CHAPTER SIXTY-SEVEN: LAST BLAST
Meanwhile, on the Osiris…
“Matzen! Dive! Dive now!” Jack cried.
Matzen’s ship was between the Osiris and a Hive. The Thaf’ell warrior had played a game of tag with the Hive, coming near enough to excite the Khul that they had a chance to take out the lead ship of the Alliance. The Khul had chased right into range of the Osiris’ main weapon. Matzen’s ship dove and the Osiris fired.
The Khul realized their mistake at the last moment, but they could not retreat out of range in time. Instead, the searing golden beam bored into the Hive’s center. Like a paper wasp’s hive the hull of the Hive glowed gold and peeled back as it burned away. Jack could see a slice of black space on the other side. The destruction radiated out until the Hive sheared in two and debris--and Khul--were ejected into space.
Matzen appeared on the comm, still bloody, but with a faint smile on his lips. Jack took that for a wild grin on someone else.
“Good job, Matzen,” Jack said.
“There are still three Hives and you only have two shots left, I believe. The math has not changed,” Matzen reminded him. “And the other three are keeping well away from each other and the Osiris.”
Just like a logical Thaf’ell to douse us all with cold water, Jack thought.
“What is the status of your ships and the others?” Jack asked. “I thought I saw a new hole in your skin after that last chase.”
Matzen looked bland and his voice was even as he answered, “One more shot and I fear my ship will not survive it. As to the others, the Orsan and Lantuk have the most shield capacity at 47% and 35%. The Orsan is down to one engine and the Lantuk has lost its most experienced pilot. The others are just managing to keep their crews alive and out of Hive range, but I am not certain how long they will succeed at this.”
“So, basically, the Orsan and Lantuk have one to three hits left they can take before it's the end for them? And the others have even less?” Jack confirmed.
Matzen gave a nod. “Without the Osiris and your son having strengthened the planetary defenses, I fear that Haseon would already be overrun.”
“True, but my son and the Osiris are here, so let’s not think of an alternative reality where we aren’t,” Jack said. “You can thank me over whatever alcoholic beverages the Thaf’ell drink after this.”
“If we survive, it will be a time for celebration, but also much work. So we may have one beverage,” Matzen offered.
Jack’s lips twitched into a smile. “One it is, and then back to work. Okay, here’s the plan. Have all the ships converge on the Osiris. We are going to go low, as close to the Big Gun as possible,” Jack said. “The Hives don’t want to come near us so they’ll be safer.”
“They will also all be in one spot,” Matzen pointed out, but he sent the commands anyway. That was one “good” thing about Thaf’ell. Once they agreed he was leading, they would follow his craziest commands.
“I know. I’m counting on the Khul being too eager to get a kill to hang back,” Jack answered. “We need them to come close to us and your ships--”
“Are the prey in the trap?” Matzen lifted an eyebrow. “Yes, I can see the value in this.”
Jack contacted Diane and filled her in on the plan. She nodded.
“Our shields are at 60%, better than theirs, and all our engines are working,” she said. “We’ll help protect them as well.”
Jack swallowed the words that wanted to come out of his mouth then about how he didn’t want her ship anywhere near the fighting. Instead, he said, “We’re trying to lure them to us and that gun down there. The math is still not in our favor. We need them close and together.”
Unless we use our shields to fire one more shot…
“Understood.” Diane nodded, then a smile quirked her lips. “I could have sworn you were going to say something else.”
“If I had, would you have done anything different?” Jack asked.
“If it was you asking me to stay safe while everyone else faces danger, no.” She smiled at him. “Is there no chance that some of the worse off ships can get on the other side of the planetary shield?”
He shook his head. “Everything’s still locked down on our end and we can’t reach anyone on the planet to take down a part of the shield. And as the Osiris just reminded me, we cannot risk another Khul ship slipping down too.”
His eyes swung over to the array of small Khul ships that hovered just outside of the shield. They gave the planetary defenses a wide berth, but still. They were fast and agile and one or more could slip inside.
“Has the Osiris or Dai come up with any other plan about the math problem?” Diane asked.
The AI on the ship was communicating to him in only short sentences. One word or less. It was like it knew that if it spoke more that would give him an opportunity to argue his case that they needed to fuel another blast from their main weapon with the shields.
“No, I’m going to check in with Dai again, but I’m sure it will be like the last ten times I asked,” Jack responded. “The shields are the only way.”
No, the Osiris said.
“The shield’s aren’t the only way?” Jack pressed.
The Osiris said nothing.
Jack’s eyes narrowed. “So you’re just saying no about using the shields in case it puts you in danger?”
“It’s rather comforting to think the Osiris fears death, too,” Diane remarked. “That means it won’t be so eager to risk Jace for the mission.”
Jack turned back to her. “That’s assuming Jace doesn’t override the Osiris.”
Diane shook her head and laughed softly. “I’m sure that Jace will take care of things down on the planet’s surface. We just have to take care of things up here. Any sign of reinforcements? Ours or theirs?”
The jamming is affecting the Haseon gate. While Khul ships will be able to enter this area, no others will, the Osiris responded.
“Well, that’s the most you’ve said in ages. And, of course, it’s bad news,” Jack sighed. He relayed the information to Matzen and Diane. “So it looks like it really is up to us. We cannot wait for anyone else to show up. At least, not on our side.”
“This is most disturbing,” Matzen stated as he stood at attention, arms crossed at the wrists behind his back. “That the Khul have such abilities to alter gates is not something we were aware of. It appears that there are many things we did not know.”
I am analyzing the jamming signal and will find a way to neutralize it, the Osiris said.
“How long will that take?” Jack asked.
Unknown, the Osiris responded and whether there was tartness or despair in the AI’s written “tone” he couldn’t tell.
“Okay, so we really have to make this work,” Jack said.
“Were we considering not making it work?” Matzen had lifted an eyebrow.
“Well, I was sort of hoping it wouldn’t come down to this,” Jack admitted.
Matzen was still for a moment and then nodded. “Yes, this is a desperate plan.”
“Jack excels with desperate plans,” Diane said. “If there’s life, there’s hope.”
“That’s right,” Jack nodded.
“The other ships have assembled,” Matzen said after checking his comm.
The Osiris showed Jack how the wounded Alliance fleet clustered like a half dozen wounded animals, hoping the predators would pick someone else off the edges.
“Good. Let’s hope we draw the Khul’s attention and they overstep,” Jack said, tightening his hands on the railing.
“I love you, Jack,” Diane said.
Matzen went still and then pretended as if he wasn’t listening, though Jack knew he was. It was probably “interesting” to see human mating rituals or whatever he would take this as. But Jack didn’t care. Let them see this bright spark of human feelings.
“Don’t say it like that.” Jack’s breath caught though as he responded.
“Like what?” But her voice was soft. She knew.
“Like it’s the last time,” he answered. Then after a pause, he said, “I love you, Diane.”
She smiled at him just like she had the first time they’d met. He wanted to wail. To gnash his teeth. To scream. To grab ahold of the Osiris’ controls and… and what?
The Khul are coming, the Osiris said just before Matzen told him the same.
“Okay, everybody, let’s get this party started. Osiris, we need to be light on our toes,” Jack said.
Neither I nor the ship have toes. Many creatures do not--
“You know what I meant! We need to move swiftly and efficiently,” Jack responded tartly. “Which means… you should give me control.”
“Back to the one word answers?” Jack shook his head when the cursor merely blinked. “Dai?”
The put-upon engineer appeared on one of the screens. “No, Jack, I haven’t figured anything else that would give us enough power for a third use of the weapon. And I even looked at shutting down all life support as an option.”
“Which I’m sure the Osiris wouldn’t be interested in as it would put us in danger,” Jack said.
The cursor simply blinked. Jack narrowed his eyes at it.
Jace is not aboard so that could be an answer; however, Dai is correct that it would not give the ship enough energy to send another blast, the Osiris finally answered.
“Oh, I’m so glad that our deaths don’t matter,” Jack deadpanned. “Just yours.”
“Actually, we have suits that could sustain us at least for a while,” Dai said helpfully. “Killing us all was not a viable plan in my opinion regardless if Hal 9000 would have been okay with it.”
That would work, too, but again there is not enough power generated by such a sacrifice, the Osiris sounded sniffy. And, as I told Jace, Hal 9000 is a pitiful comparison to me.
“I think that Jace is going to need to have another talk with you about your bedside manner for certain,” Jack said. He shook his head as much to clear it as for anything else. “Okay, Dai. If you think of anything--”
“I will be sure to let you know, Jack,” Dai finished for him. “Give the Khul Hell.”
“Served on a platter.” Jack smiled and signed off.
“All three Hives are attacking, Flight-Commander Parker,” Matzen’s voice still cool and calm as ever got Jack’s attention.
His head jerked up and he straightened as he caught sight of the three Hives coming from three different directions, guns blazing as they went after the cluster of Thaf’ell ships and Diane’s.
“Osiris!” Jack cried as he found his hands trying to fly the Osiris with the railing acting as a joystick. It was not working. “Get between them and the starboard Hive!”
Matzen had put the most beleaguered vessels in the center while those that had some maneuverability and shields left were orbiting around them. The Hives were coming in fast. Jack knew what they intended to do. Despite their size they were very maneuverable. They would strafe the vessels and arc back out away from them.
“Move, Osiris! Move!” Jack barked.
The ship did move, but it seemed to be going at half speed in comparison to the Hives that spun on their axis as they raced towards them. Laser blasts flew out of the Hives in a wild scattershot. They weren’t going for accuracy, just sending off as much as they could in the hopes that one or two hit. And that’s all it would take for some of the Alliance’s ships to go down.
“Let those blasts hit us broadside!” Jack commanded.
But as soon as the Osiris moved in, the nearest Hive broke off and spun away from them. The Osiris started to chase.
“NO!” Jack cried. “Protect the other ships!”
He saw Diane’s ship sent out a flurry of missiles towards the nearest Hive, but it was at great cost as two glowing green lasers carved a line across her forward shields, which fluttered and went out. Jack’s mouth went dry as he saw an array of more blasts coming towards his wife’s ship, but she had turned tail and was running.
“Forward shields gone! Rear shields down to 12%!” Diane cried.
Her shoulders were hunched and her eyes were huge, but she was keeping it together. He was not. If she got hit one more time…
But he didn’t have time to complete that thought for even as the Hive that had caused her such damage had somehow lined itself up with the third Hive that had just spun into view.
“Osiris, FIRE!” Jack commanded.
That time there was an exclamation point at the end.
And fire the ship did. The main weapon flared to life like the light of a thousand suns. The gold laser beam punched through the first Hive and sliced through the second. Two Hives for the cost of one were down!
“YES!” Jack threw a fist into the air.
The crew did the same around him. They had been so quiet as he’d worked, but now they celebrated for a moment.
“You did it, Jack!” Diane cried.
“We did it! One more Hive and one more blast!” Jack cried. “Let’s go get that final Hive!”
The Osiris swung around and prepared to take on the third and final Hive. It was closer than Jack had anticipated. Green streaks of light were streaming from it in all directions. The Osiris burst towards the final Hive.
“Get ready to fire!” Jack leaned forward on the railing, feeling as if he could twist it in his hands.
The Hive was directly in their sights.
“Fire!” Jack shouted.
But just as the brilliant light started to leave the Osiris, the Orsan and Lantuk were struck by some of the Hive’s lasers. Their shields gone and their engines hit, they drifted out into the way of the blast. If they hit the two ships, both would be destroyed and the crew killed instantly.
“Osiris, dive!” Jack screamed.
The beam could not be stopped, only redirected. The beam sliced upwards just as the two ships floated into where the beam had just been. The Hive spun away, out of reach, but it would soon spin back.
But the Osiris was out of energy to fire the main weapon. Without more energy, they could not destroy the Hive.
Earlier, on Haseon, under the Overpass…
Khoth had the draagves in one hand and his rahir in the other. He shot. He sliced. He used his long, powerful legs to kick, run and dodge as Cetixes shot larva balls at him and Omull tried to flatten him with their grenades. He saw Jace--or rather, the Mech--fighting well against the Khul, but he hardly had a chance to admire Jace in action as every moment was one of peril for him as he drove into the Khul ranks.
He hardly noticed the green light that made the clouds of smoke from grenades and his own firing draagves glow. It was like fighting in a sea of radioactive murk. A Cetix clattered out of one of the glowing green clouds and Khoth slid on his side along the ground to avoid a larva ball while he drew his rahir along the Khul’s side. Its guts and blood oozed out in an ever widening, toxic lake. But he was already up on his feet before the acidic stuff could touch his clothes or skin.
An Omull rose up before him, tentacles snapping the air in front of it. It reared up and made to crash down on top of him, crushing him beneath its much more formidable weight. Khoth sent two draagves blasts into its chest even he spun out of it way. But he almost ran into another Omull that had been hidden by more smoke. Khoth brought up his rahir to slash at it when the blast occurred.
Khoth was thrown over fifteen feet from where he had last been. He lay stunned there for half a moment before he was able to lift his head to see what had happened. Had Jace’s mech set off a whole cache of grenades? But Jace would be more careful with him there. Even though he shouldn’t wish for Jace to think of him at all, but only the battle. Yet he was certain that Jace would not do that.
The green glow that had illuminated everything with its sickly radiance was gone. He had to blink a few times to see anything in the gloom. The Omull that had been right on top of him was pitched into its side, one of its legs twisted beneath it. It was making a low moaning cry. Khoth jumped to his feet, intent on making sure it stayed down. He winced as his head throbbed. He touched blood on his temple. He took out a stim from his inner pocket and injected it. The pain receded and his head cleared. Khoth now saw far more.
Jace… they are going after Jace...
The wall of the Compound where the green glow had originated from was blasted away. The shield was gone and an open wound into the Compound stared back at him. The crumpled, mangled form of the Mech that Jace had been piloting, lay smoking on the ground, hardly recognizable from before.
But he reminded himself that Jace had been piloting the Mech remotely. His beloved’s body was not crushed inside the metal coffin of the Mech smashed innards.
Jace? He sent over the comm.
Khoth! Khoth, thank God! I was afraid you’d been hit by the blast! Jace sent over the comm.
Khoth closed his eyes for one moment, thanking the gods for Jace being alive and well and safe, for the moment anyways. He opened his eyes.
Jace, Khul are in the Compound. They are making their way to you, Khoth said.
I know! I’m trying to get more of the defense systems online here. He could “hear” the frustration in Jace’s words. But everything is such a mess! How did it get like this? Wait, don’t answer that! I already know! I’ll fix it… I just need time…
You don’t have time, Jace. Those Khul are after you. They must be killed, Khoth said.
I’ve sent Gehenna with a bunch of warriors, Jace said. Amana and your dad are with me. I wish I could fight. But I’m… I’m still a mess, Khoth.
Let others help you, Jace, Khoth instructed. I’m coming to help. Just hold on!
Please be careful! Jace’s love for him was in every pixel.
I will. Do the same! Khoth commanded.
Khoth never took his eyes off the opening. He struck his rahir through the fallen Omull’s body and twisted it. The Khul gave a final gasp and died. Khoth started to run towards the opening. But to his left he heard the rapport of Dr. Davies’ gun. His head shot towards the noise. He saw Khul go down and then there was a familiar voice.
“Fan out! Make sure that none get away!” his mother cried.
Khoth blinked for a moment as his mother came into view. She saw him the moment that he saw her. He stepped towards her but then drew back. He had to get to Jace. Would she care about the Pilot? He couldn’t take the chance she wouldn’t. He turned back towards the opening. How many Khul had gotten inside? How close were they to Jace?
“Khoth!” His mother called.
He hesitated and turned his head. He was shocked to see her jogging over to him. Raw emotions filled her face. She was afraid and then relieved when she saw that he was all right. Khoth was stunned by her reactions and found that keeping him in place a moment longer. She stopped a few feet from him and lifted a hand as if to touch him. But she let it drop. He hated that he felt disappointment.
“High Councillor Voor, I cannot tarry. Khul have entered the Moturin Compound,” he said even as he started to move again. “The Pilot is in danger.”
His mother touched his arm. He stared at her hand. Shock again froze him, especially when she added, “Then I will go with you. We must kill the Khul. We must protect the Pilot.”