CHAPTER SIXTY-SIX: HEROES
Meanwhile, in one of the buildings in Ylore...
Typhon drew his rahir as he approached the Omull who had its chitinous back to him. He made no sound. All he ended up being was a rush of wind before the rahir severed the long neck from the Omull’s body. The body quivered, spurting its acidic blood, that hissed as it splattered the nearby wall and ground. Then, finally, the body toppled over. Typhon caught it with the flat side of his rahir and slowly lowered it to the ground so the noise was minimal.
He glanced down at his comm. There were ten Khul still left in the building. They were arrayed mostly along the far wall of windows that faced the now closed gate into the Compound. They had set up shields between themselves and the glass that would repel most draagves fire from a distance. Clearly, they believed that, at some point, people would exit the Compound through the front. Jace was likely right that they intended to force him out to face them. Of course, the Khul intended to simply cut Jace down the minute he emerged.
The Khul have no honor.
This was not a surprise. This was nothing new to think about. Sometimes it appealed to Typhon to just think of the Khul as monsters with only the basest of thoughts and feelings. He knew they were more than that--much more--from what he and Amana had discovered in the database, not to mention the Alliance’s own observations. But these individual Khul seemed like drones to him. They were told to do a thing and they did it without hesitation or fear or guilt.
We’re just food to them. A warm slab of flesh to nest their young. And our cries are the lullabies of their children.
Typhon kept low as he moved through the once-pleasant rooms of a physician’s practice. There were the exam tables and the treatment rooms to calm nerves, soothe hurts and restore health. But now they seemed contaminated to him. Typhon was certain that they would be sterilized after this, likely with fire. Would his family’s Compound be the only structure standing and habitable once this was all over? Surely, the Khul could not get in there since Jace fixed the shields!
Yet the Compound was old, as were all of the structures on Haseon, on every Altaeth world, and they had been able to do only minimal maintenance. Things had been damaged over time, simply stopped working, and Jace couldn’t fix that in a few moments of interconnectivity.
The Pilot does not understand how far we’ve fallen.
He spotted two Khul in a corner room. One Cetix had its underside practically pressed to the window as it sought to set up some kind of device against the glass. It was globular and a dark, pulsing purple. The Khul technology was very different from the Altaeth, more organic, one might say. The other was an Omull who was pacing near the other window, lifting itself higher than its seven foot height to peer at the underside of the overpass where Jace and Khoth were.
Typhon pressed his back against the wall just outside of the door. He listened intently and imagined where the Omull was in its pacing then he looked inside. He was off by a step. He ducked back and listened some more. He repeated the process of looking inside. He was correct this time. He drew back. He needed to take them both out and there was only one moment where a single strike of the rahir and that was when they were closest together. He counted the thumps.
He moved into the room like a shadow. His blade pulled back behind him. He used all of his strength and his forward momentum to bring the blade around. It sliced through the Omull’s neck cleanly. The head bounced off of the glass and tumbled away somewhere. The blade clove halfway through the Cetix and stuck. The Cetix reared frantically, in pain and alarm and shock, as its life’s blood poured everywhere.
He grasped the rahir with both hands and yanked the sword out of the Cetix’s neck before slamming it home again. The Cetix’s head hit the purple goo and stuck to it while the rest of its long, insectoid body fell to the ground, jittering like it was still alive.
Cold sweat coated his brow. That had made noise. He went over to the door and glanced out. An Omull was trotting down the hallway. It had not seen him. He pressed his back to the wall by the door and waited.
Thump, thump, thump.
The Omull’s long-necked head with its waving tentacles came into the room. One touch from those tentacles was death. The larvae were not only stored in tanks on their ships, but were also in the Omull’s bodies and were inserted beneath the skin along with a paralytic poison so the host was awake and aware as the larvae began to squirm inside of them, heading for the brain where the first would nest, never able to be removed until death.
The Omull jerked to a halt when it saw its dead brethren. He heard it make the almost electronic garbled sound, which was the beginning of a transmission to its fellows. He pressed a button that had the poisoned spike slide out of the hilt of the rahir. He thrust that spike right beneath the equivalent of the Omull’s chin. The whine stopped as the poison worked nearly instantaneously. But those tentacles were still moving. Typhon ducked beneath them as the Omull started to collapse. He sliced and the Omull’s head slid off.
The problem was that the body was stuck in the doorway. He breathed heavily. A pool of acidic blood was forming around the corpse and the tentacles still twitched. But, though every part of him wanted to back away from the Omull, he had to run towards it and leap over the body to exit the room. When he landed he stayed very still, just breathing. A feeling of horror swept over him as he carefully checked to see if he had been touched, even brushed, by one of the tentacles, but he had not. He was still clean.
He wiped the sweat out of his face and began to move again. Each of these forward facing rooms contained two Khul, except for the one where the Omull had left and that contained only one Cetix. He slayed them like silent death. His muscles were trembling and his breath was coming in ragged gasps though when he reached the final room. There were three Khul inside. The last of them.
They had set up what looked like an organic squat cube of squashy gray material with glowing buttons on top of it. It whined and spat. He recognized it as likely the jammer that Jace had identified. He had to take them and the jammer out. He closed his eyes and centered himself. The rahir and a stealthy approach were no longer necessary. There were no other Khul in this building to hear his draagves roar. Besides, with three Khul, he needed to be far quicker and stay much farther away.
We need more weapons. Bigger weapons. Stronger weapons. Jace will have them. We cannot pretend anywhere is safe after this. Let there be an “after this”.
Typhon sheathed his rahir and drew out his draagves. He set the mode to rapid fire. He was close enough that the reduced accuracy wouldn’t matter. His limbs had stopped shaking. His breathing and heart rate were even. He was prepared. He listened very intently, but there were no thumps of Omull feet coming towards him, not the tick of the Cetix claws. They were where he had last glimpsed them.
One more breath and he spun into the doorway. Standing on the threshold, Typhon pulled the trigger and swept the barrel of the rifle from right to left. Only the last Khul in the line of fire had a chance to even turn around. His draagves shredded them into bits. He heard its roar, only later did he realize that the roaring was coming from him. He screamed his rage at them being on his planet. He screamed his rage that, just like he feared, worse than like he feared, the Alliance was not ready for this fight.
All the Khul slumped to the ground. Blood and guts and organs spilling into the room sizzling softly. He saw a larva squirm out of one Omull’s body. He sent a blast at it. The larvae and blood vaporized. For good measure, he pumped a few of his acidic rounds into the jammer until it was hissing, spitting and dissolving.
This place can never be clean. It must be burned.
But he had been successful. Things were going well. He should not give up hope. The Pilot--the last Altaeth--was with them! Safely behind the only walls that could--
There was an explosion from the overpass. His head jerked towards it. Black smoke boiled out from under the overpass. He saw a section of the shield start to flicker. Part of it went dark.
Typhon went numb. The Pilot, his sister, his family, his people were now open for an attack. The shield had failed, because--and he knew this to be true--the infrastructure had not been strong enough after thousands of years. Everything might be lost within moments. He heard frantic laser fire faintly through the glass and saw blasts of light underneath the overpass. Khoth and Jace were fighting. He had to join them!
But before he took a step, there was a second explosion. One of the covers over the access ladder to one leaped up ten feet into the air before it landed on its side, spun around and then wavered to a stop. Thick black smoke poured out of the access point and another section of the shield began to fail. He watched with frozen horror as it winked out of existence.
As he spun to leave the room, he heard the roar of Paladin engines. He stopped and stared. A single Paladin craft streaked down the street. The gangway was down and a woman stood on the threshold. Behind here were a dozen Thaf’ell warriors. He recognized her in an instant as she jumped out of the craft, jet packs lowering her safely to the ground.
It was Nova Voor.
Meanwhile, from the roof of a building on Ylore...
Dr. David Hayter had picked off three Khul who had drifted too far from the safety of beneath the overpass. One in the head, one in the leg and another in an arm-like appendage. The one shot in the head went down and was left there while the other two were dragged away. Though he watched the darkness there assiduously, no other Khul presented themselves. He had been about to move from his chosen spot when the two explosions took place, the shield failed in two places, and the Paladin-class ship showed up with the cavalry.
He recognized the leader of the group in the Paladin that jumped from the ship as Khoth’s mother, High Councillor Nova Voor. He lifted his eyebrows, but then realized being in battle was consistent for her character, especially considering how things had gone recently for her. She was a woman of action who had been stymied by playing politics too long. What she was better suited for was the clarity of combat, much like her son. But while Khoth was bright and shining as a warrior, Nova was jaded. Perhaps she fought for redemption or simply sought a conflict she believed she could win, or lose honorably at.
David laid back down on the roof. It was hell on his joints and his stomach--a little softer of late--objected to it, but once he had the sight to his right eye he steadied. He trained the barrel of his draagves on the darkness below.
He imagined that the main body of the Khul were surging into the Compound seeking the Pilot, but he guessed others would be left behind to guard their back, not because the Khul thought that they could win against the Alliance, they just wanted to keep their fellows alive long enough so that the others could eliminate the Pilot. This was a suicide mission, which was interesting in and of itself.
The Pilot must be an existential threat to the Khul’s existence. Intriguing! But I am worried about the Pilot! Will they be able to protect him in his weakened position? The Khul must not get him!
But David turned that part of his brain off as he saw movement in the darkness as Nova and a dozen soldiers, bristling with impressive looking draagves and rahirs approached in a V-formation. Weapons out. Bodies low. There was nothing to hide behind. Nova was in the lead, showing no hesitation or fear. The glow of their shields flickered in the sunlight.
There was a flash of movement to his left. An Omull had slunk around a vehicle and was aiming at them. David pulled the trigger. The Omull’s head jerked back and it went down, limbs jittering. Nova and the soldiers all scattered, even as their weapons pointed upwards. He gave a wave, assuming that the human hand would clear up that it was friend and not foe up here. It did.
There was suddenly a flurry of laser bolts heading for Nova and her ground again. David could not see the Khul who were shooting, they were too far under the overpass, but he could see the vehicles that they must be behind. He wondered if a few well placed shots would cause the vehicle to explode. Well, he was going to find out. He adjusted the sight against his eye and breathed to steady himself before pulling the trigger three times sending blasts into what he hoped was the engine compartment.
There was a hissing, some sparks and then a boom! The vehicle went up in a cloud of smoke. Nova and her Thaf’ell didn’t cheer, but she gave him a nod before they hustled out of sight beneath the overpass. Now was the time for him to move.
He heard the click of Cetix’s claws just before its shadow fell over him. David rolled. He rolled like he’d never rolled before. And though his body was screaming, he managed to get up to his knees just as the Cetix body slammed where he had been. For a moment, the horror of being underneath that monstrous body, of feeling those thousands pointed legs moving over him, had him frozen. But then the Cetix rose up and hissed at him.
A ball of gelatinous goo, the color of peanut butter, whizzed by his head. He had ducked at just the right moment, but the trust was that his knees had given out and he’d nearly fallen. There was no time to bring the gun sight up to his eye. He just fired.
The Cetix was struck twice and it was sent flying back, but there was no roof there to catch it. The heavier part of its body was off the roof and it pulled the rest of it off too. The Cetix’s thousand legs scrambled but caught only air. It fell backwards off the roof.
David dragged himself to the edge and looked over. The Cetix’s dead body was split open down the middle with blood pooling around it. Shivering in horror, he got to his feet. It was then that he saw the brown mass that had been shot at him. His stomach flipped as he realized it was full of larvae. They were squirming in the goo like it was their primordial mother’s milk. He fired at them, making them a brown, sizzling smear.
Realizing how close he had come to getting infected, not to mention how much he was limping, had him wondering if he shouldn’t stay up on the roof where it was relatively safe. He was just a linguist after all. At least, that’s what he’d signed up as.
But the thought of the Khul infecting others--infecting the Pilot--had him limping to the door that led to the lift the Khul had taken to get to him. He pushed the down button and headed for the first floor.
When he got out of the building, he started heading towards where Nova and the soldiers had disappeared. He heard fighting up ahead and hobbled towards it. There was a shout though from behind. He spun, his right knee objecting, and brought up his weapon, only to see Davies--blackened, bleeding from the ears, and slightly dazed--come out of a nearby building. He was grinning a bit like a loon even though he appeared quite the worse for wear.
“Did you make the second explosion, Davies?” David asked as he hobbled to Davies instead.
“Shit. Second? I thought… oh, my God.” Davies swung his head towards the Compound. “My explosion took down a bit of the shield, but there’s no way any Khul are getting in that way. I assure you. It’s Khul soup down there. So what the Hell happened there?”
He gestured to the second failing part of the shield.
“They obviously had other bombs,” David answered with a shrug. “Nova, a dozen soldiers, Khoth and Jace’s mech are battling them over there but some could have gotten in.”
“They have!” Typhon’s voice rang out behind them.
Again, they lifted weapons and David’s knees wailed, but the draagves’ barrel was steady. But it was the Justiciar, looking none the worse for wear, unless sweat and the gleam of death in his eyes was considered wear.
“Godamnit!” Davies hissed. “We need to get in there now!”
Typhon gestured for them to come with him to the main entrance to the Compound, he was tapping something on his comm as they all strode after him. Well, David limped.
“My people are holding them off, but there’s too many. They could get past them,” Typhon said, still tapping.
“We need Jace to be moved to the most secure location,” Davies growled as he shook debris out of his hair.
“The Control Room is the most secure location,” Typhon answered curtly.
“Why does that not make me feel better? Those damned Khul were able to get through four feet of calcanth and a shield with those bombs! You’re telling me that they can’t get through a secure door?” Davies was shaking his head.
“And all they need to do is threaten to infect your people and Jace will give himself up,” David said softly.
“No! Surely, he understands his worth to--”
But David cut him off, “No, Justiciar Moturin. One of the Pilot’s most powerful character traits is that he puts others before himself. He is a classic hero type after all. He will die to save another life, no matter how unworthy that other life may be in our eyes compared to himself.”
“It’s true,” Davies said with a nod. “Jace is a goddamned hero so we can’t be.”
The gate’s shield flickered and was gone. They jogged into the Compound with David puffing after them.
“What are you suggesting?” Typhon asked.
“That we kill every goddamned Khul we see,” Davies said, then his face went grim, “and if they take hostages… we kill them too.”