CHAPTER FORTY-ONE: NEGOTIATIONS
Jace hadn’t expected a “good” reaction to his plan from High Councillor Nova Voor. He was, after all, telling her that she would be a glorified figurehead at best. She would have a say, but not the determining say any longer in what happened to the Alliance. He was informing her that instead of the triumphant return to Haseon with the Osiris and the Pilot under her command as she’d envisioned, she would be returning as the conquered. Not to mention, she would have to appear happy about it and sell this new role to the Council and all of Haseon.
Needless to say, it was going to take a little more convincing.
“Is this a human joke?” Nova asked with a faint, disbelieving smile on her lips.
Khoth stirred beside him. His Commander’s blue-on-blue eyes narrowed. He saw his mother’s reaction as disrespectful. Jace gently pressed his arm against Khoth’s. His Commander looked down at where their shoulders touched. Some tension bled out of him. Jace had this. Though he appreciated Khoth’s protective instincts.
“No,” Jace answered, “it’s not a joke. I’m quite serious.”
She asks that yet she does not think it funny, Gehenna said to him, just as outraged as Khoth.
Oh, she thinks it funny as in strange, but not ha-ha funny, Jace responded. I’m pretty sure she believes I must be joking because when she compares us she doesn’t think much of me.
“You were a clerk in a convenience store yesterday,” she said with knowledge about his job that didn’t surprise him. She had known enough about his psychology to understand he would be drawn to Khoth. She would have known what he had done for a living.
“Yes,” he answered her with an equanimity he didn’t exactly feel.
Despite his plan and the certainty he felt within himself that he was doing the right thing, he realized that his background was unusual. Most would think he had no experience to command anything, let alone the Alliance. But while he had worked at a convenience store by day, at night, he had been the Pilot for years.
Here we go, he said.
Your position as a clerk required you to interact with many difficult people, handle an economy and offer protection for goods and property! Gehenna defended him loyally.
I’m pretty sure that Nova doesn’t consider being a convenience store clerk quite the same thing as running the Alliance no matter the parallels, Jace replied. I don’t either. I can’t blame her for being skeptical.
Yes, but we used these interactions in the training! Gehenna objected. You realize that I didn’t just train you how to fly, don’t you?
Jace blinked. Vague memories surfaced of sitting at a table much like this and negotiating with various alien species. His eyes widened.
That’s why this feels so natural? We’ve done this before! Jace realized, feeling a fool for not thinking about it earlier.
Of course! Gehenna shot him a smiley face. You also learned military strategy, statecraft, negotiation skills and more! You were quite good at taking over the known star systems whenever we played war games! You won nine out of ten times against me. That is quite impressive.
And you didn’t just let me win, did you? He hid a smile.
No, I would never do that. You won fair and square! She informed him, sounding like a proud parent. You always told me though that your losses taught you more than your wins.
Jace’s forehead furrowed. He could half-remember conversations with Gehenna, but they were like wisps of dreams that could be blown away by a slight wind. He supposed that it was his subconscious where all of this was stored.
Very handy, Gehenna. I think we need to talk more about the training you gave me, he said.
Of course, Jace. I am an open book, she promised, but he wasn’t quite sure he believed that.
“My understanding is that you could not even live apart from your parents--despite your culture dictating that you should have long ago--because of a multitude of physical ailments,” she continued carefully.
“You’re quite informed,” he said to her.
“These ailments and your continued stay in your childhood home surely retarded your growth,” Nova continued.
“What the Hell,” his father muttered and he caught sight of him fisting one hand.
Jace caught his father’s eye and gave a shake of his head. His father gave the smallest of nods. He wouldn’t interfere though he most certainly wanted to. Khoth was all rigid too.
She is being insulting! You are highly advanced! Gehenna straightened her imposing metallic form. Her red eyes glowed like coals. And she is misinformed as to young people living with their parents and--
It’s okay, Gehenna, Jace soothed her. I don’t care if she thinks my life before this was small, ordinary and maybe a little… pathetic.
But it wasn’t!
It was small other than the training, Jace said. But that’s okay. I did a few other things than she’s mentioning.
“Yet, despite all of this, you think you should be the leader of the Alliance today?” Though it was posed as a question, it was clearly meant to answer itself.
Jace shifted slightly forward in his seat. His palms slid over the smooth material of the table. If he wanted to, he could know what the table was composed of. He could have seen the individual atoms of it. She might know the outer aspects of his old life, but she didn’t know his new one very well. He didn’t even know his limits.
“Everything you’ve just said about me is true except for… well, the suggestion that living at home retarded my growth. It actually allowed me more time with my highly skilled and very wise parents. As an adult, I got to experience them very differently than I did as a child and learn from them,” Jace said smoothly and his mother smiled at him from the other table. His father clasped his shoulder and squeezed it. “But you’re leaving out the other bits.”
“Oh? Well, I think--”
He talked over her, “Yesterday, I stopped a Khul invasion by activating Metal Rain on the Osiris. Yesterday, I also completed the transformation into the Pilot. Yesterday, I further took down a Hive. Oh, and today… today I defeated you and your entire fleet without a single shot being fired.”
“Well done, Jace,” his father murmured.
“And, tomorrow, who knows what I’m going to do,” Jace said, suppressing a triumphant grin at her fallen expression.
Silence fell until a sharp bark of laughter left General Intoshkin’s lips.
“He’s got you there, Nova!” the general said gleefully.
She shot him a narrow-eyed glance, but said nothing. Clearly, there was much bad blood there. Jace could completely understand in that moment though how irritated the general was. How often had Nova described humanity’s faults or in what it was lacking without admitting what it could bring to the table?
“I admit that what you have done since becoming the Pilot is... impressive.” She bowed her head for the moment. “But you are still very new at all of this. You must admit that.”
“Like I said, I think the Alliance needs new and it needs change,” Jace said, not going into the fact that he had a decade of training in all he would need to know. “And I won’t be leading the Alliance in a bubble. I already have people to advise me. Commander Khoth Voor, who as I’m sure you’re aware, is highly accomplished. Both my Flight-Commanders.” He gestured to his father and Thammah. “And, of course, Gehenna and the Osiris itself who were created by the Altaeth to accomplish the goal of defeating the Khul.”
Jace was certain that was true of the Osiris. He also sensed that Gehenna was created for this purpose, but her origins and her purpose were a little murkier. He did wonder why she had been imprisoned. This idea that maybe there were two warring factions within the Altaeth who had perhaps very different ideas about AI and maybe how to defeat the Khul sounded reasonable. He didn’t yet know though for certain. That worried him. Slightly. Or… maybe a lot. But he did trust the two AI, yet he was sure they were keeping things from him. But that was a thought for after this hearing. He certainly wasn’t telling Nova that.
“I will also be more than willing to hear from my eventual crew, who, as I said, will be chosen from among the many species of the Alliance who will have unique viewpoints and many things to add to my knowledge base,” he added.
“The Alliance will never accept your rule,” Nova said flatly with a slice of her hand through the air.
“You mean the Council won’t. The Thaf’ell probably won’t. But I am betting the people that you’ve frozen out of power will be very excited for this opportunity,” Jace corrected her.
“You will only find those unfit to lead or serve outside of the current power structure,” she countered.
“In your opinion, but you already know what I think of that,” Jace told her. “Thinking the same way about anything is slow death. If something is not working, you need to do something else, not keep doing the same thing and expect something different.”
This was something that both his parents always said and it was a bastardization of an Einstein quote. It was so easy to get tunnel vision, to think that something should work, but if it was not working then a reassessment needed to be done. The Alliance--or at least the people in charge at the current moment--appeared unable to do this for whatever reason.
“Nothing you have shared with me encourages me to assist you with your plans,” Nova said, folding her hands in front of her.
“That is because you aren’t truly understanding your current position,” Jace said, his voice growing cooler by the moment.
She lifted an eyebrow.
“I am going to do this. The only question is whether you, the Council and the Thaf’ell are simply ground on Haseon as onlookers, without ships or military technology as onlookers,” Jace said, “or whether you are still a vital part of the Alliance.”
She stared at him. “How could you accomplish that? Take away all our ships? Impossible! We will fight you at every turn. Remove our weapons? Only from cold, dead fingers. The Thaf’ell are a martial society. Everyone fights. Everyone will oppose this.”
She really doesn’t understand the extent of your powers, Jace, Gehenna said with a sigh.
We should show her, the Osiris suddenly said, speaking for the first time since they entered the chamber.
How so? Jace asked.
By turning off the Haseon Defense Grid, the Osiris answered.
There’s no Khul in the area? Jace queried. He wouldn’t risk the people of Haseon to make a point.
None in the star system, the Osiris assured him.
And there would be no danger in turning off the Defense Grid? Jace asked. The Altaeth technology was old--more like ancient--and he worried that if they turned it off it might not turn back on. We could turn it back on immediately without delay?
But his fears were unwarranted as the Osiris answered without hesitation, Correct.
Jace weighed this action. It would frighten the Thaf’ell and not just those in power, but civilians. He understood the terror of the Khul showing up on Haseon’s surface. But it would bring his point home. All Altaeth technology was under his control.
All right, let’s do this then, Jace said. Let me just warn Khoth first.
He is a member of the crew. What happens to Haseon should not concern him any longer, the Osiris replied coldly.
That’s not how people work, Osiris, Jace answered. His love for his people is what has given him the strength to leave them and join us. Of course, he cares what happens to them.
The Osiris didn’t respond, but he had the sense it felt like this was divided loyalty and didn’t like it.
I understand, Jace, Gehenna assured him. The Osiris was only built as a war machine. It’s programming on emotional intelligence was quite abbreviated.
Jace turned to Khoth. Like his Commander had done, he turned his chair around so that no one could see his face, but Khoth. Khoth turned in his chair to the side.
“Pilot?” Khoth asked.
“I wanted to give you a head’s up about what I’m about to do,” Jace said, letting the breath whistle out between his teeth.
Khoth tilted his head to the side. “You are going to do something to demonstrate to my mother that you have the power to take the Altaeth technology away from the Thaf’ell.”
It was not a question, but a statement. Jace felt guilty as he realized that the Thaf’ell were bearing the brunt of all of this. They had been the Alliance’s defenders and Jace was summarily stripping them of their power and their honor.
“I have to make her understand that the only real choice she has is to get behind the plan or… not.” Jace grimaced. “I want the Thaf’ell to be with us. But I have to break through here. I’m going to take down Haseon’s Defense Grid. I promise that no one will get hurt. The Osiris will let them know what we are doing.”
Khoth was silent for a moment, contemplating what Jace was about to do. What if he asked Jace not to do this? Jace was asking him to frighten his people and, even though he had promised no one was going to be harmed, there was still a chance. Jace was taking down their defenses to make a point. Was it worth it?
“Doing this will stop the continued loss of life in the Alliance,” Khoth finally said. “I think it is a wise decision.”
Jace let out another whistling breath. “Okay, good, I--”
Khoth gently grasped his arm as he was about to swing around in his chair. “I know that frightening people--pushing them like this--is not your way.”
“It’s definitely not my favorite thing,” Jace said with a huff of soft, uncomfortable laughter.
“But it is the only language that my mother and others will understand right now,” Khoth assured him. “I would not have said this about my species before, but we are blind to our faults. We believe our positions are correct because they are based upon facts, but I believe this is stopping us from taking in new information. Daesah tried telling me this, but I scoffed at it. After all, were not our orders, our plans, our very selves, based only upon the best information out there?”
Jace nodded slowly. It was his assessment of Nova. The Thaf’ell were superior in many ways, but in this, they were stubborn.
“So… this is the right plan?” Jace asked, knowing it was.
“Yes, most definitely. But I would be behind you even if I disagreed. You are the Pilot. I am your Commander. I follow you,” Khoth stated.
Jace let that sit with him. He’d been trained for this. He wasn’t just a convenience store clerk who had been thrust into an incredible adventure. Well, he was, but he was also more than that. Jace turned around in his chair and smiled at Nova who smiled thinly back.
“Osiris, please display a live feed of Haseon,” Jace requested out loud.
He wanted Nova to follow every step of the way. An image of the planet in real time appeared slowly spinning between them. The Defense Grid was made up of hundreds of small satellites that circled the planet and created a shield that would stop any vessel without permission from entering Haseon’s atmosphere. Further, weaponry would be unleashed against such a vessel, obliterating it. Every one of the satellites had lights that blinked blue, indicating the system was operating effectively.
“Why are you showing me this?” Nova was sitting up very straight in her chair.
General Intoshkin’s eyes narrowed and he chewed a toothpick as he glanced from Nova to the hologram of the planet.
“I explained to you--and showed to you with the Ashaton--that as the Pilot I do not just have control over the Osiris, but all Altaeth technology from the ships to the weapons to… Haseon’s Defense Grid,” Jace explained calmly.
“What--what are you intending to do?” Nova was practically quivering.
“I’m guessing you thought my abilities were limited to potentially your fleet as it is in this solar system,” Jace continued on evenly.
“I--the Defense Grid is Alliance property! You have no right to interfere with it!” Nova’s gaze flickered anxiously between him and the hologram.
“I have every right. As the Pilot, all Altaeth technology is mine to control. My goal is to eliminate the Khul threat and I am entitled to take advantage of every single bit of that tech,” he said. “I want you and the Thaf’ell to be a part of this. I welcome your assistance. But you have not been willing to give it.”
“You can’t do anything to the Defense Grid.” She shook her head almost violently, denying that he could do what she clearly earlier had feared he could. “You’re bluffing.”
“That’s what I thought you would say,” Jace sighed. “Osiris, please let the Thaf’ell know we are about to take down the Defense Grid and not to panic.”
It is done, the words appeared in the-end-is-nigh typography above the spinning planet. Osiris then added privately, They are, however, panicking. But I have taken control of all weaponry in the ships and otherwise so that no rash actions will cause injury.
Thank you, Osiris, Jace said.
“You are just a boy!” Nova shouted. “A child playing at being a soldier! Your people are violent and emotionally unbalanced! You will not lead us! You will not--”
“Take the Defense Grid down,” Jace said.
The blue lights on each and every one of those satellites turned red. Jace requested the Osiris to pipe in some of the frantic calls from the Alliance military and it was translated for the humans in the room.
“... Defense Grid down!”
“Message warning us from our own systems!”
“We need to get it back up!”
“... nothing is working! Can’t access the grid! I repeat, I cannot access the grid!”
“All weaponry is offline!”
“... defenseless! We’re defenseless!”
Jace turned off the sound and only the translation showed above the floating, defenseless planet. He said nothing. Nova was staring at her home planet, the seat of the Alliance’s power, where the Council was, where her husband was, and the knowledge of what he could do was finally made clear to her.
“What do you want?” Her voice was hoarse.
“Lots of things,” Jace said.
“Such as?” she asked.
“Does it matter?” he asked back.
“No,” she said. “Just tell me what I must do to protect my people.”
Her shoulders slumped. Khoth let out a breath that Jace hadn’t been realizing his Commander had been holding onto. Khoth turned to him and nodded. Jace had won. Jace though felt no joy at this. Just a sadness and a weariness that it had come to this. Considering what he had been asking for, there was no other way, he knew that. Considering what Nova had already done to attack him and Earth, there was no other way, he also knew.
“Osiris, bring Haseon’s Defense Grid back up and return control of weaponry to them,” Jace instructed.
It is done, the Osiris answered.
“Now,” Jace told her, leaning forward on the table once more, “we start the real negotiations.”