CHAPTER SIXTY-FOUR: SPLITTING UP
Jace was everywhere and nowhere. He was sitting in the control room of the Moturin Compound. He was also a mech piloting off of the top of the roof and flying towards the Khul. But he was also watching the battle through the thousands of cameras in the defense grid above Haseon, not to mention firing the BFG whenever Hives happened to get into range.
He was in other places, too. He was in the cameras and comms that filled the section of Haseon where the Khul had landed, noting whenever the Cetixes or Omulls showed themselves and tracking them.
He could hear himself communicating with Khoth and the others that held onto his mech-legs, Dr. Hayter, I’m going to let you off up high so you can pick off the Khul. They’re looking for ways past the Compound’s defenses and some of them are going to have to show their ugly faces. I want you to make them even uglier.
“Perfect, Pilot! I won’t let any Khul get past me!” Dr. Hayter responded with quite a bit of eagerness.
And to think that General Intoshkin had sold him to Jace and Khoth as just a linguist! The man was a miracle.
The mech’s large engines lifted its heavy-armored body--not to mention his passengers--up into the air with ease. He flew over to a building opposite the entrance to the Compound and landed on the roof.
Dr. Hayter jumped down and immediately hustled over to the edge. He crouched down and put his eye to the scope of his draagves. He began moving in a fluid fashion as he scanned the area below. Just as Jace was taking off again, he heard the whine of a powerful draagves shot. One of the Khul--a Cetix that had ambled a little far out from cover--was shot in the head and lay dead in the street. It’s acidic blood smoking.
“I told you he was a good sniper!” Davies laughed.
It was a dark, triumphant laugh. This was a man who had seen death, Jace realized, and he expected to see more of it. He wanted to cause it that day, too. Jace understood. The Khul being here was a complete affront.
“Humans are known to be violent,” Typhon remarked. “Your ability to kill with ease will not necessarily endear you to our people.”
“Oh, Justiciar, everyone loves a soldier when their homeworld’s being attacked. They might just think: hmmmm, those humans are violent, but maybe that’s just what we need,” Davies responded. “Let’s bring a few more on board.”
“A sniper is all about control, not violence,” Khoth retorted to Typhon. “If a Thaf’ell made that shot, it would be spoken of in the words of our poets.”
“You are right, Khoth. I just wish that our people could have seen the Pilot’s ability to fix things before they saw his ability to destroy,” Typhon answered almost sadly. “But sometimes fear is better than love.”
“Against the Khul, damned straight,” Davies said.
Jace was also sending a message to Thammah, Flight-Commander, the Khul are taking cover beneath bridges and inside buildings. Your ship can’t help anymore in this fight. I need you on the ground. Here’s a landing zone.
“I want in on this fight!” Thammah’s eyes narrowed. “Have they talked about pulling a Staulis?”
Gehenna piped in and explained, Staulis was a jewel of the Alliance. A planet of great peace, learning and lots of Altaeth tech. Certain Khul specimens were brought there for study. Unfortunately, there was a release that led to an unchecked chain of infection.
That doesn’t sound good. Jace frowned, mentally at least.
No, it wasn’t. In order to stop the chain, they walled off the main city where they believed all the infections were taking place and… oh, dear, they destroyed the City and all the people inside, Gehenna said and a stream of crying faces floated up before his mind’s eye.
Wait, was everyone infected in the city? Jace asked her, but he already knew the answer.
No, but, they couldn’t risk it. Yet, unfortunately, despite this terrible choice, the infection had already spread beyond the city’s borders, she continued. The Alliance ended up having to destroy all of Staulis and shoot down any ships that tried to leave. It’s considered a grave world now. Nothing and no one lives there.
They couldn’t risk the infection spreading, Jace realized. If even one ship with one infected person had gotten to another planet what happened on Staulis would have happened there.
Khoth had told him this before. But he hadn’t fully appreciated it. They had managed to protect Earth by overcoming the Khul there. Everyone had been quarantined and, once it was certain they had a clean bill of health, they had been allowed to leave and go home. But Sunrise was isolated. Staulis had been a city-world somewhat like Coruscant in Star Wars. So it had been impossible to even attempt such a similar program there as they had in Sunrise.
Ylore was somewhere between Staulis and Sunrise. Jace was grateful that the Moturin Compound was located in a mostly business district, near the courts, which were closed today as it was a day of rest for the Thaf’ell. A weekend. So the streets and buildings were mostly empty.
But while the Moturin Compound would resist the Khul’s attempts to enter, at least for a time, there were other small residential buildings nearby. Though Jace had sent the AIs to strengthen their defenses, unlike the Compound, there were no great shields that would keep them safe. The Khul would be able to get inside.
Jace could almost imagine it now. The Khul, finding their way into the Moturin Compound blocked, would take prisoners. They would release those prisoners if only Jace would be handed over to them. They wouldn’t infect a living soul so long as they had the Pilot.
That would be a lie, of course. Even if they turned him over, at least, one of their kind would secrete themselves on Haseon, in Ylore’s secret places, and infect the populace. It would be an unforgettable lesson for the Alliance: nowhere was safe and nothing could stop the Khul.
So there was only one course of action: none of the Khul could live. And those Hives above? They had to be utterly destroyed too. Then he’d have to do something about the Master Gates. But first… death.
“Jace?” Thammah called, using his name instead of title. “We really need to not have that happen. Haseon as a grave world--”
I won’t let that happen, Thammah, Jace assured her. We won’t. Now, I need you to guard that residential block. It’s the nearest one to the landing site. They’ll head there first. I know I likely don’t have to say this, but none of the Khul can live.
“Understood, Pilot,” she answered grimly.
We need to make them pay for doing this, Jace said, both to her and himself.
He heard--or more like sensed--her pulling back on the yolk and the deepening growl of the Paladin’s engines as she landed in a small square just outside of the nearest residential building. She set the ship to fire on any Khul that approached while she grabbed a draagves, rahir and some proximity mines and a belt full of chemical grenades that would eat through the Khul’s outer shells.
Never leaving the ship without those again, Jace thought.
Thammah hustled out of the ship and down the gangway. She set up the proximity mines all around the front entrance. Any Khul who made it that far would likely end up without some limbs.
The entrance was covered by a half-moon shaped section of calcanth. Once she was done mining, Thammah jumped up, grabbed the lip of the calcanth and pulled herself up onto the top of it. Then she laid low and rested the stock of the draagves on the covering’s edge. She was ready for whatever was going to come.
A curtain twitched open in one of the apartments up above. Jace immediately connected with the cameras and comms in that unit. He witnessed a female Thaf’ell he guessed to be a mother take down a rahir from where it proudly was resting on a stand. She unsheathed the glowing blade and looked across the room at her young daughter. The little girl was clutching the curtains as she peeked out into the street. The look on the mother’s face was one of determination. She would die before she’d let the Khul get to her daughter. Thammah and the rest would ensure that didn’t happen.
“Pilot, how many Khul are there on the planet?” Khoth asked.
Jace relished the sound of his lover’s voice. It calmed and anchored him. Ah, fifty remaining after Thammah’s run, or wait! Actually, 49 now after the doc’s kill.
“Fifty?” Jace heard Khoth’s father breathe the word as he also shared the locations of the Khul with the control room as well as with Khoth and the others. “So many in one ship. That is not normal, surely!”
He’s right. It’s not normal, Jace, Gehenna informed him.
The Khul must have stuffed those ships to the gills. Wanted to make it harder for us to kill them all in time, Jace realized.
“It does not matter how many the Khul send. We will defeat them,” Amana’s voice was firm, but he heard the desire to be out there, doing something instead of just watching.
“But to have so few against so many!” Khoth’s father was understandably worried.
I’m sending everything we’re doing to the ground troops, Jace told them.
“We could send troops out,” Amana suggested.
No, two big reasons. We lower the shields, even for an instant and the Khul could get in. Second, the more people you send, the more chances the Khul have to infect someone. We can handle this until more help arrives, Jace told her, and he sincerely hoped that was true. If that changes, I will let you know.
“We will need to keep track of our kills and where those Khul are at all times,” Khoth said.
No problem! Got it covered! Jace assured him. The AIs are tracking and tagging. We’ll know everywhere they go and what their vital signs are.
“What is the plan for us?” Typhon asked.
I’m going to be dropping each of you off near a cluster of Khul. Jace said as he powered through the air, hiding his mech body behind as many tall buildings as he could.
“We normally fight in pairs,” Khoth said and he grimaced.
Because if one person gets infected the other will handle it? Jace guessed carefully.
“Yes, Pilot,” Khoth answered.
And there was so much more in that answer than it said. Handling it meant killing one’s partner, making sure that they didn’t spread the disease, or get taken to a Hive. Jace so wanted to stay by Khoth’s side, but the Khul were spread out and they couldn’t take on one group at a time. It had to be all at once.
Jace landed and Davies got off. He checked his weaponry with that same expert efficiency that he’d shown in the Compound.
I’ve sent the group you need to handle to your comm, Davies, Jace told him. A group of them are in the sewers, trying to find a way to access the Compound underground. You can access the sewer through this building.
A map appeared on Davies’ comm as well, showing him the easiest way to meet up with the three Khul.
Be quick. Be quiet. Go for the head, Jace told him.
Davies gave a brief nod. “It will be done, Pilot.”
Then without any hesitation, he sprinted off. Khoth and Typhon watched him go.
“They show no fear,” Typhon remarked as Jace started to fly to the next location.
Merely because we have emotions, Typhon, doesn’t mean we’re ruled by them. At least, not all the time, Jace said.
Jace landed three streets over, but not on the ground. He clung to the side of the building and used a laser to melt the glass of the window on the fourth floor. Typhon swung himself off onto the open floor. He was already reviewing the material that Jace had sent him on the comm.
There’s a group on the far side of this building. They are setting up jamming technology. They hope to interfere with the shield, Jace explained.
“Are you able to understand their communications?” Typhon asked even as he unslung his draagves.
To an extent. But these are educated guesses, Jace admitted.
“And where will you and Khoth go?” Typhon asked.
We’re going to be taken on the main horde, Jace explained. The biggest group are clustered under that overpass near the southern flank of the compound. It just looked like an overpass to Jace, because it had that familiar sweeping pattern of many highways, but this was an overpass of trees and other vegetation that wound its way throughout the city. It wasn’t for cars. All of those flew. They're trying to use some kind of goo to short out the forcefield and blast through the wall.
“Goo?” Typhon lifted an eyebrow.
Ah, it’s something they secrete from… Well, it doesn’t matter. It’s goo.
Typhon simply nodded.
Khul technology is mostly, well, biological. The goo is produced and pumped into canisters about a foot long. See? Jace explained and sent an image of an octagonal container that had crystalline sides and solid tops to both Typhon and Khoth. The goo glowed a neon green. If the shields hadn’t been fully up to snuff on the Compound, that stuff would have been eating through the wall now.
“I am more grateful to you than I can say,” Typhon pronounced with a bow.
I don’t know about that. They only came here because of me, Jace admitted.
“They could have wiped us out at any time,” Typhon said. “You just ripped away the illusion of safety.”
And then he was running down the hallway and Jace pushed them off of the wall.
I’m going to set you down behind them, Khoth, and I will then draw their attention. Up close and personal, Jace explained. While they’re focused on me--
“I will bring death upon them,” Khoth stated.
Exactly, Jace said.
They were nearly at the landing spot. Jace grew more and more tense as he thought of letting Khoth off and watching the Thaf’ell Commander walk away from him and towards danger. Maybe they should stay together. Or, better yet, maybe Khoth should hang back while Jace took out all of the Khul. It wasn’t like he could get hurt as a mech, right? So it would make more sense for Khoth to stay out of the fray until he was absolutely needed!
“Your thoughts are appearing on my comm,” Khoth said softly.
What? No! That’s not… shit, Jace groaned. I’m in so many places at once, I didn’t realize that my thoughts were being recorded somewhere.
“You told me that you didn’t think we could defeat the Khul without me,” Khoth said carefully as Jace zoomed around a building’s edge.
Yeah, but… I guess there are no “buts”. I just need you to be safe, Jace admitted.
“I promised to come back to you. I keep my promises,” Khoth said.
“This will not be the last time we will have to fight,” Khoth reminded him. “But it will not be the last time we are together either.”
You’re right. Just last minute jitters, Jace said.
Jace saw the landing spot. It was about a quarter mile from the spot where the Khul were clustered with their goo bombs. The Khul were so focused on their work that they only had a handful of their number watching their back. Khoth would be able to take them out, especially if Jace was making a lot of noise the other way.
He landed with a clank that was far louder than he’d hoped. But none of the Khul guards moved from their positions. So the sound hadn’t carried that far. Khoth jumped down from his legs and walked around to his front, even though Jace could see him no matter where he was standing. Still it was sweet that he wanted to talk to Jace face-to-face so to speak. Khoth unsheathed his rahir and regarded Jace with all the somber seriousness of the Thaf’ell warrior he was.
“I will see you soon, Jace,” Khoth said.
Yes, you will. Remember not to start attacking until I have their attention, okay?
“Understood, Pilot.” Khoth bowed.
Jace tried not to feel like his heart was falling into his feet as he took off again. He watched Khoth as the Thaf’ell Commander became smaller and smaller and then Khoth ducked beneath the overpass and was lost to view.
I was better at this in the flesh than in the mech! Jace realized with a sad laugh.
He knew it was because before Khoth was still with him--or, at least, still with a part of him--that could protect the Thaf’ell Commander. Now they were apart and anything could happen.
How the Hell did I get through the thing in the Hive? Jace wondered.
He felt stretched thin at the moment. He knew why. All the broken systems in the building he piloted past were calling out to him. The half asleep AIs that perked up at his mental signal surged towards him. And then there was also the war above him, where he could only see the Osiris and not actually touch the big ship’s mind. At that moment, the Osiris’ main laser blasted the guts out of another hive. Hundreds of Khul were sucked out into the void of space.
Now, I’ve got to add some Khul to my tally, Jace thought.
I’ll take over the BFG, Jace! Gehenna suggested.
Sounds good! Give them Hell, Gehenna! He told her.
You, too! She giggled.
He rounded the last building and came up right to the edge of the underpass that ran along the southern flank of the Compound. Not twenty-five feet away, the Khul were setting their goo bombs and making their plans.
Let’s get their attention.
Jace dropped down the ground with a crashing CLANK! His two mighty metal legs made contact with the road. He spun two of his guns on the mech’s arms. He started the warm up for the big gun on top of his head. He began to move.
Clomp! Clomp! Clomp! Clomp!
He was like a tank walking. He was making so much noise that even if the Khul were dead they would have heard him. But they were very much alive. The mech had night-vision and heat-vision, which helped him see under the semi-darkness of the underpass, but he would have been able to find them anyways, because of the glowing green containers of goo that were attached all along the wall. There were over a hundred of them. A trace of unease went through Jace. Surely, the field would hold. He had upgraded the system and--
The first laser fire impacted Jace’s body. The bolt hit, but then ricocheted off the armored chest, leaving only a faint scorch mark. Annoyed, Jace started up the guns on his arms. The guns’ barrels rotated with a rattling sound as high velocity projectiles were spit out and tore through the line of Khul which were too slow to get out of the way. Cetix heads exploded. Limbs were shredded from Omull bodies. Khul torsos were simply ripped apart and their acidic blood fountained everywhere. When he stopped shooting, there was nothing alive before him. Jace grinned.
That, of course, was when the Khul who had taken cover at his very noisy approach started firing upon him.
He was hit from all directions. The mech was shoved to the right by a hail of blasts then to the left by another hail of blasts. He nearly lost his footing as the front was pummelled with yet more blasts and then someone sent the mortar shell at him.
Jace jumped. In his mind, he jumped. In the real world, the mech used its jets to blast off of the ground, hit the ceiling of the overpass which sent him careening back down again. He landed heavily on the right leg. The hydraulics stuck as he tried to stand upright. He saw the Khul aiming another mortar shell at him.
Oh, shit! Jace cried.
But where the mortar had been was suddenly a blooming ball of light. The mortar itself was destroyed and the Khul manning it was blown to steaming chunks. He just saw a flash of blue skin as Khoth moved lightning-quick between the pillars that held up the underpass.
Don’t get cocky, Jace! He reminded himself. Thanks for the assist, Khoth!
He didn’t get a response back but Khoth was in the thick of things. He’d killed half a dozen Khul before he’d saved Jace’s mech-ass and now he was cutting and blasting his way through half a dozen more.
I’m really behind on the count now! Jace thought.
He managed to get his mech’s leg straightened out and scanned the area. He found three Khul hiding behind the nearest pillar. Destroy enough of those and the overpass would become an underpass with them under the rubble. So he had to use a more tactical approach.
The big gun on his head ground to life and he had the smart-missile it would launch lock onto their three heat signatures. If it took out the one pillar things should be okay. He fired. The missile screamed as it exited the top gun and flew through the air, curving to the right around the pillar, before exploding its targets. Khul body parts and blood rained down everywhere.
Jace! Gehenna sounded frantic.
He found himself focusing on the BFG and the cameras on the defense grid, but everything was going well there. He narrowed back down to Davies, Hayter and Typhon. According to their comms, all three men were doing well, still alive, and taking out targets.
Gehenna, what is it? He finally asked her.
You’ve got to stop the goo! She cried.
He stopped as he focused in on the rapidly pulsing canisters that were set all around the outside of the forcefield. The blast would take them down to 59%, but they should hold. Sure, the wall itself was clearly damaged and needed attention, but it wasn’t like he could get a work crew out now and…
The shield wasn’t right.
He saw now the shield was powered by physical nodes on certain sections of the wall. They were interspersed regularly, giving off power, but there were some that were not giving off power. There were some that were damaged.
Too many that were damaged.
If that goo all goes off the shield will fail here and so will the wall! Gehenna cried.
Jace had the mech running to the goo canisters. The air was alight with laser blasts. He had his arms moving to the sides and in front, aiming and firing at Khul he hardly saw, but shredded as he went. He got to the canisters. There were too many to carry. He picked them up and began tossing them as far away as he could.
Another mortar shell hit his back. He keeled over, his cameras on the mech fuzzed. He kept throwing more canisters away, but then another mortar hit and he was down.
The last thing he saw through the mech’s cameras was the rapidly blinking goo canisters burning a bright and brilliant green and then there was only darkness. But even before he pulled back to other cameras, he knew that the shield had failed, the wall had fallen, and the Khul were coming inside the Moturin Compound.