CHAPTER FOUR: RETURN
Khoth’s hands lightly rested on the controls of his personal Paladin-class starship, the Exarch, as he piloted it towards the massive Gate the Altaeth had built above Haseon. The Gate glittered as the metal--or calcanth as it was called, which the Altaeth built all their structures out of regardless of whether they were on the ground or in darkness of space--was hit by the rays of Haseon’s sun.
Strangely, no one in the Illumen Alliance had ever found calcanth on any known Altaeth world, or any world at all, actually. Some thought that it was not a natural material whatsoever, but had been grown somehow. Yet calcanth’s constituent parts were just as mysterious as the whole. It was but another mystery of the countless mysteries surrounding the Altaeth.
The Gate itself was an enigma, too. It was seemingly simple, consisting of only two curved wedges of calcanth--miles wide and tall--that rotated around one another in a graceful circle. Never touching. They only stopped spinning once a destination Gate was selected on a nearby ship. Then the wedges locked in place and the space between them would glow a fiery red, before a silvery tunnel appeared. Entering the tunnel, a ship could be taken across the known galaxy in a matter of hours. The location of new Gates was a full-time occupation for the Icith, a gentle, gigantic species of spacefaring beings who could not fight to save their lives, but they located Gates with an alacrity that no other species in the Alliance could match.
How the Gates worked--potentially opening wormholes through spacetime--was unknown. They’d been studied for millennia, but no one dared dismantle one for fear of not being able to put it back together and losing that destination forever. But scans had shown little to nothing about the interior of these wedges. Scientists warned that if they did not discover how the Gates worked they might not be able to repair damaged ones later and might lose access to whole swaths of the Alliance. But that had not happened so far. The Gates were remarkably maintenance and error-free. They were not attacked by the Khul either, for their enemy needed the Gates as much as the Alliance did to breach the great distances between star systems.
There had been three ships ahead of Khoth to use the Gate, but now he was next. He lifted his right hand to change his view to a split-screen. The Gate ahead of him and Haseon, his beloved homeworld, behind him. His hand trembled and he quickly lowered it, curling his fingers against his palm as he rested it on top of his thigh.
This might be the last time I see Haseon. I should wish it farewell.
But he did not change the view, yet neither did he ask for clearance to leave for Earth. In fact, he was silent so long that the Gate Control contacted him.
“E-Exarch, is there some difficulty?” the crisp voice of Control asked.
The Thaf’ell Control officer stumbled over his ship’s name. It was not a word that was of any language that was known. It was a made up word as far as he could tell. Daesah had been the one to name it.
“The Exarch. That is your ship’s name,” she’d told him.
He’d frowned at her at the time. “What kind of name is that?”
“I… I don’t know. It is just your ship’s name,” she said almost stubbornly.
Excitement filled him as he thought his sister had found some indication in the ship’s system to come up with such a name. He asked her as much.
“No… not exactly,” she answered.
“Not exactly?” His tone was arch. This time of imprecision was not valued.
“The Exarch is it’s name, little brother! Why can you just not accept this?”
But despite the slight acidity in her voice, her eyes were distant and her head was cocked to the side as if she was listening to something that only she could hear. He quickly looked around to see if anyone had noticed his sister’s fey moment. None had. But they were coming more often of late. He worried that the stress of her position as High Commander was causing her pain.
“I was considering naming the ship after one of Haseon’s moons,” he began.
But she was shaking her head. “No, your ship’s name is the Exarch.”
He had opened his mouth to persist, but there was something in her face that told him that he shouldn’t argue with her. And so, his ship’s name was the Exarch and that was the end of that. His eyes shifted to the leather-bound journal he’d set on the co-pilot’s seat that his sister had taken to writing in addition to the official electronic logs during the last few grand cycles of her life. It was in this journal that thoughts--such as the name of his ship--were written. Including her thoughts on Earth.
Is that why my mother is sending me here? Father seems to think so, but he also thinks she is sending me out of harm’s way. That she doesn’t want our line to end with me...
“Surely there is some other place that I may be assigned other than Earth!” Khoth had said to his father.
The two of them had been standing outside the Exarch in the landing bay on Haseon. The Tribunal had just ended, but he was to leave immediately. He was not to contact the members of his old command. No friends would see him off. He was to simply go immediately to the ass end of nowhere, or as the humans called it, Earth.
He could not help but feel this was as bad or worse than exile. For if he had been exiled, he could have headed out to one of the fronts against the Khul and continued to fight. But no, he was to go to Earth and sit there, doing nothing of any use, while his former command, his friends, his family continued the fight.
His father crossed his arms at the wrists behind his back. He showed no frustration with Khoth--he was a master of Xi and Xa being in perfect agreement--but answered simply, “Khoth, this is the ruling. You are to go to Earth. It is a punishment. Not a strategic maneuver.”
“But can we risk not being strategic about everything, even punishments, considering the Khul’s renewed strength?” Khoth’s hands curled into those traitorous fists as frustration and despair filled him. He was unable to release them as he said, “I can be of use. Not only in battle, but if you put me where my punishment will be seen by many it will have more effect. We have but a handful of operatives on Earth, working with the… the humans, who care nothing for our rules. Sending me there will not help the whole as much as sending me to one of the systems where the Khul are active.”
“While I agree with you that punishment should not only be to punish the one that is guilty, but to edify or serve as an example for others…” His father’s voice died off and the older man sighed. “This is what your mother decided. That is enough of a reason, is it not? Or do you think to argue with her?”
“She has sent me to the one place where I cannot help!” Khoth’s voice rose and he quickly swallowed back any more traitorous angry words that might slip out. His fingernails dug into the palms of his hands. His selchilite clacked angrily.
“Or perhaps she has sent you to the one place where she is sure not to lose another child,” his father murmured.
Khoth’s head jerked up and the selchilite drummed against each other and his armor. “Mother would not do that! She would not protect me at the expense of the Alliance!”
His father slowly nodded. His eyes were clouded for a moment. “Perhaps I speak of my own desires.”
“The positions you and your sister held almost ensured that our line might end,” his father answered. “I had hoped that one of you would follow me and choose to be a Justiciar. But you both took after your mother and joined the military.”
Khoth knew that his father’s ego was such that he would not be offended by his two children choosing another path. But he had never considered that his father might be afraid that they had. Now with Daesah dead, he was their only child left. Khoth realized that his greatest fear had come true and he might be glad that Khoth was sent to a place where the Khul had no interest.
“But you were in the military as well. That is where you met Mother,” Khoth reminded him unnecessarily.
“Yes, but I left it for the very reason I wish that you and Daesah had not chosen the same path,” his father explained. “Your mother and I did not want to orphan you.”
Khoth blinked at this. It was logical and yet there was something so fragile about the statement. Something that opened up a vista of emotions that seemed very alien when he thought of his parents.
“There is another reason you might wish to go to Earth,” his father said slowly.
Khoth could not imagine one. His expression, though placid, caused his father to smile slightly.
“Your sister planned to go to Earth after your last mission,” his father explained.
“What?” Khoth started. “How do you know that? She did not tell me of any such plans!”
And Daesah had been much more likely to confide in him instead of their parents, especially if it was based upon one of her intuitions.
“She did not confide it to me,” his father said, and for a moment, there was a sadness in the slouch of his shoulders, but he quickly firmed them again as he reached inside of his robes and took out a slim soft, leather-bound volume in dark green. His father ran his fingertips over the material in a way that showed that his grief for a lost daughter was not so far from him. He abruptly held it out to Khoth. “You should read this. Your mother and I have. You might find it… useful in some way.”
Khoth carefully took the journal from his father’s slightly shaking hand. When they were younger, his sister had journaled extensively, but she had used the online servers and voice recordings. She’d explained to him that putting her thoughts outside of herself by speaking them aloud or writing them down had enabled her to see them more clearly and understand what she might do.
But ever since she had joined the military, he had thought she’d abandoned this practice because of the danger of others reading them and questioning whether her Xi and Xa were in alignment. The fact that she had chosen to write them in non-electronic form was… well, it showed she feared these words being read.
“What is in here?” Khoth asked, unwilling to open the journal out in the open. In fact, he stashed it quickly in the hidden pocket over his heart.
“I believe your sister was… seeking answers to questions that were unorthodox,” his father said carefully. “In truth, I did not understand much of what she wrote.”
He means based upon one of her feelings like the one she had me investigate with that Xols.
“Did she say exactly what she was investigating on Earth?” Khoth asked, knowing that it would be better and more accurate if he were to simply read the journal himself. But his father’s interpretation of it would have value. His Justiciar’s adept mind could see things he could not.
“She thought that the Altaeth’s deepest secret was there,” his mother’s voice came from behind him.
He shot around, surprised at her presence, as he had not heard her approach. And, if he were fully honest with himself, he had not expected her to come. His heart lifted at her presence though he tried not to show just how much.
She stood straight and tall and strong. She did not move to touch him. Thaf’ell did not touch much except in private. Yet this was the moment of his departing. They might not see one another for many cycles. Perhaps he should make the first move?
Khoth lifted his right hand to briefly touch her left forearm, but she sidestepped the touch. His hand fell back to his side. He felt as if he had been stabbed through the chest. His Xi screamed even as his Xa kept him from saying anything at all.
With a voice that sounded almost mechanical, he remarked, “I cannot see how that is possible. There is only one crashed Altaeth vessel on Earth, is there not?”
“Yes, a Colossus warship.” She gave a clipped nod. “But it is not like the others we have discovered. It is… singular. Larger and with an intact Core that no one has been able to access.”
Her eyes slid over his shoulder. He resisted the urge to swing around. But he heard voices that he recognized. He gritted his teeth. It was Councillor Ardath Ulgex. If she were here, any signs of affection from his mother to him would be used to undermine her rule and, perhaps, his punishment. The sensation of being stabbed eased at that realization. She had not simply avoided his affection because she was still angry with him. With another wave of emotion--this time anger instead of hurt, he realized that Councillor Ardath Ulgex had purposefully come to the hanger bay with her group of odious attendants to ensure that they could not have a proper goodbye. His Xa told him that this was wise of his mother’s enemy, but his Xi screamed it was cruel, heartless and unfair.
“How are we not able to breach its Core?” Khoth asked with a deep frown.
“Read the reports,” his mother said. “You will find out everything that has been attempted. Perhaps you will think of something new.” And then with the faintest of sighs, she stated, “It is time for you to depart.”
Khoth’s mouth went dry. Councillor Ardath Ulgex was still lingering nearby. There would be no words of tenderness. No private goodbyes. No final embraces. He bowed to both of his parents.
“I will discover what Daesah intended to,” he told them stiffly and crossed both arms over his chest before turning on his heel towards the Exarch.
He did not look back at his parents even as his chest grew tighter and heart heavier with every step. These physical reactions just showed how his Xi and Xa were fracturing. The gangway automatically began to lower as he approached his ship as the Exarch read the sensors in his exo-suit. He started up the gangway and only when he reached the Exarch’s threshold did his father speak.
“Khoth,” his father said.
Khoth paused and turned to see his father. “Yes?”
Councillor Ardath Ulgex had stopped her pretense of speaking to her lackeys and was clearly listening to what his father had to say. He grew tense as his father stared at him and his mother stared at his father. Was she willing him to speak or to keep silent?
Finally, his father said, “There is meaning to all things.”
It was something that Justiciars often said. After all, the very central philosophy of the Justiciar was that the Rules’ language had specific and concrete meanings. But this particular phrase was from an older time when the Thaf’ell had been primitive and believed in signs and portents and fate. Though Councillor Ardath Ulgex would never be able to be sure in which way his father meant that, even if Khoth was. Khoth nodded, and after a final bow, he retreated into the Exarch.
“Exarch, I repeat, is there some difficulty?” The Gate Control officer almost sounded alarmed now.
Khoth opened up the channel. “No, all systems are optimal.”
“Then set your destination and start your course. There is heavy traffic to use the Gate,” the Gate Control officer’s voice was officious and crisp once more.
“Understood,” Khoth said and laid in the destination for Earth.
The spinning wedges slowed then stopped. The fiery red glow appeared followed by the silvery tunnel. Khoth began to pilot the Exarch forward. Just as he was about to enter the Gate, his screen suddenly split into two and showed him the Gate ahead and Haseon behind him even though he had not set the controls for this. His sister would have teased him that it was the Exarch reading his mind. But he knew better. He was grateful for the glitch as it allowed him to view Haseon one last time without having to feel guilt that his Xi and Xa were not in alignment.
His yellow-gold and blue world glowed behind him. A beacon of beauty and technology. A place where the Altaeth technology and cities were now fully occupied and utilized by a race that the Altaeth had seeded into existence just before they disappeared from the known universe.
The Exarch was swallowed by the Gate and the view of Haseon disappeared with the silvery light of the tunnel his ship was guided through automatically replacing it.
Khoth considered meditating so that his Xi and Xa were more in alignment when he reached Earth and met with his compatriots. He was not worried about the humans perceiving anything off in him. From his limited experience with them, they had only Xi. They expressed all they felt and thought at all times, even if it was not in their interest. Perhaps, especially, if it was not.
But the humans’ disinterest in his balance was not the real reason he did not mediate. He knew that he would not be able to reach the state of nothingness, and failing at this, would only increase his frustration. So instead, he brought up the reports that his mother had told him to read.
It took him two sub-cycles to read every report from First Contact to the present. The facts were these. Humanity had come to the Alliance’s attention when the Khul visited Earth.
The Khul had sent only a single pod, which consisted of thirty vessels, but no Hive, to the planet. The Alliance had fought them in orbit. Earth’s technology was so simplistic that they did not know or understand that a battle was happening above their heads. It was only when one of the Khul ships had crashed that they were alerted.
The Khul had seemed almost desperate to get to something down on the planet. What that had been was unknown at first as there was no evidence of Altaeth technology on the planet and humanity--while it could be harvested and assimilated--appeared to offer no strategic advantage to the Khul. Yet the Khul, outnumbered and outgunned, had not retreated, but instead had crashed with intention in a desert by a tiny town that was just barely hanging on in the harsh climate.
The rules regarding not interfering in non-space faring species did not apply when the Khul had made contact with a world so the Alliance had flown down in their ships, alarming the primitive humans and revealing to them that the universe was not theirs alone. The Khul had been dispatched in short order. And it was only after the last death that the reason for their interest in Earth became apparent.
That single Altaeth Colossus ship.
It, too, had crashed just outside of the small town millennia past. The sands had buried it, but the Khul ship had drilled into the sandy soil down to it. It was only when the Colossus ship’s hull was exposed to the air that the ship sent out a single signal alerting the Alliance of its presence. How the Khul had known it was there without any signal was still unknown. Why the Khul had such an interest in a single Altaeth craft was also unknown. Considering the Khul had never returned to Earth made some believe that the whole thing had been a fluke.
But First Contact between the primitive humans and the Alliance had begun in the human year of 1947. And one thing had been clear from the first, the humans would not simply let the Altaeth technology be. For all of human simplicity, they were curious and determined and they would figure it out in time. They would learn everything they could of Altaeth technology regardless of what the Alliance wanted or heeded. So it had been determined that the Alliance would keep a small force on the planet to help humanity study the Altaeth ship and slowly help this reactionary species be assimilated into the Alliance. Not as full partners, of course. There was a Gate near Earth and the Altaeth had seeded the planet, but the humans were not as elevated as the Thaf'ell or other species even.
Humanity was so incredibly primitive, however, that those humans who “ruled” that area of the planet insisted on not sharing the existence of the ship, the existence of extraterrestrials or First Contact with even the general public, let alone the other humans “countries” on the planet.
This selfishness might have stymied humanity’s efforts to learn all it could from the ship. For despite the cycles that had passed since discovery of the Altaeth vessel, the Core of the ship--where all information was stored--remained curiously locked. None of the codes that the Alliance had learned or the tricks they had employed in other vessels had worked.
The ship had other secrets too. There were whole floors that could not be accessed. Nothing could cut calcanth. Only that initial gash in the side--potentially caused by the crash or perhaps an unknown energy weapon of massive power--gave them access to a fraction of the ship’s interior.
There was then a list of technology that had been discovered from the unnamed Colossus ship. It was impressive. More powerful weapon technology. More efficient engine designs. Other types of power sources that had been previously unknown. And much, much more.
So despite there being only one ship on Earth and despite only a fraction of that ship being accessible, more Altaeth technology had been gleaned from it than from any other. Khoth stroked his chin as he closed out the final report. He had to admit that he was interested. His gaze slid to his sister’s journal. What had she suspected? What had her instincts told her about this single ship?
He was just reaching for her journal when there was a soft ping from the Exarch announcing that they were nearing the Earth Gate. He watched as the silvery tunnel was replaced with another fiery red wall that he passed through and arrived in Earth’s solar system.
But the soft ping of his arrival was replaced by a blaring alarm. Khoth flinched at the sound. It was so startling because he had not expected to hear it again, let alone here. The screen showed the reason for the alarm immediately.
There was a Hive orbiting Earth.
The Khul had returned.