CHAPTER FIFTY-TWO: THE GATE
Jace stood on the Osiris’ bridge. It had patterned itself in a mixture of Star Trek and Star Wars. It had the clean brightness of Trek, but instead of there being a chair for him to sit on in almost the back of the room, there was a walkway down the center that jutted out towards a curved wall and ceiling that displayed what was ahead of them. In this case, Earth was now spinning below them as they had risen to orbit.
On either side of the walkway were workstations that would allow the crew to check on navigation, weaponry, life systems and more. The truth was that these stations didn’t need to be filled. And they weren’t filled now. The Osiris could handle everything, but as they were exploring and searching for the Khul, those who came up here would add their different voices and ideas to the strategy. That would be invaluable and not something the Osiris could replace. For now, the crew on deck were simply visitors and spectators.
Jace was at the end of the walkway. His hands curled over the metal rail with his back to the crew, facing the screens. A chair could be summoned at any moment, but he found he wanted to stay here with the world below, above and in front of him. It felt like he was Superman, flying above the planet, gazing down upon the people benevolently.
He could also see the ships that he had ordered be sent by the Alliance to Earth, orbiting the planet relatively nearby. He wasn’t sure if it was respect or pique that had caused the Thaf’ell--for the crew was all Thaf’ell--to simply drop the ships off and then leave through the Gate. No crew remained to fly the ships or operate the weaponry. These were now Earth’s fleet and humanity had to learn to fend for themselves.
General Intoshkin had shown a mixture of outrage and determination when he’d realized the night before what the Alliance had done. They’d been in the ballroom, still at the party despite their determination to be scarce, when the ships had arrived.
“They stop us from learning about the Altaeth technology! Now they leave ships here for us knowing that we haven’t learned how to operate them, because of their own actions! Not one damned Alliance crew member stayed!” The General growled and slammed one fist into his open hand. “Well, damn them to whatever they term Hell, because humanity is not going to lose this fight! We’ll figure it out ourselves like we’ve always done!”
Jace’s lips had pursed. Khoth’s eyes had flickered over to him, undoubtedly, trying to read how Jace felt about Nova’s actions. Both of them knew she had done this. Though Jace was sure that the Alliance wouldn’t have wanted to show the humans how to use the Altaeth technology, this had her spite written all over it. She wanted Jace to see that the Altaeth technology without the Alliance was simply space junk. She had honored the terms of the deal, but not the spirit of it.
So that’s how it is going to be, is it? All right then. Fine. Two can play at that game, Jace thought.
“General,” Jace said, keeping his voice as neutral as he could, “there is no need for the Alliance to teach humanity how to use the tech.”
The general lifted an eyebrow. “Oh? Does it work by itself?” He grimaced as he realized then that this was exactly what the tech did. “The Osiris…”
“Can and does control all of those spacecraft and weaponry,” Jace said simply. “Look at how the craft are arranging themselves right now, see?”
He’d brought up a holo-screen to show the ships moving so that they covered the whole of the planet at appropriate intervals that, should there be an attack, one ship, at least, would be nearby.
“I do.” The general stroked his chin. “The Osiris might be better at this than the human crew.”
“There are lesser AIs in all Altaeth technology!” Gehenna explained helpfully. “But when they are connected to myself or the Osiris they become supercharged! Earth will be safe!”
The general lifted an eyebrow at her. “Lesser AIs?”
“Oh, yes, the Altaeth were wizards with such technology. The Osiris and I are the pinnacle of that research. We’re two, ah, branches off the same tree,” she explained.
You are? Jace asked. That’s news to me.
Uhm, yes? Gehenna sent a smiley after that.
Yes… you want me to explain?
Yes, but not now, he said. There are a bunch of things that you and the Osiris hint at but don’t explain fully. We’re coming to the time when you need to lay your cards on the table. Both of you.
Do not lump me in with her! The Osiris sounded very waspish.
Lump you?! Did you have to think hard on that phrase? Gehenna sounded outraged.
We are not alike. I am not in this with you, the Osiris replied archly. I do not hint. I am upfront.
Oh, really? Like when you said I wasn’t human? Jace pointed out.
Yes, I said that. You are not, the Osiris answered. It is you who do not wish to know why.
Jace swallowed. That was actually true.
Well, we’re going to talk about all of this, Jace told both AIs.
Of course, at your discretion, the Osiris answered.
Yes, of course, Jace. We’re here to help you! Gehenna sent a flood of hearts towards him.
Jace focused on the general again as he explained, “Further, the Osiris will provide instruction on all aspects of the tech.” He gestured towards Thammah who was sipping a drink nearby. She looked over at the moment he said her name, “Flight-Commander Pyrrhus’ lessons will be streamed aboard to your pilots and recorded for future use. She will also be able to judge their abilities from data that will be sent back to the Osiris.”
“Indeed, General Intoshkin, your people will know their ships and how to fly them backwards and forwards when I’m done with them,” Thammah said with a curt nod of her head.
The general let out a breath between his teeth, still aggravated by Nova’s high-handedness, but clearly also relieved. He clapped Jace’s shoulder and smiled.
“Son, I’m glad to count you among our allies,” the general said.
“Of course, General. We’re all in this together,” Jace answered.
“The Alliance doesn’t think so,” General Intoshkin pointed out.
“We have to teach them the truth,” Jace had replied with a cold little smile.
Now the Osiris and a ship carrying his mother, General Intoshkin and other representatives from Earth would be heading through the Gate to Haseon while the other vessels would remain behind on high alert to protect Earth from the Khul. They would come here to take revenge. He knew their malice well enough for that.
You’ll keep them safe, right, Osiris? Jace asked.
That goes without question, the Osiris answered with that cool and wonderful precision.
Jace was glad of the Osiris’ mostly emotionless responses to things. In this case, it would mean that the AI would give the Khul no mercy should they come through the Gate.
Is there no way to close the Gate and keep the Khul out? At least temporarily? Jace asked.
No, not against the Khul, the Osiris answered and there was something heavy in its statement as if the AI were holding back words, so many words, that they threatened to crush the silence.
Why not against the Khul? Jace asked.
That silence grew heavier and heavier.
The Khul were instrumental in building the Gates. The technology is as much theirs as the Altaeth’s, the Osiris finally answered. Keeping them out of a Gate is not possible long term as the Gates are… attuned to them.
Jace’s brows drew together. Wait a minute, the Altaeth and the Khul worked together on the Gates?
They worked together on most of the technology. It was only after the breach that new weaponry was developed to combat the Khul, the Osiris rattled off as if it did so quickly he would not catch it all. But the technology of the Gates was shared and could not be replaced.
Thinking of the solution in Mass Effect, Jace pointed out, Couldn’t the Altaeth have ended the conflict with the Khul by destroying the Gates?
Even in your childish game the result of such action was catastrophic, separating all the species, destroying travel for all, the Osiris pointed out acidly. Destroying the Gates would have separated the Altaeth Empire and kept the Seeded Species from, eventually, finding one another.
Yeah, that would have accomplished, in part, what the Khul are trying to do anyways: destroy us by destroying our ability to connect, Jace thought, feeling a repugnance at the thought of destroying the Gates and cutting off the species from one another.
But there is another point altogether. The Khul would have simply rebuilt the Gates in time, the Osiris stated simply.
And with their hive mind, they would still be one while the Empire would have been divided and weakened beyond measure, the Osiris said.
But the Altaeth Empire did eventually fall, Osiris. They’re gone. The Khul are still here. And the Alliance… well, it’s in big trouble, Jace pushed back.
That is why there is you, the Osiris answered. You will change this. You will make the Empire rise again.
Jace frowned deeply. Excuse me? I’m going to do what now?
We have discussed this matter as far as we should for now, the Osiris almost sounded prim.
How about if I say when we stop discussing something that has to do with me, huh? Jace asked.
You do not wish to know more at this time--
Yes, I do! I’m telling you that I do! You’re the one saying I don’t! Jace protested and his arms flew up into the air.
He felt people looking at him. The soft pad of Khoth’s boots on the metal grating were coming up behind him. Jace flushed and his hands tightened around the railing.
You can pretend to want to know this information but I see all of your mind. I know the truth, the Osiris answered, and it sounded almost kind.
So you’re going to drip feed me truths just when I need them so I don’t balk at something? So I don’t freak out and back away from all this? Jace demanded to know.
One step at a time. You will not balk. You will not back away. You are the Pilot for many reasons, but this is one of those, the Osiris said. But this is a voyage of discovery in many ways. This is the best way for you to learn all.
“Pilot?” Khoth asked. “Is there anything you need assistance with?”
Jace though was too caught up in talking to the Osiris to respond to him. Dammit, Osiris! I can’t be weak! I can’t be uncertain! I can’t hide things from myself! I need--
You need this. One thing at a time, the Osiris responded patiently. One step then the next and then the next.
The Osiris is right, Jace, Gehenna’s voice broke through. Find joy in this moment. Reach for the adventure. For the light. Like you do.
But what about--
Everything will come in time, she said sounding more like the AI in his dreams, all cool and collected, instead of the slightly goofy, adorable Gehenna she had become.
I am what you need me to be, she answered simply.
Jace closed his eyes. Of course, she behaved in a way that would comfort him or goad him or make him behave the way the AIs needed him to. There was nothing about him they didn’t know. But he had thought that these were their personalities coming out, regardless of him.
“Pilot?” Khoth hesitantly reached for Jace’s nearest forearm.
“One sec, Kh--Commander,” Jace replied tightly as his throat was tight with emotion. He really, really needed a hug, but he held himself stiff and apart.
Khoth stood there at attention, looking down at him with those blue-on-blue eyes with tenderness. But Khoth was careful to have his head turned so that none saw this but Jace. They were in front of the entire bridge crew and “on stage” in a lot of ways. His weakness to the mention of those boys’ deaths the other night showed him that the crew responded to all of his moods. His distress at the moment could infect them if it was noticed. He felt their joy at the thought of leaving Earth for the first time.
Drs. Isa and Kerr were there to represent Medical on this maiden voyage. Matias was there with Chili--who had on a new bowtie for the occasion of Earth blue--along with several exo-biologists.
Dai Suzuki was representing Engineering with a gaggle of other scientists and engineers. Of course, they were all clustered around Gehenna.
Dr. Hayter was bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet as he spoke to Thammah about the Thaf’ell languages. He was determined to have something to offer Jace in this department. His father was looking quite bemused at the linguist. He met Jace’s eyes and nodded his head in greeting. Though he was separate from Jace’s mother, he showed none of the sadness Jace knew he felt.
She had departed earlier that morning. Jace had watched from afar as his parents spoke to one another outside of the dropship that would take her to Earth’s first Colossus-class ship, the Galatea. They’d held each other’s hands and their eyes never left one another’s. Finally, they had kissed and then rested their foreheads against one another’s as if they could physically imprint on each other.
Jace wondered if his parents regretted their decisions for his father to stay with Jace and his mother to remain with the US military. He prayed they didn’t. He knew that if they did, he would never know. He wished they would tell him if they couldn’t bear to be separated, but both of them were hugely duty-bound. Their love for one another and him was boundless, but they served their duty too.
Jace looked away from his father to Lieutenant-Commander Martin Davies. Davies stood at stiff attention with his eyes practically nailed to the back of Jace’s head. He had been named head of security. Considering he was a spy that was his and Khoth’s little joke. But it served two purposes.
The first was to keep him well occupied. The less time he had to spy, the better. General Intoshkin did not wish their mission to fail so Davies would be good at his job and not try to sabotage them. The second was to test Davies’ loyalty. Being in charge of a part of the crew, being made to report to him and Khoth, being simply included would cause someone like Davies to feel a connection. He’d been completely loyal to the people under his command before. Jace didn’t think that he would be able to have some loyalty to the new ones. He was counting on that. Of anyone, other than Khoth, he would notice if Jace was acting in anything other than a normal manner. Jace gritted his jaw.
I want you guys to be yourselves, Jace told the AIs. I don’t want you to be certain ways to please me!
You are the Pilot, Gehenna said quietly. All we are is to be of service to you. It is what we want.
You’re people. Separate from me! Jace insisted.
We learn from you. Your priorities become ours to the extent that they do not conflict with our main objective, the Osiris stated.
But… but you’re not machines. I mean you are--
Oh, Jace! We know what you mean! Huge hearts floated up.
We behave within parameters. You must not concern yourself with what you perceive is a lack of free will on our behalf, the Osiris stated quite firmly. You do not see yourself clearly if you believe that you oppress us.
Osiris! Gehenna sounded almost shocked. That was actually kind! And true!
I wish the Pilot to understand. Being kind is vague and not satisfactory, the Osiris answered her.
Jace let out a small chuckle, which had Khoth staring hard at him. He waved a hand.
“It’s okay. I’m just… the AIs save the best revelations just when we’re about to make history,” Jace explained.
Those elegant eyebrows rose. Jace remembered tracing them with his fingertips the night before. He’d thought that they would make love last night after the party, but he’d been so tired, so worn out all of the sudden, that he’d just curled against Khoth who wound around him protectively. He had never slept so deeply or so well. The excitement and duties of the morning had ensured that other than some deep kisses, they had remained chaste together. Jace didn’t mind. There was time. And it had honestly been the most intimate thing he’d ever done with anyone. He flashed his best smile at the Thaf’ell Commander who blued slightly and lifted his eyebrows again.
“I’ll explain later. Go to address the crew. We’re about to leave orbit and head to the Gate,” Jace said.
“They are all eager to hear what you have to say,” Khoth said.
The two of them turned towards the crew on the bridge, but they weren’t the only people who would hear him. Everyone, throughout the ship, would. Bright, eager faces focused on him and Khoth. Even Lieutenant-Commander Davies appeared something other than stoic. Was there excitement in his eye?
Buy into this mission, Davies. You will want to be here. You will understand that you want to be wholly a part of us, Jace thought.
His Commander stood tall and sure, with his arms crossed over his broad chest, making Jace feel almost petite, but definitely protected. Jace brought his hands together in front of his chin and held them there as he regarded the crew. His own smile grew more and more genuine as he fed off of their excitement.
“Members of the Osiris crew, take one last look at Earth,” Jace told them.
The planet appeared to rise behind him. A beautiful blue and white jewel in the darkness of space.
“It’s home for many of us,” Jace continued. “The only home we’ve ever known. The only home we probably thought we’d ever have.”
Dr. Isa smiled softly at him. Those had been her thoughts for sure. Now she was on a new adventure.
“Taking the leap of faith it took to come here already tells me that you are extraordinary people.” He grinned. “Meeting you has confirmed that. And I know as we take this journey together we’ll learn more about each other and just how incredible each and every one of you is.”
The Osiris began to slowly turn so that the ship’s mighty engines were facing towards Earth. Jace caught sight of the Galatea also turning. They were both about to launch.
“In less than twelve hours, we will be on an alien world.” Jace couldn’t help the shiver that went through him as he said that. “Haseon. The Thaf’ell homeworld and the heart of Alliance space.”
Dai’s hands came together in front of him almost as if in prayer. His black eyes were shining. He shared a look with Gehenna that had them both rocking back and forth.
“Because most of us are human, and we have just left our home after being attacked by the Khul, it would be natural to think of every other species as them,” Jace said. He touched his chest. “Not us. Them. And those that are leading the Alliance right now very much want us to feel that way. Because they see us that way. We are them. We are trying to change things. Worse, we’ve taken what they considered theirs.”
He spread his arms to his sides to encompass the Osiris. Khoth’s head lowered slightly, but he kept his chin up. He had fought against that instinct. He had opened himself up to the possibilities.
“But while it is natural to feel this us versus them--especially, when they will be stressing that--I need for all of you to remember that the only them that matters is the Khul,” his voice deepened.
Earth started to retreat into the distance. It was getting smaller and smaller so quickly that Jace felt like he should sense the velocity, but he didn’t. No one did. The Galatea was in hot pursuit, but the Osiris was easily outstripping her.
We’re not trying to lose them, Osiris, Jace reminded the AI.
I am having the Galatea repaired and retrofitted, the Osiris said sniffily. They did not send their best.
Of course, not, but it doesn’t matter, because we have you, Jace told the AI.
Though there were no smiley faces that spooled up after that simple word, he felt the Osiris’ pleasure.
“We want the Alliance to see us as worthy partners. We want to appeal to their good natures. To remind them that we are not the threat. The change we pose is not a danger,” Jace said with fervor. “Not all of them will want to believe this. Some of them will fervently disbelieve it, because it is in their best interests to do so. While others will simply be too afraid to do so.”
Dr. Hayter nodded. He likely knew all too well how deeply embedded toxic beliefs could be and how hard it was to change them.
“While we are on Haseon, I will be meeting with representatives of the Alliance species,” Jace said. “I am reaching out to those species who may not have had a role in the Alliance’s current direction. They might have been discounted. They may have been denigrated. And I’m going to ask some of them to join us. Because, like us, they have the same desire which is to defeat the Khul and end the danger that species poses to all life. All life.”
He searched the faces of the crew and landed on Davies’ grim expression. He knew the Lieutenant-Commander had seen video of the attack on Sunrise. But seeing it and experiencing it were not the same at all.
“Those are the stakes of our mission.” Jace curled his hands into fists as he remembered the Hive. “So whatever the Alliance does to try to offend us, to try and push us away, to try and make us them, we must remember this. We must remember what we are standing against and standing for. You are the crew of the Osiris. And we will be victorious.”
“The Osiris!” His father pumped a fist into the air.
The other crew members followed suit, shouting the Osiris’ name so loud that it seemed to reverberate around the ship. Jace met Khoth’s gaze. He nodded. The look of approval filled Jace with warmth. He hadn’t practiced this speech. In some ways he hadn’t been sure what to say, but the things he’d wanted to get across had just come as if they’d been waiting on the tip of his tongue.
Just at the peak of the crew’s excitement the screen behind him changed. Jace knew they had arrived even before the two curved wedges of calcanth appeared. Everyone went silent, staring at the screen, at the Gate that they had never known was here all this time. Just waiting for them.
The screen split so that they could see his mother and General Intoshkin aboard the Galatea.
“Pilot!” General Intoshkin greeted and waved like an eager child.
He looked as if he were in love. The general was clearly a fan of sci fi and was loving his first real spaceship ride. Jace grinned.
“Hello, General Intoshkin. Hi, Colonel Parker,” he said, feeling a little alien to say his mom’s title like this.
“Pilot,” she greeted back, brimming with joy herself.
“The Galatea flies smooth as can be!” General Intoshkin said.
“It’s hard to believe we’ve moved at all,” his mother concurred.
“Well, you are going to feel it a little bit as we go into the Gate,” Jace warned them both. “I’d sit down.”
Seats were taken by everyone in the crew, along with his mother and General Intoshkin. Jace and Khoth’s seats appeared and the harness snicked around them both, though in the Osiris there would be little disturbance.
“Are you ready to go to Haseon, Galatea?” Jace asked.
“Ready as ever!” The general grinned broadly.
“See you on the other side, Pilot,” his mother said.
“On the other side.” Jace nodded.
The Gate opened and the Galatea streamed through. Disappearing in an instant as did the feed on the screen. Now only the Gate was there and the vastness of space.
“All right, everyone,” Jace said, feeling his heart in his throat as the Gate opened again, “it’s time. Let’s go to Haseon.”