CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE: TEAM
Jace sluiced hot water over his head. His muscles loosened under the multiple-jet sprays. It seemed like there was a jet positioned at every single part of his body. His private bathroom was filled with glorious, spicy-smelling steam from the hair and body products the Osiris had prepared for him. He closed his eyelids and just let the water wash all of the suds away.
I created the products just for you so it would work with your body’s particular chemistry, the Osiris told him, sounding very pleased with itself. Your scent can be enhanced further to attract Khoth, but I muted it as this is a business meeting.
Jace’s eyelids sprang open. I thought pheromones were a myth in humans at least.
On the contrary, during puberty several auxiliary steroids are thought--
I’m not going through puberty again! Jace groused. That was hard enough the first time with the headaches, tinnitus and auras!
He massaged the back of his neck. He didn’t feel a headache coming on, but he feared one would. He had experienced his old ailments on the Khul ship so that meant they could come back so it wasn’t a useless fear.
I am adjusting your form to eliminate these… malfunctions, the Osiris said with almost distaste.
Are you sure you can? Jace asked, stilling so that not even the movement of his hands against his own body would distract him from any of the nuances of the Osiris’ communication.
Of course, that was when the Osiris stopped using inflection and was robotic and smooth once more, Yes.
Just yes? No doubts there? No concerns that I’m broken forever? Jace asked.
Those are your fears. Not mine. I do not have… fears, the Osiris informed him and now the emotion was back again in that tart response.
You shouldn’t lie to yourself, Osiris, Jace told the AI.
I do not lie.
Oh, ho, ho! We’re going there, are we?
I simply do not tell you everything until it is the optimal time, the Osiris said.
Not telling is lying by omission. It’s still lying, Jace said, wondering if the AI really didn’t understand the difference.
For something so incredibly smart, it was acting “dumb” here. But, then again, Gehenna was far more emotionally intelligent, but had turned herself into the Terminator, expecting a warm and fuzzy response.
Your parents are requesting entrance to your quarters. Shall I let them in? The Osiris was so bland in this request even as Jace grew a little tense.
He’d laid down the gauntlet with General Intoshkin. Both of his parents served under the man. They’d pledged oaths to serve the United States of America and both of them took that duty incredibly seriously. Now, he was messing with the military’s plans and they were stuck right in the middle of it. He didn’t doubt that they would take his side. Like Khoth, his parents put duty above personal gain. Meaning they would do what was right even if it cost them dearly. He would, of course, offer them both a position on his crew, but would that make up for what they were losing?
Yes, let them in. Make sure they’re comfortable, Jace said, though the last was uncertain. Oh! Warn them about Gehenna.
The Osiris didn’t answer, but he felt a wordless acknowledgement of the command. He did wonder how the Osiris would warn his parents that the Terminator was in the meeting room. Knowing Gehenna, she would want to run up and embrace his mother with those metal claws. Jace let out a burst of laughter that echoed in the shower. He could have found out exactly what was going on by connecting more closely to Gehenna, but he wanted to be surprised.
How is Khoth doing? Jace asked.
He had left the Thaf’ell Commander to get settled into his quarters and to bathe. While the interior of Khoth’s rooms had not been so grand as his, the Thaf’ell Commander had appeared to appreciate the three rooms that would give him ample space to work, sleep and take care of his bodily needs. Jace was rather hoping to take care of certain other bodily needs and hoped that the bed in Khoth’s quarters would often be empty.
I have provided him with his new uniform, the Osiris answered, interrupting his thoughts.
New uniform? Jace blinked.
As Commander of the Osiris, the Osiris answered.
But he hasn’t accepted that yet. And--
He has sent his mother a letter of resignation. She is… upset, the Osiris had paused before providing the name of the emotion, either to think which one best applied or to give it emphasis.
Yeah, I bet. I’ve upended his life, Jace said. In two days everything he’d planned has been thrown away.
His purpose is to destroy the Khul and protect the Alliance, the Osiris replied crisply, and that is better served here.
You did not make him choose, the Osiris interrupted. You did not suggest he break his internal structure.
Jace frowned. His internal--
His honor. What he believes about himself and the universe, the Osiris explained.
Jace slowly nodded. I suppose not. But what he’s doing is really hard.
It shows a resilience of mind that will make him an appropriate Commander here, the Osiris stated simply.
I should probably have some kind of ceremony or something. Don’t you think? To welcome those who choose to be part of the crew? Jace suggested.
Yes, I will provide modifications for the crew.
Why does that send a chill down my spine? Jace laughed.
You are experiencing no such physical reaction. Your mental one is unnecessary as well, the Osiris was all tart again. Your parents are waiting for you.
And he felt the Osiris withdraw. He connected more fully to Gehenna. She joyously greeted him.
Your father really likes my new form! She enthused.
Yeah, he loves that movie. Anything with Arnold in it is a secret pleasure, Jace admitted.
I’m not sure what your mother thinks about it, Gehenna admitted. She keeps edging away from me on the couch, but when I ask her if anything is the matter she claims there is not!
Just let her get used to you, Jace suggested. I’ll be right out. Let my parents know, yeah?
The Osiris already did so, Gehenna sounded peeved.
Well, we mustn’t take away all of its fun. You get to converse with them, he pointed out.
Gehenna sent him a big smiley face that floated up into the heavens.
Jace didn’t even have to touch the controls to have the water turn off. He did it simply with his mind. He stepped out of the shower stall and grabbed an incredibly fluffy towel. He dried himself off. The door to his bedroom silently slid open. The cooler air flowed around him like an embrace.
He saw a small rectangular orange light on the wall. He went over to it and that portion of the wall popped open to reveal a drawer. Inside were what must have been his non-space battle uniform. It was a pair of fitted black pants that had a lot more give in them, a long-sleeved white shirt that hugged his new muscles like a second skin and a black jacket that felt like leather, but wasn’t. There were, of course, socks and underwear.
There was another orange light on the wall. When he went near that a pair of boots was revealed. Jace slipped them on as well to complete the outfit. The drawers closed and the wall became seamless again before a mirror appeared there so that he could see himself.
“Looking good,” he admitted with a grin.
No longer were his clothes baggy or his hair unkempt. Whatever the Osiris had done to him seemed to take all the fuss out of looking good. He shook his head at his own reflection. That sense that this was and wasn’t him was still there, but it wasn’t causing any consternation in him. It was like living a dream.
Though the Khul are a bit of a nightmare and I have to figure out how to stop everyone from killing each other.
His reflection lifted an eyebrow and his smile had turned from joyous to a little wry. But he’d take this life over the aimless one he’d been living. There was so much possibility here. He wanted to infect the Alliance and humanity with it. To show them that their narrow views of what should be, what could be and what they wanted to be were just that: narrow.
Here goes nothing.
He turned on his heel and headed towards the sitting room where his parents and Gehenna awaited him. He knew that the wall would once again become smooth and non-reflective even as the lights turned off after his leaving.
He found his parents and Gehenna sitting on the same couch like three awkward birds frozen on a line. His mother immediately jumped to her feet and came towards him. She was not a fan of the Terminator.
“Jace! You look well!” She cupped his face and turned it this way and that to confirm that her head-on view was correct.
“I feel good. Really good. A long rest was what I needed,” Jace assured her, letting her pet him and be a mom in that moment.
She smoothed her hands through his hair and shook her head. “You look now like I always saw you looking in my mind. But are the headaches and everything really gone?”
That was what he had asked the Osiris. “Mostly. I just experienced one on the Khul ship when we lost contact with the Osiris.”
She ran her hands over his shoulders. “I like the outfit. Perfectly tailored for you.”
“You don’t look too shabby yourself, Mom.”
She was wearing one of her skirt-suit uniforms, far more fancy than his, which was well-made, but seemed more casual. His father was dressed up as well and not in his flight suit.
Is that a bad sign or a good sign? Jace wondered. I’ve already asked Khoth really to abandon his life. Should I be asking my parents?
But all he asked them out loud was, “Want some breakfast? Khoth should be here shortly and--”
But his mother was shaking her head. “We’ve got to meet with the general.”
His heart was in his feet. “Ah, right, of course. Planning your all out offensive to take the Osiris from me? It will be unsuccessful so… you might want to think about that before you pick a team.”
“No one is going to try and take the Osiris from you,” his mother said.
“Uhm, I’m pretty sure the Alliance is, but that’s neither here nor there. Guys, we have to talk. What are you thinking of doing?” Jace asked, shaking off his mother’s hands. He needed a clear head for this.
“Maybe, I should ah… go and do something? Somewhere else?” Gehenna asked, half rising up from her seat.
“Aren’t you going to know what’s going on in here anyways?” his father asked her.
“Well, yes, of course! But it would give you the illusion of privacy!” Gehenna answered truthfully.
“You can stay then. We don’t want illusions here,” his mother answered dryly.
“I’ll be quiet as a--”
“Terminator?” Jace’s left eyebrow rose even as a smile tugged at his lips.
“Mouse.” She sank back down onto the couch with surprising quietness.
“Okay, I need to know where you guys stand,” Jace said. “I’m not going to ask you to break any vows you’ve made, but if you’re staying in the US military…” Here he found he had to swallow hard, “you can’t be my confidants. That means I’ll wish you well and see you at the meeting.”
His parents exchanged a glance. His mother nodded almost imperceptibly to his father, indicating he should be the one to answer.
“I’m resigning my commission early,” his father said. “I hear that someone else might be looking for some pilots.”
Jace’s lips curled into a smile. “I’d be happy to have you as one of the Osiris’ crew, Dad.”
“Then you have me, son.” His father smiled broadly. It was a smile they shared.
Jace turned anxiously back to his mother. “And you? What are you going to do, Mom? I could always use such a capable officer.”
She beamed at him, but shook her head. “Not that I don’t wish to be a member of your crew, Jace. But I think I can do the best by representing humanity with the Alliance. One of the things we’d like is for humanity to, at least, have an ambassador on Haseon.”
“And that would be you?” Jace confirmed.
She nodded. “If they’ll have us. We don’t exactly have anything to bargain with any longer.”
“I cannot believe the general is giving up so easily,” Jace said with a frown.
“Something occurred on a call he placed this morning. He’s been told to stand down,” she said.
Jace frowned some more. Osiris, what happened during that call?
General Intoshkin believed he was speaking to his superiors, the Osiris said.
Imitating them was quite easy, the Osiris answered.
You do not wish violent actions to be taken against them. This delay will allow you to broker the agreement you wish, the Osiris stated. Once it becomes clear that he did not reach his people, it will be… too late? Yes, too late. Besides, all will be mostly pleased with what you will propose.
I’m so glad that you know what I’m going to propose, because I don’t! Jace laughed.
Are you certain that is correct? The Osiris asked.
Jace stopped. So you think my idea about reaching out to all the Alliance species who have been given the shaft, but have valuable things to offer to join with us and screw the Council is a good one?
I already have compiled a list that you might wish to discuss with Khoth and your father, the Osiris said.
Sometimes, Osiris, you are the best, Jace said.
I am always optimal in all my functions, the Osiris replied, but sounded pleased.
“Jace, have we lost you?” His mother cocked her head to the side.
“Oh, no, no, just… just glad that there’s only one party who wants to act like a pirate,” he said.
“The Alliance… you have some news?” she asked.
“Nothing you or Earth has to worry about,” he said and hugged her. When he pulled back, he turned to his father who had gotten up from the couch, leaving only Gehenna seated. “So, Dad, what do you have to do here to leave the military and join my crew?”
“I’m going to speak to the general now,” his father said. “I didn’t think it would be honorable to learn anything of his plans.”
“Oh, yeah.” Jace gave him a bright smile.
He didn’t need his father to find out. The Osiris and Gehenna would tell him everything anyways so he was glad to have his father’s honor be left intact.
“Ah, I’ll join you afterwards,” his father suggested.
Jace’s head bobbed. “Yeah, Osiris wants to inject you with something.”
His father’s eyebrows rose. “Oooookaaaayyyyyy.”
“To welcome you to the crew!” Jace added, realizing how that sounded. “It’ll be good!”
“I trust you,” his father said, but there was a little bit of alarm in his expression.
You need to tell me EXACTLY what you’re putting into him and Khoth, Osiris, Jace warned the AI.
Of course, the Osiris answered dryly.
“How is this going to work between the two of you, though? Keeping secrets from one another? Being… apart?” Jace asked, hands threading together nervously.
His parents put their arms around one another and smiled softly and with incredible love behind their eyes.
“We’ve been keeping secrets from each other all our relationship so that’s not new,” his father said. “Your mother’s always outranked me.” He playfully pulled her closer to him. “Now my son will.”
“Yeah, well… I promise to go easy on you.” Jace ran his hands through his hair nervously.
“You better not!” his mother laughed. “Your father needs structure and a tight chain of command! Otherwise, he’ll be off playing practical jokes and stealing your spaceships for joy rides.”
“Just as long as he invites me, I’m good with that,” Jace said with a grin.
“But, in all seriousness, Jace, we’re doing this because it's the right thing to do to keep humanity--and you--safe,” she said as she reached up and squeezed his shoulder.
He nodded. “Same here.”
“We know, son.” His father thumped his back.
“So the Parkers are going to save the universe?” Jace asked.
“Are you going to do the hands in the center thing?” Gehenna’s voice rose up behind his mother as the metal behemoth clanked over.
“No, Gehenna. I was just… being silly,” Jace said with a shrug.
“We could do it,” his father said.
“We are working to save the universe,” his mother pointed out.
“Oh, my God, I’m dying here. Fine. Let’s be dorky, but we’re telling no one about this,” Jace said.
Jace put his hand in and his parents did the same. Gehenna’s metal hand covered all of theirs.
“Go Parkers!” she cried.
And they pulled their hands back.
Jace shook his head and muttered, “Never telling a soul.”
His mother laughed delightedly and his father chuckled. They hugged him as they made their way out. Jace knew that Khoth was at the door and he indicated to Osiris to tell him to come inside. Khoth’s soft steps into the room had Jace lifting his head to see the Thaf’ell Commander in his new “casual” uniform.
While Jace’s was pretty much suited to modern human fashion, Khoth’s reminded him of Anakin Skywalker’s Jedi battle armor in midnight black with silver inlays and stitching. The shoulders flared out. There was an elaborate belting around his slender waist. Leggings covered Khoth’s long, muscular legs with shiny black boots coming up to Khoth’s knees. Jace blinked.
“Wow…” Jace breathed. “You look… nice.”
Khoth smoothed his hands down the front of his outfit. “It is similar to some of our formal, religious clothes. It is perfectly sized, though this is not surprising. The Osiris has, undoubtedly, scanned me multiple times.”
“Scanned you… yeah… right, of course!” Jace shook his head to clear out the image of Khoth’s naked body being minutely recorded. It probably had been and if Jace asked, Osiris would let him see it.
“Oooh, your food is coming!” Gehenna said as she hurried to the door, leaving them alone with thoughts of naked Khoth in his head.
“I suppose we should eat at the meeting table. That’ll be easiest,” Jace said, feeling awkward around Khoth, which he didn’t want.
They both moved to the table. Khoth held out the head of the table chair for Jace. Jace stared at it.
“Why don’t we just sit opposite one another for now,” Jace said. “I’m sure I’ll be in that seat soon enough. When it’s just us… we should be… you know, normal.”
Khoth nodded and held out another chair for him. Jace sat down and felt strangely touched as Khoth helped tuck him up against the table. He sat opposite Jace and folded his hands on the table, fingers interlaced. Khoth stared down at them, saying nothing.
“So… you talked to your mom,” Jace prompted.
Hmmm, one word answers like the Osiris, Jace thought. That’s not good.
“How did it… ah, go?” Jace asked.
Two words. Improvement or no? Jace wondered.
“What did she--” Jace began.
But then Khoth burst out, “She did not accept it! She acted as if I had not said it! She… she promised me…”
Khoth stopped. He closed his eyes and his hands fisted on the table. This was the most emotion that Jace had ever seen from the Thaf’ell.
This is bad. This is really, really bad. He faced death with less emotion than this, Jace thought.
Khoth’s voice continued so softly that it would have been hard to hear him if not for Jace’s superior hearing, “She is out of control. So desperate that I fear she will do something she cannot take back.”
Jace, the Osiris’ voice was clipped, the Thaf’ell fleet is preparing aggressive action towards Earth and us.
“Damn,” Jace breathed.
Khoth’s head snapped up. “What is it?”
Jace gave him a weak smile. “I had been hoping to talk to your mother before showing her the might of the Osiris. But time has already run out.”