CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE: NEXT STEP
You were very calm when I told you that Khoth was considering killing you, Jace, Gehenna said.
You also said that you would paralyze him through the suit’s electronics before he could even close his hand on his rahir, Jace reminded her with a faint smile. And tell me that you aren’t sharing this conversation with him? There was a pause. Gehenna?!
I’m not! Gehenna cried then added, I was just double checking. People can be wrong, you know? Despite the best of intentions! They can make mistakes even if they’re trying very hard!
He snorted. Gehenna’s “mistakes” were becoming legendary. But he quickly bit his inner cheek to stop any more sounds from emerging from his lips. They were being taken into the Hive now. They’d found this hiding place just moments ago with only minutes to spare.
This plan is going to work, right? Jace suddenly asked her. Talking about mistakes and best of intentions had him wondering about his own thinking. I don’t really want Khoth to go through with the head chopping thing.
That still felt a little unreal to him. Maybe that was why he wasn’t as freaked out by it, that Khoth had seriously been considering beheading him. The fact that his suit would have blocked at least the first blow gave him some comfort. Or Khoth could have tried to get him to take the helmet off. Not that this would have happened! He didn’t even want to breathe the air in here. It could be--infected--unbreathable.
I think your plan is sound, Jace, Gehenna said chirpily. With my cloaking, you’ll remain invisible to any scanners! Then I’ll get inside of their systems so I’ll be able to track Khul movement and relay to you the best way to get to the core.
Too bad you can’t just inject a virus in from here, he said.
Yes, that would be very handy, but--like the Osiris, in a way--accessing the core of a Hive remotely would cause so many alarms that we’d be discovered in moments and the Khul would just take it offline.
Jace stopped himself from nodding. So physically inserting the virus is the only way.
It hadn’t been a question, but a statement, yet Gehenna stated anyways, Yes, it is the only way that could possibly work.
How long do we have before the virus affects the Hive? He asked.
Damn! Only ten minutes? Can we--what am I saying, if we could extend the time, you’d say so.
He closed his eyes tightly to sort of get his mind around ten minutes being the difference between life and death.
But I’ve estimated the time to get back to this ship--even assuming multiple battles along the way--you’ll be back in eight and half minutes! She informed him helpfully.
Eight and a half minutes? Plenty of time, he replied dryly with a soft laugh.
Indeed. There was a pause. Running. You’ll have to be running full out to get back.
Yeah, Gehenna, I assumed that, he told her.
The ship shuddered as it came to a stop inside of the Hive. On his helmet’s screen it showed him the seed-shaped hangar bay. As soon as the outer doors shut again two Omull scuttled into the hangar bay. Their seven-foot tall bodies, sheathed in that shiny black carapace, had Jace’s stomach churning more than it had so when he’d seen them in Sunrise.
The larvae wriggling under the young woman’s skin had him seeing the Khul totally differently now. He’d been scared of them before, but now he was scared but also angry on a deep level. What they did was obscene. It wasn’t just killing people, it was how they did it and it was the pain their victims went through. To keep their victims conscious throughout this process was malevolent in Jace’s mind.
They need to be stopped, Jace thought. No quarter.
As the two Omull came towards the ship on their clawed feet, tentacles extended from the back of their heads waving about, Jace thought of cutting off those heads and tentacles with his rahir. Even if they were within range though, he and Khoth were not to attack the Omull. They were to stay hidden.
His eyes slid towards Khoth then and he wondered if the Commander was thinking the same thing. He couldn’t ask Khoth because that would create sound and using the suit’s texting capability--even the aspect that allowed them to use their eyes--might cause them to move and, again, cause noise. So they’d agreed to be silent.
He frowned, Gehenna, how did you know Khoth was thinking of cutting off my head?
Oh! I track where he’s looking and, obviously, all of his vital functions--
Obviously, Jace laughed internally.
And there are certain micro-expressions that are very telling that he makes before he fights, she rattled off. But really, it was obvious.
He cares for you, Jace, her voice softened. He would never let the Khul harm you.
Jace blinked. Y-yeah… but he would be cutting off my head.
With love! Cutting off your head with love! She enthused. So why weren’t you freaked out when I told you?
I was! I mean… at first, but then I thought of that girl’s face, Jace said and swallowed, nausea bubbling up again.
He fought off the urge to squirm as he felt imaginary bugs tickling his skin. The thing was that he had to remind himself that his suit kept them imaginary as there were tubes with larvae not two feet from him.
The thing is, he continued, I was going to ask him to do it. You know? Kill me if…
Yes, but you’re nowhere near that yet! Things are not that dire! Gehenna cried. Which was why I intended to paralyze him if he even so far went to touch that hilt!
He cracked a grin. I’m glad you’ve got my back, Gehenna.
His grin though faded as the ship opened and the gangway started to lower. The two Omull were joined by half a dozen Cetixes. These caterpillar-like creatures--if a caterpillar were hundreds of times larger than they were on Earth--wore what looked like harnesses on their backs with hoses attached that lead into the walls of the ship.
Hoses large enough to…
I think that’s how they’ll move the people, Gehenna whispered. They’ll suck them up--
Don’t! Don’t tell me, Jace said as bile was already rising up his throat.
All he would need would be to throw up in his space suit.
He heard the tick, tick, tick, of the Omull’s claws as they were the first to come inside the ship. He and Khoth were on that main floor where the gangway entrance was. But, beyond being shielded from discovery by Gehenna’s electronic sorcery, there were only a few inches of the chitin between them and the Omull. Even without the ship camera’s equivalent of a microphone.
Tell me again that you’re safe, Gehenna, Jace demanded as his breathing rose, frosting the glass of his helmet before the internal cool air supply wiped it away.
She hadn’t been able to fit with them here. So she was hanging from the ceiling in the engine room. Just more coils in a room full of coils with the lights in her squid-head dome shut off.
I’m safe. I’m more worried about you, she said. Those two Omull are suspicious even though my hack is perfect!
He saw what she meant. The two Omull had split off at the top of the gangway--one heading to the left and the other to the right--going around the external circle of the walkway near the pods. They would pass right by him and Khoth! The urge to grab his rahir or his pistol or Khoth’s nearest hand was so strong that sweat broke out across Jace’s brow as he fought the instinct.
We don’t know what caused this ship to return to the Hive, Jace pointed out, focusing on that instead of the steadily approaching Khul. Maybe we tripped something and they’re looking for the cause of that.
I see no evidence of that, but I suppose it's possible, Gehenna mused.
The Omull to his right--he called this one Jerry--was only a few pod-lengths away from him and Khoth. The Omull to his left--this one he called Raul--was further away, but was intently scanning each pod, looking into the faceplates, peering around them as if looking for injuries to them--or perhaps if someone uninfected was hiding inside--and being more pokey.
Desperate to think of something--anything--else, Jace continued, Maybe they were scanning us a lot earlier than I realized.
I would have known! Gehenna sounded affronted.
He supposed for an AI missing something like this would be like failing at a 101 course or something.
Or, Hell, even if they didn’t have anything to do with us coming back and it was the Osiris--
You know what I think! The Osiris did this! On purpose! For its stupid mission! Gehenna’ voice was full of angry suspicion. But she didn’t like the Osiris very much.
Yeah, I know, Jace said, wondering how he felt about that. On the one hand, if it was the Osiris then, hopefully, the ship was keeping his parents from losing it. Except nothing the Osiris said would likely comfort anyone. Let’s say it was the Osiris that sent us here that would make the Khul way suspicious, too. Like this ship is a Trojan Horse, which… well, it is!
But that’s a human story. They might not have an analogous story to look upon for inspiration, Gehenna pointed out.
Oh, I have a feeling in war that it’s pretty common, he said, then found that he couldn’t even speak mentally then.
Both Omull were right in front of them. His heart rate rose even higher. His breathing hissed through his teeth. Could they hear that? They were only guessing that over the hum of the ship’s machinery and all the life signs of the human cargo, that two more heartbeats and respiration wouldn’t give them away. Not to mention the wall. It was only a few inches thick, but still!
What if we are wrong?
Gehenna was piping in the video from the ship’s own cameras and one of them was almost directly facing out at the Omull. So it appeared on his screen that the two Khul were leaning right towards his face. Jace held his breath.
There were long, long moments where Jace’s heartbeat thundered in his ears and his lungs started to ache from not breathing. But he held himself completely still. Finally, the two Omull pulled back and started off into other parts of the ship. As soon as they left, Jace gulped up air. Cold, clean, glorious air!
Now, they would just have to wait until the Cetixes off-loaded the humans--and his heart ached that these people would have to go through whatever came next--and the hangar was empty again before they made their move to go to the--
There was a hissing sound from behind them. Jace froze, even though he really wasn’t moving before, as light suddenly appeared by his and Khoth’s feet. A section of the outer hull was opening! Jace immediately thought of the Cetixes with the hoses on their backs. They didn’t suck out the humans from the front of the pods, but from the backs. Khoth and his asses were literally going to be hanging out in front of the Cetixes in moments.
Gehenna! Jace shouted.
I know! I know! She sounded strangled. I wondered what those--
The Omull are up above you! Get into the ship! Then you can head out the gangway, she rattled out. I’ll tell you when it’s safe!
Jace grabbed Khoth’s hand and sent two words, Follow me.
Khoth gave a nod. He, too, had seen the growing light. The two of them slid along the inner and outer sections of wall until they came to one of the openings between two of the pods. Jace popped through followed by Khoth. The Commander moved as silently as a cat. Jace was pretty quiet too.
Hide? Khoth sent.
No. Wait, Jace answered as he crouch-walked towards the gangway then pressed his back to the wall.
Khoth followed after him and copied his stance on the other side of the gangway.
Gehenna, I can see… Jace’s visor shifted to heat vision. Oh, man! I can see them!
It shocked him, but it was exactly what he needed to see. He could see the heat signature of a Cetix scuttling outside on the hangar bay’s floor. He could see the other five, the caterpillar-like creatures crawled up to the openings into the ship and were attaching the hoses. He made the mistake of looking at the nearest pod where a Cetix attached a hose to the top back of the pod. His eyes naturally went to the faceplate. He recognized the person inside. It was Mrs. Lo, the sweet, elderly lady who had run the laundry. Her dumpling face was scrunched in pain. Her eyes though sought his. He remembered her shop. There had been a long smear of blood. He had wondered if he would ever see her again. Now… now he wished he hadn’t. The larvae streaked her face like black lines painted on. Her lips parted in agony just before she was sucked out of the pod like a tapioca ball. As her feet disappeared out of view, Jace just stared.
Something hit his arm and he whirled around, ready to strike, but it was Khoth. The Commander’s face showed concern, alarm, and more concern. Jace was breathing hard. He realized he’d drawn his rahir and yet didn’t recall doing so. He blinked.
“Jace?” Khoth’s voice was low, but hearing his name said in that now familiar accent calmed him.
His shoulders lowered. He had been so tense that they had been drawn up to his ears. He drew in a breath and resheathed the rahir.
“I almost cut off your head,” Jace whispered.
A quirked smile appeared on Khoth’s beautiful face. “Then we are even.” Another pause, then he said more than asked, “You knew her?”
“Mrs. Lo. She’s a grandmother to three kids. She used to bring me dumplings. Homemade. She knew how much I loved them…” Jace’s throat became so tight that he couldn’t speak. “How do I tell her family… family what happened to her?”
But the moment he said this, he realized he likely wouldn’t be the one telling them. Maybe no one would truly tell them. Not the truth. Not yet. His mother was going to start the process of revealing the existence of aliens, but who knew how long that would take or what form. But it was highly unlikely Mrs. Lo's family would know that their beloved grandmother had been infected and turned into food for aliens. But Jace knew. And he would avenge her.
His gaze swept around the hangar bay. The heat signatures for the Cetixes were as bright as stars. He knew where they all were. A line map of the Hive appeared before him, showing him where they must go to get to the core. He sent what he was seeing to Khoth.
Based upon the Cetixes’ movements, I believe there is a chance for you to escape the ship unseen in a minute, Gehenna stated with some urgency in her voice.
He knew that she wasn’t just anxious about them. The two Omull in the ship were moving towards her location.
Understood, he had recovered from seeing Mrs. Lo. Actually, seeing her had made him more intent on destroying this place. Keep safe, Gehenna.
You, too, Jace! It’s time. Go!
“We should go, Khoth. Now,” Jace said and he was moving, knowing that Khoth would follow.
He didn’t have to see everything surrounding him. When a Cetix looked right or left or would hear his boots or not, he knew it on a subconscious level. There were warnings, like the hair on the back of his neck rising when he took a wrong step and he would dodge or duck or run faster. The Cetixes were mostly concentrating on their tasks, eager to bring the humans inside of the Hive.
The hoses jerked as human after human was passed along inside. He thought of every life in those tubes. Still alive but dead. Dead because there was no chance for them to be saved. Yet continuing to suffer and be afraid and, maybe even, hope. To think that somehow this could be stopped and they could be saved.
We have to end their suffering! Jace thought. It’s all I can offer them.
They made it across the hanger towards the door that would lead them deeper into the Hive. Khoth had followed his footsteps perfectly. Trusting him utterly to lead them safely here. He felt a connection to the Commander, even though they were not speaking out loud. He met Khoth’s gaze through their helmets. The Commander gave him a short nod. It was the equivalent of a thumb’s up.
He’s impressed with you! Gehenna chuckled.
Let’s not celebrate prematurely, Jace told her and yet his cheeks flared with color.
Khoth tilted his head to the side and Jace just shook his head. He could not explain any of this, even if it wouldn’t embarrass him terribly about Gehenna singing the equivalent of Jace and Khoth! Sitting in a tree! K - I - S - S - I - N - G!
You’ll need to go through this door, up the hallway about 100 meters, and then I’ll show you where to go next, Gehenna assured him.
Right, let’s do this, Jace said.
With a tilt of his head, Jace indicated to Khoth where they were going. The door was made up of three ribbed sections of chitin that twisted together to close and disappeared into the wall when open. It appeared to be operated simply by proximity because it opened for them.
You’ve got a clear shot down the hallway, Jace, Gehenna told him, even as he and Khoth crouched by the open doorway.
Jace made a movement with his hand to indicate that they should move. Khoth nodded. They kept low and glided down the hallway. The chitin was ridged so that it wasn’t slick under their boots. But as careful as they both were, their boots squeaked against the material every once in a while. And when that happened, Jace’s heart was in his throat. But while he saw heat signatures in other parts of the ship, no one seemed to hear them or, if they did, come to check out what had made that noise.
The core was, unsurprisingly, at the very heart of the Hive and the Hive was huge. When they were near the hangar bay, there had been few Khul, but as they moved deeper within the ship, more and more heat signatures were appearing. More than once, Jace had held up a hand to stop them from proceeding in front of another hallway that emptied into the one they were currently in because an Omull or Cetix was clacking its way nearby.
Gehenna, we can’t stay out in the open in this hallway! Jace told her. We’ve lucked out so far that none of them are using this hallway, but that’s going to change.
It isn’t luck! It’s me, she told him with a touch of smugness. But yes, I see your point. There is a duct system that you could likely use. It will slow you down though.
A legion of Khul will slow us down, too, he reminded her.
Fair point! She agreed. Here’s a new route.
On his HUD, there was a glowing dot that showed him they should go forward, then turn right, then enter a room to their left. There would be an entrance in the floor into the duct system, which was far roomier than he’d hoped. Again, he indicated to Khoth they should go and the Commander gave him a brief nod. Warmth filled Jace.
I can’t let him down. Got to keep us safe and on target, Jace thought.
The light in the Hive was amber. It reminded Jace of being in a piece of hardened sap. It should have been a calming light, but it just seemed to make things murky and undefined. Luckily, his helmet and his own super-attuned senses stopped him from blundering into the walls or down the wrong hallway. Soon, they were outside of the door that would lead to the room that could get them into the ducts. But there was a problem.
His heat vision showed him that there were two Cetixes inside the space. And there were two other, fainter signatures that looked to be human. They could withdraw down the hallway and hope the Cetixes would leave. But they had no idea how long that would take and… the two human signatures. What were they doing to them?
“What do you wish to do, Jace?” Khoth asked.
Jace looked again with his heat vision. The Cetixes were bustling around the human heat signatures. He thought of Mrs. Lo. He thought of that young nameless woman. They were still alive. They were in agony. He had to stop this.
Jace met Khoth’s eyes. “We need to kill them.”