CHAPTER FIFTY-EIGHT: DIFFERENCE
The vehicle that would take them to the Moturin Compound was a flying car. A flying limousine to be exact. Now there were differences of course. But the vehicle was long and sleek and the top of it could become translucent at the touch of a sensor. Otherwise, it had a glassy, black appearance with a mica-like sheen.
There were no wheels. It rested on what appeared to be a cushion of air, not like a hovercraft, because he could see underneath it, even though the air was shimmery with heat. The Osiris offered him all the details about how it worked, but Jace waved them away.
I just want to experience this, Osiris, Jace said.
How adding understanding to observing not experiencing? The Osiris asked.
You already know the answer to that question. It takes me out of the moment. And I want to feel this moment and the wonder.
You should feel wonder at knowledge, the Osiris answered dryly.
Oh, I do, but sometimes ignorance is bliss.
There were two of the flying limousines parked on a circular pad about five hundred feet from where they had landed and left Thammah. Her tart observation was still on his HUD.
Don’t do anything that I would do, she’d written. That would cause an universal incident.
Jace smiled just reading it again. The smiling though hurt his head.
The limousines were, thankfully, in the shade of an octagonal building that the Osiris couldn’t help but label as the Tower Control equivalent of a human airport, but this, obviously, was the control for vehicles coming in from space.
Jace longed to get inside of the vehicles and have cool air whisper around him and the light dim even further. The vehicle’s pilot in the dark blue robes of the Moturin stood by one of the two vehicles that awaited them. A seam suddenly appeared in the glassy, black surface of the limousine and a door lifted up into the air silently. A set of steps folded down.
“Please, go inside and take your rest,” Typhon said as he gracefully gestured towards the steps.
Jace noted that Typhon did everything gracefully. Unlike Khoth, who used an economy of movement, Typhon’s gestures were broad and sweeping. They were almost languid.
Probably because he’s a judge not a warrior, Jace sniffed with a slight touch of superiority.
Oh, no! Justiciar Typhon Moturin is a renowned warrior! Gehenna helpfully told him. He might spend more time on the bench than the flight deck these days, but he keeps himself in excellent shape with daily, hours-long rahir and draagves training! Not to mention his skill at flying and--
Thanks, Gehenna. That’s just what I wanted to know, Jace responded dryly.
You’re welcome! She burbled.
He smiled faintly even though, at that moment, she had more in common with the Osiris than she’d ever forgive him for thinking.
Thadden was the first to go inside. The limousine was large enough to hold all of them, minus the Moturin family members. Those other family members went to the second vehicle and filed efficiently in. None of them had spoken to him or the rest of his crew, but they had smiled and bowed whenever he’d looked their way. He wasn’t sure what to make of that.
Tha’fell will not speak first to someone of higher rank in social situations! Gehenna piped in.
Well, that’s okay, I guess. Jace felt his shoulders easing a little bit. If the silence was not rudeness--
Oh? His shoulders tensed again.
Or when they consider the person too beneath their notice as well, they won’t speak, Gehenna amended.
Ah, right, I feel more at home now, Jace sighed.
“Pilot, please proceed ahead of me,” Khoth said.
“No, Commander, it’s okay. Why don’t you go inside and sit next to your dad,” Jace said quietly. “I’ll follow you in.”
Khoth’s eyes narrowed for a moment and he hesitated. Maybe because Jace looked pale and sweaty. Or maybe because he feared that Jace was concerned about his feelings for his father and that they might get in the way of the mission. It was likely all of it. And maybe Jace should have pretended that Khoth didn’t want to be physically near his father, but he just couldn’t right then.
“It’s okay. Please, go inside,” Jace said gently.
Khoth bobbed his head and went into the limousine in that powerful yet economical way of his. Jace followed after him. He felt Typhon’s gaze on his as he went up the stairs. His gaze was not hostile in any way. Typhon did not see him as a rival for Khoth’s affections.
Does that mean he thinks I’m no competition? Jace growled internally.
He displays no signs of arousal around the Commander, the Osiris offered.
So does that mean he has no interest in Khoth? Jace felt a little pathetic hoping that.
An analysis of his past behavior would indicate that sexual conquests are not his focus, the Osiris indicated.
Really? So breaking all those rules to get to Khoth was just nothing? No nevermind? Jace demanded.
The Eromen relationship is not about sex, the Osiris almost sounded like an old school marm teaching sex education. It’s not about sexual pleasure, but procreation! He imagined the Osiris saying next, but it did not. The relationship is to create bonds of affection, loyalty and power for future use.
Oh, so Typhon seduced Khoth for some kind of… political play? But he didn’t tell Khoth’s parents about it! Jace cried.
Khoth is not only the son of the High Councillor and a Justiciar, but, before her death, he was the closest confidant of High Commander Daesah Voor, the Osiris reminded him.
So it wasn’t just to get Khoth in bed and have power over a younger man--
I did not say that was not a part of Typhon’s psychology, only that he has a greater hierarchy of needs, Osiris interrupted.
Ah. So now, instead of being close to Daesah, Khoth’s close to me, Jace said.
Indeed. Typhon chose well in Khoth as an Eromen relationship, Osiris stated simply. He likely did not tell Khoth’s parents because--
They might have said no, Jace finished, and he didn’t want to risk that.
Having Khoth’s affection and loyalty was more important than following convention, the Osiris finished.
You know that doesn’t make me like him any more than before, Jace pointed out.
Liking is irrelevant. It is necessary that you understand potential allies, the Osiris was sounding quite perspicacious.
I like supporting people and having people around me that are morally fit, Osiris. Not someone who seduced Khoth when he was just a young man and messed him up for power! Jace pointed.
In some cases, you will have no choice in the matter, the Osiris pointed out.
Jace passed inside the limousine with a nod at Typhon. He knew what the Osiris was saying was true. He wouldn’t always have a choice to pick as allies those who he approved of. The danger of the Khul was greater than that.
But why Typhon? Why? It was a rhetorical question and the Osiris did not answer.
Davies, Dr. Hayter, Gehenna, and, finally, Typhon followed into the flying limousine after him. Jace noticed another difference that, unlike a human limousine, no one needed to duck their head, but instead could walk in and settle into their seat.
The seats, which were plush and a luxurious shade of red and warmed or cooled depending on what would best regulate his body temperature, were welcoming. The Thaf’ell ran nearly the same temperature as humans did so there was little need for adjustment. Jace eased back and stretched out his feet. The warmth that heated and loosened his tense back almost caused him to groan.
Khoth looked down at him. Their bodies were nearly touching. “Are you comfortable, Pilot?”
That “comfortable” meant so much more than what it said on its face. Was Jace in pain? Could Khoth do something to help? What did Jace need? Khoth would make whatever that was happen. Jace smiled up at him.
“I’m fine,” Jace said, and it was only a half-lie.
Khoth’s blue on blue eyes studied his face, looking for that lie. “If something changes you will tell me?”
“I will,” Jace promised.
Jace saw that Khoth’s hands were tightly clenched over his thighs. They couldn’t touch. No matter how much they wanted to. Jace let out a shuddery breath. This truly sucked.
“Would you like something to drink or eat?” Typhon was seated across from him and waved a hand above a glowing blue panel.
A shelf rose up and there was cold water and brilliant green, red and orange juices. Jace cleared his throat and swallowed, trying to not feel sorry for himself. He was on an alien planet, the Pilot of an incredible ship, and Khoth cared for him. That they couldn’t touch intimately right this minute and that he might have a headache--okay, more than a headache--was tough, but not that damned tough. People were counting on him. So many people. So he had to get it together.
“What’s the red one taste like?” Jace asked Khoth who was seated next to him.
“Those cherry candy ropes you enjoy,” Khoth said after a moment.
“Oh! I would like one of those, please.” Jace pointed to the red juice.
Typhon handed it to him. The bottle was cold and slick. Perspiration clung to his palm.
It is acceptable for you to consume, the Osiris stated.
So not poisoned, huh?
You jest, but look at Davies’ expression, the Osiris said.
The one good thing about the sunglasses was he could look at people without anyone, including them, knowing. Davies was rigid on his seat to the left of Typhon. His eyes were fixed on the juice. Jace could see the urge in the Lieutenant-Commander’s eyes to slap that juice away from Jace.
It’s okay, Lieutenant-Commander Davies. Not poisoned. Actually, it’s good for me and you, too, Jace sent to his comm.
Davies relaxed and leaned back though he did not ask for a drink himself. Jace cracked open the bottle’s lid. It made a satisfying snick. He lifted the bottle to his lips. The liquid was icy cold. There was some pulp like orange juice in it as well as a slight fizziness of prosecco.
“Delicious. Thank you,” Jace said and tipped his drink at Typhon. He looked up at Khoth. “Great description. It’s exactly like red liquorice with a little more sourness.”
“Yes, the sour candy you favor with the sandy texture.” Khoth’s face screwed up for a moment. It was not his favorite.
Jace chuckled. It was his.
“May--may I try one?” Dr. Hayter asked, all eyes at the drink. His simple joy to experience all of this--even though he had a mind like a steel trap--was actually comforting to Jace. Maybe it was possible to be alert, be on one’s guard for poisons, and have a good time. “If that is not rude. I do hope--”
“Not at all. We are a very hospitable species despite what you have seen of us so far,” Typhon said.
“Well, you’re on a war footing,” Dr. Hayter said as he pointed at the orange juice.
“We are not at war with… you,” Typhon said.
“Oh, no, with us, but the Khul. Despite the peacefulness of these surroundings, it’s quite palpable,” Dr. Hayter said amicably.
Typhon didn’t have a chance to ask exactly what was palpable as Dr. Hayter twisted back around in his seat to look outside with a childlike eagerness. They were taking off.
The vehicle rose up into the air more like a helicopter, if a helicopter made no sound, and whispered through the sky. The movement was as smooth as silk. Jace’s stomach didn’t even settle into his feet. That was when Typhon demonstrated the vehicle’s ability to turn the top and sides translucent. Dr. Hayter let out an “oooh” of delight.
“We won’t be visible to anyone, but we can see all,” Typhon explained. “Please feel free to ask me anything about what you’re seeing.”
“Oh, I have so many questions already!” Dr. Hayter burbled and proceeded to ask questions about every building in sight.
Jace barely paid attention though he wanted to know too. He longed to take his sunglasses off and gaze out with all the childlike delight and wonder that Dr. Hayter did. But even with the sunglasses on, the light that seeped around the edges hurt his eyes and his head. Auras bloomed around things that moved so he could only glance out at the delicate, almost spun glass buildings that rose up from Haseon’s ground like ice sculptures. He needed to conserve his strength.
He supposed that he should be grateful for the old sickness. The Pilot shouldn’t be ogling the enemy’s city. He should appear unimpressed as if he’d seen better too many times to count.
And yes, the Thaf’ell right now were the enemy until they became their ally. Because they weren’t neutral towards him and his mission. Not at all. He wasn’t even sure what Typhon really thought.
The Justiciar had been clever enough to do all of his communications with his House and Thadden offline, away from even cameras. That showed a disturbing amount of intelligence. Not to mention his fluidity with English… They were missing something about Typhon. Jace grimaced as a throbbing pain went through his skull.
I am monitoring your vitals, the Osiris sounded more robotic than it had in some time. All emotion was drained out of its voice.
I’m going to be okay, Osiris. There’s no need to worry, Jace said.
Already, he could feel the beating in his temples easing and, as he had noted, only moving things bloomed auras. Khoth’s shoulder pressed against his was also helping more than it should. But his Commander’s solid, comforting presence was easing the results of the emotional storm. He was pleased that Khoth was talking softly with his father. He should listen to that conversation too.
I will record it for later viewing, the Osiris promised.
Jace wished he could rest his head against Khoth’s arm, or, better yet, lay his head on the Thaf’ell’s lap. Khoth’s cool, soothing hands would stroke his forehead, easing the rest of the migraine away. But considering Khoth’s father was on the other side of the Commander and Typhon was sitting opposite the three of them so that was not going to happen.
I am not worried. Worrying is a rather useless human emotion that wastes valuable resources, the Osiris responded crisply.
But Jace liked a snippy Osiris far more than he liked the unemotional one.
Well, worrying would be totally useless in this case, as I’m going to be fine, Jace told it.
And that’s final, right? I’m going to be totally fine, Jace repeated.
Yes, more emphatic agreement this time. There was a pause and then a slightly needy thread entered the Osiris’ tone, Perhaps you should return to the ship. Wait for the results of this internecine dispute there.
You know I can’t, Jace said. It’s all about the psychology. I have to be here. You sent me into a Hive without this much concern. Is Haseon so much scarier?
There was a long silence before the Osiris finally admitted, There are more variables. The Khul’s motivations are clear. Your decisions are clear in a Hive. Destroy it. Destroy the Khul. Here…
It’s not so clear and I can’t destroy everyone, Jace chuckled.
The Osiris though didn’t say anything at all. He could take that for agreement or that the Osiris wasn’t going to argue with him about that. For now.
Can’t have an Empire without subjects, Jace thought.
He didn’t know if the Osiris heard that, but, again, there was no response.
Jace shut his eyes behind his sunglasses for long moments. The truth was that he did want to go back to the ship and his wonderfully cool and silent bedroom with the soft as a feather bed that cradled his body just so no matter what position he was in. And it would be even better if Khoth was curled around him, hands carding through Jace’s hair. As excited as he was to be on an alien world, right now he felt fragile as glass.
And the Osiris was right. There were so many moving parts. Killing Khul was cleaner, if not easier. How was he going to move all of this in the right direction? He was so certain of his mission. That he was the one to lead a successful campaign against the Khul. That he had the only path forward. That he would lead them to salvation.
It sounded insane when he really examined his own beliefs. But he knew they were true. Jace wasn’t someone who sought power. He knew that much. While he had imagined himself the hero plenty of times, his illness had taught him that real life was more full of pain than heroic arias. But he was still certain that what he was doing was right.
Jace opened his eyes and caught both Davies and Typhon minutely observing him. Jace resisted the urge to tug at his collar and clear his throat. Had either of them caught his eye closing? Davies knew that he wasn’t feeling well, but did Typhon? Probably.
They will attempt to steal some of your DNA to analyze. They will be sorely disappointed when their equipment malfunctions, the Osiris said with deep amusement.
They want to know what makes me tick, Jace said.
They want their own Pilot, Gehenna put in.
Her roly-poly body rolled up to Jace and rested against his right leg. He reached down and patted her head. She vibrated with happiness.
There is only one Pilot, the Osiris said waspishly.
Yes, I know. I learned that lesson, Gehenna replied, sounding a little sheepish but defensive still too.
Why can’t there be more than one Pilot? Jace asked. I can die. Maybe not of old age or disease, but shoot me without my armor, cut my head off, well, you get the idea.
The Thaf’ell are not… suitable, the Osiris said.
Really? So no Thaf’ell could be the Pilot? Jace was surprised about this.
No, the Osiris answered.
After all, the Thaf’ell had a special relationship with Altaeth tech. Surely that meant it was because of all the Seeded species they were the closest to the Altaeth and would be the most logical species from which to draw a Pilot.
Okay, so humans are closer than Thaf’ell to the Altaeth--
No, the Osiris answered bruskly.
Gehenna’s flash-light head was moving anxiously around on her ball body. They were so clearly hiding things from him and he was too damned tired, hurting and everything else for that right now.
Why am I the Pilot? Jace demanded. Why me and only me? C’mon, guys! You need to fess up now. I can’t be focusing on this and handling all the rest of it!
“So everything here is original Altaeth technology?” Dr. Hayter’s voice rose up, distracting Jace.
“This whole city is almost the same as it was the last day the Altaeth walked here,” Typhon answered evenly, but his hands curled into fists in his lap.
Why does that bother him?
“You can tell our repairs from the original buildings,” Thadden said with a shrug. “We cannot make things the way the Altaeth did despite all our efforts.”
“Even after all this time?” Davies’ forehead bunched.
“We live in a city of the dead,” Typhon said, his voice darkening. “A whole planet of the dead. Perhaps a whole empire of it.”
Dr. Hayter blinked at him very slowly behind his glasses.
“Every Seeded species has adapted Altaeth tech and lives in the remnants of their worlds. But, until now, it was like children playing with their parents’ things,” Typhon said, his hands lacing together as he spoke. The darkness in his voice lifted as he looked up at Jace and said, “The Altaeth left behind so much, but they took with them so much more when they abandoned us.”
“Do we know they truly left us or were they wiped out by the Khul?” Davies asked.
“If they died, they did so elsewhere. But maybe not all of them did. Maybe they left more of themselves behind than we thought,” Typhon said, still staring at Jace. “Your family, Pilot, are extraordinary, are they not?”
“Ah… my parents are… yeah, they are,” Jace admitted.
Guys, what’s he hinting at here? Jace pushed the AIs.
Neither answered him.
“But not just your parents, but their parents and the ones before them, too, yes?” Typhon pressed. “They were leaders. They were warriors. They were different from those around them, yes?”
Jace said nothing. He stared down at Gehenna but she wouldn’t meet his gaze. Everything was so quiet in his head.
“The Pilot’s lineage is not important,” Khoth said stiffly, reading Jace’s confusion, but not understanding all of it.
Gehenna, Osiris, what is Typhon getting at?
Typhon sat up very straight. “But it is. It’s the most important thing. And it is the thing that will help others understand why the Pilot is who he is and why no one else can lead us.”
“He’s human so the fact that he has extraordinary forebears would not convince many people of his ability to lead,” Dr. Hayter pointed out as he turned fully back around in his seat to look at all of them rather than the wonders outside.
Not human. Osiris, you said I wasn’t human so… what am I?
“The Osiris crash landed on Earth. The ships we have discovered were simply left behind,” Typhon said with a quiet intensity. “And the Osiris is not like any other ship, is it?”
Guys, you’ve got to tell me the truth, Jace whispered.
“For whatever reason, some of the Osiris’ occupants must have stayed on Earth. Maybe they didn’t believe in what had caused the others to leave,” Typhon continued. “Maybe they wanted to finish what they started with the Seeded species. Maybe they were simply hiding and hoping to survive as the Khul looked for them.”
“You’re suggesting that humans are descendants of the Altaeth? Direct descendants?” Dr. Hayter asked.
“Not humans,” Jace heard the words coming out of his mouth. “Not all humans.”
Khoth turned his head to look at Jace. Jace’s mouth felt like it was filled with sand.
Typhon smiled. “It’s so obvious when you think of it. The reason that Jace is the Pilot when no one else could be. Well, he must be different from the rest of us. While we are genetically engineered by the Altaeth, I would guess that Jace is a bit closer than that to them.”
Jace felt the Osiris and Gehenna in his mind. They were waiting for him to take the leap. He felt like he was on the edge of a cliff. If he took that step they wanted him to take he would fall and shatter into a million pieces.
Khoth’s nearest hand closed over both of his. Jace stared down at it. Blue, elegant fingers intertwined with his. Jace drew in a deep, steadying breath.
“I believe what Justiciar Typhon is getting at is that I am the descendant of the Altaeth,” Jace said, the words familiar and not. He thought of the tank. Of what the Osiris had done to him in there. Maybe what it had stripped away from him. His humanity. And replaced all the missing pieces with something else. To make him… something else. “I am… I am an Altaeth.”
Yes, the Osiris and Gehenna whispered as one.