CHAPTER SIXTY-FIVE: NO OTHER CHOICE
Meanwhile, on the Osiris…
Jack Parker clenched his fists as he took in the multiple screens showing him the space battle outside. There were four Hives left. Just four. But the Osiris was getting low on power and there were only three shots left for the devastating big gun. The Khul had figured out that attacking the Osiris only gave the ship energy to use to power the shields and its weaponry.
“Should have stopped at your friendly neighborhood gas giant to top up the tanks before we went on this family vacation,” Jack said through gritted teeth.
Such a review of past actions is only useful for future battles, Flight-Commander Parker. It is not useful for the current engagement, the Osiris replied tartly on the screen to his lower right. You may make your recommendations at a later date. You are only here because there is no one of greater rank on board at this time.
Jace had told him and Diane that a “tart” Osiris was a happy Osiris, but Jack was pretty sure that this wasn’t the case this time. Both of them were anxious that they were cut off from Jace and now low on power.
“Four Hives, three shots left, Osiris. That’s the math. Any lessening of that dampening field so we can reach Jace and get that big gun down on the planet to send death from below again?” Jack asked.
One single word that had Jack’s mouth going dry. Only one ship had made it to the planet’s surface. Khoth and Jace had taken out a whole Hive. They would be able to handle one ship.
But Jack knew how any battle could go south. And that was his son down there. A son that up until a few days ago couldn’t get out of bed some days due to pain. Now Jack and Diane were up here and couldn’t even contact their son.
“Dai?” Jack barked into the local comms to get the engineer Dai Suzuki.
His pleasant face appeared on one of the screens. Sweat coated his broad forehead, but his voice was level, “Flight-Commander Parker?”
“We have four Hives and enough power for three blasts. Not good odds, Dai,” Jack said to the engineer who nodded. “I need more power. Any way to make that happen?”
Before Dai had even opened his mouth, a furious bit of text appeared from the Osiris, I am in need of no assistance from--
“You’re built to work with someone, with the Pilot,” Jack interrupted. “And you don’t have him here right now.”
I am quite capable of managing my own power systems! The Osiris did not add an exclamation point, but Jack heard it all the same.
“Uhm, actually, I’ve been studying your systems and if we diverted power from the shields to the main weapon, I believe we could have a fourth blast,” Dai said, pushing his glasses up his nose.
The cursor blinked.
“Well, Osiris, is he right?” Jack asked.
The cursor blinked.
Jack crossed his arms over his chest. “Osiris--”
That is not a viable option, the Osiris finally responded.
“Why not?” Jack’s eyes narrowed.
Because I am cut off from casting myself into another location, the Osiris answered.
“Wait, are you telling me that you won’t do it because you’re afraid you’ll die?” Jack’s eyebrows rose.
“Draining the shields and powering up the main weapon will leave us exposed for approximately 20 seconds before the weapon can fire,” Dai added. “I know a lot can happen in 20 seconds, but it’s an option.”
“Osiris, that is a very valid option. If we use it for the last Hive and coordinate with the other ships in the area--”
While that might end this conflict, if I am damaged or destroyed, the Khul have ultimately won, the Osiris finally responded.
“How long can that shield around the planet hold before the Hive can break through? How long before there’s a thousand ships on Haseon and not just one?” Jack asked.
Other Alliance vessels should be making their way here--
“Are they? How far are they out? Will they have enough fire power? You don’t know because you’re cut off. If Haseon falls, the Alliance falls. Everything Jace is trying to accomplish is done.” Jack sliced a hand through the air. “We need a win here.”
My loss would cripple the Pilot, the Osiris answered.
It was a low blow, but it was likely true. Jace had tasted freedom mostly from the pain and limitations of his old life. Jack knew that even if somehow Jace survived what was happening down on that planet, it would destroy his son at some integral level to be reduced again. But he knew that wouldn’t matter to Jace. Not enough to stop his son from doing what was right.
Jack felt like he was stabbing his own heart repeatedly, but he said, “If Jace were here, he would tell you to do it, to do anything to save these people.”
The cursor blinked.
Jack turned back to Dai. “Keep looking for options, okay? Contact me at any time.”
“Yes, Flight-Commander! Bob and I will do our best!” Dai made a salute even though he was a civilian.
Jack saluted back. Dai’s image winked out. He glared at the cursor. He was certain that without the Osiris’ buy-in that they could not force the AI to do what they wanted. Only Jace could do that and his son was not there.
Please be okay, son, Jack prayed.
He shook himself. There was more than one way to approach a problem. If draining the shields was not an option then maybe there was another. He wasn’t going to stop trying.
“Get me Colonel Parker and High Commander Staed on the comm,” Jack ordered.
Diane immediately appeared in a section of the screens ahead of him. “Jack.” She then straightened up and said, “Flight-Commander Parker, thank you for the assist out of the Gate.”
“Happy to help, Colonel. You need to stay in our shadow for now. That bucket of bolts has nothing that can take down a Hive and the shields are iffy,” Jack said and tried to keep the anger out of his voice.
This was not the ship that they had been promised. But he knew that sending the rustbucket that Diane and Intoshkin were on had been a petty act, but not a malicious one. No one had known that the Khul could get here and attack like this. Now though it mattered that his wife was on a vessel that could be cracked open like an egg with a few well-timed blasts from a Hive. He had flown plenty of missions where his life was on the line. But Diane had always been safe at the base.
Well, except for that one time the Osiris thought it could rip our son out of her body.
He glared at the blinking cursor again. But the point was that now he wasn’t just dealing with the possibility of his own death, but Diane and Jace’s. Being the one in danger was so much easier.
Staed appeared on another screen. He looked ill, but determined. He had lost half his fleet in moments. If the Osiris hadn’t been there in time, his own ship would have been split open and his people sucked out into the void. So his hatred of humans was more on a low simmer rather than a blaze like earlier.
“Flight-Commander Parker, where is your son?” Staed barked. “He can restore our defense grid, but not communications with the ground?”
He saw Diane’s expression going arctic. He could feel a cutting remark coming. But Staed’s ego was already too brittle to handle much more. Besides, he was on the ropes and he knew it.
“If he could, he would, Staed,” Jack replied calmly. “We’re all blocked from ground support. Until we get rid of those damned Hives, I’m betting nothing is going to change. And that also means the Osiris cannot reliably control your ships so we have to work together the old-fashioned way.”
Staed’s chin lifted, which was a warning sign if Jack ever saw one. “My ship will lead in any attack--”
“Then you and your people will die,” Jack cut him off. Brittle ego or not, he wasn’t listening to this crap. His eyes went to the other screens where the Hives spun and dodged. “We’ve got to be smart about this. Here’s the deal. The Osiris has three shots. There are four Hives.”
He saw the grim understanding flow over both Staed’s and Diane’s faces.
“What are our options, Jack?” Diane said, dropping the titles.
He was glad. This might be the last time they spoke. A wave of despair flowed through him, but he pushed it away. He had always taken chances. Life was lived on a knife’s edge no matter the illusion of safety.
Jack scrubbed a hand over his head. “As I see it, we have a few options. First, we can try to herd or lure the Hives near enough to the planet that the Big Gun there takes one or more out.”
“Space is vast, Flight-Commander, and our shields are low,” Staed said. “It is unlikely that such a lure or herding maneuver would be successful.”
At that moment, Staed’s ship gave a shuddering jerk. The High Commander nearly lost his footing. Electrical shorts appeared on the nearest console. Jack saw Staed’s crew frantically trying to put the resulting fire out. He would have to check in with Dr. Isa to make sure none of the Osiris’ crew were badly injured. But due to the Osiris’ unique shields, other than a few jolts they’d been fine so far.
“True.” Jack nodded. “Another option is to get the Hives lined up so that one blast from the Osiris’ main weapon takes out both, or at least, wounds the second enough that conventional, less powerful weaponry can take it out.”
Diane crossed her arms over her chest and gave him a crooked smile. “Do you think the Khul will be so obliging?”
“I’m more thinking that our piloting will accomplish more of the heavy lifting there,” Jack answered her.
Jack really wished he could take over the Osiris’ controls, but as the AI had pointed out, he was a beginner at flying a Paladin class ship. He had no training whatsoever flying the Osiris. And could he really do better than an AI anyways even if he had the experience? Logically, Jack would have to say “no” but flying and fighting were about more than logic. Sometimes there was luck involved. And AIs didn’t deal in luck or fate or whatever it was that made things happen in a certain way at the exact right time. But the Osiris was already putting its ears back and glowering at him. Bring luck up now and it might stop listening to him altogether.
“Is there a third option, Flight-Commander?” Staed asked, frowning at his silence, and clearly sensing that Jack was holding back.
Jack’s eyes slid to the cursor that blinked. If the Osiris wouldn’t do it there was no reason to give the others false hope.
He grinned tightly. “No, that’s it. I need the fleet to help me get the Hives to line up or get near the planet. The Osiris will take point as they don’t like shooting at us. But we are going to have to all work together.”
“So you are going to be the leader, Flight-Commander? A human on his first trip into outer space?” Staed scowled.
But then his vessel was struck again and again by fire by the Khul. He fell to the ground. Ceiling panels crashed down on top of him. Diane gasped and clutched the front of her uniform. Jack found himself holding his breath. Staed did not get back up.
Crew swarmed the area. He heard a call for “Medic!” And then Staed’s body was carried away. Whether he was alive or dead wasn’t clear. Another Thaf’ell came into frame. There was blood crusting his temple and his uniform was streaked with dirt. But he seemed strangely calm. Jack recognized someone that had seen a lot of battles.
“What’s your name, soldier?” Jack asked. “Are you next in charge?”
“Matzen. I’m all that’s left,” the grim Thaf’ell said, riding out the next shudder of his craft.
“I see. I’m going to make you the same offer as I did Staed--”
“I heard your offer. I heard his dismissal,” Matzen said.
Jack grimaced. “Well, if you’re not going to assist--”
“On the contrary, I am going to assist. The Alliance Fleet--what’s left of it--is yours to command, Jack Parker,” Matzen said.
Jack blinked. “You’re different.”
He hadn’t meant to say that, but it didn’t seem to offend Matzen. Instead, he gave a thin, bladed smile.
“I served under Commander Khoth Voor. I wish to do so again,” Matzen said simply. “And we are out of options.”
“Right.” Jack grinned. “Then let’s put it all out there. Here’s the plan.”
As he talked, Matzen and Diane listened. This would be their only shot. Jack hoped it would work.
Meanwhile, in the storm sewers on Ylore...
Davies dropped into the Ylore equivalent of storm sewers. It reminded him of fall in Bethesda. The scent of leaves and other rotting vegetation filled his nostrils. Damp stone and water added to the aromas, but it did not cover the dry, foul scent of the Khul.
The storm sewers were barely lit from grated openings up above to intermittent lights every ten feet or so. These lights were a sour yellow color that dimmed and surged at strange intervals. The whole system was under strain. It was confirmation of what Jace had said about things being broken and in desperate need of repair.
Davies checked his comm to see where the Khul were ahead of him. Eerily like the device that had been used in Alien, the comm showed the Khul as green dots--seven of them--arrayed up ahead. The lines of the sewers were shown simply in two-dimensions. Unlike in video games, there was no cone of light telling him which way the Khul were looking.
Davies took out his draagves and double-checked that it was working properly. He always checked, double-checked and sometimes triple-checked his equipment. His life had been held by a thread and malfunctioning equipment could have caused that thread to snap. Assured that all was well, he started to run low down the sewer.
The sewer was ten feet tall and just as wide. He had hoped it would be narrower. The Khul were much bigger than him. It would have been nice to have them hunched over and creeping forward. As it was, they might have to duck their heads, but there was plenty of room even for their insectoid bodies. A smaller space would have made it easier to shoot them, too, but it would give him less room to maneuver as well.
He avoided the small river of water that ran down the center of the tunnel. The stone he was on was wet, but there were few puddles, and those he avoided. His footsteps made little sound, but the Khul were very sensitive to vibrations. Yet there wasn’t time to creep the whole way there. He was certain that they had brought some kind of explosives to get into the Moturin Compound and, unlike Jace, he wasn’t sure the shields would hold.
Jace had done the best he could in a short amount of time to fix this little piece of Haseon, but the Khul had had millennia to know this technology and ways around it. If Jace’d had the right amount of time and materials, Davies was certain the young man could have made the place Khul-tight. But not under the circumstances he’d had.
On one level, he’d been slightly disappointed to find the Thaf’ell living in a city whose technology they didn’t fully understand and whose infrastructure was failing slowly all around them. Not that it wasn’t something Davies had seen time and time again on Earth, but still, he’d hoped for better. He was sure there were better things. But not this. At the same time, it made him more certain than ever that Jace and his crew had something to truly offer the Alliance. There were blind spots that they couldn’t--or wouldn’t--see and a fresh set of eyes could put them right again.
Davies slowed down as he neared a curve in the sewer. A brief glance at his comm showed him that the Khul were clustered just beyond this bend about twenty-five feet away. There was a line ahead of them, indicating that the sewer was blocked in some way. That was the Moturin Compound. Do not go. Do not enter. Do not collect $200.
Davies slowed to a crawl, taking great care how he put his feet down on the ground. Heel to toe in a slow, but deliberate movement. He stopped as he reached the very edge of the curve. He leaned his back against it and listened.
There was the click, click, click of the Khul’s chitinous bodies as they moved. The dry, raspy smell coated the back of his tongue and throat. He wanted to vomit, but resolutely breathed through his mouth and not his nose to minimize the smell. Certain that none of them were coming his way to check on what had made those running sounds, Davies slowly peeked out. He quickly drew back again.
Two of the Khul--Omull--were standing guard, their gazes towards this part of the sewer though they had been turning back to look at what the others were doing. He had caught a glimpse of them too. The other five--several caterpillar-like Cetixes and a few more Omull--were fastening octagonal canisters to a wall that was covered in a glowing shield. There were various pipes coming out of the wall where liquid and debris from the Compound passed through the shield--it must work one-way--and join the sewer system. The octagonal canisters glowed a virulent green and though Davies did not know what compound was in them, he knew what they were.
Davies grimaced. He had expected this, but he was feeling just how under equipped he was. If he had a grenade or two or ten he would have sent those rolling down the sewer towards the bugs and blow them into smithereens. It would have likely set off the other bombs, too, but that was fine. No other Khul were coming in this way. The others would take them out. But he had no grenades. He had a draagves and a rahir.
But I bet if I hit their bombs with a few shots from the draagves that will set it off and maybe the others, too. Bug splat.
He hoped the explosion wouldn’t splat him as well. But unless he got them all, he wouldn’t want to be alive if they caught him. And hitting the bombs was a better idea than hoping he could hit every Khul for enough damage that they would go down on the first or second go.
Davies breathed in and out to settle himself. He never really wanted to die, but he really didn’t want to now. Sure, he had accepted it as a risk of the job, but going into space, seeing the Osiris and Ylore and… well, there was too much to fight for and stay alive for to give up now.
Yet he was going to do this, because it was really the only way.
And he needed to do it now. They were almost done setting the bombs and they’d be shuffling back down the sewer to get away from the blast themselves. Then they’d run right into him.
Let’s get this party started.
Davies remembered where the nearest bomb was and he adjusted his draagves so that as he leaned out to take that shot he was nearly aiming right at it. Except there was something in the way. One of the Omulls was already ambling right towards him. The Omull saw him just as he saw the Omull. They both froze.
Then Davies pulled the trigger.