Dr. Hayter,” Amana said as she was presented with her personal double rahir that she expertly spun in her hands. “And against the Khul, everyone fights or they die.”
His father was the final one to pick up a draagves and rahir. He hefted both with a sense of familiarity though his father had never killed a Khul or anything before. But he had trained with Khoth and went shooting with Nova. But he doubted that his father had ever envisioned fighting the Khul on Haseon.
Mother… What is happening with her?
Was she watching the fight with horror and white-knuckles? He had not seen the Ashaton in the fight, which was strange. Perhaps she had sent it on to patrol without her. Or maybe Ulgex had relieved his mother of her command as they prepared to replace her on the Council.
As if reading Khoth’s thoughts, his father said, “Your mother always feared an attack on Alliance space, but she never thought it would be Haseon.”
“I am certain that she and the other Councillors are being kept safe,” Typhon said.
“Nova would not cower while Khul are on Haseon,” his father said.
Khoth was in agreement. But he wanted his mother to stay out of the way.
“Our people need to know that it was the Pilot who has done so much,” Amana said as the report of two more Hives came through. No more of the vessels had been destroyed at this point.
The Osiris had cut both through with one blast. Khoth could very well believe the Osiris was loving every minute of battle.
“They’ll know,” Typhon said. “Do not worry, sister. All will know.”
“We’re not through this yet by a long shot. Let’s make sure there are people to tell,” Jace reminded them.
“Ah, everyone, there are a lot of Khul here. A lot,” Thammah’s voice came over the comm. There were the pew-pew sounds of lasers followed by the roar of her engines as she strafed the Khul. “I think I need some assistance with this bug hunt!”
“You’re going to have it, Thammah!” Jace answered. “Me, Khoth, Davies, and Dr. Hayter will be joining you.”
“Pilot,” Khoth’s voice was warm, but held a note of reluctance.
“You’re not going anywhere, Pilot.” Davies stood in front of Jace with hands on his hips.
“Pilot, we will keep you safe here,” Amana said kindly.
“Indeed. I will remain by your side as well, Pilot,” his father offered.
Khoth felt a swell of warmth. His father was willing to protect Jace. That was so much more than he’d ever hoped.
“You are unwell, Pilot,” Typhon said. “I know your bravery and all have seen your victory here, but--”
“Oh, guys! Guys! Time out!” Jace made a “T” symbol with both hands. “I know I’m a mess. I have no delusions that I can walk to that door right now let alone fight the Khul. Besides, I still have to help with the battle up above, fire the BFG and all that.”
“BFG?” his father tilted his head to the side.
Jace flushed. “Big Fucking Gun. That’s what I’m calling your Hive killer over underneath the remains of the stadium.”
“But you told Thammah you would be joining her in the battle,” Khoth pointed out.
“Yeah, I will!” He put a hand on Gehenna’s metal butt. “I’m going to try a new form just like our girl here.”
Gehenna’s head swiveled around as she remarked gaily, “I found Jace a mech he can pilot with his mind while he stays right in that chair!”
Dr. Hayter blinked. “Oh, my, a mech. Will it be like some of those wonderful anime, I suppose? Though, of course, most of those pilots go mad.”
“Don’t worry about that. These systems sing for me,” Jace said, settling back in the chair. “And better yet, this mech will get you to the action super quick. It’s waiting for you up on the landing pad. Head on up there now.”
“I will be in this war party with you,” Typhon said as he stripped off his outer robes to reveal a bodysuit underneath that showed just how powerful a form he had.
“The more the merrier,” Jace remarked, but dryly and his eyes narrowed as he took in Typhon’s physique. “Good luck, everyone. I’ll be with you every step of the way. But this is the real deal. Nobody is safe. So please, please, please be aware of your surroundings at all times.”
“That is understood,” Typhon answered
But even as the others moved towards the door, except Amana and his father, Khoth lingered. Jace’s head turned toward him. There was a questioning look on Jace’s face, even as there was anxiety there too, but then it cleared up when Khoth spoke.
“I believe I should remain here with you, Pilot,” Khoth said softly.
No matter how much he wanted to fight for his people, Jace was his life. And truly, Jace was his people’s life, too. Without Jace, Haseon would have fallen. All their defenses, all their belief in their safety, was gone.
“I know. But I need you out there. The shield will keep the Khul out,” Jace told him gently. “I’m actually freaking out sending you… sending you away. But I don’t think we can win this without you. I… I know we can’t.”
Khoth swallowed. “But you may need--”
“I always need you,” Jace interrupted gently. “Alway. And… I don’t know what I would do if I…” Jace shook his head and let out a breath. “But you need to be out there killing the Khul and saving the people. Or that’s what I keep telling myself.”
Khoth gave a jerky nod. “I will do as you say, Pilot.”
“You’re coming back to me,” Jace stated. It was not a question.
“You will come back to me,” Jace repeated.
The others in the room tried not to notice the intensity in Jace’s voice. Amana and his father looked away as if they couldn’t even hear.
“I will. I promise,” Khoth said.
Finally, Jace nodded. “Give the Khul Hell with me, Khoth. Make them regret that they ever set foot here.”
That went without saying.
“I will see you upstairs. I’m not leaving your side,” Jace said, meaning as a mech, he supposed.
Another nod. His throat felt so tight that every word felt too big to push out. Even as Khoth knew he should just bow and go, he didn’t. Instead, he leaned down and kissed Jace. It was a hard, desperate kiss that Khoth wanted to leave marks. When he pulled back, he looked deeply into Jace’s eyes.
“I will return to you, Jace.”
He caressed Jace’s face before standing. Then he bowed and turned on his heel to join the others in the hallway. He caught sight of his father’s lifted eyebrows, but there was also a faint smile on his father’s lips. Amana was beaming as if she couldn’t have been happier for him. Typhon appeared completely neutral, which could have meant everything and nothing.
“I was so hoping you would do that,” Dr. Hayter said with a rather romantic sigh.
“You knew of my feelings for the Pilot?” Khoth asked tightly as they all piled into the elevator.
“Everyone knows,” Davies answered. “Except for maybe Bob in Engineering--”
“Oh, no, Bob knows, too,” Dr. Hayter said.
Typhon said nothing. But Khoth was certain he had known as well. Was his and Jace’s attempts at hiding their relationship working at all? Evidently, not. But that didn’t mean they shouldn’t be circumspect to keep morale high. Though both Dr. Hayter and Davies appeared happy about his and Jace’s display.
Davies jostled his arm playfully as the elevator rose. “Don’t look like you’re sucking on a lemon. Your home planet is being attacked. Jace looks like death warmed over. Kissing him was a good idea.”
Khoth gave a brief nod.
“The Pilot did perk up very nicely after that!” Dr. Hayter sighed happily again.
“I’m having my security forces leave by the gate,” Typhon said, studiously ignoring their discussion.
“Good. What do we do about the infected?” Davies asked.
“There is no way to save them,” Khoth answered, the glow of kissing Jace draining away almost entirely. “They must be killed, tagged as contaminated and their bodies destroyed.”
Silence fell in the elevator car.
“More than that may have to be done,” Typhon murmured.
Khoth stiffened. He realized as soon as Typhon said it, he was right. “You are thinking about Staulis?”
Typhon gave a brief nod.
“Staulis?” Davies asked.
But Khoth didn’t give a chance to answer as the lift doors opened and the four of them raced out and down the short hallway to the stairs up to the landing pad. They barreled up the stairs and when they got to the top they found a shadow covering them.
“I wonder what Jace’s mech will look like--oh!” Dr. Hayter gasped.
They didn’t have to look hard for the mech. All of them staggered to a halt as they saw the mech. It loomed above them, thirty-feet tall with two massive legs standing on either side of the canceaux that had brought them to the compound. A tank-like body topped the legs. There was a massive laser sitting atop the body while two “arms” had guns as well as sharp blades on the undersides so that they could fire and slice.
On their comms came the greeting, Hang onto my legs, guys. I can fly us there.
Getting over their shock, they hustled towards the giant mech. There were rungs on the back of the metal legs that allowed them all to crawl up: two on one leg, and two on the other. Khoth could see two exhausts on the back of the mech’s body, aimed away from them so they would not be fried when it took off.
“Where did you find this mech, Pilot? I have seen nothing like this,” Typhon asked.
There are loads of toys hidden away. I can’t wait to show you all after this, Jace said. But let’s deal with the Khul first.
Jace, as Khoth was now going to think of as the mech, turned around towards where the Khul ship had landed. Khoth could see a thin trail of smoke rising up from one of the seed ships that had cut down into the city. He thought he heard faint screams and shuddered.
Staulis… will that be enough? Or has the Khul made inroads already?
Jace’s words flashed over the comms: Buckle up, boys. We’re going on a bug hunt!