CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX: LUNCH AND A COUP
Jace’s words punched Khoth in the gut though he did not show it as a human likely would. He merely went very still. His outburst as to his mother’s actions before had been bad enough, but now that he knew she was betraying everything the Alliance stood for--that she had stood for--had Khoth wanting desperately to act perfectly. To be the Thaf’ell one should be in that moment. But, if he were honest with himself, he was simply frozen.
Unable to act.
Unable to think.
Only able to dread.
“What is she doing?” Khoth finally managed to ask.
“Let me show you,” Jace said with a twist of his lips.
A hologram appeared on the center of the table between him and Jace. It showed his mother in the command chair of the Ashaton. Beside her was a view of the fleet moving into low Earth orbit. Khoth’s mouth went dry. His tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth and made a clicking noise when he forced it down.
“She was supposed to talk to you first,” Khoth found himself saying.
“Yeah, but I wasn’t going to say anything back that would have stopped this,” Jace told him. “Your mother respects actions more than words, I think.”
“Yes, yes, I think you may be right.”
“So this actually saves time,” Jace said with a one shoulder shrug.
His mother sat very upright in her chair. Her fingers curled around the ends of the armrests. Her knuckles were lightened, indicating that she was gripping the chair very hard. Her eyes looked almost feverish.
Can they not see that her Xi is leading her?
Khoth could glimpse other officers on the bridge behind his mother. They were all hunched over their stations, preparing for war against a species that had no defense against them. Or supposedly didn’t.
Her voice was deep as she told the fleet, “Our goal is to remove the Osiris from the hands of the unworthy humans.”
Khoth’s lips parted and his breathing quickened. He found that he could not blink or tear his eyes away.
What is she thinking? That the Osiris has no weaponry? That Jace will be so shocked by her show of force that he will simply surrender?
But his mother hadn’t seen what he had, which was the Osiris taking over every single ship in the Alliance and dispatching the current crews with a cold precision. Humans were just as useful in the Osiris’ estimation as Thaf’ell. Now with its Pilot and an army of Terminators there would be no need for other soldiers or pilots at all.
She continued, “Humanity has only crude weapons that will be no match for any of our vessels. The Osiris is not fully powered at this point and has a human Pilot. We will neutralize the Osiris’ force fields and weaponry before entering the ship and taking custody of the Pilot.”
“I really hope she gives this her best shot,” Jace said evenly.
His eyes sought Jace’s through the translucent hologram. They glowed the same blue as the pool.
Jace has control. He will make the determination as to what happens next, Khoth realized.
“You want her to realize that there is nothing she can do against you and the Osiris?” Khoth asked, but it was really more of a statement.
Jace gave a brief nod. “She’s got to really feel this defeat in her bones, Khoth. And not just her.” Jace’s eyes glowed brighter for a moment. “Okay, good. This is good.”
“What is good?” Khoth asked.
“I’m streaming this throughout the Alliance,” Jace explained. “It’s on every screen and being translated into all appropriate languages. No one in the fleet will know it until we’re done though.”
Khoth’s eyes widened. “You wish her humiliated?”
“No,” Jace said and his gaze focused on Khoth and became gentle, “I want to show that she has no choice about what happens next.”
Khoth considered this. “She will have the ability to accede to your and humanity’s demands because all will see the true power of you and the Osiris.”
“Yeah, the people who had tied her hands won’t be able to keep them tied. They’ll have to let her negotiate,” he said.
“Or they will send in someone else to do so,” Khoth said softly.
He immediately thought of Councillor Ardath Ulgex. His mother’s nemesis. But did it matter who they sent? And shouldn’t they send someone else? His mother was emotionally compromised, no matter what else she might claim or how others might perceive her.
“I’m sorry, Khoth,” Jace said, his lips flattening. “I know this likely isn’t going to end well for your mother. I’ll do all I can to help her see reason. No one should get physically hurt.”
“Her actions are her own, not yours,” Khoth assured him.
Jace had not caused his mother to do these dishonorable things.
His mother continued her speech, “If you encounter resistance, you are allowed to use deadly force.”
Khoth closed his eyes for a moment.
“Launch all ships,” his mother said.
The hangar bay doors of the Ashaton opened and dozens of Paladin-class ships flew out. At that same moment, almost as if choreographed, Gehenna came in, carrying dishes of food in both of her massive metal hands.
“Ta da!” Gehenna presented the food with a flourish, but the timing made it seem she was talking about the ships that were streaming towards Sunrise. “Lunch is served!” Catching sight of the ships quickly descending towards Earth, she amended, “Oh… or not.”
“We can eat and work,” Jace said with an ease that both impressed and worried Khoth.
How easy was it exactly for Jace to destroy the Alliance? Would it rest at all on his conscience since the Alliance had struck the first blow? But he immediately rejected these things. Jace could kill, but he was not a killer. No death would rest lightly upon Jace’s Xi.
“Okay,” Gehenna tried to sound easy about this, but she awkwardly placed a plate before each of them.
A burger and fries along with a Coke--Khoth recognized these items from his orientation--were put in front of Jace. Immediately, Jace took the burger in both hands and took a big bite of it, eyes closing in pleasure before they abruptly flew open and he made a gagging sound. He grabbed the napkin and spit out the burger into the cloth.
“Oh, dear! What’s wrong?” Gehenna cried, her arms lifting into the air in what likely wasn’t meant to be a menacing way, but came off that way just the same.
“Jace?” Alarm had Khoth half rising from his seat, but Jace waved both of them off.
“I’m okay. It’s just… gah! What is this? It’s terrible!” Jace pointed at the burger that lay on its side like a fallen soldier.
Khoth immediately scanned the food and gave a grunt. “It is made out of--”
“Space paste!” Jace’s eyes narrowed as if he had been betrayed. “It only looks like a burger and fries, but it’s really--”
“Far more nutritious for you,” Khoth stated, relieved that Jace was eating something that did not have cancerous chemicals in it or far too much sweetener.
“It looks like the Osiris made a mistake with your taste buds,” Gehenna clucked.
“My taste buds are fine. It’s this food--God, I can’t even call it food--that’s the problem!” Jace cried.
“Try it now,” Gehenna said with a gesture at the burger.
“God, no! I am not going to be on the toilet for a week like my dad was! Even if I could choke it down, I wouldn’t.” Jace shook his head violently. “I’m trying to convince a galactic alliance to accept humanity and myself as equals and the Osiris is trying to get me to eat space paste! And you’re helping it, Gehenna! You ought to be ashamed!”
“You won’t get sick. I promise you! We can’t keep beef and potatoes and ketchup… well, we can’t have human food on board, plus food for every other species. There’s not enough room and it would go bad,” Gehenna explained. “Protein paste is the best option. Tuning your taste buds to like it, to think it tastes like things you enjoy is the only way to go.”
Jace glowered at her. “Dad got sick--”
“You won’t. Try a french fry. Pretty please, Jace?” Gehenna brought her metal claws together as if in prayer.
Jace glared from her to the french fry. He picked up one and dipped it into the ketchup. He bit the tiniest piece of it off. His forehead, which had been bunched, cleared slightly and he took another bite.
“This isn’t half bad,” Jace admitted as he popped the rest of the french fry into his mouth. “I don’t understand how the Osiris got the fries right, but not the burger.”
“Try the burger again.” Gehenna sounded ridiculously pleased with herself.
Jace suspiciously raised the burger to his mouth again and took another mini-bite. His expression changed to happiness and he devoured another bite of it.
“What the Hell?” Jace spoke through a full mouth. “It tastes great!”
“I know! I adjusted your taste buds!” Gehenna clapped her claws together and her blood red eyes glowed brighter. “Now everything in your meal should taste just as good as the best meal you’ve had like this one.”
Jace was bobbing his head as he stuffed another ketchup-laden fry in his mouth. “Dad’s going to be on the ship, too, Gehenna. Will the food taste as good for him?”
“Once we get true human biology down, it should be quite tasty for him and any other human crew! You, of course, will always have the best experience because of our connection!” Gehenna rocked back and forth on her metal feet with a clunking sound.
“Give Khoth his meal, too,” Jace said with a guilty glance at the plate that Gehenna had placed on the table while waiting on him.
“Oh, yes, of course!” Gehenna set down the plate in front of Khoth.
Khoth hadn’t even noticed the second plate. He had no appetite, but knew that food intake was necessary for peak performance so he would not refuse the meal. He was shocked though to look down and see a traditional Thaf’ell meal called dar’lac. Greens, sweet tubers and strips of protein seasoned with spices and oils. There was a cup of beh, which humanity would classify as a creamy soup. The familiar smells of his homeworld’s food reached his nostrils and his chest clenched. His Xi shivered and his Xa shook.
“Khoth, you okay?” Jace asked, but then shook his head. “Of course you’re not. That was really stupid of me to ask. I mean--”
“This is the only dish my mother makes,” Khoth explained, understanding his reaction to the simple, but nutritious food. “She has rarely had time to prepare a meal for me, but this she said she could make in her sleep. I have not had it in some time.”
Sympathy flashed in Jace’s eyes. “The Osiris shouldn’t have done that.”
“I am glad it did. I wish to remember my mother from better times,” Khoth answered.
“You’re not going to have to remember her. You’re going to be talking to her in about two minutes. Ah! Okay, the ships have surrounded us,” Jace said. “Not just the Paladin-class either. Oh boy, the five Sabers are down here. She’s giving it a very good go.”
Khoth forgot the food again. The hologram showed his mother still in her command chair, but also a view of the outside of the Osiris. The sun gleamed off the Altaeth ship’s hull. It was more beautiful in sunlight than in the dark with all of its lights on. Or perhaps it was simply a different type of beauty. As Jace had said, the Paladin-class ships--two dozen in all--surrounded the Osiris. They looked like dust motes in comparison to the Osiris. Even the Saber-class were dwarfed by the ship. Then the light show began as all of the ships began to swarm the Osiris, shooting at key spots in the hull where they knew that, traditionally, Colossus-class ships contained cannons and the batteries for their shields. Bursts of light bloomed all over the Osiris as laser blasts impacted the shields. But Khoth did not hear any sound of the bombardment inside. There were no shrieks of warning alarms of shield impairment either.
Another hologram had appeared that showed a schematic of the Osiris and its shields. There were percentages shown over sections of the ships that received blasts. Jace took another bite of burger and chewed thoughtfully as he watched the percentages dip slightly before refreshing to 100%. Khoth’s eyes widened as he realized that the Osiris was absorbing the energy of the blasts to restore the shields.
“The Osiris isn’t at full power, but it’s holding its own,” Jace said as he dunked another french fry into the ketchup.
“It is doing more than that. They are not making a dent!” Gehenna cheered.
“What about missiles? The Saber-class are capable of firing a variety of tactical ballistic missiles with different warheads,” Khoth began to lecture as if Jace was a new recruit.
“Right. Heat seeking, electro-magnetic, and a form of… huh, a sort of proton weapon and others,” Jace listed off.
“Yes, of course, you would know this,” Khoth said absently.
He watched as one of the Saber-class ships sent two proton missiles directly at one of the hangar bay doors of the Osiris. Both impacted with a staggeringly bright explosion. Khoth shielded his eyes with one arm. He expected to feel a shudder and hear the impact of those weapons, but the Osiris remained silent except for the click of Gehenna’s metal heels on the floor. For a moment, Khoth wondered if they were really being attacked at all or if this was some kind of elaborate simulation. But he knew that this was happening, even if he wished that it was not. The light cleared and there appeared to be no change.
His gaze swung back to the schematic of the Osiris. The shields over the hangar bay were down to 75%, but they rose again as more laser blasts repowered them.
“Will that happen with Khul tech?” Khoth asked.
“No, it has a different… signature,” Jace said. “Same reason why Altaeth tech works against the Khul’s so well.”
“I see,” Khoth said.
A wave of unreality washed over him. It was absurd to be having lunch while his mother attempted a coup of sorts. And yet, there was no danger. That’s why Jace wasn’t afraid and could eat french fries and his burger with ease. He was completely calm.
Far more Thaf’ell than myself, Khoth realized with dark amusement.
“I think this light show has gone on enough. They’re getting edgy,” Jace said as the blasts had become more frantic somehow to his own eyes.
“What are you going to do?” Khoth asked.
Unlike the Osiris, Khoth knew that the vessels could be harmed by “friendly fire”. Would Jace simply have the Osiris use its weapons to destroy some of the ships or disable them at least?
“We’re just going to flip the switch and take over control,” Jace said, leaning back in his chair, chewing speculatively.
All of the laser fire stopped. It didn’t trickle off, but simply stopped. The ships, too, were suddenly all stationary. The skies of Sunrise were amazingly clear once more as all the spaceships hovered where they were.
Khoth’s eyes immediately went to the hologram of his mother. She was leaning forward in her chair. Fingernails and knuckles white with strain as she literally clutched the arms of her chair. Her eyes were huge and unblinking as she, too, watched a monitor of her ships falling still and silent.
“What is the status, Commander Nav’ud?” she snapped.
A whip-thin looking Thaf’ell appeared by her side. Commander Beni Nav’ud had been in charge of the Ashaton for over twenty grand cycles. He was his mother’s closest confidant in the fleet. His expression was studiously neutral, but there were lines around his eyes that showed the strain he was under.
“Our pilots report that they have no control over their ships, High Councillor Voor,” Nav’ud’s voice was crisp.
“What do you mean no control?” His mother’s brows drew together.
“The ships are not responding to any of their inputs,” Nav’ud explained and then opened his mouth as if to add more, but closed it.
“What else, Commander?” she asked.
“There appears to be no change to the Osiris’ shields even after our barrage,” Nav’ud answered.
Her face went completely blank. Khoth’s heart clenched. She knew that the assault had utterly failed. What would she do? Contact Jace surely and--
“Have the Ashaton target Sunrise,” his mother said.
Nav’ud’s brows drew together for half a second, which in Thaf’ell time was an eternity. “Is not Sunrise a civilian--”
“Are you questioning me, Commander?” his mother’s voice was calm, but the words were like ice chips.
Nav’ud straightened. “No, High Councillor!” He turned towards an officer off-screen. “Defender Vinet, target the town of Sunrise.” He looked at Khoth’s mother. “Use…”
“We’re going to turn it into a crater if they do not comply,” his mother said.
Khoth’s shoulders slumped. His mother did not bluff. He knew she was not bluffing now. She would be as awful at poker as he was in Thammah’s opinion. She meant what she said. He could barely look at Jace. But the young man appeared unsurprised.
“Ah, looks like she’s hailing us,” Jace said as he dragged a fry through the ketchup.
The hologram of his mother now showed a bunch of curved lines in the top right corner, which must have meant to Jace that she was hailing the Osiris. Jace did not immediately answer, but let the hail continue.
“You have grease on your chin, Jace. Mustn’t let the Alliance see you with food on your face.” Gehenna reached over and dabbed him clean with a napkin like a fond parent.
“Right, right.” Jace ran his tongue over the fronts of his teeth. “Any food stuck there, Khoth?”
“No, you look… quite like a Pilot.” Khoth awkwardly found himself staring at Jace’s mouth.
He dragged his eyes away and stared down at his own plate. He was so ashamed of all of this. How could Jace ever look upon him again with any respect let alone affection? His mother had tarnished the Voor honor forever. To suggest killing innocents…
His mother’s expression was getting grimmer and grimmer as finally, Jace answered the hail as he sipped his Coke.
“Hello, High Councillor Voor!” Jace almost sounded cheery, though there was a touch of arctic cold in his eyes. “How pleasant for you to call! What can I do for you?”
“Jace,” she said with a small smile that hid what must have been confusion, “you must turn over the Osiris to my control--”
“Or?” Jace made a motion with his right hand as he took another sip of his drink with his left.
She stared at him for long silent moments. “Or… the Ashaton will be forced to destroy Sunrise.”
“You mean what’s left of Sunrise after the Khul attack here yesterday,” Jace corrected her. “Though there are plenty of innocent people left down there. Children and the elderly. Pregnant women and doting fathers. Sons and brothers. Daughters and sisters. Grandchildren and grandparents. People who can do nothing to defend themselves from you. Isn’t that right?”
With every word, Jace’s voice grew colder and colder. His mother’s expression grew quite blank. Nav’ud’s gaze did not leave Jace’s. There was something in it though that showed horror.
“You can do something about it, Jace,” his mother said. “Just give me the Osiris and join our cause and--”
“Leave Earth and its people defenseless for the next time the Khul appear. Which they will. And likely soon, since your son and I destroyed a Hive,” Jace said.
She regarded him again blankly.
“I want things to be crystal clear here for everyone to understand,” Jace said and gestured broadly. “Yesterday, Earth was attacked by the Khul. This invasion was stopped by myself, your son, Flight Commander Pyrrhus, Gehenna, the Osiris, and members of the United States military. The Khul wanted the same thing that you want: the Osiris. The Khul and you want to take the Osiris by force.”
Her eyes blazed and her chin lifted. “We are nothing like the Khul--”
“No, you aren’t, because the Khul didn’t lie to me and humanity about coming for a meeting to negotiate terms regarding the Osiris and myself helping you in the war against the Khul,” Jace agreed. “Which I suppose makes the Khul more honorable than you in this regard.”
Khoth wished he could sink into the floor. But he realized he had to take a stand. He had to make his mother see the insanity of this.
“May I speak, Pilot?” Khoth asked.
“Of course, you may, Commander Voor. I welcome your input as my second in command of the Osiris,” Jace said with a rather bladed smile.
“Mother,” Khoth did not use her rank. He would not honor her that way. “Stop this now. These actions are beneath the Alliance. They are not authorized by the Council. You are breaking the Alliance’s treaty with Earth.”
She did not look at him. “I have no son.”
That cut him to the quick. Jace’s right hand shot over the top of the table to reach for him, but Khoth gave a brief shake of his head. He could not remain in control of his Xa if Jace touched him at this moment. His selchilite clacked as he moved and he realized that he should have cut them off. He no longer was a part of the family that they represented.
“Jace, you need to turn the Osiris over to me now or I will take steps,” she said. “The Osiris is shielded, but Sunrise is not.”
“You’re really going to do this?” Jace murmured sadly.
“Commander Nav’ud, instruct Defender Vinet to fire a warning shot just outside of the town,” his mother said.
Nav’ud did not move, did not speak. He was staring at Jace.
“It’s okay, Commander Nav’ud. Go ahead and do it. You don’t want to get in trouble by doing what’s right, do you?” Jace asked softly. “You’re just following orders. You’re not responsible for killing innocent people who have done nothing to you.”
Khoth watched as Nav’ud remained silent and still.
“Commander Nav’ud!” his mother yelled, her face bluing. “Fine! If you will not give the order, I will! Defender Vinet, fire on Earth!”
The camera showed a female Thaf’ell who was sitting quietly at her station. Her hands were in her lap. Her gaze went from Nav’ud to his mother. Then she said, “I request to be released from duty, High Councillor. I cannot comply with your order.”
His mother leaped from her chair snarling, “I will do it then!”
His mother threw Defender Vinet from her seat and used the controls herself. She looked up at Jace through slitted eyes. Khoth hardly recognized her.
“Will you give me the Osiris, Jace?” she asked.
“You know I can’t otherwise I will sentence all of humanity to death by the Khul,” Jace told her. “You know this.”
“Then I have no choice,” she said and stabbed the command screen.
Everyone cringed, waiting expectantly to see a beam leave one of the Ashaton’s heavy cannons and strike the Earth.
Except, of course, nothing happened.
She pressed it again and again and again.
“It’s all right, everyone,” Jace said with a heavy weight in his voice. “It’s over.”
“What do you mean?” his mother asked even as she kept pressing the button.
Jace smiled sadly as he said, “All of your ships are now under my command. You will be brought to the Osiris to face judgment.”