CHAPTER EIGHTY-ONE: REASONS WHY
Jack stared at a very unhappy Dai Suzuki. The computer engineer had taken on the role of Scotty in Star Trek and was supervising the loading of fuel and other necessities onto the ship.
“It’s not that I can’t do it myself, Jack,” Dai said, slipping into first names. “But I’m concerned about you leaving. What if the Khul come back?”
They were standing in one of the Osiris’ large hangar bays. Jack was preparing to board a drop ship–that he would be flying to the planet’s surface himself, thank you very much–in order to see his son and wife. And it wasn’t just to see them but hear some “big news” which considering all they were dealing with could be absolutely anything. But any of it was critical.
Jack put a hand on Dai’s shoulder. “The Osiris is monitoring all the gates that lead into this system. The Khul won’t use one of the Master Gates again, because they’re likely too far away from their main fleet. So we’ll know in more than enough time for me to reboard the ship if the Khul intend to return.”
Dai shifted from foot to foot anxiously in his blue science uniform. Jack’s black one with the red slashes at collar and cuffs looked just as sleek. But it also reminded Jack that while Dai was a leader among Engineering folks, he had no experience with fighting. And they had just gone through a hell of a fight.
One we didn’t expect, which makes things worse.
Dai’s continued uneasy expression despite his comforting words told him that the engineer simply didn’t feel safe no matter what safeguards were in place. Jack grimaced. He would not have chosen to leave the ship himself, but Jace was so insistent. And it wasn’t just because Jace was his son that he was intent on honoring the young man’s request for his presence–or that his beloved Diane was there–but because Jace was his commanding officer.
“Jace–the Pilot–is certain this is safe. He’s completely recovered and has full access to the Osiris’ systems and those on the planet,” Jack continued. “Even if Jace is not physically aboard the ship, it’s just the same as if he was.”
Dai nodded. He clearly understood this. He was a scientist after all!
But they need the security of someone in charge being physically present.
“The Pilot would not lightly pull me away, Dai,” Jack reminded him.
Dai let out a breath between his teeth. “I know. And you wouldn’t go either. I understand that, but…”
“You’re scared,” Jack stated rather than asked.
Another nod. “It’s irrational, I know. But I keep thinking: what if we get cut off from the Pilot again? Only your quick thinking–”
“And yours,” Jack reminded him.
He nodded. “And mine saved us last time. The Osiris is a remarkable machine, but, in the end, it is a machine. And I can’t believe I’m saying that!” Dai threw his arms up into the air. “All my life, I’ve wanted to create something a fraction as good as the Osiris! And now, I see that even something as amazing as it is, well… it needs us.”
Dai gave him a crooked smile.
“Already learning on this trip.” Jack nodded. “The Pilot needs to meet and choose new crew members. He must work with the Alliance Council to get their support. And he must confer with his top people to come up with a plan. Sometimes in person is the best way to do that.”
Dai covered his face with his hands and furiously scrubbed his eyes. “Of course, you’re right! And I wouldn’t want you to miss a moment with your family on an alien world no less! I’m certain the Pilot needs you exactly where he’s asked you to be. Forget I said anything. I can handle things here, Flight-Commander Parker.”
He half expected Dai to salute. The engineer did lift an arm awkwardly and then dropped it as if he wasn’t certain where it should go.
“I won’t forget it,” Jack told him, which had an almost comic look of dismay flowing across Dai’s face. “Because it’s important. Your concerns are valid, Dai. Your fears are valid, too. And I know you’ll handle things when I’m gone just fine. But I do want you to speak with Dr. Kerr at some point.”
“But I–yes, sir,” Dai quickly amended.
“Not as a punishment,” Jack assured him. “I’m going to see her myself.” He stroked his chin. “While we all knew that we were going to face the Khul at some point, none of us knew it would be so soon or like this. It’s like finding out that the army you’re facing isn’t two times as good as you and twice the size, but ten times as good and 100 times the size.”
Dai gave him a genuine smile. “I knew that Alliance needed us, but not this badly.”
“No, I agree. The Pilot was always needed in a leadership position, but now I think we all see that they need all of us all the more.” Jack drew in a deep breath. “And we’re playing catchup.”
“The Khul underestimated us. That’s something,” Dai brightened a little.
“That they did.” Jack smiled back. “Now I need you to continue to monitor the fuel intake, but also to continue your studies of the Osiris. I need you to know what it can do in any given situation.”
Dai nodded. “I can do that.”
“I know you can. Because you already have shown you can,” he reminded the engineer. “When it matted, Dai, you were there. You were on top of everything. Keep that in mind.”
Dai nodded. “I’ve never been in any kind of battle before. I’m glad I kept my head. But I must do better.”
“We’ve all got to do that,” Jack told him. He clapped Dai’s shoulder one last time and then turned from the man towards the gangway into the ship. “I’ll be in touch. If you need me for anything use the comm no matter what the time.”
“Will do!” Dai waved.
Jack gave a wave back as he boarded the dropship. His heart quickened as he entered the spacecraft and realized that he would be flying it. He slid his fingers across the sensor for the gangway. There was a hiss and hum as it closed. He rubbed his hands together as he made his way to the cockpit.
The pilot’s chair moved back and turned to the side automatically at his approach, seemingly welcoming him to the ship. His heart raced a little faster. He had worked extensively with Thammah while they’d picked the human crew, not to mention the dozens of simulation hours he’d added to that, and his near constant review of all manuals. When he sat down and the harness clicked around him before the chair turned and slid back into perfect piloting position, he wiggled his fingers before reaching out to start the preflight checklist. But buttons started to light up all on their own as if someone else was flying.
“What the Hell?” Jack whispered to himself.
Except, of course, he was not alone. He was never alone.
I will fly you to the planet’s surface, the Osiris said, it’s text scrawling across the viewing screen in front of him.
“No, thank you, Osiris. I intend on flying myself down to Haseon,” Jack answered briskly and started the check and he and Thammah had gone over countless times.
But that is illogical, was typed across the screen.
“I’m a pilot, Osiris, so hardly illogical that I want to get some flight time in,” Jack reminded the AI even as he continued his preparation unabated.
You are a pilot-in-training, the Osiris correctly, a little sniffily if Jack interpreted the “tone” right.
“I was enough of a pilot to fly you,” Jack said, and suppressed an inappropriate grin at how that sounded.
The cursor blinked.
“Yeah, so I think I can handle this dropship,” Jack continued and finished with final checks before hitting the ignition.
The dropship rose up ten feet into the air. The outer door to the hangar bay slid silently to the side, showing only the blue glow of the force field in place. He could exit without that coming down. If that wasn’t the case, anything not nailed down would have been sucked out into the vacuum of space including crew who were logging in fresh fruits and vegetables, along with proteins from Haseon. He pushed forward slightly on the throttle and kept another hand on the steering yoke. The ship began to fly forward at a sedate and safe pace. The way the dropship had been parked allowed him to simply go straight forward to exit the Osiris and soon he pushed out into space.
Jack allowed himself to marvel at the fact that he was in space in a ship that allowed him to feel much more in tune with the elements–or lack of elements–around him. There were so many stars that it looked like someone had overturned a bag of diamonds onto a black velvet background. He caught sight of the gate that silently spun. He found himself, rather like Dai Suzuki, staring at it too long and too hard, worried that a Khul Hive would emerge. But nothing did. They were safe.
Will we ever be truly safe until the Khul are destroyed? I think not.
Jack rolled his shoulders back to loosen them and turned back towards the planet. Haseon hung below him like a green-gold jewel. She was different from Earth, but he felt a tug of almost memory when he saw the planet. Almost as if Haseon were familiar to him. But that likely had to do with his studies. Still, it was odd to feel this sense of connection to a place he’d never been.
An alien world just waiting to be explored.
But the truth was that it felt more like coming home. He wondered if Jace or Diane had experienced this strange sensation. He started to pilot the ship down to the planet. The dropship was not as sleek as the paladin-class fighters he’d been in, but it was responsive to his gentle nudges and increases of speed on the throttle. He’d practiced landing tons of times as takeoffs and landings were usually when costly errors could occur, because that was when there was less room to move. Yet he found himself enjoying the experience without any feelings of stress.
Why did you choose to separate yourself from Colonel Parker? The Osiris’ question burst across the screen.
“Separate? You mean have her work with Earth and me go with Jace? Surely, you heard what explanations we gave our son so–”
But you did not tell him all, the Osiris interrupted. There was a kind of desperation to its questions.
“What don’t you think we told him?” Jack asked evenly back.
The Osiris couldn’t read his mind, right? Only Jace’s. But he’d had conversations with Diane both in and outside of the ship so…
“Were you eavesdropping on Diane and I?” Jack added before the Osiris said anything further.
I do not eavesdrop, the Osiris answered curtly. Or tartly as Jace would say. I monitor.
“Oh, you monitor. So that’s different than listening in on private conversations that do not concern you?” Jack clarified with a tight smile.
He wasn’t exactly happy knowing that the Osiris had listened to his and Diane’s private concerns, because, in truth, he didn’t want Jace burdened with them.
They concern you, which concerns Jace which concerns me, the Osiris answered.
“Have you told Jace about these private conversations you monitored?”
I have provided him with recordings, the Osiris replied primly, but then added, almost as if confused by this, But he has not reviewed them. Most of them he simply deletes…
Good boy, Jace, Jack thought and smiled.
“Because he understands the value of privacy, Osiris. He knows that we tell him what we need him and want him to know. The rest is private,” Jack explained.
That is illogical. The things you consider private are the things that he should definitely know to make an informed decision, the Osiris argued back.
“What we told Jace is what we believe to be true after careful consideration of those private things. We don’t need to convince him of our decisions that way,” Jack answered.
But you admit that this private information was necessary in order to make your own decision? But you would not give Jace all of that information in order to make his, the Osiris pushed.
“That’s true. But Jace knows that Diane and I are rational, reasoned adults who can make our own decisions. He doesn’t need or want to second-guess us,” Jack said.
But she is your mate and you are choosing to be separated from her! There was actually an exclamation mark at the end of that sentence, which abruptly disappeared.
Jack blinked. Had he imagined it? No, it had been there. Now it was gone as if the Osiris realized it had revealed too much.
“Humans don’t have mates, Osiris,” Jack reminded it.
He was nearly through the upper atmosphere. His angle was perfect. His gaze flowed over the rest of the instruments and everything was still a go.
What would you have done if your mate had been killed during the battle? The Osiris asked.
Jack’s eyes narrowed even as his heart thudded heavily in his chest. Losing Diane… She was the air in his lungs, the blood in his veins… She was everything to him.
No, not everything. Not since Jace was born. She was almost everything.
And that was what informed his answer, “I would… suffer greatly. I would mourn her the rest of my life. But I would go on.”
The Altaeth often do not go on when their mates perish.
“Well, I bet they did if they had children who needed them,” Jack answered. “And Jace needs me. So, even though I would be hurting, I would continue on.”
The cursor blinked slowly as if the Osiris was considering his words. But then the ship asked, But you have agreed to be separated from her now. This physical separation is not welcome. My monitoring of both your vitals–
“More monitoring?” Jack lifted an eyebrow.
More cursor blinking.
Then the Osiris continued, Both your vitals are improved when you are within each others’ presences. They are optimal when the two of you are with the Pilot.
“I’m sure that’s true.” Jack smiled as he thought of his wife and son.
Yes, they do make me happiest when they’re near, Jack thought.
Yet you have both decided that she should not be with you, the Osiris continued.
“You heard our reasons, including our private reasons,” he answered with a shake of his head.
Is it because you wish to keep her safe? The Osiris asked.
Jack opened his mouth, but then shut it. Was it?
“Partially, yes,” Jack answered. “But there are a myriad of other reasons. For example, Diane is the best person to represent humanity. She’s got the perfect temperament. That can’t be said for many other military officers.”
But is that why the two of you decided that only you should be part of the crew?
“No, but she’s using her talents in the greatest way,” Jack said. “She’s the ambassador for humans, Osiris. She’s going to show every species the best possible side of us. That’s… that’s incalculable.”
But that is not why you decided–
“Okay, no, it’s not all the reasons, but it’s the one that should trump all of the others anyways,” Jack answered.
But it did not, the Osiris’ reply was almost soft.
At that moment, he broke through the upper atmosphere and the nighttime skyline of Ylore appeared on the screen. Jack was taken aback for a moment. His breath caught in his throat and his chest felt tight. That sense of returning home was so strong that he could almost taste it. What would it taste like? He didn’t know, but he thought it wouldn’t be a taste he’d experienced before. Yet he’d know it. He’d know it down to his bones.
The architecture was clearly alien though he did see familiar domes, towers, bridges and skyscrapers. But there was an alien hand behind it. Something that spoke to him of other minds bringing this city to life. There were lush areas of forest that wound through the city itself, unlike the parks in human cities. He saw vast waterways surrounding buildings and trees as if making islands of them in the city itself. The sun had set, but there wasn’t the harsh white-blue lights on in the myriad of structures, but instead a warm, amber-red glow that was more like firelight and soothed the eyes.
He found himself simply flying above the city and not caring where the landing point was. Though it was flashing in increasingly large letters on his screen as if the Osiris wasn’t quite sure he saw it. He snorted.
You need to admit the truth, the Osiris said in a very non-AI way, that you and your mate chose to separate in order to protect her from danger! Even if there are more valid reasons this was the one that motivated you both.
“No, it didn’t.”
That is a lie. Your vitals–
“All this monitoring must be exhausting.” Jack frowned at the blinking cursor. “Osiris, why does it matter to you so much why Diane and I determined this course of action? Do you not agree with it? Do you wish her to be part of the crew? Is–is Jace unhappy with it?”
That last one was the most likely. Why else would the Osiris be concerned about this? It had to be something to do with how it was affecting Jace. Was his son not convinced that his mother should remain on Haseon and represent humanity? Had the battle made Jace feel–much like Dai–that it was better if they were all together?
He licked his lips and said, “You are correct that the reason Diane and I are not both members of the Osiris crew is due to the danger it poses with us all three being together.”
You admit the truth! You fear you will be affected by her loss and will abandon the mission–
“No, we fear what losing both parents will do to Jace,” Jack cut in. “If Diane is here on Haseon and I am with Jace on the Osiris, the loss of both of us is unlikely to happen at once. So Jace will still have one parent left no matter what.”
The cursor blinked.
The Pilot would be emotionally compromised by losing you both, The Osiris seemed alarmed at this. No exclamation points, but there was something more human in its speech. He wondered why.
“He would be. And so we are not going to put ourselves in the position of Jace losing both of his parents at the same time,” Jack answered softly. “Diane and I are… devoted to one another. And losing her would gut me. It would do the same to her. But we don’t just live for each other. We live for Jace too. And neither of us would abandon him. Not even to our grief.”
Would the Pilot similarly choose to continue if you were alive, but his mate was not? The Osiris asked.
“Again, Osiris, humans don’t have mates.” Jack shook his head. “But I think that Jace would continue because it's the right thing to do and others are counting on him. That’s who Jace is. You don’t have to worry about the loss of a mate should Jace even start dating.”
At that moment, Jace’s face appeared on the screen before him. His son’s eyes were bright. The smile on his face was the biggest that Jack had ever seen. His son was glowing with happiness and while this made him happy too, it worried him based upon what the Osiris was saying.
“Dad!” his son beamed. “Taking the scenic route?”
“Finally getting to fly a little more. So I can’t help myself,” Jack admitted.
“Well, please land!” Jace laughed. Bright. Beaming. Bursting with happiness. “Khoth and I are ready to pick you up and take you to the Compound.”
Jack swallowed. “You’re really intent on telling me your news, aren’t you?”
Jace ducked his head and blushed. Jack’s stomach flipped. Jace looked up at him almost shyly as he answered, “I am. I can’t wait.”
But Jack suddenly wished he would.