CHAPTER SIXTEEN - SHALL WE DANCE?
Jace studied Khoth’s face for a long time before he said, “I’ll go with you.”
Khoth didn’t know how he felt about Jace’s acquiescence. He should be pleased. This was his mother’s plan. But the young man would be scarred by what he saw in that ship. Though he had been fighting the Khul his whole life, when he’d gone into the Khul ship to save Daesah, the fight for him had changed. It had become more personal, but also more urgent. What the Khul did to people was an abomination that must be stopped. He was almost certain that Jace would feel the same way.
Yet I am asking him to take the Osiris from Earth, its one protection, and leave for a greater good. But what about humanity’s greater good?
“Jace, you’re not trained to enter a ship like that,” Captain Parker said, growing stiff. “None of us are actually since the Alliance hasn’t seen fit to let us join the fight and given us proper weapons and equipment.”
That was aimed at him like a barb. He could have said that humanity had nothing to offer in this fight. They did not have the strength, quickness or intelligence of other species. They were soft in so many ways and, of course, their emotions led them. But then he thought of how the humans had modified some of the Precursor tech to their own ships without Alliance help or knowledge. That ingenuity had saved his life.
“Actually, Dad, I’ve been training for 10 years for this. I am good to go,” Jace told his father though his eyes remained on Khoth’s face.
Jace’s parents exchanged glances. Their unease was unmistakable. Khoth could just imagine what it was like for them to know that their son had been taught for years by an alien AI whose existence--let alone motives--they did not know or understand.
“I will keep him safe,” Khoth stated.
Jace tipped his chin up and said proudly, “Maybe I’ll be keeping you safe. I’ve got… gifts. Things only I can do so… there’s that.”
Khoth inclined his head. Jace was an unknown quantity. He had brought Metal Rain. He had shown how brave he was. Who knew what else Jace could do?
“We will keep each other safe then,” Khoth stated.
“Exactly,” Jace said.
The young man’s cheeks flushed with pleasure at being taken seriously. The others, sans Thammah and Gehenna, appeared uncertain to the extreme of Jace’s statements.
“You are our connection to the ship, Jace,” Colonel Parker said to her son. “And Gehenna. If something were to happen to you we would… lose that.”
Khoth was impressed that she did not say that she simply did not want to lose her son under any circumstances. She reminded him, for a moment, of his own mother.
“I am the one who is going to make the decision about where the Osiris goes and what it does,” Jace said to his mother. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the general wince. General Intoshkin clearly did not like Jace thinking he was in charge. Jace went on, “I think I need to know what’s at stake, what’s really at stake. So I have to go and see like Khoth said.”
“Is there anything that you could see that would make you leave Earth defenseless?” General Intoshkin asked.
Jace opened his mouth, but no words came outat first. “I don’t believe so, sir. But I have to see nonetheless. If, for nothing else, so that I understand what humanity is facing. And those people… we can’t let them suffer.”
“You know that means… kill them, right, Jace?” Thammah lifted her scarred eyebrow.
Jace nodded even as both his parents paled. “Gehenna knows a way that will be quick and painless.”
But even with those conditions, Jace’s eyes were shadowed. He saw Colonel Parker’s hands clench then she forced them to relax.
“Perhaps you should take someone with you, Jace,” she suggested evenly.
“Jace and I should be the only ones to enter the ship in order to keep the chance of infection low,” Khoth explained. “But you will be able to see what we do. Our suits will send video and audio back to you.”
He tapped a few instructions into the epad and handed it to her. Just at that moment, lights appeared inside of the floor. They flashed one at a time leading towards the doors of the Core and out into the corridor. They reminded him of emergency lights that led to exits. Everyone stepped back from them in alarm except for Jace and Gehenna.
“What’s happening now?” Captain Parker asked. “This thing is dead for years. Won’t react at all. And now it’s like a roller coaster ride.”
Jace laughed. “Let me find out.”
The AI leaned down to examine the white lights more closely. Jace’s eyes flashed over with electric blue light similar to the color of the pool and his gaze grew distant as if he weren’t seeing what was before him. Khoth guessed he was communicating with Gehenna or the Osiris. He wondered what they were saying and wished to be a part of it. He was surprised that his feelings were not simply because he longed to understand the ship, but instead were a desire to be a part of Jace’s discoveries.
He does not want that, because he thinks of me as the enemy. I cannot blame him. He wants to protect humanity and sees me as someone who does not. Is he wrong?
Khoth remembered his sister’s dismay at how the Alliance was simply defending and retreating, leaving worlds to fend for themselves, their ability to explore cut off sector by sector. Worlds like Earth had only been left alone because of little Precursor tech and space being vast. Otherwise the Khul would have used the gate and wiped them out long ago.
“Any explanation, Jace, about what this is?” Colonel Parker asked as she followed the lights a few feet. “It looks like it's trying to lead us somewhere.”
“It is. Osiris says that if we’re going to enter one of the Khul spacecraft that we need some proper weapons and suits,” Jace explained. His eyes cleared of that blue glow and that faraway look. He was smiling. “The lights will show us the way to the Armory. They’re more for you guys, obviously, as I know where the Armory is, but… well, forget about that. Let’s go!”
Jace gestured for them all to accompany him, despite what he had said about not showing or telling him or Thammah any more of the Osiris’ secrets. And the Armory might be one of the greatest secrets the Osiris had. But General Intoshkin hadn’t forgotten. He stepped in front of Khoth as he tried to follow Jace and gestured for several of the soldiers to flank him. Thammah tensed and her gaze slid to him. She would follow his lead. Antagonizing the humans more was not a good idea, but he very much wished to see the Armory.
“I’ll have to ask you and Flight Commander Thammah to wait here,” the general said firmly.
“Let them come, General,” Jace contradicted.
Another frown appeared on the general’s face. It was clear that he saw the young man as too naive for the type of negotiating that he needed to do with the Alliance. And perhaps he was right.
“I know you think showing them anything is a bad idea. And I know that the Osiris has weapons that they haven’t found in other places.” Jace’s expression went distant again and that flash of blue appeared. “Yep, it definitely does.”
A thrill went through Khoth. He swallowed deeply. New weapons? New equipment? These things would be invaluable against the Khul! But he said nothing. Jace was fighting for him and Thammah to come along. He didn’t want to dissuade the young man with his eagerness.
“That’s why we can’t show them, Jace,” the general answered patiently.
“Actually, it's a reason to show them. Show them what they’re missing if they won’t deal with us,” Jace told him.
Khoth’s earlier thought that Jace was too “naive” to negotiate was crushed under Jace’s heel at those words. The faint smile on Jace’s lips told him that his reaction had been noted. Thammah let out a deep chuckle. She’d caught what Jace had done too.
“And all they will get out of the experience is what they see, General. They will not be allowed to take anything from the Osiris.” Jace’s eyes glowed blue but his gaze wasn’t distant. “I assure you. The Osiris, all its contents and all its knowledge, are ours. If the Alliance wants in, Earth has to be protected.”
Khoth knew that the Alliance wanted in. They needed to be in. But what would it cost them? The Osiris couldn’t stay here. But what price would they be willing to pay to have it in the Alliance fleet? A great one, he guessed. And Jace guessed that too.
The general stroked his chin. Finally, he smiled and nodded. “I see the game you’re playing, son, and I approve.”
Jace’s parents appeared to approve too. Jace’s mother gave her son a small nod as well while Captain Parker clasped his son’s shoulder. He squeezed it and shook his head as if he couldn’t quite believe that this muscular, healthy young man was his son.
“Follow me,” Jace said again as he strode confidently out of the room.
The general and three of the soldiers followed immediately after Jace while he, Thammah and Gehenna trailed behind. Jace’s father and mother were on either side of their son while Jace was excitedly telling them about the ship and what he was experiencing. His parents were listening intently and nodding. His mother touched his cheek while his father slung a companionable arm around his son’s shoulders. While it was clear that there was a level of shock in their reactions, it was also clear that they were trying to assimilate what was going on with their son to support him.
Thammah jostled his arm. When he looked at her, she tipped her head towards the family.
“It’s nice, isn’t it?” she asked.
He frowned. “I do not--”
“Human families. They’re so… affectionate,” she said. “Not all of them, of course. And not just the families. The people in general, I think. Some of the soldiers I met here, they were so concerned that I was alone for one of their holidays--Thanksgiving, I think?--that they actually had one for me on the base since I couldn’t come to their homes obviously. The food was… interesting. But the company was...” She let her voice drift off, but she was smiling. “The company was wonderful. The companionship.”
“Did they not understand that missing one of their holidays would not affect you?” Khoth asked.
She snorted. “It would affect me. Not the holiday, but that everyone was off with people they cared for and cared for them while I was alone. It meant quite a bit to me actually to be included. It meant quite a bit that they wanted me to feel like one of them even when I’m clearly not. It’s a strength of theirs.”
Khoth was stunned. “You are here to work for the Alliance. Not to--”
“If you’re going to lecture me about Xi and Xa, I really will have to go walk with the general,” she told him with a lifted eyebrow. “Maybe I will spill Alliance secrets to him.”
“You would not. You are quite unconventional, Flight Commander Thammah,” Khoth finally said.
“Yes, which is both what makes me very good as a pilot, but not so good as a Thaf’ell.” She gave him a wink.
“If you are so fond of being unusual, you should have become a poet,” he muttered.
She let out a bark of laughter that had the general turning around to stare at them. Khoth made his face into an unreadable mask.
Belonging is very important, Gehenna said, her words flashing over his and Thammah’s suits’ systems.
He caught the AI looking longingly at Jace and his parents. Khoth knew that the AI wanted nothing more than to be walking alongside the three of them. He thought Jace wanted it too from the times he kept glancing backwards. Though some of those glances appeared to be aimed at him. But, likely for similar reasons, he and Gehenna stayed where they were rather than by Jace’s side. Jace’s parents wanted them both away.
“You are not wrong, Gehenna, belonging matters hugely,” Thammah agreed. “And don’t you say that you don’t value belonging, Khoth. That’s your whole problem.”
“I have no idea what you mean,” he replied stiffly.
Was she suggesting that he would have forsook his work and duty to go to some holiday dinner? Just because he was lonely? No, he would not.
“Just that you are trying so hard to be the perfect Thaf’ell and yet your true nature is fighting so hard against it,” she said with another bark of laughter.
He was completely at a loss at this.
“My choices have been perfectly logical and--”
She nodded. “Most of them have been. But you are wrong when you think that the Thaf’ell way is always the logical way. Sometimes I think we are the most illogical species out there.”
“How do you mean?” He’d been frowning so hard through this conversation that his face was starting to hurt from it.
“We act according to our traditions,” she said, “from things that have been passed down. We accept--without thought--that these are the best ways. We do not take in new evidence and change our opinion though.”
“We do, but we have not found better ways,” he stated.
She lifted an eyebrow. “It looks like we’re going to be spending a lot of time with the humans--definitely with one very special human.” Her eyes twinkled in a way he did not like. “I wonder how long you’ll believe that statement you just made.”
He was going to tell her that he was sure his viewpoint would last. After all, everyone knew what humans were like. Jace was different. He was exceptional. That was all it was.
Jace and his parents were standing in front of a wide open set of doors, waiting for them all to catch up. The peculiar scent of Precursor weapons flowed out of the room. Bitter ozone and a chilly scent of snow and ice. Khoth quickened his pace. He wanted to see what was inside.
“All of these rooms were closed to us,” Colonel Parker said with a touch of awe as she gazed inside. One of her hands crept up to the collar of her shirt. “Nothing we did could make them open. And now…”
“Yeah,” Captain Parker said as his gaze flickered over all he was seeing. “Look at all of that.”
“We need to have our scientists in here now,” General Intoshkin stated. He gestured for one of the soldiers to go find the scientists they had left in the Core.
Khoth pressed up behind them, and since he was taller than everyone, he was able to see past them.
It wasn’t just one room with racks of weapons and exo-suits. There were dozens of rooms. He could see into them not just through the now open doorways, but the walls were made of a clear material. Rooms lit up one after another after another seemingly endlessly.
Jace went inside, followed swiftly by everyone else. The others fanned out, looking at all of the weaponry with wide eyes. Captain Parker immediately went to an exo-suit that looked to have a jetpack in the back. Thammah joined Jace’s father. She took down the suit and they both leaned over it, exclaiming at what they saw.
“It’s a good thing there is more than one of these, Jack,” Thammah teased, “because even with your son’s commandment that we take nothing, I would so be stealing one of these.”
“You and me both, Thammah,” Captain Parker laughed.
General Intoshkin, followed closely by the three soldiers, went over to a rack of draagves, though some of them were quite a bit different from his own. He picked one up and aimed down the site. The weapon let out a low whine and the sections on the top of it lifted up, showing a red glow inside. The general grinned and smoothed his hand over the weapon’s silky surface.
Colonel Parker went over to an open-faced cabinet that had what appeared to be chips of different colors. She picked one up and it immediately lit up. She dropped it, but the chip did not fall. Instead, it hovered at her eye-level and then a colored web of lines encircled her.
“Force field!” she breathed, understanding what it was.
She touched the glowing, translucent green shell around her. Where she touched the shield bloomed with brighter light, but her hand was able to pass through it. She stepped right then left. The force field stayed around her. She laughed delightedly as she plucked the chip out of the air and the force field vanished.
Gehenna glided over to Jace. He went to one of the cabinets that was waist high and Khoth walked to his side. The top of the cabinet lit up, a bright blue white, and a display appeared. Jace swiped through a visual listing of weapons. Khoth recognized versions of his bladed weapon, the rahir, and his sighted rifle, the draagves.
“These look like the weapons you had when we met,” Jace said, pointing to the correct ones.
“Yes.” He was surprised considering the condition Jace was in that the young man remembered that. But perhaps it was Gehenna who did so.
“But these are different. More powerful.”
“How do you know?” he asked.
Jace struggled to explain, “On Earth, we have games where a better version of a weapon is indicated by a different color. Like you start with a blue-coded weapon, but then you see one that’s a purple-coded one. Even though they are the same or have the same name anyway and generally the same shape, the purple-coded one can fire faster or the projectiles deal more damage. That sort of thing. That’s sort of what I’m seeing here. Gehenna is explaining pretty much that you have the blue-coded one.”
You should both try one. Face off against one another, Gehenna suggested.
“Face off? You mean… fight?” Jace gave out a laugh.
“That would actually be wise,” Khoth said with a nod. “We need to assess your skill level, Jace. The training you did was virtual, I take it?”
“It was when I was asleep,” Jace admitted.
“Facing a real, live opponent is different,” Khoth said.
“Yeah, I faced off against some Khul even before I called Metal Rain.” Jace stood up straight, but then he said, “But not in this body. So maybe a little swordplay might be good.”
Khoth was pleased at Jace’s reasonableness. He had feared that the young man would be resistant to seeing what limits he had. Considering that Khoth had practically lived with a rahir in his hand since a child and Thaf’ell were simply superior in strength and speed, he would have to hold back so as not to hurt Jace. But, at the same time, it would be very wise for both of them to see how lacking Jace was before entering the Khul ship. Not that he expected any Khul to be alive. They would have returned the ship to the Hive. He frowned. How long did they have until more Khul did come though?
Jace selected two rahir from the menu. Immediately, the weapons appeared on top of the table. Jace let out a gasp.
“Whoa! Did they teleport? Or were they just created here?” Jace asked. The blue glow appeared in his eyes. “Oh, created! That’s new.”
That was new. That was remarkable. The weapons they used were scavenged. Now there was quite a bit of it, but still. To be able to create new weapons? And Jace had said these were better than the ones he had and he had the best. The two swords had a slight curve to them. The blades were narrow, an inch across in human terms, and thin. The hilts were banded and there was a pressure point to turn on the laser edge.
“The ship can generate all of this?” General Intoshkin asked as he gestured around them.
“Ah, yeah, and new things too. But that requires…” Jace tilted his head to the side. “Well, we’re going to have to mines. The Osiris can do that. But we need… a whole long list of materials. Oh wow! It’s giving me coordinates!”
“Coordinates for the materials?” Colonel Parker asked, eyes wide.
Jace nodded. “Yep. This is incredible! I have all these star charts in my head--or rather I’m seeing what’s in the Osiris’ head--and there’s so much! Places to mine! Undiscovered Alteath worlds! Just everything!”
Khoth desperately wanted to ask, “What about the Altaeth? Does it say where they are now? What happened to them?”
But he didn’t want their lack of knowledge exposed in front of General Intoshkin.
Jace picked up his rahir. He swept it through the air, not like someone who had just picked one up for the first time, but with confidence. There was a hum and then a sizzle as the whole blade turned an icy blue.
Jace laughed and said, “Looks like I’m going to the Light Side!”
Khoth had no idea what he meant, but he did not care to pursue it at that moment, because he picked up his rahir. The weapon was expertly weighted. He noted that his hilt was larger. The ship hadn’t just produced two random rahirs, but had made singular ones for each of them. This was unprecedented. He ran his thumb over the sensor that turned on the laser. His blade turned a fiery reddish purple.
“So it really will be a Star Wars battle,” Captain Parker said with a mixture of awe and alarm.
“Light versus Dark. I don’t know, Khoth. I didn’t take you for a Sith,” Jace teased.
“If a Sith is highly skilled with a blade then I take that as a compliment.” Khoth inclined his head.
Jace and his father laughed while the others in the know just shook their heads. The young man then lifted his left hand and gestured towards a section of floor. The cabinetry rolled back and there was a space large enough for them to fight.
Jace grinned, lifted his blade, and asked, “Shall we dance, Khoth?”