CHAPTER NINE - THE OSIRIS
Khoth held Jace closer to him as the elevator descended. The alien’s strength was comforting as Jace’s own little remaining strength seemed to bleed out of him by the moment.
In the arms of an alien… that would be a show-stopper of an opening sentence for my book, Jace thought mirthfully.
But he didn’t laugh.
It hurt to laugh.
And Khoth might ask him what he was laughing about, which would put him in an awkward spot. Not as awkward as Thammah’s statement about “probing”. Unlike Khoth, she seemed almost… human. Warmer. Definitely more comfortable with humans and their ways. He had a feeling that Khoth didn’t do comfortable. He reminded Jace of a knight of old while Thammah was more like his father, a maverick.
“If the soldiers are outside of the elevator when we arrive, what’s the plan, Commander?” Thammah asked.
Jace cracked his eyelids open and frowned. What other plan could there be then try to talk themselves out of it or surrender? He did not want anyone hurt. He already knew that his parents were going to freak out at what he had done. Once he found Gehenna though, he had a feeling that everything would be forgiven. At least on an official level. But on a familiar one? He was too old to be grounded, but he was certain his parents would think of some suitable punishment.
But no matter how upset they were or what punishment they doled out, Jace knew he was doing the right thing. Metal Rain had saved everyone from the Khul. From what he had been able to see of it, Khoth’s ship had been on its last legs, smoke pouring from its engines, and--from what his dreams of his own Paladin-class ship had taught him--making very wrong sounds. And there had simply been too many Khul for Khoth to handle on his own. Even though he’d been freaking impressive with his laser rifle and sword.
Khoth’s expression now was still that of a noble knight as he answered, “Jace needs to get to Gehenna. If we have no other choice, we must subdue the humans.”
“Subdue?” Thammah lifted her scarred eyebrow before letting out a whistle. “You do realize that we are breaking every law there is? They can’t send you to a worse post than Earth… at least, it used to be the worst post. But now, I must admit, it is a hotspot of activity. Yet here you are, breaking more rules. So what or who is this Gehenna? Or is it the boy you’re more interested in that’s causing you to suicidally plunge ahead?”
Jace was fascinated to see that Khoth blushed. Not red though, but instead, his coloring grew a darker blue.
“Gehenna is an AI. A Precursor AI,” Khoth replied stiffly.
Thammah’s blue on blue eyes widened. She then spoke in a language that Jace didn’t understand and Khoth replied in it. It was melodic with clicks of the tongue and contrasting soft syllables. He assumed it was the Thaf’ell--that was what Khoth had referred to himself as--language. Or maybe it was the equivalent of Common in space. Jace almost laughed at that, too, but this time he sobered and not because laughing would hurt. There was only one logical reason for them to stop speaking in English, considering how fluent they both were in it, and that was because they must not want him to know what they were saying.
Maybe I shouldn’t have just trusted him so much out of the gate, Jace realized. I didn’t even attempt to talk to my parents about getting down here. Not that they would have agreed to it, but still… I asked the big blue alien to help.
But Gehenna had brought Khoth to him to help. She must have thought that he, of everyone, would bring them together. And with the way Jace’s head pounded and his blood felt like acid in his veins, he really needed to finish their connection. The pain was on another level as it was.
But it doesn’t seem like he’s got that much respect for humanity, Jace forced himself to think rationally and not just on the instinctive level he had been. And Thammah’s question is the right one. But he can’t be doing this for me. Jace was sure of that. So he must be interested in Gehenna. Who wouldn’t be interested in Gehenna?
For one wild moment, Jace wondered if Khoth wanted Gehenna for himself or the Thaf’ell. Maybe Khoth just was using Jace to lead him to her and then he would simply take her away and leave Jace helpless on the floor.
If Gehenna and I complete our connection then maybe she won’t be able to connect with him or another Thaf’ell, Jace realized. He’s the son of some bigwig from what Thammah said. He must definitely want Gehenna for himself!
Jace felt a fool, even as his heart seemed to wrestle with his mind over what Khoth would do. Would Khoth really take Gehenna--and is Gehenna in any form to be taken? She's an AI!--and leave him to suffer and die? A part of him felt that would never happen. But another part of him could see that Khoth’s loyalties would naturally lay with his people and not humanity. He couldn’t let Khoth or Thammah hurt anyone. There had to be a non-violent way. Maybe the most obvious of these, which was to beg his parents to let him look inside the ship.
But they won’t. Yet...
“We’re not subduing anyone,” Jace found himself cutting into the Thaf’ells’ conversation.
Both Khoth and Thammah immediately went silent and looked at him. They hadn’t realized he was still conscious. He wondered if he was. Auras bloomed sickeningly around everything. His head pounded like a drum.
“You need to get to Gehenna,” Khoth reminded him.
“Yeah, but I don’t want anyone else hurt because of it. I see that I’ve already put you both in a bad situation here,” Jace said and grimaced. Another flare of pain like an icepick being stabbed through his right temple. His nose was bleeding again. He swiped at it with the gauze. “I should never have asked you to help me.”
Khoth’s blue on blue eyes widened. Though he might have alien thoughts and customs, his emotional cues seemed very similar to a human’s. He was surprised and alarmed by Jace’s words.
“When we get to the bottom of the elevator, even if there are no soldiers waiting there, we should search some out,” Jace said. “Tell them to contact my parents and--”
“You said yourself that your parents are too connected to their Xi to think rationally about your request to connect with Gehenna,” Khoth reminded him. “They will stifle your efforts to get to the AI.”
“Maybe. They might just slow them down,” Jace admitted. The need to get to Gehenna was like adrenaline in his blood. Even as his body was incapable of doing it, he wanted to get down from Khoth’s arms and pound on the elevator doors as if that could speed up their progress. “But I can’t have you and Thammah breaking whatever agreement your species has with humanity just because I’m afraid my parents won’t listen to me.”
Thammah, who was leaning against the elevator wall, lifted her shoulders and looked into Khoth’s eyes meaningfully as if to say, “I told you so.”
Khoth remained stone faced. His gaze went to the indicator that showed they were still going down as if wishing it would go faster.
“You’ll do as I ask now…” Jace licked his lips, “unless you have other reasons for wanting me to take you to Gehenna.”
Khoth became, if it were possible, even more stone faced. That told Jace though just as much as if the Thaf’ell had confessed that he had ulterior motives like a monologuing villain, or at least, additional ones to helping Jace.
What did I think? That his gaze fell upon me and he became unable to resist my every request? Again, might work in a book, but not reality.
Thammah chuckled. “He’s got you there, Khoth. You cannot even stay silent without giving away your true feelings! What a terrible Thaf’ell you are! That’s why I know we are going to be great friends.”
“Flight-Commander Thammah,” Khoth began.
“No, she’s right. I already guessed that you’re helping me to help yourself or your people at least, right?” Jace asked.
It crossed his mind then that maybe he shouldn’t be cross-examining the giant, blue alien who was holding him in his arms. Very muscular arms that appeared quite capable of crushing him, even if Jace hadn’t been helpless.
Khoth though did not react angrily, but instead appeared merely thoughtful before he stated, “We have never encountered a Precursor AI. From your description of what she enabled you to do she is necessary for the war effort against the Khul.”
“Yeah, I actually agree with you there,” Jace stated.
And am I really the one that should be connected with her? Jace wondered as self-doubt suddenly assailed him. She said that she’s been training me for a decade to fight, but… I’m not a warrior like Khoth. Wouldn’t it be better if Gehenna connected with someone like him? Do I really think I’m the one who is supposed to go out into space and fight the Khul? That’s what we’re talking about here. Going from “farm boy” to Jedi Knight here or something.
“Your parents--your people--will likely not allow us to examine the AI, at first. And certainly not you,” Khoth explained further.
“No, I know, which is part of why I thought you would help me, but…” Jace shut his eyes as the sickening pain increased.
“Jace?” Khoth’s voice was insistent.
Jace realized he’d been saying his name more than once. Jace though finally could hear him over the piercing whine in his ears. The tinnitus was back with a vengeance.
“It’s all right. I’m awake. I just… we can’t hurt anybody doing this, Khoth. Please tell me you won’t,” Jace begged.
“I will not harm any of our allies. But you must understand, Jace, that a Precursor AI cannot be… kept by humanity,” Khoth finished and there seemed like there must be a lot more to what he was thinking.
“Why not? You said we were your allies,” Jace pointed out even as blood dribbled over his lips.
This is bad. This is really bad. Gehenna? Where are you?
She didn’t answer, but he could feel her below them, almost as if they were going through a maze and she was the treasure at the end of it. Khoth brought out another bit of gauze and held it to Jace’s nose to staunch the blood.
“Humans are not… not ready to join the fight,” Khoth said simply, which really didn’t explain anything at all.
Jace, thinking of his own training in the Storm Spike and his father’s abilities to fly, couldn’t see how that was true. But from the donkey-look on Khoth’s face, it didn’t look like he was going to win this argument.
Gehenna told me that I’m special. The only one that can do this. I told him that. But he doesn’t seem to believe me. I wouldn’t believe me either.
“So if you want Gehenna for the Thaf’ell are you going to still help me connect with her?” Jace asked as more blood flowed and stained Khoth’s fingers.
Khoth went still and said nothing. His eyes though were filled with something. Sadness? Regret? What?
“You’ve broken the Rule of Duuskukeh once, Khoth,” Thammah’s voice was soft. “Are you honestly not going to do it again now?”
“I did not break the rule to save my sister,” Khoth told her. “I did what I believed was best for the Alliance.”
Thammah’s mouth tightened. “How do you know what’s best this time? Do you have a crystal ball?”
Jace knew that this wasn’t good. What was best for the Alliance probably didn’t include saving some random human! With a feeling of horror and foolishness, Jace realized by trusting Khoth he might have made the worst mistake of his life. The elevator started to slow, even as Jace’s nosebleed became more of a flood.
Jace… time… running… out, Gehenna’s voice was a bare whisper.
“He does not look well, Khoth,” Thammah’s voice was icy. “The connection will heal him, yes? That’s what you explained to me.”
Khoth responded to her in the Thaf’ell language. She snapped something back at him as her spine went ramrod straight and her eyes flashed. Khoth responded in a firm, if emotionless tone. Though Jace could not understand the words, he got the gist of it. Thammah wanted Khoth to save him. Khoth was reminding her of the greater good. Jace looked up into that strange yet beautiful face of Commander Khoth Voor.
Was I wrong about you? Are you going to let me die?
He knew he was dying. There was no time left. He had to get to Gehenna. He couldn’t wait on his parents. There was a breathless moment as the lift stopped before the doors opened. Would there be a squad of soldiers, weapons drawn, waiting for them? Or would they be just ahead of the military response? There were no soldiers, but Jace found himself sitting up more in Khoth’s arms, mouth opening, eyes widening and pain forgotten for a moment. The Osiris was before them.
“Impressive, isn’t she? And this is just a slice of her side,” Thammah said with a warm chuckle.
For a moment they likely shouldn’t have taken, the three of them gazed at the spaceship that was still mostly hidden by rock, earth and sand. Humans, Jace supposed, had dug down to what looked to be a natural cavern that the Osiris had punched through as it crashed.
The cavern was hundreds of feet long and twice as tall. The Osiris filled the entire far end and it was clear that, just as Thammah had said, this was simply a slice of the ship. The Osiris looked to be at a 45 degree angle. While scaffolding, opaque plastic and staircases covered much of the spaceship, Jace could still see sections of its skin, which was a deep, scintillating blue. It glittered as if the skin was studded with diamonds. As Khoth shifted Jace, the skin’s color appeared to change from blue to purple to red.
Unlike the Paladin-class ships that Jace had seen--and dreamed about--the Osiris had an architectural feel to it. The main body appeared to be an elongated ovoid from what Jace could see, but there were ribbon-like pieces that flowed out of the ship and curled back into it. The ribbons, of course, were more than large enough for blue whales to swim through and not touch the interior walls. He saw no windows, but he guessed that like the Storm Spike and Khoth’s ship, what was happening outside would be projected on screens to the ship’s passengers and crew.
“I have never seen a Colossus-class ship like this,” Khoth murmured as his brow furrowed.
Thammah let out a soft grunt. “And you’ve never seen what’s inside either. The Osiris is unique as far as I can tell.”
“Let us go to it. Gehenna is inside, yes, Jace?” Khoth queried as he carried Jace swiftly from the elevator.
The Thaf’ell ran as easily as if he weren’t encumbered at all. He held Jace tight to him so that he wasn’t jostled as much either. It was hard to believe he was simply going to let Jace die when he was taking such care of him.
He probably doesn’t want me to die. If he has a choice, he’d save me. But if it is between taking Gehenna for the Thaf’ell or giving it to humanity… oh, boy, maybe I should remind him that I’m Gehenna’s chosen one?
That thought, again, sounded mad. And, again, Khoth had already stated that he thought that Precursor technology always worked the best for his species. Maybe when Gehenna had the two of them as choices she’d change her mind about Jace.
Khoth had dashed towards a large metal box covered in netting, ready to be lifted up to the scaffolding that covered most of Osiris. He and Thammah crouched down behind it just as several soldiers hustled towards the elevator.
“... said they were heading down…” one soldier called out.
“We’re to halt and detain them,” another stated.
Jace opened his mouth to call out to them. But then he heard the whisper of Gehenna’s voice in his mind.
Time… running… out…
If they were found and detained, it would be too late for him. Jace shuddered. Or maybe it was a shiver, because he was suddenly icy cold and yet sweat coated his skin again.
“We’re going to have a hell of a time getting inside the ship through the front door.” Thammah pointed to an opening into the ship at the very top of the scaffolding and narrow staircases.
But both Khoth and Jace were looking at the top of what almost looked like a wound in the Osiris’ side. The metal--if that’s what the outside was made out of--was peeled back. Jace frowned even as his thoughts were beginning to swirl with pain.
The rip looks to have been caused by something blowing outwards from the inside. Not an attack from the outside, he realized.
Just as Khoth was about to mention the rip, Jace was pointing at it and saying without any conscious desire to do so, “There. We need to go in there. She’s down in a lower deck.”
How do I know that?
But Jace was beyond being able to decipher his own motivations. What was coming from him and what was coming from Gehenna were all mixed. His vision was starting to tunnel. He felt a hand on his cheek. The skin was soft and warm.
“His body is weakening,” Khoth said. “Jace, you must conserve your strength.”
“Why should he do that? What’s the point of it?” Thammah asked quietly. “Unless you let him finalize his connection with Gehenna… that’s the choice, Khoth. You know what the choice is.”
Jace’s hearing had gone in and out. He didn’t hear all that she said, but again, he could guess. Let him die and take Gehenna or let him connect and maybe lose Gehenna to the humans.
“We must go,” Khoth said simply.
Thammah cursed under her breath. He didn’t need to understand the words to understand that.
Khoth crouched low to the ground, practically curling over Jace’s body. One of his long lengths of hair that was caught by several of the intricate beads fell across Jace’s face. Khoth’s hair was incredibly soft like fine strands of silk. The beads clacked softly as he moved. He found himself concentrating on them as Khoth snuck from box to box towards the rip, avoiding soldiers like a blue shadow.
Aliens exist. Spaceships exist. Gehenna exists. I cannot die now. Not when I’ve finally found this!
The fluorescent lights that illuminated the cavern suddenly seemed to go dark. A shudder went through Jace as he feared that his vision was going. But no, they had stepped up to the Osiris’ side and were underneath one of the sections of skin that had been pulled back. It blocked out the electric light.
Before them was darkness. It was the interior of the ship. Khoth and Thammah both touched something on the fronts of their suits and piercing beams of light streamed from their suits into the darkness. The rip opened up into a hallway that sloped down into the earth.
The hallway was broad, about twenty-feet wide with floors that were a glassy blue, the color of cobalt. They almost looked wet like water, they were so shiny. The walls were gray with various insets that looked like they could open up.
A holo-display appeared above Khoth’s right wrist. He tapped something and then confidently stepped onto the sloping floor. Instead of tumbling forward, his boots made a clicking sound as they locked into place. Thammah did the same.
Again, Jace was pointing where they were to go. He indicated towards the sloping end. “Go to the door at the end of the hall. There will be a hatch on the left wall. Open it. We need to then go down three levels before exiting through another hatch.”
“Will our cutting tools get through?” Khoth frowned.
“No. but the hatches will open for me,” Jace said, even as he had no idea if that were true. But he felt it was true.
All of this feels so familiar. Like I’ve done this before. Maybe my training included getting to Gehenna.
“How do you know this, Jace?” Thammah asked as they started to walk down the sloping hallway with their boots making thunking sounds as they released and locked with every step.
“Gehenna. She showed me this. Where she is. And I can feel… feel her,” Jace got out even as the effort to talk seemed to increase with every word.
“Do not speak, Jace, unless necessary. We will have plenty of time to talk after,” Khoth said.
“After?” Thammah’s voice lilted dangerously.
“Yes,” Khoth said.
Does he mean there will be an after? Or I’ll just be dead after? Why can I not really believe badly of him? Because Gehenna brought him to me? Because he seems… noble?
They had made it to the hatch. The hallway had ended in a shut door. The door reminded him of the ones in Star Wars that came together vertically. The door was completely impassable. There were no lifts that were working inside of the spaceship. The Osiris seemed dead. But Jace knew that it wasn’t. It was just waiting to wake up.
“Lean down. I need to--to touch the hatch,” Jace told Khoth.
The hatch was the size of a normal human door. It looked like one of the many insets in the walls. Khoth did as he was asked and Jace placed a hand on the center of the hatch. Blood stained it from his fingers. He closed his eyes and imagined the live wire that he’d seen when he summoned Metal Rain. There was the barest electrical burst from his fingers to the hatch. Or maybe he just felt the hatch turning on as it slid silently to the side revealing a shaft.
“We need to get to the bottom of the shaft,” Jace said as he slumped back against Khoth, exhausted beyond measure.
The shaft was angled just like the floor was, but this time it was to their advantage.
“We can slide down,” Khoth stated as he tightened his hold on Jace as he levered them both into the shaft.
Thammah called out, “Perhaps I should go first. See if it safe before you--”
“No, there’s no time. I can feel him… fading,” Khoth said and it seemed like there was a hitch in that cool, unemotional voice.
“Why don’t you just ask him where she is and be done with it? Don’t drag him down into the dark with you for his last moments,” Thammah stated icily. “Does the Rule of Duuskukeh require you to make him suffer? Or are you just afraid he won’t tell you what you want to know if you don’t bring him with you?”
But Khoth was already in the shaft with him and they were sliding down. Khoth braced his feet on the sides to control their rate of speed. Jace was so cold. He was so cold that he couldn’t even shiver.
He lay like a dead thing on Khoth’s chest, cradled in his arms, as they slid into the black bowels of the Osiris. Jace understood what Thammah was saying. Khoth needed him to get to Gehenna. He couldn’t risk Jace not telling him where she was. And maybe she was right. But Jace had to believe that Khoth would help him. He had no other choice but to think that or simply die right then and there.
Not dying. Not yet.
They reached the bottom of the shaft. There was another hatch. Jace tried to lift his hand towards it, but he only got halfway before his hand fell back. Khoth lifted his hand and placed it upon the hatch. There was a soft electric zing before the hatch opened into another hallway, but this one was different than the one above. This one had doors, many heavy secure doors, on each side of the hallway. Khoth stepped out into the hallway and simply stared.
There was a squealing sound as Thammah’s boots rode along the shaft’s sides then a thump as her boots locked onto the floor. She came out of the shaft then and joined them. She turned her body this way and that as she took in the hallway.
“Ah, this looks like…” She paused and then continued, “I believe these are prison cells.”
Jace pointed towards the one at the very end. The one that was even more secure than these others. “Gehenna… she’s in there.”