CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX: A PILOT WITHOUT A SHIP?
Khoth followed Jace outside with Gehenna trailing behind them. Despite Jace’s current exhaustion, he had perked up at the arrival of the Thaf’ell squadron headed by his mother’s Colossus-class ship, the Ashaton. The earlier heat of the day had retreated and the difference between air conditioned house and desert air was less abrupt than it had been when he’d arrived. Jace stared up at the crystal clear night sky.
“Will we be able to see the squadron?” Jace asked. His eyes glowed a brilliant neon blue and he cried out in delight, “Awesome! I actually have a HUD without the suit’s helmet! And I can--whoa! That’s one big ship!”
Khoth--who did not have a HUD without his helmet--quickly brought his helmet up and the Osiris--he presumed it was the Osiris--showed him what Jace was seeing. Apparently using a nearby satellite’s feed, they could see the long, rounded-rectangular body of the Ashaton, bristling with weapons. Alongside it were half a dozen Saber-class warships.
“The other ships look like babies around a big mama,” Jace chuckled.
“That is not altogether untrue,” Khoth replied. “The largest ship is the Ashaton. That is my mother’s ship.”
Jace flashed him a brilliant smile. “Your mom, huh? That’s going to be cool to meet her.”
Khoth could almost hear Thammah saying “cool, as in interesting or exciting, not as in the temperature.” But he could also imagine Thammah adding, “though I imagine the temperature of your mother’s mood will likely be cool as in cold.” Thammah had teased him about knowing Jace well, but he already felt she had somehow found her way into his mind. Maybe it was because she was so unlike a Thaf’ell and yet understood a Thaf’ell’s thinking that enabled him to anticipate her thoughts on the matter.
“My mother is… similar to your mother in ways,” Khoth finally answered. “Very commanding presence. She has the weight of total command upon her shoulders. And things have not been going well against the Khul.”
That last part was something he had come to after thinking about his sister’s journal and recalling recent reports of “strategic retreats” by the Alliance. The pressure on her was far more immense than he had realized. She would be desperate to get Jace and the Osiris on the Alliance’s side.
Jace’s eyebrows rose. The glowing blue eyes--like and unlike a Thaf’ell’s--were disconcerting as they turned towards him.
“You’re worried I won’t like her,” Jace said.
“She is here as High Councillor Nova Voor of the Illumen Alliance, not as my mother,” Khoth explained.
Jace slowly nodded. “So she’s going to do what she thinks is right for the Alliance but not what’s right to do as your mom?”
He didn’t add to that. There was so much he could have said, but it would have all been excuses. His mother would act for the Alliance, no matter what the cost to him. She wouldn’t break the Rule of Duuskukeh.
“The Ashaton can’t land. We don’t have a facility for it yet,” Jace murmured. “And those medium-sized ships--Saber-class--could, but it would be tough. She’ll come down in a Paladin-class ship like yours and Thammah’s maybe? Ah, yeah, I can see some hangar bay doors opening. Ooooh, she’s sending a dozen craft down.”
Is it a show of force? Or merely to impress the humans with the seriousness of her visit? Gehenna asked. Is she afraid for her safety?
“She is going to demand Jace and the Osiris be released into Alliance hands,” Khoth stated simply. “Your mother is second-in-command at Area 67 now that General Intoshkin is here.”
“She anticipates a fight.” Jace rubbed his face, looking tired again. He cast a glance back at his house and sighed. “I really wanted to sleep in my own bed tonight. But we better get back to greet her, yeah?”
He’d turned back to Khoth. Khoth was staring at the V-formation of lights that was fast approaching the military base.
“Khoth? Don’t you want to go see your mother?” Jace wheedled.
I think he is as keen to see his mother as you are to see yours, Gehenna remarked.
“Hey, I want to see my mom just… not right now. But right now seems like the time allotted to us,” Jace admitted.
Khoth finally dragged his gaze away from the landing ships and gazed back at Jace. “She is the leader of my world, of the Alliance.”
“Okay.” Jace made a gesture with his hand that he should explain further.
“The promise I made to you earlier this evening about making sure you have the time and space you need, I intend to honor,” Khoth stated stiffly. He could still remember the feeling of Jace in his arms. It had been… rewarding in a way that nothing else had ever felt. “This will put me in direct conflict with both my mother and yours.”
Jace’s eyes widened. The blue glow was gone. “Oh, wow, okay, yeah, I should have guessed you’d do that.”
“But you thought I would not?” Khoth grimaced. “Yes, I can understand why you would doubt me--”
“I don’t doubt you.” Jace brought up both hands and waved them. “It’s just I wondered if it wasn’t a bit much to ask of you to go against your people and your mom to help me.”
“I have already done this by assisting in your connection with Gehenna and the Osiris,” Khoth reminded him. He was also reminding himself. Even though it was clear that Jace was meant to be the Pilot, his mother would have to be convinced of this. “Though I believe that our destruction of the Hive in such an unusual manner will convince many that I made the correct decision.”
Jace blinked and then one of those beaming smiles that had Khoth feeling strangely warm from crossed the young man’s face. “Well, even if she were to exile you, it wouldn’t matter.”
“Why would it not matter?”
“Because you’re a part of the Osiris’ crew,” Jace told him, still beaming. “And nothing she does can take that away.”
It was Khoth’s turn to blink. “You talk as if the Osiris is a third party in all of this.”
“It is. We’re going to be on no one’s side,” Jace stated simply. “We can’t have allegiances getting in the way of what’s right.”
“But you are going to require protection of Earth in exchange for your help,” Khoth pointed out.
“Yes, I am, because protecting Earth is the right thing to do. Remember, no one left behind. But I’m not going to let humanity override the Alliance simply because I’m human,” Jace assured him. “We’re going to have to look at things from as objective a view as possible. I want to hear what everyone has to say.”
“Everyone is quite a large number,” Khoth replied dryly, but he was pleased with Jace’s answer.
It is because it is something that Daesah wanted to do.
“Okay, not everybody, but a lot more people than are making decisions now,” Jace answered. “Now, we should get back to base and I really don’t want to walk.”
Let’s take the car! Can I drive? Two of Gehenna’s pincers came up in front of her even as she spun the others around her.
Jace gave Khoth a crooked smile as he asked, “Should we chance it?”
“Our lives are in your hands, Gehenna,” Khoth told the AI.
Whee! I’ll be a good and safe driver! The best driver! You’ll see! Gehenna cried as she shot off like a rocket towards the sedan that was parked on the driveway.
“Gehenna, don’t you need the keys?” Jace was pointing towards the house.
No! Keys are for sissies! She yelled. The car’s lights flashed and then the engine roared to life just as Gehenna was opening the driver’s door.
Jace bumped his shoulder against Khoth’s. “You might have been joking about our lives being in Gehenna’s hands--or pincers--but that might actually be true.”
Seeing the many tentacles flying around in evident delight inside of the small vehicle had Khoth remarking drying, “I do not joke.”
Jace let out a gurgling laugh and then shook his head before saying, “Well, I gotta grab some of our snacks. I’m still hungry and I want to see if the Osiris can replicate this stuff. We could do a taste test!”
“I believe that Thammah might be a better candidate for that than me,” Khoth admitted.
“Hey, you liked some of the stuff!”
Khoth inclined his head. He had.
“I promise that we’ll have some real food, too. I mean…” Jace’s smile faded somewhat as he looked at the faint light signature of the craft by the base. “If we have time for that. We have to make time for that.”
“Yes, if there is time.”
“C’mon. I need your hands for snacks, too.” Jace gestured for Khoth to come with him.
The two of them went back inside. Jace grabbed snacks and put them into bags that he had Khoth hold open. With rather admirable precision, he had most of the unopened snacks packed up into four bags.
“The cleanup will have to wait,” Jace said as he surveyed the dirty dishes and finished soda cans. He quickly tossed a few of the things into a trash can, but it still looked a bit of a mess.
“I think your parents will be happier to see you sooner than have us stay here longer to make things completely presentable,” Khoth stated.
His comm was already vibrating. He knew his mother was contacting him again and again and again even though he would not look to check.
He knew that was ridiculous, but he needed time to marshal his forces to face what was to come.
“Yeah, you’re right. Let’s go before Gehenna loses it out there,” Jace laughed as there was a merry series of honks from the vehicle.
The drive to the base started out remarkably staid. Gehenna stopped at every signal even though there were no other cars, let alone pedestrians in Sunrise.
“I think you can go a little faster, Gehenna,” Jace said from the back seat.
He had insisted that Khoth take the front passenger seat because of his taller stature. Still, the inside of the vehicle was very tight, especially with Gehenna’s tentacles that kept flying up to point at things.
I am following all rules of the road! Gehenna told Jace rather archly. I have reviewed and studied them! I am a master driver--whoops!
The whoops was her running a red light. Jace snickered.
“It’s okay, Gehenna. No one else is driving out here so you can pretty much ignore everything other than don’t hit people, other vehicles or… or anything really,” Jace told her.
Can I speed?
Jace sighed then chuckled. “Yes, but remember--WHOA!”
Both he and Jace rocketed back in their seats as the car shot forward at a much greater speed. They raced down the empty roads, out into the desert, towards Base 67, which was where the only lights were.
They soon came to the gate that was armed by a dozen soldiers. Gehenna screeched to a halt. The moment the one soldier caught sight of Gehenna, he wheeled back. She waved a tentacle at him.
“It’s okay,” Jace told him.
“We are expected,” Khoth leaned out.
The other soldiers staggered back. Khoth lifted an eyebrow.
“Y-yes, of course. Open the gate!” One of the soldiers cried and gestured to another in the booth to open up the swing arm.
As soon as it lifted up, the three of them drove through. Jace shook with laughter.
“Oh, those poor guys! Oh, man, I’ll bet they’ll talk about this for years to come and no one will believe them,” Jace said as he wiped tears of laughter from his eyes. “Gehenna, don’t take us to the hanger. Everyone is out by the ships. Man, now I understand the no fly zone!”
Gehenna drove briskly over a dirt road that led out into the desert. The Saber-class vessels had all landed in the same V-shaped pattern that they had flown in. Khoth already could recognize his mother simply by her stance outside of the foremost craft. He recognized Jace’s parents the way they jerked as they caught sight of their car being driven by Gehenna. He was surprised to not see Thammah.
Both Parkers immediately raced over to the car. Seeing Gehenna up close in the driver’s seat caused the Parkers to only hesitate half a moment before they were opening the back door to get to their son.
“Jace, you okay?” Jack asked.
Jack reached in and grasped his son’s shoulder and squeezed it.
“I’m okay, Dad, I just needed to eat.” Jace lifted the bags of snacks.
“Is there anything that would actually be considered food in what you have there?” Diane asked, doing her best to put a sternness into her tone, but her eyes showed her relief at seeing Jace was all right.
“Don’t you criticize me, too, Mom. Khoth’s already being the food police,” Jace told her teasingly, but there was a little shame there, too. “I hope I didn’t worry you.”
“We just didn’t know where you were, Jace,” Jack said quietly. “You can’t just disappear on us like that, champ, okay?”
Jace nodded. “I should have told you, but I needed… a minute.”
“That’s fine. That’s understandable,” Diane said. “And it did give us plausible deniability by not knowing exactly where you were. But it would have been nice to know you were okay.”
Khoth nearly laughed, which was rare for him, but it was exactly what he had been thinking earlier. Diane tipped her head towards General Intoshkin who was still standing in front of his mother. Khoth straightened as much as he could in the seat and hit the top of his head on the roof of the vehicle.
Over his HUD, Gehenna sent, She looks mad. Is she mad at you, Khoth?
“She does not get angry. She is only disappointed,” Khoth replied softly as he got out of the car, leaving Jace and his parents some time to talk alone. He was surprised when Gehenna joined him. “You do not need to be a part of this, Gehenna.”
I do. I need to explain that you made the right decision, Gehenna replied.
Khoth wasn’t sure that was possible, but he was glad for the show of solidarity. His mother’s only reaction to Gehenna was a slight widening of her eyes. General Intoshkin looked unimpressed as he had, of course, seen Gehenna. He imagined that this made the general feel superior. Khoth crossed his arms over his chest and dropped his head to greet her.
“High Councillor Voor… Mother,” he stated in Thaf’ell
“Commander… son,” she stated.
“General Intoshkin,” Khoth greeted the human commander as well.
“Get all you need off base?” General Intoshkin’s tone was pleasant, but the glint in his eye was not. “Because we’re really going to need you and Jace to stay here.”
“I believe we have enough provisions, but Jace may want other things,” Khoth replied evenly.
“Provisions…” General Intoshkin’s expression flashed with confusion for a moment, then he said, “Any provisions Jace would like we will go get for him.”
“I believe Jace enjoys doing things for himself,” Khoth answered just as amenably.
Jace had been right to tell no one where he was going. Khoth rather wondered if they hadn’t better have stayed in the house.
In Thaf’ell, she asked of Gehenna, “Is this the AI?”
In English, he answered, “One of them, yes. Gehenna, this is my mother, High Councillor Nova Voor. Mother, this is Gehenna.”
Khoth introduced them to one another. His mother’s gaze flowed over the squid-like head and many tentacles.
“That is not it’s programmed-for body, is it?” his mother asked.
Gehenna looked at Khoth and curled her tentacles around herself.
“She can speak so you should address her directly and, no, this was a convenient body for our current work,” Khoth said.
A bright smiley face appeared on his HUD.
His mother blinked, but then turned towards Gehenna. “Gehenna, were you made by the Altaeth?”
Yes, but that’s not important right now, Gehenna responded, the words running fast over his mother and his HUDs.
His mother’s right eyebrow lifted. “I believe that I determine what is important.”
Oh, dear, no, you don’t! Gehenna almost sounded apologetic while his mother’s eyebrows lifted again. You see the Pilot determines all of that and the Pilot was only ever going to be Jace. I tried to make another Pilot and it didn’t work. The Osiris had this all planned. So, you see, Khoth saved everybody by his actions.
His mother stared at Gehenna. Khoth resisted the urge to pinch the top of his nose.
“I see. What an… interesting creation you are, Gehenna,” his mother said dryly.
“I wish I could be a part of this conversation,” General Intoshkin stated with a smile threatening to break out across his lips.
“No, I do not think you do,” Khoth answered with certainty. He turned back to his mother and spoke in Thaf’ell, “There is much I must tell you. Before you make any decisions.”
“Now my son tells me that I am not in control either. How very interesting everything is,” she murmured.
She did not sound angry per se. She would not allow such emotion to govern her actions. But he knew that he was on dangerous ground with her. He had done things that she did not approve.
“General Intoshkin tells me that you were in the Hive,” his mother said as she looked him over carefully.
He knew that she was worried he was infected, but at the same time, she was undoubtedly aware that he would never have come close to anyone, let alone her, if there was a risk of that. The Thaf’ell warriors behind his mother stirred uneasily. He had been so focused on her that he didn’t even notice them. He was sure there were pilots among them that he knew.
“And, as you must have noticed, the Hive is no longer there,” he stated.
“You destroyed a Hive,” her voice was soft.
“No, Jace, Gehenna and I destroyed a Hive. Mostly, it was Jace,” he said.
“Are the Osiris’ weapons inoperable? Why did it risk sending the Pilot? Unless it lost control to the Khul?” she asked.
His lips pursed as he considered what language to speak to her in: English or Thaf’ell. He chose Thaf’ell for now.
“I believe it sent Jace because that was the best way to accomplish its mission,” he told her. “And like you… I believe it wanted Jace to be emotionally invested in that mission by seeing the destruction up close.”
Faint lines appeared on her forehead. “What is that mission?”
“To destroy the Khul. To eradicate them is my hypothesis,” he answered.
Though the Osiris had not yet told anyone exactly what it’s mission was, based on what he had experienced and his sister’s journal, he was certain this was what the Osiris was intended to do.
“All Khul ships are headed towards the Sun. Those potentially exposed are in quarantine,” he finished off.
She gave a brief nod. If he had expected--or desired--praise he was clearly not going to get it. He wondered what it would have been like to have his mother rush to the car like Jace’s parents did. It was such an alien thing that he could not quite imagine it. The fact that he had thought about it at all was disturbing on some level.
“Good old human know-how helped do a thing that you could not,” General Intoshkin was smiling brightly as he said this.
“A highly trained Thaf’ell Commander and an Altaeth AI--two AIs--were at play in this, General. And what my sensors tell me about Jace…” All four of them turned to see Jace, who was now outside of the car with his parents beside him, “is that he’s not quite human either.”
“Jace is human where it counts, High Councillor.” General Intoshkin then touched his temple and a place over his heart muscle. “Heart and mind, he’s human.”
“Which means what exactly, General?” his mother asked smoothly.
“That he won’t abandon Earth or humanity to go and play for the Alliance’s team.” The general wagged a finger at her. “Now we have two things you want. You need to play ball.”
“But the ship is inoperable, General,” she said softly. “A Pilot without a ship… how useful is that?”
At that moment, the ground began to tremble. Khoth’s head snapped around towards Jace. Immediately, he was concerned about the young man. Jace was staring straight back at him. He held up a hand and strode over with his parents in tow.
“There’s no need for alarm,” Jace said in English then repeated it in flawless Thaf’ell, though that was unnecessary as they all had near universal translators. But still, it had the desired effect to catch his mother and the Thaf’ell warriors’ attention. He stopped beside Khoth.
“What is happening, Jace?” Khoth asked.
The ground was shaking so hard now it was hard to keep his feet.
“Everyone, stay where you are. Again, don’t be alarmed,” Jace said in both languages. “We’re all safe as are the people in the base. The Osiris has ensured that.”
“Son, what the Devil is going on?” General Intoshkin asked Jace.
“You’re going to love this, General,” Jace said with a wider grin. “I think you are too, High Councillor.”
Jace pointed back towards the base. The hanger that had been on top of the elevator to the Osiris suddenly collapsed as the ground beneath it liquified and then was expelled high up into the air. A blast of engines--white hot--erupted from the ground, turning sand to magma. There was a cracking, groaning, wrenching sound as the Osiris began to emerge from the earth.
Khoth grabbed Jace’s nearest arm. They both helped each other keep their feet as the ground danced all around them. Mile after mile of the ship emerged from the ground like a blade being pulled from a scabbard. The engine’s roar was deafening. The air heated all around them, but they were a safe distance. The glare from the engines though was as bright as the noonday sun. Khoth had to shade his eyes to watch as the massive ship emerged from the ground.
Finally, it was fully free. Huge clods of earth rained down on the city, but no one was there to be harmed by them. The Osiris levitated about two-hundred feet above the ground. It glowed like a heavenly body all purples and greens and blues and golds rippled over the outside skin.
“It’s beautiful,” Jace whispered.
“Yes,” Khoth agreed. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“A Pilot without a ship, huh, High Councillor?” General Intoshkin didn’t try to hide his triumphant smile this time.
His mother smiled back coolly.
Suddenly, over his suit’s speakers, he heard Thammah’s voice. “Woo hoo, boys! I’m coming to pick you up in the Kryptoria II and bring you both up to the Osiris. It wants its Pilot and its Commander on board! Safe and sound! So get ready!”