CHAPTER EIGHTY-EIGHT: SHERLOCK JACE
Khoth watched as Jace and Gehenna–in her new Razor Wolf form–crouched down just outside the doors to the labyrinth. He looked to see if Jace showed any sign of weakness or discomfort, but, thankfully, saw none.
Down here Jace’s connection with the Osiris was spotty and he did not want another episode of what had happened earlier that day to occur again. His Xi quivered at the memory of Jace being unable to walk or even lift his head. Of course, it was the Khul cutting Jace off entirely from the Osiris that had caused the psychic shock, but he still worried that it could happen again.
Jace refused to let fear stop him. His mate had insisted on meeting the team down near the entrance area to check things out himself. Of course, that meant that everyone from the dinner had accompanied them, though Jace used the little AIs to keep them clear of the “crime scene.” So Khoth wasn’t the only one watching Jace with interest and concern.
“There’s no trace of blood anywhere in this hallway, Gehenna,” Jace said with a sigh as he straightened up from his crouch, brows furrowed, and lips pursed. “So either our murderers wiped their blades very well and didn’t get injured in the attack or they didn’t come this way.”
Jace moved to pat Gehenna’s head, but could only touch her gingerly with two fingers on a narrow slice of her frame between her ears. If he’d done anything else, he would have sliced his fingers to ribbons. She was not “pettable” at the current moment, which was causing her considerable distress.
Gehenna had already been dismayed when the Moturin Guards had lifted their draagves at her and shouted warnings that they would shoot the intruder! Now, when she wanted to lean against Jace’s legs, like she had in her ball form, she risked making Jace bleed. Khoth knew this, not because he was guessing based on past behavior–though he could have–but because she had given Jace and him a running commentary on the “unfairness” of not being able to be cuddled now that she had Jace back.
There was no trace in the labyrinth either beyond the initial area of attack! She answered in text that ran across Khoth’s comm. But the cleaner bots likely came after them and eliminated any traces. They are very thorough at their job.
“Yes, they’ve swept up and disposed of who knows how much history,” Thammah said dryly as she rested her hip against the wall.
Matzen stood beside her. Khoth was amused to note that his former shipmate appeared quite fascinated by Thammah. She was as unlike a Thaf’ell as he had ever met, and yet, conversely, she understood at an almost molecular level what it was to be a Thaf’ell.
“They don’t understand the idea of preserving history, Thammah. Mess is the enemy and they are very good at vanquishing it, even if the mess is the remains of a priceless Altaeth artifact,” Jace sighed and rubbed the back of his neck.
“So they basically think the crumbling ruins of the Altaeth civilization are the same as cobwebs and dust bunnies?” Diane asked with a lift of her eyebrow. “I wouldn’t object to them cleaning my house, but I think I’d want them well away from the Egyptian pyramids!”
She and Jack were standing next to Khoth. Gehenna’s tail kept looking longingly at Diane. Her admiration for Jace’s mother was still as strong as ever.
“Unfortunately,” Jace sighed again. “But they are just doing what they’ve been programmed to do. When they were made, the Altaeth society was flourishing. And they liked things clean and tidy. They weren’t thinking about what would happen millennia after they left this place.”
“Can’t you change their programming, son?” Jack asked. “So they don’t sweep away any more history?”
Jace’s father looked relaxed, but very aware as he kept one arm around Diane’s waist and his gaze on Jace. Khoth had no doubt that Jack would spring into action to save his family.
“I could,” Jace grimaced. “But that wouldn’t be a good idea. First, the systems that are controlling them are deep beneath the earth. The shielding increases the deeper we go, which would eventually act just like the jammer the Khul used against me.”
“Which would cause the same insensate state as before?” Typhon asked, his brow visibly furrowing.
Jace reluctantly nodded. Khoth felt from him that some of that reluctance came from admitting he could be weakened again, and the other part from admitting it to Typhon.
You are wise to keep him at arm’s length, Izail, Khoth stated. He is always scheming. Though his regard for you seems genuine and from a place of almost religious ferocity, he does what is best for him and his family at all costs. At the current moment, your goals and his are aligned. But that could change.
Yeah, I get that, Jace said. But I’m more concerned at how much I rely upon my connection to the Osiris. I can’t seemingly function without it. It makes my health seem illusory, Khoth.
He felt Jace’s consternation at this. Jace saw the connection as some kind of “crutch” as if he were not a complete person on his own. Jace’s memories went back to days of needing sunglasses, closed shades, ear phones and thick blankets to keep out sound and light. He felt Jace’s sense of powerlessness and suffocation at not being able to simply go outside like a “normal” person. He could not even go into the kitchen to get himself a sandwich or a glass of soda because of the weakness in his limbs. Khoth, who had always been very athletic, felt his own limbs tingle and he felt the need to tighten the muscles in his legs as if they would fail to keep him upright.
The Osiris indicated that the weakness stems from it not being able to complete your transformation when you were a baby, Khoth stated. This can–and will be–fixed in the future.
If I’m willing to give over an Earth year or more of my life with you to be a tank of goo, Jace reminded him.
An Earth year is not so long–
Time is the one thing we cannot get back or have enough of, Jace cut him off.
For a moment, Khoth sensed Jace’s fear of losing him. Not to some battle with the Khul, but to old age and death while Jace still looked and was the same.
Thaf’ell are long-lived compared to humans, Khoth reminded Jace gently.
But it won’t be long enough, Khoth. It can never be long enough, Jace answered.
“If there were some other way to reprogram the machines other than going beneath the ground, would you do it?” Amana asked.
She stood beside her brother, tall and proud. Her expression was filled with hope. Jace had already made quite the impression on her. Like with Typhon, there was almost a religious-like intensity to her belief in Jace.
“I could figure something out, but the systems are intricate and interconnected. Meaning if I change one thing, something else might fail because of it,” Jace answered her. “That these systems still function after all this time is a miracle.”
“Yes, it is.” Amana’s fingers twitched around a strand of her hair that hung heavy with selchitte.
“I don’t want people to be afraid to investigate the tech, but if I’m going to do it, I need to make sure I have the time to restore what I’ve done if something goes wrong,” Jace said simply. “There could be a cascade of events otherwise that could leave the whole planet without primary and crucial systems.”
“We mustn’t have that happen!” Amana’s blue-on-blue eyes widened.
“No, definitely not now,” Jace agreed with her.
I have scanned the ground with thermal, infra-red and x-ray vision, among others, but have found no trace of anyone entering here from the labyrinth but us, Gehenna said as she lifted her long snout up from the floor as if she had been sniffing it. I’ve been unable to isolate any odors associated with anyone passing through here either. Cleaning chemicals have obscured all such traces.
“Are there cleaning bots here too?” Thammah asked.
“There are. I’ve had them be quite assiduous about cleaning since the Khul came,” Jace answered looking down dispiritedly at the clean floor with his hands on his hips.
“Please do not cause those to desist,” Typhon’s voice was tight.
Khoth lifted his head to look at the Justiciar. “The remnants of the Khul are gone. The Compound is clean.”
“Yes, yes, of course, it is. I just…” Typhon paused as if unable to think of anything to say to cover the real reason he feared the cleaning bots stopping their work.
“Don’t worry, Typhon, I have no intention of stopping them. I understand the need for things to be sterilized,” Jace answered with a smile and nod.
Typhon’s shoulders relaxed. “Thank you, Pilot.”
“So since the cleaning bot eliminated all evidence, our murderers could have exited here or gone out someplace else?” Davies asked, shifting his weight from his front foot to his back foot.
“Yes,” Jace said with a puckered brow.
“Why would anyone want to kill the Moturin Guards, but not us?” Matzen asked.
Davies grimaced. “Now that, Matzen, is the twenty-four thousand dollar question. The Moturins were just following us.”
“Maybe someone else was following us, too. Someone not as friendly,” Thammah suggested. “And the Moturins ran into them.”
“Like someone sent by the Council?” his father asked, concern causing him to frown.
“I’m betting your government has mapped more of the labyrinth than they’re letting on,” Matzen said.
Jace’s eyes went unfocused. “If such a group was ordered to go after you, there’s no record of it. But I imagine that the Council is working in such a way as to not use technology that the Osiris can easily access. You did some of the same when you arranged with Thadden to join House Moturin, Typhon, yes?”
Typhon inclined his head. He fished out a small device no larger than a data stick. “These allow us to send and receive messages off the network. You need to be in close proximity to the person to do so. It is device to device only.”
Gehenna immediately walked over to Typhon–who stiffened and went very still–and sniffed the device in his hand. She turned around, jaws agape in what was an attempt at a smile. Of course, it made most people cringe away from her in terror.
Jace! This is very much like the technology used for the data device we saw before the Khul came! She let Jace and Khoth know.
The people who made you, right, Gehenna? Jace asked.
Her ears lowered. I think so. I don’t really know. I’m sorry, Jace. My creation is not at all clear. Some data is corrupt. Other data might be locked away.
Don’t apologize, Gehenna. There’s no need, Jace told her. We’ll figure this out together.
Oh, Jace, that makes me so happy when you say things like that! I feel like family! Gehenna answered and her tail wagged.
You are family. And I’m surprised you haven’t noticed that Khoth is more family now than before, Jace teased her.
Gehenna’s head tilted to the side as she clearly assessed Jace’s thoughts. Then she was on her back legs doing a little dance before she landed on all four paws again. Oh! Oh! OH! You’re mated! You’re mated, you’re mated, you’re mated!
Streams of smileys practically obscured the entirety of Khoth’s comm and he felt them through his connection with Jace.
“What the Hell just happened there?” General Intoshkin asked, his eyebrows practically hidden beneath his hat. “Why did she get so excited?”
“It’s nothing, General,” Jace laughed.
The decision not to reveal them being mated quite yet was acceptable to Khoth. It was so new. It was so private. It was theirs. And Gehenna’s. And the Osiris’. So there were a few more people involved in this than normal.
“Your nothing has her doing puppy tricks.” Intoshkin gave him a disbelieving smile.
“Nothing that should concern you. How about that?” Jace amended. “Typhon, would you be willing to allow us to look at that tech? If you wish to clean it of any information on it, I’m fine with that.”
“It automatically deletes all data on it after a set time period,” Typhon explained. “It’s not meant as a long term storage device.”
“Just a way to pass secret messages without the AIs knowing,” Intoshkin said with a lifted eyebrow.
“AIs are not the only ones that can break into data streams, General,” Typhon stated. “Before we knew of the Osiris and Gehenna, there were plenty of parties who would try to access top secret materials.”
Typhon extended the data stick to Jace. He took it and slipped it into his front pocket.
You didn’t know about this, Khoth?
No, which is interesting and dismaying, Khoth admitted. I might have seen Daesah use one of these at one point, but I did not understand what it was or its significance.
“Going back to the deaths,” Thammah said as she tapped her chin, “why, even if it was a spy squad sent by the Council, would they kill the Moturins? Why not just pull rank? Stay silent? Leave? The labyrinth is not owned by anyone. So it is not as if they would be seen as trespassing by the Moturins.”
“Gehenna, what about the Moturins’ comms? Was there nothing there?” Jace asked.
Their comms were not uploading any data to the cloud while they were below ground and, unfortunately, they were smashed to bits in the fight. There was no data that I could retrieve from them, Gehenna said sadly.
“These killers sure know their stuff,” Davies said with a shake of his head. “They made sure there was nothing left behind and the cleaning bots did the rest.”
“How can you be certain that there are any murderers at all?” Amana asked and gestured at Gehenna. “You said that you were nearly killed by the Razor Wolf. How do we know that the guards were not killed the same way?”
I made a minute observation of the wounds! Gehenna’s tail whirled around as she spoke. They were made by rahirs and not the weaponry that is currently employed on the Razor Wolves.
“I see, yes, that does clarify things. I just cannot believe that any of our people would be involved in this!” Amana splayed one hand across her chest.
“I can understand why that would be distressing,” Jace said. “We are not certain that the killers came from here. It appears the most likely egress point from the labyrinth but there are, undoubtedly, others.”
“What about cameras in the Compound?” Jack asked. “Surely, there are recordings of anyone coming down here and then returning.”
“There is only surveillance in those sections of the Compound where intruders would be able to gain access,” Typhon explained. “Surveillance here was not seen as a priority.”
“The labyrinth could let someone come and go from this Compound. I’d say you need to plug this leak.” Davies jerked a thumb towards the doors.
“Yes, I see now the danger this poses. It will be done.” Typhon inclined his head.
Khoth wasn’t terribly surprised by the lack of safeguards. Haseon was generally peaceful. There was low crime. The labyrinths were off limits to most and were seen as dangerous to access at the best of times. The Moturins likely had never thought of people creeping through them to access their basement doors.
Unfortunately, Jace said, that innocence has been shattered.
Yes, but Typhon has never truly been innocent. I wish to know why he sent his people after ours in the first place, Khoth said. Do you agree with me asking this?
Yes, go ahead. I’m curious what he’ll say.
“We should address why any House Moturin Guards were spying on our crew in the first place,” Khoth said with a hard look at Typhon.
Typhon, of course, merely looked back coolly as he continued to stroke his chin. Khoth was not surprised at this. Typhon had, undoubtedly, been waiting for this question since the death of the guards was discovered. Khoth was surprised that he didn’t whip one out but kept quiet for a time.
Typhon’s gaze flickered to Jace. “The labyrinth is a sacred place to us. We wished to see that nothing was disturbed that did not need to be.”
Khoth wished to retort that it was only sacred, because it was created by the Altaeth. Jace was the last Altaeth left. He, of all people, should have the right to investigate the labyrinth and do as he wished with it. But General Intoshkin had not yet been made aware of Jace, Jack and Diane’s lineage. That would have to be dealt with but not now. It posed yet more problems than they needed.
“I understand your concerns. The labyrinth holds many mysteries,” Jace said to Typhon with more warmth than he deserved. “And many dangers, as we’ve discovered.”
Jace petted Gehenna with two carefully placed fingers again.
“We need to reclaim the bodies of the guards and inform their immediate families,” Amana said with a touch of grief. Her fingers flexed against her chest.
Jace grimaced at her words and lowered his head. “I’m afraid that won’t be possible.”
“What? Why? Surely, if we send a heavily armed force down, we should be safe! Especially if you would be so kind as to lend us Gehenna,” Amana asked with a tip of her head towards the Razor Wolf.
“The cleaning bots,” Jace began and cleared his throat, “will have already done their jobs.”
“Oh!” Amana made the symbol for the Altaeth again in front of her and put her finger to her lips as she quickly prayed.
“I’m sorry. As I said before I don’t have control of all of the machinery down below,” Jace answered.
How much of it do you control, Izail?
Truthfully? Very little. I would need to go down there and hardwire myself in to make connections to it. That would be a mess according to Gehenna. Not worth doing right now, Jace admitted. And very dangerous. There are more than just Razor Wolves down there.
Yes, murderers that have covered their tracks too well, Khoth remarked.
And other things, too.
Khoth felt a trace of atavistic fear inside of his Xi light up at those words. He had always been fascinated and repelled by the labyrinth. He only had joy at the thought of exploring the huge vastness of space and other planets. But the thought of entering Haseon’s lower levels had always frightened him on some level. Perhaps it was because they had been told for so long that it was forbidden to go there and he was a rule follower. But that did not seem to address the deep down dread his Xi contained.
After seeing what the team faced down there, you aren’t wrong to feel that way, Khoth, Jace told him.
“Since we cannot be sure who did this, we need to all be on our guard. Be alert. Be aware,” Davies said, and he sent Khoth a private note on the comm that they needed to talk about Jace’s safety.
“It is amazing to me that you can right this moment be fixing other planet’s defense systems so many light years away but the machines below our feet are mostly inaccessible to you,” Typhon remarked with a tap of one foot on the ground..
“Only because I don’t wish to take the time to do so right now,” Jace told him. “The Khul aren’t going to come up through the labyrinth. The defensive and offensive capabilities of the planetary defense grids are all at near surface level. That’s what I’m focused on.”
“The boy is repairing your whole Alliance’s territory and you’re complaining he can’t do more this minute?” Intoshkin lifted an eyebrow at Typhon.
“No, I did not mean to insinuate I was ungrateful for anything that the Pilot has done or is doing for us. I was just thinking of the limitations he has,” Typhon answered.
Khoth did not like the word “limitations” because Jace’s thought immediately went to that dark place of not being able to do simple, daily things. His joy at being reborn as he had been was now tempered with the knowledge that he still was limited in ways others were not. But he and Jace were not alone in finding that choice of word unfortunate.
“So you can exploit those limitations?” Intoshkin let out a soft, dark chuckle as he said this.
Typhon went rigid. “You purposely misunderstand–”
“No, I don’t think I do. You were far smarter than the Council to see that the Pilot is the answer to your problems, and then you thought you were even smarter than them by befriending him. And now, you think you’ll be the smartest of all if you know everything about him so you can control him,” Intoshkin said.
“So I can protect him.” Typhon narrowed his eyes at the general.
“Protect him? From your own people?” Intoshkin asked.
“From everyone. You accuse others of what you wish to do,” Typhon stated and stepped towards Intoshkin menacingly. “And you don’t even know who he is.”
“Brother, please!” Amana touched his arm. “Tempers are high after everything–everything that’s happened today.”
“Ha! I don’t know who that boy is?” Intoshkin’s face reddened. “He’s the son of my–”
“General,” Diane warned. “Please, Amana is right. We are all not at our best. It’s been a trying day. Let’s not turn that frustration on each other.”
“I invited you into my home, General. I did not have to do that,” Typhon said coldly. “But if you are a threat to the Pilot–”
“No one is a threat to the Pilot here! For if they were, they would have to answer to me!” Diane flared, then she took a breath and added, “You’ve been incredibly kind to us, Justiciar Moturin, and we all appreciate what you’ve done in opening your doors to humanity and the Osiris. Trust in the welcome you’ve given and continue to treat us as friends.” She gave the general a hard look before continuing, “And we will do the same.”
Typhon bowed. “You are, of course, correct. We are very glad you are here.”
“It’s late,” Jace said. “Everyone is exhausted after the day we’ve had. I think a good night’s sleep is in order.”
Khoth felt a flare of heat over their bond as Jace imagined having more alone time together that night.
“Tomorrow promises to be an even more busy day if you intend to meet with all of the species you reached out to,” Typhon said.
“I do. And I would like to do it at the art museum. Here.” Jace sent the coordinates to Typhon. “Can that be arranged?”
It was the art museum that Jace’s father had such a connection to.
Typhon bowed again. “It will be done.”
And that means, we can finally be alone, Khoth.
Yes, Izail. I am as eager as you are.