CHAPTER SEVENTY-ONE: WHEN SECONDS MATTER
Meanwhile, at the Tzunda Quarters, Ylore, Haseon…
Thammah shifted on the rooftop and scratched her right thigh. There was always an itch when it came to missions like this. Have to stay still? Itch. Have to stay quiet? Double itch just out of reach. Enemies approaching and must stay still and silent? Triple itch all along her spine causing her body to want to twitch. What was worse was that she knew that it was mostly psychological. If she was just hanging about, nothing to do, she could be sitting still and silent with a glass of something pleasing in one hand and the sunset in her eyes, and she wouldn’t itch at all. But now, when she couldn’t scratch without risking losing concentration, the itches were everywhere. Her thigh was but the latest.
Thammah?! Jace contacted her over the comm.
What’s up, Jace? Kill all the Khul yet? She sent back.
Just two left. One Cetix is coming to you. And it won’t come from the street level, Jace responded.
Suddenly, a map appeared of areas below Ylore. She saw a connecting pipe between the Tzunda Quarters and the Moturin Compound and there was a little blinking light moving at speed. A segmented line went from the dot to a position inside the building, in the sub-basement.
Shit! She sent, finding human swears far more useful in these situations than Thaf’ell ones, which sometimes went on for multiple lines with discussions of parentage. I need to get there!
She pushed herself up, groaning as every muscle in her body seemed to have tensed up as she’d waited--and itched--for the enemy. She mourned all of her carefully laid mines. They were useless now, except if the quarters dwellers tried to run out.
Shit! But this one she kept just for herself.
It gets worse. Check out the room it’s headed for. There are tons of vents it can escape through to other parts of the building, Jace instructed.
She did and realized the Cetix would get there before she even got halfway to the sub-basement.
Jace continued, You’ve got to be clever about this, Thammah. You’ve got to be in a place where you can move fast. Get to where it’s going, not where it’s been.
She stopped herself from dropping down off the roof onto the ground. She turned to the windows that were directly behind her. Those would lead her into the second floor. If she jumped down, she would likely have to run in and up again as the Cetix skittered its way. She knew Cetixes could climb sheer surfaces at a 90-degree angle at speed.
I’m heading to the elevator bank, she sent.
Good idea. It’s almost there, Jace responded.
She took the butt of her gun and smashed it against the plasti-glass. It took a few tries before the glass folded in on itself and she pushed it inside, following after it. She stepped into a living room. This apartment was currently unoccupied, but she winced a little as she crunched over the safety glass and made her way towards the door to the hallway.
Where will it go? She asked as she shouldered open the door and dashed out into the hallway.
Where there are the most people, Jace responded.
Damnit. Of course.
A schematic of the building appeared on her comm. There were more red dots--heat signatures--of people huddled in the quarters. The building was unsurprisingly sparsely occupied at the moment. This was a feast day where the Thaf’ell went to parks and other outdoor events. They rarely stayed home, especially if they lived in a rather desolate spot for homes like this one.
There were plenty of offices and shops nearby, but the Moturin Compound was the only other large living structure. But she saw that there was a cluster of people on two floors--the 24th and 25th stories--two people on the 24th and five on the 25th. Seven people didn’t sound like much, but when one person being infected was enough to destroy a whole planet, seven was… well, unthinkable.
If she didn’t get there in time… If she got there after the fact… If she had to do what she’d been trained to do for cycles…
But to civilians, she realized. Just normal people. People who were enjoying a day off from their labors. Having a meal together. Playing games. Taking a nap. And then there’s a tapping on the vent above their beds and then…
Cold sweat coated her face.
It’s there, Jace sent and she could hear the dread in his voice, the urgency, even though it was in writing. It’s heading up a vent. Damn, moving even faster.
She glanced at her comm and saw the red dot surging upwards from the sub-basement and cruising past the basement and the first floor. It would be above her soon enough. That vent, she noted, provided heating and cooling for the apartments.
Can you send anyone to help me? There’s a lot of space to cover here! She pointed out.
I know! We’ll be coming. Just try and hold out, Jace said, and there was dissatisfaction in his written voice.
Thammah dashed down the hallway to the elevators, keeping an eye on that red dot. Was it slowing down? Was it thinking of making a stop off? That vent likely had openings into every apartment directly on either side of it. Most of the other red dots--the Thaf’ell--were farther away from the vent by two or three apartments so she didn’t think it would bother with those. No, it would only go after those more distant people after taking out the easier prey. Not a good idea to get stuck in a smaller vent and not be able to get out quickly.
You said there are two still alive. Where’s the other one, Jace? She asked.
The cursor blinked. She had a ridiculous feeling that Jace had taken on some of the Osiris’ traits of not responding being a response.
Oh, it’s here, Jace replied finally.
In the Compound.
Yeah, I guess that. But where in the Compound, Jace? She demanded to know.
Outside my door, Jace finally admitted.
Fuck! Another favorite human swear word put into good use. Are you okay? Do you need assistance?
She was actually slowing, prepared to dash back out of the building and to the Compound. The carpet was microfiber with swirls of blue and green on it like bubbles underwater. She’d seen human 1970s architecture and it reminded her of that mixed with their cleaner 1920s look. It had been comforting--and strange--to see that the Thaf’ell and humans, no matter how far apart, had developed some similar styles. She thought the humans would appreciate this while few Thaf’ell would.
No, Thammah, those people are dead if you do that, Jace said.
I know, she answered.
She was at the elevator bank now. She lifted her right hand over the sensor to make the elevator car come, but she didn’t indicate if she wished to go up or down.
I want you to save those people, Jace answered.
No shit. Do you need me, Jace?
She was rather proud of her swearing. She was really getting good at this. Jack would be awfully pleased. They’d exchanged swear words the first time they’d met. He liked the rather liquid tones of the Thaf’ell language and the flowery, almost poetic insults. But human was better. Short and to the point.
I’ve got more than enough people coming to my rescue, he told her.
Which means that there’s no one there with you now, she pointed out.
How far was she from the Compound? Should she get into her stolen ship and hightail it over there?
I’ve got Amana and Thadden here with me, plus some of the Control Crew. We’re good, Jace assured her, but she did not believe him. Get to those people, Thammah.
Thadden Voor? The Justiciar who has never in his bloody life fired a draagves except at a target?! She practically shouted. Or she hoped her words got that point across. And who the Hell is Amana?
Ah, Typhon’s sister. She’s quite impressive, he said.
She’s not a soldier though either, is she?
Ticks went by without Jace responding. The comm showed her that the Cetix was halfway to the 24th floor. She gritted her teeth. She had to make a decision. Jace or these people? Jace or--
You’re the only one that can help those people and stop the spread, Jace finally sent back and there was a rushed quality to his words. The letters appeared flowing over one another practically as if he were overwhelming the system’s ability to keep up. Please go, Thammah. Don’t wait. We already lost one.
She wanted to ask “who?” But she didn’t. There was no time. And if it were someone she knew and cared about, what then? It would just send her reeling. The damned Cetix was at floor 18. She stabbed the up sensor. The elevator doors shockingly opened immediately. She dashed in and punched the 24th and 25th floors. She wasn’t sure which floor the Cetix would start on. The one with the most targets or the nearest targets. Either way, she was planning exactly what she would do.
Jace, if you get yourself killed, I shall follow you into the afterlife--whatever that is for you--find you and kill you again, Thammah sent.
Understood. She thought she heard Jace’s laughter in her head.
And then she was solely focused on the red dot of the Cetix as it reached floor 20 then 21 then… The elevator doors opened with a soft whirring sound. She was sliding out between them just as soon as they were open enough to get her body through and pounding down the hall of floor 24.
The vent appeared to open up in the second room to the left of the entrance. She smashed into the door with her right shoulder and all of her body weight. The door groaned and split. Something in her shoulder might have given. She didn’t exactly feel it. But it didn’t matter. She hit it again. And again. And again. The door gave way and she was toppling over with it. She landed on her wounded shoulder and all of the air went out of her as pain spread like fire from her shoulder to her chest and neck. It burned the air right out of her.
“Momma!” a young female voice cried.
Thammah’s head shot up. There was a woman with a rahir in one hand and holding a young girl behind her. The woman’s eyes were huge.
“Cetix! Vent!” That was all Thammah had to say.
The woman’s hand convulsed over her daughter’s shoulder and thrust her further back behind her. Thammah hissed as she got up from the ground. Her shoulder had popped out. She needed it back in or there was no using that arm. It was an old injury. But there was no time. She grabbed her draagves with her other hand and charged into the room that the Cetix was just reaching.
It’s going up to 25, she realized as the red dot did not slow.
She brought the draagves up and fired along the height of the wall where the vent extended upwards behind the plaster. The sounds of the shots were muted and there was a faint metal sound as they ripped through the vent. Immediately, there was a smell and there was a series of thuds as something fell down the wall. But then plaster puffed as the Cetix must have caught itself.
Thammah saw the vent. It was painted white and was above a small bed. The girl’s bedroom. She aimed the draagves at the vent and fired and kept firing until the vent was cut in half. There was a sound. A scream. A terrible, wrenching scream. Something was spat out of the vent. Thammah dodged at the last minute. It splattered against the wall right where she had been standing.
She kept firing. Another scream. Then there were every softening thuds as something fell all the way down the vent. She checked her comm. The Cetix’s red dot was now at the bottom of the vent. It faded out. It was dead.
Thammah breathed. Deep, long breaths. Then she slowly turned. The woman and her daughter were standing in the threshold to the girl’s bedroom, eyes wide. Thammah then saw what had been spat at her. It was larva that wiggled and squirmed as the slime they were coated in slid down the wall. The woman and daughter moved in closer
“NO!” Thammah shouted.
“No,” she said more softly, her stomach roiling, her skin crawling as she looked at the larvae that had almost hit her. She didn’t have her soft or hard suit on. If it had hit her… If the woman and her child touched it. “Back up slowly. Don’t touch anything. We need to get out of this building. It’s not clean.”
“But my things!” The little girl cried, stretching one hand towards a stuffed toy.
“They’re gone, honey,” the woman said even though everything was still there. But she and Thammah knew that this whole building was considered unclean now. “They’re gone.”
Thammah followed after the girl and mother out of the apartment. Her right arm still hung limply at her side. She would have to pop it back in. She’d only done it once before high on stims. But she’d do it again cold, stone sober now if Jace needed her. But, hopefully, he would have handled his Khul, too. They’d exchange war stories.
Jace? Jace, can you read me? She sent. I’ve killed the Cetix. No one was infected. Repeat: I’ve killed the Cetix. No infections.
But Jace did not reply.
Meanwhile, on the Osiris above Haseon…
“How long will it take for the shields to draw down and our main weapon to charge?” Jack asked.
24.27 Earth seconds, the Osiris answered.
Now that it had agreed to let Jack be responsible for killing all of them it was quite a bit more agreeable and chatty. Jack wondered if he would hear any confession from the AI. Though what kind of confession could the Osiris make? Probably ones that would matter.
“And how many hits can we take before it’s game over?” Jack asked as he started to pilot the Osiris.
Any hits will likely cause damage. I have had all the crew go to interior quarters, which will be 70.12% safer than anything near the outer hull, the Osiris replied. As to full destruction of this vessel without shields, that depends on the weaponry the Hive uses and the locations it hits.
“Guesstimate, Osiris,” Jack said as he started to maneuver the big ship as surreptitiously as possible alongside the other ships.
The Hive would likely think that the Osiris was attempting to lure it in to take out the smaller ships. But what he was doing was making room for those ships to get between the Osiris and the Hive when they fed the shield energy to the main weapon.
I do not guesstimate. But I would urge you not to get hit more than three times, the Osiris answered.
“Good to know. Will the Khul realize we are powering down shields? Will their sensors tell them that?” Jack asked as he watched the Hive carefully.
“Oh, well, excellent. All to plan then,” he responded.
Was it coming closer? It would have to or they would have to in order to make sure that their one shot counted.
One shot. Jesus, Jack thought, but there was a Devil-may-care smile on his lips.
He had not flown experimental planes for a living without being an adrenaline junkie. Death was always a possibility. But the stakes weren’t just his life this time. It wasn’t even just the Osiris and its crew or the crews of the other struggling vessels. If they failed, the war against the Khul was lost.
But this is the right call. I know it is. What I said to the Osiris is true, Jack reminded himself.
They were, essentially, in an impossible situation. Damned if they did. Damned if they didn’t. Losing Jace wouldn’t just cripple him and Diane forever--a yawning well of anguish rose up in him at the thought--but it would cripple the Osiris, too. And the Osiris and Jace were the Alliance’s--and Earth’s--only chance to stop the Khul.
“Matzen, have you picked which ships can give us some cover for the 24.27 Earth seconds it will take for this bad boy weapon to get ready to fire?” Jack asked.
Matzen, of course, didn’t even crack a smile. “Yes, my vessel and three others can provide cover--”
“As well as mine,” Diane cut in. “Our vessel has the most shields left.”
Jack wanted to say, “No, absolutely not.” But he didn’t even as the words stuck like cut glass in his throat. Instead, he nodded, “Understood, Diane.”
For the first time Matzen reacted. He blinked slowly and tilted his head to the side. “Your vessel does have the most shields, Colonel Parker, but…”
“But what, Commander Matzen?” Diane asked softly. “You didn’t think that Jack or I would risk ourselves in this?”
This seemed to confuse Matzen more. “You are… mates. To do so with no show of distorted Xi is… quite Thaf’ell. I did not expect this of humans.”
“I know you’ve been told a lot of things about humans, Matzen, but if we live through this, I’m going to ask you to do something for me,” Jack said.
“I look forward to doing anything if we survive this,” Matzen admitted, which had Jack giving out a bark of laughter.
“Good. Well, I’d ask you to trash all your ideas about humanity. Just put them in the bin and start fresh,” Jack told him. “It will be much easier on you. You won’t have to show surprise all the time.”
Matzen actually cracked a smile. It was small, but it was there. He inclined his head. “I will do that. Now, are we ready?”
Jack’s right hand hovered over the red button that would start the transfer of power. The Hive was definitely creeping closer. It was curious. He met Diane’s eyes on the screen. She looked beautiful and serene as if she were preparing to take a walk on a sunny beach. She smiled at him.
“I love you, Diane,” Jack said, not letting his voice crack.
“I love you, Jack,” she answered.
Neither of them said anything else about getting through this or it was all going to be all right. Nothing else needed to be said. If there was anything after this life, he would find her. Nothing would separate them for long. And they would do whatever they could from beyond this plain to help their son.
“Ready, Matzen,” Jack said.
And he pushed the button. There was a handy graphic depiction of the energy moving from shields to the weapon that the Osiris had created for him to see. He watched as one section drained while another filled up. But in a second or two, other things were moving.
Matzen and Diane’s ships along with three of the others flew between the Osiris and the Hive. The Hive was also moving. And firing. The first barrage was the lesser weapons that sent a spray of green laser blasts towards the vessels. It was the equivalent of a shotgun blast, which had less precision and strength at the current distance. But several blasts hit one of Matzen’s vessels. Immediately, the ship’s shields sizzled and went out. There was no protective glow around it.
“Matzen, get that vessel out of the way!” Jack urged.
Matzen was already ordering the vessel to move, but another barrage hit it. Blooms of fire escaped the ship. Though there was no sound as it was space, Jack imagined the sound of wrenching metal and Thaf’ell screams as the vessel was blown open and debris and people started to stream out.
Diane’s ship moved to take that one’s place. She was using the whole of her side to shield the much larger Osiris. Jack felt his mouth go dry. The Hive was moving in more quickly now. More blasts coming like fireworks towards them towards a finale. He glanced down at the two indicators to see how much power had transferred. Half! Only half!
Diane’s ship was peppered with laser fire. The shields sizzled and lit up everywhere the blasts hit. They were dimmer each time.
“Diane, you’re done! You’ve got to get out of there!” Jack urged.
But another barrage was coming. So much faster now. Too fast. Jack felt his heart lodge in his throat as everything seemed to slow. Diane’s ship was going to be hit. Her shields would not hold. He was going to lose her. He was going to lose his wife. He was…
Matzen’s vessel was suddenly between the Hive and his wife’s ship. She was able to dive while Matzen’s vessel took a beating. He glanced at the indicator. More than three-quarters of the way. And the Hive was closer. And Matzen’s shields were going… going… gone…
“Pay attention to me, you motherfucker!” Jack growled under his breath as he piloted the Osiris out from behind the other vessels.
The Hive immediately began to fire towards him, ignoring Matzen and the other injured ships. It could mop them up afterwards with no worries. No, it had bigger prey.
It is preparing its largest weapon, the Osiris said. If we are hit two times--
“Gotcha! No more odds! Let me concentrate!” Jack laughed wildly.
Despite being huge, the Osiris moved easily, like a dream, but he supposed that had to do also with being in space. There was no atmosphere to get in the way. He saw a bright light appear in the center of the Hive. It was the main laser weapon powering up.
You are flying us straight towards the weapon’s trajectory, the Osiris said.
“Yep!” Jack grinned.
If the Osiris thought that then the Khul would too. The moment the blast left the Hive he was already diving and going to his left. The blast went wide. Jack grinned as he thrust the throttle up and barreled towards the Hive once more.
You avoided that blast because you had enough distance between us and the Hive. You are decreasing that distance. We will no longer be able to evade if you get much closer, the Osiris informed him.
“Exactly. But they won’t be able to evade either,” Jack said.
The Khul must have realized what his plan was then, because it started to veer away from him. He glanced at the indicators for the power transfer. One bar remaining. He turned towards the Hive and pushed the pedal to the metal. The Osiris surged ahead, cutting the distance between it and the Hive in half. Another glowing light was appearing on the Hive.
They will fire on us in 3.2 seconds, the Osiris said.
“Fire on them in 3,” Jack commanded.
It shall be done, the Osiris answered.
And just as that green light on the Hive became blinding, the Osiris’ main weapon--a golden beam of light--struck that light. There was an explosion. A silent one, but Jack watched as the Hive was consumed by its own weapon backfiring. He saw the outer hull being eaten away and a massive hole punched into the Hive’s very center. The golden beam of the Osiris’ main weapon then sliced through the Hive, cutting it into two parts that slowly, and silently, drifted away from one another.
The Hive was dead.
“You did it,” Diane gasped. “Jack, you did it.”
He could see electrical sparks arcing all around her. Sweat and soot stained her face. But she was smiling. And alive. Alive.
“I am looking forward to discovering the truth about humanity, Flight Commander Parker,” Matzen said, and the man was smiling broadly this time.
“Can’t wait to tell you all about us,” Jack said, running a shaking hand through sweat-slicked hair.
He heard shouts of joy from Dai and Bob in Engineering over the comm as the two danced in front of the screen.
“Osiris, let everyone know it’s over,” Jack said. “For now, anyways.”
I have done so, Flight Commander Parker, the Osiris said.
“Good. Do we have communication back with the planet?” Jack asked, realizing that they likely did. “Is Jace--”
The Osiris’ words jumped across the screen interrupting him as if the AI had screamed, The Pilot is in danger.
Next Chapter Will Be Posted Soon!