CHAPTER NINETY-ONE: HELL OF A DAY
Amana, Typhon and Thadden were waiting for them on the Moturin landing pad. Thadden immediately greeted his son with a warm press of hands before stepping back and bowing to Jace and Jack. Typhon merely inclined his head. Amana stepped over to Jace with a wide smile on her lips.
She wore all white today. Her clothes were elegant and almost architectural. She had a high, V-shaped collar that rose several inches above the top of her head, but with an opening in the back for her hair to fall through. The front looked to be a breastplate of sorts, also v-shaped with the point of the V at her waist where it tucked into a dark blue belt. Dark blue pants flowed over the top of mid-calf boots. Her arms were bare, but she covered most of her forearms with bracelets.
“We thought you might be getting an early start,” she said. “Though there was nothing in the electronic record of when you intended to take off, Pilot, but we’re sure that was an oversight to not alert us to your plans.”
“There was no need to alert you, was there? The Osiris informed me of your location on the landing pad, though I’m sorry you had to be up here for two hours waiting for us while we slept,” Jace answered easily. “The sun has barely kissed the horizon as it is.”
It was way too damned early in Jace’s opinion even as he smiled at her, Typhon and Thadden. The men were as elegantly dressed as she was, but more blue than white, which appeared to be the Moturin colors.
“We feared you might try and ditch us. Ditch us? Yes, I believe that is the correct phrase, isn’t it?” Thadden asked with an almost impish smile. The man had come alive since he’d decided to throw some of the Thaf’ell rules overboard.
You are right, Izail. His Xi is quite effervescent, Khoth answered. His Commander was dressed in sleek black just as he and his father were.
I’m glad, though I wonder how long that will last today! Nova is accompanying the Council, Jace said.
He held Chili for an hour this morning. His Xi will retain its equilibrium, Khoth assured him.
So Chili is some kind of Thaf’ell Xi-whisperer? Jace bit his inner cheek to stop from laughing.
Indeed. As are you, but I believe that you are even better than she–my first love–at calming us, Khoth answered, not quite suppressing his smile.
I’m going to really have to watch that pig or she’s going to run off with you.
It is a possibility, Izail. Most indeed, it is. Khoth smiled fully at the horizon.
Jace was grinning too. He couldn’t help it, but he forced himself to focus back on the others.
“We wanted to get to the museum before the Council did. I have good intel that they intend to make the neutral location of the art museum far less neutral,” Jace explained.
In fact, the Osiris had provided him with audio, video, fast messages and more, which told him exactly what the plan was. The cameras in the museum showed him that the Council already had people setting up a table and chairs where they would sit, forcing Jace and his people to stand before them rather like a tribunal. But Jace would get there before them and he and his people would take the seats first. It was a bit like that game where there were less chairs than people and so long as the music played everyone had to dance around, but when the music stopped, the people who didn’t have a seat were out. The Council would be out.
He ran a hand down the front of his uniform. He had on the undersuit and this official one over it. Both hugged his frame and he felt quite armored both physically and mentally by it somehow. This helped with his “war” against the Council for sure.
“As soon as I asked permission for its use, I feared this would occur,” Typhon said. “They believe that their people are in charge of the set up, but–”
“Yours are handling most of it? Yes, I know. And Davies has already been working on the security protocols. Well, the security that I haven’t already fixed,” Jace said with an easy smile.
“You have repaired the museum like you did the Moturin Compound?” Amana asked tentatively.
“Indeed, everything will be in order when we get there,” Jace assured her.
“We? So you were not going to–”
“Ditch you?” Jace flashed Khoth’s father just as impish a smile back. “No, Justiciar Thadden. Not in the least. I just intended…”
Jace stopped. Why he had wanted to go early to the museum was more complicated than he’d realized. His father put a hand on Jace’s shoulder as he considered whether to tell them or not his family’s connection to the building.
His father took that choice, thankfully, out of his hands as he grinned and said, “Jace wanted to see the old homestead. So do I. We wanted to do that before anything official started.”
“The… the old homestead?” Typhon’s forehead furrowed clearly confused by how an art museum had anything to do with a home.
But so many of the buildings on Haseon had been repurposed since the Altaeth lived here that Jace could have told him that almost nothing was the same. But the Osiris had been clear that the art museum had once been a family home for his clan.
“The museum was once the home of the Pilot who came to Earth,” Jace explained. “It’s amazing it’s still here at all. Dad,” he looked over at his father, “sensed a connection to it when he flew down and the Osiris confirmed there was a reason for the feeling of familiarity.”
Amana’s eyebrows rose. Her right hand fluttered to where the V of the collar met her breastbone. “Your–your home? And you sensed it, Flight Commander Parker?”
“Indeed, I did,” his father answered easily. “Though it was all quite a shock to learn why.”
His father was looking elegant and lean in the black uniform with the high black boots just as he had in his US military gear. But Jace couldn’t help but feel a point of pride that his father was now in a uniform for his ship. He was an officer serving under Jace and Jace couldn’t be luckier for that.
“Obviously, it’s been ages since anyone related to us lived there, and there'll be nothing there to show anything about the people who once inhabited it unless there’s some localized database like the one here that the Osiris and Gehenna can’t sense, but…” Jace paused, “But I just wanted to see it before everything goes to Hell.”
“Of course, you must!” Amana insisted. She looked up at her brother. “Perhaps we should let them go alone then, brother? To walk the halls of their ancestors? That should be a private act surely!”
Typhon appeared uncertain about this. Clearly, his desire to keep the Pilot safe was conflicting with his need to honor the Altaeth. Jace took that problem out of his hands just like his father had done for him.
“No, no, you’ve waited here long enough,” Jace assured her. “Besides, there are already staff there and, like I said, there’ll be nothing remaining of our family’s past there.” He was surprised at the spike of sadness in him. “There are plenty of places on Earth where our family has been much more recently with a call to our hearts. So this was rather a silly endeavor, but…”
“But this is different,” Typhon stated instead of questioning. His blue-on-blue eyes searched Jace’s face and he gave half a nod. “You hope to find a connection here. A link to your Altaeth ancestors on a far away planet.”
Jace opened his mouth to downplay that was what he felt, but instead he nodded. “I admit now that I know we have connections to the Altaeth, I want to know more about them for personal rather than just strategic reasons.”
“You most certainly shall then,” Amana said firmly.
“We will take the canceaux over so Flight Commander Pyrrhus does not need to keep circling,” Typhon offered. “If that is acceptable.”
Jace nodded and sent a message to Thammah, Davies, Matzen and Gehenna in the drop ship to head over to the museum. “Yes, that sounds like a plan. I want some juice you keep stocked inside. And we will still beat the Council there by a few minutes at least.”
The six of them entered into the back of the canceaux and took their seats. Khoth got him a bottle of the cherry-like juice that had fast become Jace’s favorite. Thankfully, Gehenna had rustled up some food he could eat this morning–no larva, no unidentifiable slime–but he knew he was going to need quite a bit of sustenance today.
“Is Gehenna going to be joining us?” Amana asked.
She was seated opposite him and Khoth. It was a bit of a tight squeeze with all of them inside. Jace tried to imagine Gehenna in there with all her razors and that tail…
“She will. She’s with Thammah and the others,” Jace explained.
“I had hoped she would be with us,” Amana actually pouted a little bit.
“Ah, I do not think there would be room for her new body this time around,” Thadden remarked.
“She would slice us to ribbons if she were in here now, Amana, though I know she wants a far more pettable form,” his father said easily as the canceaux lifted off.
His father was right. But Davies had urged her not to change her form quite yet. He believed it would be a good idea to look outwardly as fierce as she inwardly could be.
“You must be pleased with the amount of Alliance species that have answered your call,” Typhon said. “Haseon is a cosmopolitan place, but even we have not seen some of these races in grand cycles.”
“It’s a start,” Jace agreed as he wiped his palms over the fronts of his thighs. “But I hope they come to help and not bicker.”
“Your mention of the word Hell earlier seems to indicate you believe bickering will be at the topmost of today’s activities,” Thadden said with a gentle smile.
“If Justiciars are anything like Earth lawyers then I’m sure you all look forward to a good argument,” Jace answered with equanimity.
“I believe we do. There is nothing so invigorating than a logical argument that one may shoot down point by point,” Thadden agreed.
“You assume the arguments will be logical, Father,” Khoth pointed out. “But the Khul do not inspire logic, but fear.”
“You can use fear, too,” Typhon murmured.
“Yeah, that didn’t work so well with the Council, remember?” Jace gave a faint smile.
They lapsed into silence as the canceaux flew towards the art museum and the sky ruddied with red and gold light.
Do you truly believe it will be Hell today, Izail? Khoth asked over their mental connection.
Oh, yeah, even though I’m excited to start meeting our potential new crew, today is going to be a long, hard one, Jace said.
The number of species who have arrived to meet with you will well exceed one standard cycle to interview, let alone choose crew, Khoth corrected him. Even if you are certain who you wish to join us, convincing the Council and their representatives to allow them to do so will take time.
You’re right, of course. I’m just not quite sure we have that time. Jace paused and then added, But there are two species, at least, who we don’t have to argue with the Council about.
Which ones do you mean, Izail? Now Khoth’s brow was deeply furrowed.
He wasn’t surprised that Khoth didn’t know. They were still several gates away, but they would arrive soon. And they were not species that would generally join the Alliance.
The Stil and Vrecid, Jace answered, knowing it was going to cause Khoth shock and perhaps a little dismay.
Khoth’s mind was studiously blank. His lips had parted but he quickly closed them.
You believe that they will come? Khoth finally asked.
I know they’re coming and will arrive in about 2 standard Earth hours, Jace said.
Again, there was a long pause before Khoth carefully said, If you are to negotiate with them to join the Osiris crew, you know that you will likely lose cooperation from several other species, do you not?
He had clearly learned to trust Jace’s judgment, even, or perhaps especially about, controversial decisions. But Khoth also clearly knew that this would be a dealbreaker for some of those in the Alliance considering the Stil and Vreced were considered enemies by many, perhaps not as hated as the Khul, but a close second and third.
I know, Jace answered. But both of those species bring with them great benefits. The Stil’s whole society is based upon how many Khul they kill.
Not just Khul, Khoth reminded him.
No, not just Khul, Jace agreed. One of their warriors is worth nearly 10 Thaf’ell, who are, indeed, superior. Do you agree with me there?
Yes, but they need to be that skilled as they work alone. I do not understand why they accepted your invitation to meet unless, here Khoth paused, unless they are measuring you up for prey.
They are definitely trying to decide if I am predator or prey, that’s to be sure, Jace said. But they are coming.
The Vreced have more in common with the Khul than with us. They are not a Seeded Species, Khoth pointed out. They have queens and hives. Not the same as the Khul, but they are close cousins. The Khul do not attack them often.
No, they don’t and it should make us wonder why. They don’t use Altaeth weapons yet they are able to defend themselves through their mostly organic weaponry, Jace said.
But, again, why would they draw more of the Khul’s enmity? Khoth asked.
Because the Khul have already drawn theirs, Jace explained. The Osiris found that Planet Drion was the location of their newest hive led by a popular queen. The Khul attacked and killed the queen. She fought despite being pregnant so they lost her and a whole brood.
I see, Khoth said. So anger is motivating them to come.
Yeah, curiosity, anger, revenge, fear, politics, bickering, all of it is going to be on full display today. So that’s why I called it Hell, Jace laughed.
His father half rising from his seat alerted Jace that they were near the museum. Sunlight was just starting to filter around the main dome. It made the dun-colored walls glow like fire.
“I can see why you made it into an art museum,” his father said after letting out a whistle. “It’s a beautiful building.”
“While many of the structures in this area of the city are more utilitarian, this one shows more Xi than Xa,” Typhon stated.
And it did. There was something almost spiritual about the place, but playful too with its open dome and graceful, curving walls. There was a pattern imprinted on the stone that made it look almost like scales as if a gigantic dragon were curled up with its tail pulled tightly around it. Trees, flowers and other plants surrounded the central dome. Climbing vines stretched up the walls. The moment the canceaux landed and the doors opened, Jace could smell sweet flowers over the bitter exhaust.
The others let him and Jack out first. Jace stepped onto the dark-red paver path that was as wide as ten people across that gracefully inclined to an arched opening into the main sphere.
“Good lord, what a place!” his father murmured as he put his hands on his hips and regarded it. “It’s definitely not like anything at home. But it feels like it is.”
Jace nodded. He found himself wordless as his eyes followed the curving lines of the sphere. He wanted to get inside.
“Why do you suppose you remember this place, Flight Commander Parker?” Thadden asked as he stepped up beside them.
“It’s not a memory. More of a feeling,” Jack explained. “If you’ve ever had a sense that you’ve found what you’re looking for even though you had no idea that you were looking for anything? That’s what this place does to me. I wonder if your mother will feel the same, Jace.”
“We’ll find out a little later. She and General Intoshkin will be joining us as humanity has offered a human crew for the Osiris. They’ve volunteered to answer any questions the other species might have,” Jace explained.
“We trust Jace Parker with our people so you should too?” His father grinned.
“I hope there are those who will take you up on your offer, Pilot,” Typhon said coolly. “But the Council will be making deals with all of them not to. Or, if they do send any crew, it is because the Council has allowed it.”
“Yeah, I’m aware,” Jace said, still thinking of the Stil and Vreced, which would make this even a harder sell to some of those species.
“I worry that they have seen you help them regardless of their contributions, and will think that they can simply sit back and reap the benefits of your largesse without aiding in the war effort,” Typhon remarked.
Jace worried about that too. But it seemed morally wrong to him to require people to “pay” for protection against the Khul when he could do much with relatively little effort.
It will not be little once you are facing off against the Khul, the Osiris spoke simply. And there are limited resources at this time to be doled out. There, too, you will have to make decisions.
Yes, I know, Osiris, but I want to have hope that people will do what’s right, Jace told it.
Right and wrong are amorphous, subjective concepts that are different in society to society, let alone species to species, the Osiris reminded him relatively patiently. Your mind has been shaped by human experiences in the United States of America. You are Altaeth, but you are… human, as well.
Jace mentally nodded. The Osiris was right, of course. Everything he was basing himself on was human concepts, human leaders, human morality and those were distinctly American in many ways, but he thought there were some universal beliefs that could attract other species too.
I can only be what I am, Osiris. I cannot be everything for everybody, Jace reminded it.
But you can use what they want you to be against them, the Osiris said. You were willing to do this against Nova Voor, but now you are uncertain about its utility.
Because, like I told Typhon, it didn’t work altogether well, now did it?
Jace left the conversation as he and his father were at the entrance to the museum. Khoth and Thadden were directly behind him while Amana and Typhon brought up the rear.
The doors were already swung open, but there was still a forcefield in front of the door. Not that this in any way impeded Jace. He had access to every system, especially these. The force field peeled back. His father grinned at him and they both stepped inside the dome.
The dome was actually more like an olive with the pit removed from the center as if waiting for a pimento to be stuck inside. There was a courtyard in the center that was open to the sky. There was a force field up above that could let in rain or keep it out. Not just rain, of course, but Khul ships too. Jace had fixed all of the electronic systems. But there was no risk of rain now. The sun was shining as if it was welcoming what was to come.
The individual rooms encircled the outside of the dome. There were curving walkways that went up to each floor. There were also glass-enclosed lifts that looked so delicate that they might shatter, but they were stronger than any material known on Earth. The rooms up above no longer contained beds or couches or a kitchen, but instead were rooms that were filled with art. The meeting room was on the first floor opposite the main doors. It was an amphitheater-like space with soaring ceilings and light streaming in from invisible windows on the outside of the dome.
“Do you smell that water, Jace? And the trees? So sweet and fresh!” His father enthused as he took a few quick steps forward into the center of the courtyard.
Bubbling streams criss-crossed the circular floor. Stone bridges gracefully rose over them. Clumps of trees with cherry-colored bark and golden leaves stretched their branches towards the ceiling. None of them were, of course, old enough to have been here when their family had been, but they seemed right to Jace.
Little cleaner bots were zooming openly about the place. Amana watched them with wide eyes as they raced around the space. The cleaner bots had, of course, always been there, working behind the scenes. But there had long been less and less of them. But now there was a full contingent. Not to mention the little AIs that regulated systems like the forcefield, lights, lifts and more were now all awake and zipping around. There was a happy sense of activity and life. The machines reacted positively to this as well.
It was then that Gehenna thundered by, which had her jerked back and collided with her brother who gripped her firmly. He looked slightly alarmed as well as Gehenna stalked back to them, wanting to be petted, but knowing it was not to be. Gehenna’s tail swished dangerously before the single eye in the end lifted and stared at Jace.
These bots’ programming has deteriorated! They left dust everywhere! I have gone in and cleaned up the code! Gehenna told him.
Thank you, Gehenna. This place will gleam for our guests, Jace told her as he gave her a mental pat.
She frisked visibly with her head going down and her butt going up in the air, which she waggled. Then she was off after a cleaner bot who had left a streak on one of the windows. This seemed to assure Amana that they were dealing with Gehenna and not some rogue Altaeth creation.
“I’ve never seen so many of the bots!” she laughed, lifting a hand up to where the V of her collar met her chest. “And Gehenna is chasing them much like a real animal would her prey!”
“She’s definitely the alpha of the pack here,” Jace agreed. “She’s just establishing her dominance.”
Thadden blinked as he asked, “Is that necessary with machines?”
“She seems to think it is.” Jace shrugged.
Pilot, the Council are arriving. You might want to take your place, Davies sent over the comm.
Will do. Have our other guests arrived? Jace asked as he gestured for the others to follow him across the expanse of the courtyard to the amphitheater.
They have and the first person on your list is a Chal Gilutu-Cha, a Phosh from the planet of Pyteonu, Davies sent and Jace could almost hear him sounding out the words on the comm. There was a pregnant pause and then, He looks like a tree-frog, Pilot, but he’s nearly as tall as me. Another pause and then, Says I look like a hairless monkey. He’s seen pictures of them. Evidently, this is a compliment of the highest order.
Jace grinned. Maybe today won’t be so bad. Be ready to send in Chal Gilutu-Cha in ten minutes.
But the Council wants to speak with you first? Davies put a question mark on the end of what was a statement.
We need to keep them rattled, Davies, Jace said with that grin growing. Let’s not let them get their feet under them.
This should be a fun, Hell of a day, Pilot!
And Jace could almost hear him laughing.