CHAPTER SEVENTY - NO OTHER CHOICE
Meanwhile, on the Osiris above Haseon…
“There’s no other choice, Osiris,” Jack said patiently.
Jack let out a breath. “It’s the only way to destroy this last Hive. No matter what we’ve done, it won’t come near the big gun. And we can’t keep playing cat and mouse out here much longer. The other ships can’t take it.”
The Hive was near the gate, spinning slowly like a recalcitrant top. Jack felt it was taunting them. It occasionally sent a shower of blasts their way. While the Osiris had managed to block 99% of them, that one percent that got by had done more than enough damage.
He glanced at the next screen that showed him the remainder of the Alliance fleet. Some had no shields left. More than a few had single digits. And even those still in the double digits were so low that one blast would be enough to damage or even destroy them.
Diane’s ship included in that.
Jack pinched the top of his nose. He could imagine exactly what one of Jace’s old headaches felt like. It was looming over him like a sledgehammer. The stress had his shoulders nearly up to his ears. He tried to shake himself loose. Tight body equaled throttled thinking. That was never good.
“Dai, tell the Osiris I’m right,” Jack said.
“I don’t think the Osiris listens to me,” Dai answered with a shrug. “But for what it’s worth, you’ve been right all along.”
“We can give you cover while the Osiris’ weapon powers up,” Matzen offered.
Again. He’s offered it just as often as I’ve pointed out this is the only way, Jack thought.
“What other options are there, Osiris?” Diane asked. “Lay it out for us. What’s your plan if you won’t go with Jack’s?”
The cursor blinked for long moments and Jack wondered if the AI would even bother answering.
We can leave this system. Go to one nearby and replenish my power supplies, the Osiris answered.
“The nearest system with an appropriate gas giant is three days' journey away without a gate,” Matzen stated.
None of your ships is capable of making the journey in three days or three years, the Osiris seemed to sniff. It would take me 49 hours and 23 minutes to seek out a fuel source and return.
“But without the Osiris to shield us, our ships will be destroyed!” Diane pointed out.
The cursor blinked a few times and then the Osiris answered, Yes.
“So you’d suggest leaving all of them to die?” Jack’s voice was very neutral, which was where he went when very angry.
It would be an unfortunate sacrifice, but my survival is far more important than theirs, the Osiris answered. This battle has proven that surely. Ask Commander Matzen his opinion on the matter.
Matzen’s expression was unchanged. No matter if his ship was teetering on the verge of collapse or he was staring off at a peaceful starscape, the Thaf’ell never looked different. He stroked his chin and stated, “That is true. All things being equal, the Osiris’ survival is far more important than any of ours.”
“All things are not equal!” Jack pounded a fist on the railing.
The cursor blinked at him.
“We don’t leave men behind! We don’t turn tail and run when things get tough!” Jack growled at the Osiris. “We have a perfectly good plan that could save everyone!”
Could save everyone. Not will, the Osiris answered with that ever present cold logic. I recognize that Diane is on one of those ships, which is what is causing you to not think logically about this matter--
“Me not thinking logically? You’re the one who is too damned afraid to risk yourself! You want all of us to be good with dying for the cause! But you? Oh, no, not you! Unless you can back yourself up, you’re not willing to come out from behind your shields!” Jack pounded on the railing again.
The Osiris was damned right that he wasn’t willing to abandon his wife while they went to the equivalent of a glorified gas stop. But he also wasn’t willing to sacrifice Matzen or Intoshkin or any of the many Alliance personnel in those ships that had fought so bravely so far.
Jack didn’t know what he expected Diane to say to that. But what she did say was not at all what he would have imagined.
“Would it be possible for us to transfer to the Osiris?” Diane asked.
Some of the ships and escape pods may survive the crossing, the Osiris said.
“That’s may not will,” Jack pointed out to the AI just like it had pointed out the could and not will.
“That is not a possibility for all the vessels. Three of them have no access to the hangar bays and many escape pods are damaged,” Matzen said with quiet efficiency as he checked the status of all the vessels. “Even doubling or tripling up will only succeed in getting 41% of the remaining crew off the ships.”
“Does that include your vessel, Matzen?” Diane asked.
“Yes, it does,” Matzen answered with no change of tone or tenor.
“We’re not leaving anyone behind.” Jack swept a hand through the air. “And I highly doubt that the Osiris would leave Jace for that long.”
It is the only prudent course of action to take, the Osiris stated. The Pilot will destroy the Khul on Haseon.
“And how many more Hives will arrive by the time we get back from our pit stop?” Jack asked.
The cursor blinked. I have no data as to Khul coordinates; therefore, I cannot extrapolate how many Hives could reach Haseon during our absence.
“I notice you said ‘how many’ and not ‘whether’ Hives will arrive here,” Jack said, his blood running cold at the thought. “With that single Hive here, you are blocked from reaching Jace and from controlling this gate. Aren’t you, Osiris?”
The cursor seemed to blink reluctantly. That is correct.
“Will the planetary shield hold if more Hives come and we’re not here to engage them? Or will they be able to weaken it and send more dropships through?” Jack asked. “Thus endangering the Pilot and causing an unchecked chain of infection that will spread across Haseon like no plague that anyone has ever experienced?”
He could see the looks of horror blooming on everyone’s face. Even Matzen’s. The Thaf’ell went stiffer, if that was possible. But Jack knew he had made the right points. The Osiris did not respond, which Jack was guessing was its way of acknowledging that what he said was true and horribly correct.
Jack softened his voice, “I understand what it’s like to be afraid to die, Osiris. When you were on Earth and abandoned for all that time, I’m betting you do too, and you never want that to happen again.”
The cursor was still. But no words appeared. It interested Jack then that the Osiris spoke in written text and not via a voice. It could have. There was absolutely nothing stopping it from speaking to all of them that way. But he had a feeling that it didn’t because what it felt would be revealed. The Osiris felt things.
“I understand how important you are,” Jack continued, his voice still gentle. “You’ve given my son his life back and more. I don’t want him to lose you or vice versa.”
The cursor was still.
“If we leave now and follow your plan--even if you get my wife aboard, Matzen and all the others too--we will come back to find the war over and we’ll have lost,” Jack put every ounce of truth he could into his voice, trying to open his soul to the Osiris for it to see that he wasn’t being “human” or “crazy” or both by suggesting this course of action. It was the only choice. “I don’t want to drain our shields. I don’t want any of this. But there’s no other choice.”
The cursor disappeared.
Jack shut his eyes and lowered his head. The Osiris was done with them. It didn’t care. It was going to simply shut down and ignore them and then… The railing was lowering! Jack’s eyelids snapped open.
“What’s happening?” Dai asked as he glanced all around him on the screen. “Something weird is happening here!”
There were three steps that led down to a pilot’s seat. He recognized it from his training on the Paladin-class ship. A screen appeared before it showing the view from the front of the Osiris. There were the equivalent of running lights that appeared, flashing from him down to the seat, leading the way.
“Jack, what’s happening there?” Diane asked.
Jack walked down the steps and put his hands on the back of the pilot’s seat. “I think I won the argument. The Osiris has--”
“Given you control!” Dai cried. “This is totally crazy! I mean, it’s not crazy! You’ve been right about everything, but still! I didn’t think the Osiris would let you be in charge.”
If we are all going to die, Jack Parker, it will be your fault, the Osiris said mulishly.
And Jack laughed. “You’re going to let it be my fault, huh?”
Jack sat down in the pilot’s seat and ran his hands over the arms before he took the familiar joystick in his hand. Everything was there to access all of the ship’s power. The Osiris had even made it very easy for him by creating a red display button that would start draining the shield’s power and funneling it to weaponry.
Jack rubbed her hands together and gave a wild grin. “Then let’s get this party started!”
Back on Haseon, Ylore, Moturin Compound…
The database in the lower levels? Khoth asked after Gehenna dropped that bombshell on them all.
“The Khul are communicating,” his mother whispered, but it appeared she was saying it more to herself than to him.
Had the Khul ever spoken to them? No, not even to threaten or taunt when they had taken his sister. Khoth had imagined them miming or something to indicate that they would give the Thaf’ell hostage for Jace. Perhaps they would have shown pictures to get their meaning across. But they were communicating in High Thaf’ell, an almost archaic form of it, as if the last time they had bothered to tune their communicators to it had been over a thousand years ago.
Give us the database and you shall have him, the Khul sent to all of their comms.
It cut through their own communications. There was an electronic sizzle as if Khul technology and Altaeth did not work well together. As if their very tech was at war, too.
Why do you want the database? Jace asked.
That’ell. Unharmed. Database. Give us the database. You get what you want, the Khul sent.
Khoth wondered which of the three Thaf’ell were communicating with them. None of them tapped on a comm or used their eyes to flicker over a keyboard to generate text like they did. Maybe they were like Jace and their minds simply were interfacing with the comms.
Why do you want it? Jace repeated.
Khoth wondered if Jace was asking this because he really believed the Khul would tell him. Unlikely. Or was Jace simply trying to buy time to figure out a way to save the hostage Thaf’ell.
But there was no way to save him.
This was Staulis all over again. But Jace didn’t fully know the story there. How the person who was infected had appeared completely normal for days. How they had thought that the Omull had been killed before it could inject a larva underneath her skin. How the scans had shown nothing--no sign of larva--in her brain or blood or organs or bones or anywhere. How she had talked and laughed with the doctors as the days passed and she remained herself seemingly uninfected.
And then she was to be released.
Her daughter and mate were eagerly waiting to see her. The daughter carried flowers that the mate had purchased. They had just hastily stripped off their mourning selchitte as they finally had allowed themselves to believe that their mother and mate would truly be coming home.
She had gone out and hugged and kissed them both despite it being done in public and for all to see. She had oohed and aahed over the flowers. She had beamed at her daughter, stroked her cheeks, and promised that she would never leave her child again. Her mate had allowed tears to course down his cheeks unabashed, unashamed. And none of the people watching had felt uncomfortable, because this was a miracle! It was as if she had come back from the dead and that was something one must celebrate openly and often.
They took her home, all laughing, talking and smiling. But within 12 subcycles she was dead.
They’d found her lying in her bed. A trail of blood leading out of her ear onto a pillow and across the pillow where her mate’s head had lain. Something had left that trail.
A single one that had somehow hidden from their scans and blood work. A single one that had nested in her skull and then had split into two. And the second had left the first to go into the mate.
The mate wasn’t in the bed.
He’d gone to work. The daughter had gone to school. Panic had filled the scientists. Security had fanned out into the city and found both of them. They snatched them from their work and school. The mate was already complaining of a headache. The daughter appeared fine. Just like her mother had.
They’d quarantined everyone in his office and her school. But then one of the scientists that had been there to lead the woman out to her family, back to her life, collapsed. She thrashed on the ground, blood pouring from eyes, nose, mouth and ears. That single larva had split before they’d thought.
And then another scientist went down.
And then two people who had been on the mate’s shared ride into the city.
And then five more in their buildings.
And then ten more at their various work locations.
Jace didn’t know this. Even if Gehenna or the Osiris had ever told this story to him, Jace always believed that there was hope. That propelled the Pilot forward, to explore, to inspire, to resist. And this wasn’t Jace’s people. This was a Thaf’ell on a world that Jace was desperately trying to win over. Who could expect Jace to end the life of a hostage with all of that going on?
We give you the Thaf’ell--
You have nothing to bargain with, Jace said, shocking Khoth.
Shocking everyone really.
We have the Thaf’ell--
You are surrounded. You are cut off from the Hives. You are not leaving this hallway, Jace cut them off again.
Hostage! Still alive! Uninfected! The Omull shook the Thaf’ell hostage.
The hostage let out a choked gasp that he quickly bit down on, looking shamefaced to have shown the fear inside of him. After Staulis it had been thought that everyone should be given a false tooth that, if bit down upon, would bring instant death. So if their homeworld became another Staulis, they could end it easily and painlessly, not to become one of the trampling masses that tried to escape and cause that chain of infection to leave the planet’s surface and go to another. But it hadn’t caught on beyond those that had witnessed things afterwards. Khoth had considered getting one and now he thought he should as he took in the Thaf’ell hostage’s stricken face.
Database for hostage! The Omull again shook the Thaf’ell hostage as if he was an extra large exhibit. Database for hostage! Uninfected!
Khoth wondered if Jace believed them. He knew that even if it was true that they wouldn’t test it. There would be no more Staulises. No more false hope.
How about you release the hostage and we don’t cut you into little pieces? Jace offered.
Khoth shut his eyes. Jace had been trying to stall for time. He opened them. This had to end.
Khoth checked his draagves. His back was against the wall. His mother stood beside him, her eyes distant as she clearly thought of something away from here and now. But he was focused on the moment. On what must be. On what must happen.
He would never put the burden of this on Jace. He would deal with it. He was already an exile. If the Thaf’ell wanted to blame anyone, it would be him that took it. Not Jace. Jace would be the one who fought for the hostage’s life. He would give the death that had to be given.
Just as he was about to turn the corner, bring the draagves up, aim and then fire, his mother was already moving. Already doing what he had thought to do, yet more than that. She fired her draagves, but also sent her rahir flying, end over end, through the air.
Her shot had taken the Omull’s head off that was holding the hostage. The rahir stuck out of the Cetix’s back that was next to the hostage. Khoth felt confusion fill him. Why hadn’t his mother shot the hostage? Why had she allowed him to live?
But then he understood.
“Take it,” his mother shouted to the hostage. “TAKE IT!”
The hostage smiled. He ripped the rahir out of the Cetix’s body, acidic blood flying, speckling him, even his face, that started to smoke. But the hostage didn’t even let his smile dim. Then he was swinging that blade towards the final Omull. It cuts clean through the Omull’s neck.
There’s a moment of silence as the hostage stands there, in the middle of three collapsed Khul bodies, with their blood pooling around his feet. Burning him. His own skin smoking. But the former hostage was smiling.
“Thank you,” the former hostage said.
And he plunged the rahir into his own heart. Still smiling. And then falling forward. Dead.
Khoth knew that Jace was crying out, NOOOOOOO! It was just over the comm in writing, but he could hear it in his ears as if it was screamed into the air. Khoth moved towards Gehenna as if to cradle her body would be to cradle Jace’s. But his mother grabbed his arm and stopped him from wading into the pile of Khul bodies where larva still squirmed and blood still burned flesh.
Why? Jace asked. Why?
And again, Jace’s voice was in the air or in Khoth’s head. He could not tell.
“An honorable death. Allowing him to take one of his enemies out with him. And then ending it,” his mother said. “Do you understand, Khoth? Do you understand?”
She was explaining what she had done and why. He realized as he heard it and took it in that she was right. She’d given the former hostage--the proud Thaf’ell--his honor back. No more a hostage. No more a bargaining chip. But a warrior who had gone down fighting to the last.
But did Jace understand? Had Jace heard what his mother had said? Or had the horror of the moment blocked out Jace’s ability to hear through Gehenna’s speakers.
Gehenna was moving then, somehow leaping up over the Khul and Thaf’ell bodies, and then rolling down the other part of the “T-shaped” hallway. Khoth is running another way to follow them, unable to get past the pile of dead as Gehenna had. His mother followed after him like a shadow. The rest of the Khul, every single one of them that he had tagged and tracked, are dead.
Gehenna--no, Jace--had killed them all. Destroyed them. Obliterated them.
Gehenna--no, Jace--was still. Silver body covered in smoking Khul blood. Khoth’s heart clenched in his chest. He wanted Jace to be saved from this. That was a vain thought. The Pilot was the vanguard of this war. Jace would see everything.
“Pilot?” Khoth asked as he approached the robot. “Jace?”
One is missing, Jace said.
Khoth paused. “One?”
Slowly, the silver ball turned towards him and Gehenna unfolded her body, but it's Jace speaking from there.
“There were 11 more to kill here. And I killed 10. Where’s the other one?” Jace asked in Gehenna’s voice.
Then there was the sound of running feet. Davies, Dr. Hayter and Typhon appear at the top of a staircase. All three of them are breathing heavily and there is a wild look in Davies’ eyes.
“Two are missing!” Davies shouts. “We killed four downstairs! Only four! You said there were five! Were there five?”
“Yes,” Jace answered. “Two are missing. Where--oh, no… one is going towards Thammah, at the apartment building with all those people.”
Khoth tensed. “And the other?”
Jace was already moving even as they saw his response on their comms, The other is outside the Control Room’s door.