CHAPTER THIRTEEN - MORE QUESTIONS
Jace opened his eyes. He saw blue. Blue everywhere. And then the face of an angel. Blue skin, blue on blue eyes, flowing white hair and a concerned expression on that beautiful, blue face looking down upon him
Am I dead? I’m not in pain and that never happens. So I must be dead. And that is definitely an angel.
There was a giggle. I wonder how Khoth would respond to being called an angel! Knowing his Thaf’ell mind he would immediately think that you were unwell. But you just think him angelically beautiful!
Jace rocketed upwards. His mouth opened to say her name as he broke the surface of the liquid. Luckily, he had a mouth-piece over his lips or he would have been drinking that liquid.
Yes! It’s me! And you’re you! And we’re together and alive and everything is glorious! The AI enthused.
“Jace?” Khoth had his arms around Jace’s shoulders as he helped Jace take off the face mask.
Jace took in a grateful breath. Despite it being there to help him breathe underwater, it had been annoying out of the liquid. Once off his face, the mask retracted on it’s own into the pool and disappeared.
“K-Khoth?” Jace asked as the “angel” became the Thaf’ell commander firmly in his head once again.
His mind started to fill back in with the wild time they’d had to get to Gehenna. The pain he’d been in was but a distant memory though. In fact, all pain seemed to be.
“Are you well? Your vitals appear…” Khoth looked over his shoulder towards a holographic screen that showed some kind of readout. Jace recognized the jumping line as his heart beat. “Your vitals are in the green range. But that does not always signify complete health.”
“I feel…” Jace paused and swallowed. His voice sounded a little ragged. He was thirsty. He knew that much. But how did he feel other than that? It was what he didn’t feel that was boggling him. That no pain thing. That sense of wellness. It was something he’d never actually experienced before and he couldn’t quite quantify it now. “I’m not sure, to be honest.”
“You have undergone an ordeal,” the Thaf’ell commander stated softly and there was a flicker of--what? Guilt? Relief? Combination of both?--in those blue on blue eyes that reminded Jace of the universe.
There were parts of his memory that were a little hazy. Maybe that was what was causing this strange well feeling. He frowned as one of those hazy moments surfaced. “Did I… die?”
“Yes, you were clinically dead for five of your Earth minutes,” Khoth answered.
“Huh. Okay. Well, not dead now so… that’s good?” Jace flushed as he heard himself make what should have been a statement into a question. “Wait! I didn’t mean to make that sound like a question! It’s good not to be dead. Very, very good. I can’t tell you how good, to be honest. Just… spectacularly good.”
“You are still orienting yourself. It is understandable if you are not able to assess your own well being at this time,” Khoth said without judgment.
Jace remembered something else then too. “You, evidently, made up your mind not to simply take Gehenna and leave me to face my fate. I’m alive so… you saved me.”
“I only did what was…”
“It wasn’t right to save me?” Jace lifted his right eyebrow expressively.
Khoth was suddenly not meeting his gaze but was watching the screen where Jace’s vitals were, but then that screen winked out of existence causing Khoth to just stare at the surface of the pool.
Finally, he answered, “The needs of the many should outweigh the needs of the one.”
“But the many are made out of ones,” Jace stated.
Khoth’s head jerked up as if Jace had said something profound, though he knew he hadn’t. Some could say that since his own life had been the “one” in this case that he could hardly argue on behalf of the individual meaning more than the society without it sounding completely self-serving. But Khoth didn’t seem to be reacting to that. There was something in his eyes though. He surprisingly gave a sharp nod.
“Yes, I do not regret my actions, but I fear that they will likely earn me exile,” Khoth stated.
“What? No! That can’t be! That’s not--oh, my God, what is that?!”
Jace had been blinking and looking around them. He caught sight of a squid but made of metal and tubing. The glass skull suddenly lit up and the squid was looking at him.
Jace! Gehenna called to him merrily.
“That is--” Khoth began.
“Gehenna! Holy crap! So I didn’t dream she was a gigantic metal squid!” Jace laughed.
“Indeed not. It was not a form I thought she would inhabit,” Khoth agreed with him.
Oh, this? This isn’t my form! It’s just one of the Osiris’ cleaning bots! Gehenna explained as she disconnected a tube to her glass head.
“You took over a cleaning bot?” Jace said out loud.
“What?” Khoth’s forehead furrowed. “I did not--”
“It’s Gehenna, she… Gehenna, aren’t there any speakers on that thing that you can speak out loud so Khoth can hear?” Jace asked.
He felt Gehenna blush. He couldn’t exactly explain how his mind received a physical action as a mental one but it did.
I could rig something up, but… she hesitated.
But what? He prodded.
But it wouldn’t sound like me!
I’m not really following. You--
I’ve rather gotten used to sounding like I do to you, she hastily explained and her tentacles quivered with anxiety. There was a rustling sound as they brushed against one another. I’d rather wait and talk out loud after I fix something up properly!
Jace found himself smiling fondly at her. I guess I do understand. Though I would have thought for an AI that since you can have any voice you want that it wouldn’t matter what you sound like. Are you attached to the cleaner bot body? Is that going to be what you inhabit from now on?
She raised some of the tentacles and the tips had different tools on them that whizzed and buzzed. I admit that this form is rather useful. But it’s not… cute.
No, not cute. Well, Jace cocked his head, I don’t know. It could be cute. But in an evil sort of way.
She showed him some wicked looking little buzz saws, some pincers and other pointy things he couldn’t imagine what they were for on the tips of other tentacles. I know, right? But it was all I could get a hold of. And, thankfully, it doesn’t require that much power to operate. I had to conserve energy.
Jace knew there was a story there, but he wanted her to tell it when others could hear. It suits you for now. We can find you something cute later, right?
Oh, yes! I’m really interested in inhabiting the Storm Spike! For us to go flying together and--
The Storm Spike is definitely real? Like really real? Jace felt his heart beat a little quicker.
Of course! She told him and spun around. Her tentacles flew up rather like a dress. I had a good look at the Osiris’ manifest. I needed to see what material I had to work with.
I can’t wait to see what you inhabit next then, Jace said. Will it be cute? Sleek? Cuddly? Deadly? Or a combination of all of those?
Oh, all of them if I can help it! She paused and then said with a tentative gesture of her tentacles towards him. Uhm, Jace, speaking about inhabiting cute forms… you should check out your own. Khoth was while you were transforming, Gehenna chuckled.
Jace frowned. What was she talking about? Then he noticed he was naked. Where had his clothes gone?! They’d been on him when he went into the liquid! He was sure of it. He then blushed because he realized that yes, he was naked in Khoth’s arms and still sitting in the pool.
He didn’t believe Gehenna’s words about Khoth checking him out. Khoth was… well, whatever else the Thaf’ell had going for them, big, muscular physiques and strong jaws with attractive features were on the top of that list. He was sort of scrawny and had no muscle tone and--he stopped himself. He was fine as he was. He was happy with who he was. Considering his illness that he was alive was… awesome.
He was naked.
In Khoth’s arms.
Jace immediately moved to cover himself when he saw the back of his right hand and forearm. There were electric blue lines running along his veins and arteries. As he stared, they faded and then disappeared altogether, but he had a sense that the blue, almost indigo color was just hidden, not gone forever. He blinked. But that wasn’t the weirdest thing about his body. And that had been weird. No, it was the fact that he had muscular forearms.
He closed his hand into a fist and watched as the muscles flexed and moved beneath his skin. He’d always been attracted to guys with muscular forearms. His had never been anything like this.
Gehenna… What happened to me? Am I this big all over?
He didn’t dare look down at his body. He shifted his legs and they felt different. Bigger. More muscular.
Yes! Gehenna explained. You’ve been optimized! Not only are you a peak physical condition, but the Osiris added a bunch of new things to you. Fast healing. Super strength, well, for a human. Slowed aging. I’m not sure if you age. Uhm, let’s see, there’s so much here--
I mean… I mean… Do I still look like me? Jace asked, even as he was stunned by her words. He lifted his right hand to his face, but quickly dropped it. What if he had tentacles too?
Of course! Gehenna laughed. You still look human on the outside.
On the outside? He gasped.
Well, you’re… uhm, evolved? Yes, that’s probably the term I should use, Gehenna mused. Improved makes it sound like humans aren’t good or something and they clearly are! They must be the best of the Seeded Species, after all the Osiris chose you over anyone else to be the Pilot.
Jace just blinked. This was too much to take in. He felt a little dizzy. But that, he realized, was because he was hungry and thirsty. And overwhelmed.
“Jace? Neither of you are speaking out loud, but I think it is clear that you are speaking to one another,” Khoth stated.
“Ah, yeah, sorry, Khoth. Gehenna’s sensitive about how she would sound out loud until she gets the proper materials. And I…” Jace paused as, once more, he struggled to describe his physical and mental state. “I need some pants.”
Khoth’s right eyebrow lifted. “Yes, I understand. Let me assist you.”
Khoth gracefully stood up and offered Jace a hand. Jace reached for it and froze again as he caught a glimpse of his powerful arm. Rippling muscles. He dared look down at himself.
“Holy shit!” Jace gasped and would have tumbled back into the tank but for Khoth keeping him upright.
“You have gained approximately 43.2 pounds of muscle to this form,” Khoth stated.
“I… wow… okay… shit, it was like Captain America here. Osiris must have given me Vitarays or whatever they gave him!” Jace laughed. It sounded a little hysterical. Okay, maybe a lot hysterical.
“Another of your species has been transformed by the Osiris?” Khoth asked, brow furrowing.
“What? No! Captain America is a… uhm, superhero and… he’s made up. Fiction. Not real.” Jace ran a hand over his six-pack stomach. He had never had much fat on him, but now he was seriously cut. “But I’m really wondering here if those comic book guys weren’t onto something.”
Khoth was frowning again and more furrowing was going on. “I am afraid that I do not--”
“It’s complicated and not important. It’s just I’ve been sick and weak all my life and now…” He gestured down to his muscular yet still lithe form. “I’ve never… oh, God, I can’t explain this! It’s so…” He let out a giggle. He slapped a hand over his mouth but more giggles erupted. “I’m a fucking superhero, Khoth! Scrap that! I have a spaceship! I’m freaking Luke Skywalker! Well, I don’t have the Force, but still!”
Frowns. Many more frowns. Khoth’s beautiful blue face was all scrunched with confusion.
“I’m sorry! I’m just a little… freaked out. I mean it’s awesome, but… I have no idea… it’s just so… everything’s changed and I… well, I never thought… I mean I dreamed, but never really thought… oh, my God, I’m babbling!” The giggles were coming every fourth word now. It was then that he saw his mother and father’s faces looking at him through a--a window? No, it was a screen beside a closed door. “Mom! Dad!”
They were frantically waving at him. They were speaking too, but he couldn’t hear them. He brushed off Khoth’s help as he staggered towards the door. After a few steps, he was walking with confidence again. He was incredibly light on his feet.
“Ah, Gehenna, what’s the deal here? Khoth, why can’t I hear them? And what are they outside?” Jace asked as he put his hand against the screen where his mother’s hand was. “How do I open these doors?”
There wasn’t any sensor pad that he could see and they weren’t simply opening with his touch like other things had in the Osiris. He glanced up at his parents and put a finger up to indicate he needed a minute. They both nodded. Remembering how incredibly brave his mom had been last time the two of them were in this room had warmth flowing through Jace. His mother and father were the strongest people he knew. They had lied to him though.
But they couldn’t tell me about any of this. It would have been treason.
“The sound was working previously, but it abruptly ceased when you were emerging from your transformation,” Khoth said stiffly. “As to why they are out there…”
“They would have stopped the transformation,” Jace filled in with a nod as he took in his parents’ anguished faces.
Who could blame them? After Dr. Rancic had been attacked and then the ship had tried to literally cut him out of his mother… He swallowed. What had done that exactly? Who had done it? Gehenna had said that the Osiris had tricked her.
He turned towards Gehenna and Khoth. The AI’s squid head was flashing different colors and he could feel her attempting to access the ship’s systems. She knew that he wanted the doors open and to his parents let inside.
I’m sorry, Jace! But the Osiris is blocking me. I’m not quite at full strength here, she apologized. But, no matter, it won’t keep me out! I am better than it! It’ll see!
That was when Jace saw the screen with the blinking cursor. Khoth followed his gaze.
“That appeared soon before you awakened. It seems to be some kind of… input,” Khoth said.
Jace turned to his parents’ frantic faces again. He could only imagine what they were thinking with him inside of here with a metal squid and an alien and him now looking like Captain America. He held up a finger again. His mother was mouthing something but he shrugged and touched his ear. He couldn’t hear her. His gaze was drawn again to the cursor blinking.
There was a sense of… intent from it.
He walked over to the screen. Khoth joined him, arms crossed at the wrists behind his back, as they both regarded the screen.
“There’s no way to type anything in,” Jace said as he cast about for a keyboard. “But something this sophisticated shouldn’t need a keyboard. We should just be able to talk to it.”
“You were able to access parts of the ship before. Are you not currently able to?” Khoth asked with a Vulcan-like eyebrow raise.
“Uhm… I don’t know. I don’t feel any connection to the ship.”
But almost immediately Jace felt that wasn’t true. There was this echoing silence in his mind as if someone were listening. But it wasn’t like a friendly listening. More like someone that was stalking him was listening very hard for him. And it wasn’t Gehenna. He heard her muttering to herself as she fought with the Osiris’ code. So it was someone else.
“Perhaps…” Khoth flattened his lips as if he did not like what he was about to suggest. “Perhaps if you spoke to it? It might wish you to address it.”
“It being… the Osiris?” Jace asked.
Khoth gave a cursory nod.
Jace considered this. The blinking cursor was a very Earth-thing. It was something he would understand. He doubted that Khoth had any idea what it meant.
So it’s a signal to me?
“Okay, well, here goes nothing,” Jace said and he sincerely hoped it wasn’t nothing. “Osiris?” The silence in his mind seemed taut with possibility. “I want you to open the doors to… to ah this room.”
The blinking cursor changed to a single word, No.
Jace let out a breath. “N-no?! Why no?”
But there was no answer.
Gehenna, why isn’t it letting us out?
It’s annoyed with me, I think. But don’t worry, Jace. I’ll figure this out. You just keep calm! Gehenna assured him.
“At least it is responding to you, Jace. That is more than it would do for me,” Khoth told him.
“Great. It likes to sass me while giving you the cold shoulder,” Jace quipped.
“Sass?” That was accompanied by another eyebrow lift. “You think the Osiris is similar to Gehenna in that it has feelings?”
“Gehenna said it wasn’t like her, but clearly, it has a personality. Can’t you feel it?” Jace asked.
He expected Khoth to say no. After all, he wasn’t connected to the Osiris. He wasn’t the Pilot.
Whatever that means. I thought I would wake up with all this knowledge, but not a bit more. In fact, I have more questions than answers. And I’m still naked.
There was a sliding sound and suddenly a shoot opened in the wall. Two items slid out that Jace caught. One was a towel. The other was a synthskin suit in cream and green along with a pair of boots. Jace let out a laugh as he recognized it from his dreams. It was the one he’d worn in them.
“What is the cause of your amusement?” Khoth asked even as he was inspecting the wall where the shoot had opened. It was closed now.
“Nothing… I mean… I dreamed about this suit. I dreamed about so much of this.” Jace frowned. “I hope this isn’t a dream.”
“It is not a dream,” Khoth assured him.
Jace smiled and started toweling himself off completely. “Well, if this were a dream, you would be part of it and you could just be saying that.”
“I do not think I would lie to you even in a dream,” Khoth stated simply.
“But I don’t know you that well,” Jace pointed out as he remembered how to put on the synthskin suit. He stepped into it and brought it up over his arms and shoulders and then touched a spot over his chest. The synthskin immediately form fitted to him. He then simply stepped into the boots that snicked around his feet and calves neatly. He held up his right foot. “Hey! I did it!”
“Yes, you successfully dressed. Quite well done, Jace,” Khoth remarked dryly.
“Now you’re sassing me!” Jace grinned.
“Perhaps.” There was the faintest smile on Khoth’s lips.
“I do believe you just made a joke. Wonders will never cease.”
“You said you do not know me well. How are you so certain that making a joke is rare for me?” Khoth’s chin lifted.
Jace’s mouth twisted. “Uhm, well, you’ve got a point. Do you make jokes often?”
“Alrighty then. Guess I got that one correct. But not all Thaf’ell are like that, right? So serious? Thammah isn’t--hey, where is she?” Jace suddenly spun around to look for the other Thaf’ell.
“I believe she is hiding… ah, the screen has changed. It is showing us the cell block we found Gehenna on,” Khoth said with a dip of his head towards the screen that had previously said “no”.
The screen showed the other Thaf’ell inspecting the other cell doors and occasionally checking her suit’s readouts.
“Ah, wait. Let me try and reach her.” Khoth brought up a holographic display on his left forearm.
But just as he was about to speak again there was a frightening WHA-WHA-WHA-WHA sound that had Jace’s bones vibrating. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw red light. It came from the screen. The corridor outside was suddenly red in color and there was some kind of mist coming out of the vents.
Oh, my… I might have made a small error, Gehenna murmured.
“WHAT?! What’s happening, Gehenna?” Jace asked as he whirled around on the AI.
It seems in my zeal to get us out of the Core, I may have tripped some of the Osiris’ security protocols, she said. Don’t worry! I’ll fix it!
Jace’s gaze snapped from her to the screen where he saw his mom and dad grasping the front of their throats with both hands as their eyes bugged out of their heads.
“GEHENNA! What’s happening to them exactly?” Jace stated as he raced over to the screen and placed both hands on it.
They are… uhm, suffocating, she answered. But I will get this figured out!
Jace watched in horror as both of his parents went down onto their knees hanging onto one another. He was about to scream Gehenna’s name again, but then he realized she wasn’t the one he should be addressing.
He whirled around to the screen again, “Osiris!”
Yes, appeared on the screen.
“Stop the security protocols!” Jace demanded.
His parents had collapsed fully now.
There is a criminal--
“You will obey me!” Jace shouted and he saw one of those live electric wires in his mind’s eye, like he had with Metal Rain. He grabbed hold of it. There was a sharp stab of pain, but that quickly passed. He felt the ship all around him and that sense of listening was intensified. “You will stop the security protocols, Osiris. I am the Pilot!”
There was a pause and then a single word appeared, Yes.