CHAPTER TEN: INTERGALACTIC CRIMINAL?
“Why would an AI need to be in a physical prison cell?” Khoth murmured.
“Forget that, Commander! Why would an AI be in prison at all? Is Gehenna some kind of intergalactic criminal?” Thammah asked, hands on hips, as she scanned their dark and foreboding surroundings.
Jace gave out a wheeze, which Khoth realized was actually a laugh, but he was so weak that it sounded more like a simple exhale of breath. Guilt assaulted him. The young man was near death. He could see the closing shadows in Jace’s gray eyes. He’d seen those same ones in Daesah’s.
I did not break the Rule of Duuskukeh to stop her suffering at the hands of the Khul! He reminded himself. I did not do it in a vain hope that somehow she could be saved. I did not do it because I couldn’t imagine a universe without her. Did I?
There had been no chance to save Daesah, regardless of what his Xi had wanted. Khul infected their prisoners the moment they were taken. Once the prisoners were on their ships, there was simply no chance for them. The only thing Khoth could have offered Daesah was to end her suffering and to stop the Khul from learning all she knew.
But there was a way to save Jace.
All he had to do was take Jace to Gehenna and not interfere. Not delay the completion of whatever this connection was. Not seek another solution that would allow him to have the best of both worlds. All he needed to do was to honor his word to Jace.
But, in doing so, he would be again violating the Rule of Duuskukeh.
He could almost hear his mother’s voice telling him that what would be best for the whole was if he used Jace to find Gehenna, but did not allow the connection to complete. His mother would remind him that Gehenna had the potential of increasing their knowledge of, not only Precursor technology, but the Precursors themselves, which was invaluable. What if Gehenna could lead them to other unknown Altaeth worlds with stockpiles of new weaponry and technology that could aid their war against the Khul? What if she could tell them the history of the war between the Altaeth and the Khul? What had started it? What could end it? What if Gehenna knew where the Altaeth were now? And how to reach them?
Allowing Jace to connect to Gehenna would mean that this information--if it existed--would be shared only with the humans. Unless, of course, Jace wished to tell others. The humans--though they seemed to understand the necessity of the fight with the Khul--might try to use access to this information to bargain their way into the Alliance.
Humans are said to be too primitive to join us. And they could more than join us with the power of Gehenna. They could demand a position of leadership. Now that would be a disaster! To have a species that is barely able to stop destroying itself leading those who know better?
He shuddered at the thought.
So the Rule of Duuskukeh would dictate that he not allow this connection to happen. If such an action caused Jace’s death, that would be unfortunate. But the needs of the many simply outweighed one bright-eyed human’s life.
Letting Jace die would likely damage the accord with humanity. He had no way of knowing whether he could easily transport Gehenna off Earth. Based upon her actions so far, it appeared she was limited in her ability to transfer from the prison cell. Perhaps she was even limited to a physical form of some sort. That would explain the need for a physical prison like this one. And it might mean she was simply too bulky to remove without assistance and time. Neither of which they had. He had his exo-suit monitoring the humans’ communications and they were all searching for him, Thammah and Jace. The whole of the base was on red alert.
Again, even if he could shoot his way out, would the loss of life, the loss of an alliance be worth it? Gehenna, being in a prison cell, complicated the potential benefits she offered. Someone had put her in there. Someone had perhaps thought she needed to be locked up. Though from Jace’s pained amusement at her being classified as an intergalactic criminal, he did not seem to think her current whereabouts were a dealbreaker.
But she has linked herself to him for a long time, Khoth reasoned. She is his only chance of survival. Humans have difficulty with pure, clear-headed Xa at the best of times. This is hardly one of those times for Jace. So he might simply not want to admit the truth about her.
And yet, he also had to admit that Jace had remained remarkably calm throughout this.
There was also another point against letting Jace die, which is what if, as she had told Jace, Jace was truly the only one who could connect with her? If Jace died that eliminated the possibility of them ever having access to her knowledge and abilities.
After all, Thaf’ell had been aboard the Osiris since its discovery, but Gehenna had not partially bonded with any of them. He could always argue that taking Gehenna at her word--or Jace’s word really--was the only logical course as he did not know what might happen otherwise. And the risk of losing Gehenna altogether was too great as compared to sharing her with the humans.
I could always argue… My thoughts betray me. I am searching for a reason to not let Jace die.
The young man’s eyes were now closed and his breathing was coming in short gasps. His skin was gray, an unnatural color for a human and a sheen of sweat covered his face. Khoth imagined for a moment if those eyes never opened again, or, if the next time he saw them they were glazed over with the cataracts of death. He shuddered.
“Jace doesn’t have any more time, Commander. We need to get him to Gehenna,” Thammah reminded him.
Her narrowed eyes also told him that she was aware of his inner turmoil. Though as a Thaf’ell she should be more concerned that he was leaning towards helping Jace no matter what the cost, rather than concerned he was considering how he might save Jace and keep the AI for the Thaf’ell. But he had a feeling that she--like himself--wouldn’t be considered a very good Thaf’ell in many eyes.
“We need to find a way to open her cell door remotely. A control panel or something that our exo-suits can interface with,” Khoth said as he cast about for anything like that and found nothing. “We are not going to be able to access it manually.”
Gehenna’s prison cell was at the far end. While all of the doors that lined the hallway were impressive in terms of thickness and banding of the calcanth, there also looked to be sophisticated locking mechanisms attached to each and Gehenna’s looked even more complicated.
Even now, his exo-suit’s system told him that these doors remained firmly locked even without any power going to them. This was unusual, because normally when power failed, locks automatically were opened, even in prison colonies for the safety of the prisoners. But here, it was clear that the overwhelming purpose was to keep whatever was locked in these cells inside no matter what the cost. His suit’s scanners were not even able to penetrate the cell’s structure to see who or what was imprisoned inside. Not that it was likely that anything could have survived all this time.
Except for an AI like Gehenna, he reminded himself.
“I don’t see anything. All these doors appear locked.” Thammah was tapping on her exo-suit’s holographic controls that had appeared over her right forearm.
“Just--just get to the door,” Jace got out. “I can… I can open it like the other parts. Still connected to the Osiris, too.”
“It will be done,” Khoth said.
They immediately began to climb the hallway. It was much harder going up than coming down had been as the hallway was at a 45 degree tilt. Even with the assistance of the exo-suit, his leg muscles strained.
“Sorry I can’t--I can’t walk,” Jace got out.
“I think Khoth likes holding you in his arms, Jace,” Thammah said with a wink at him. “For as often as he gazes down upon you--”
Khoth scowled at her, about to offer a rebuke to such flippery at this moment. But she must have understood Jace’s Xi better than he did as a hint of color filled the young man's face.
“You think?” Jace smiled even as his eyes remained closed. “That’s nice to be wanted.”
Khoth put more effort into his climbing. He wanted those eyes open.
“Why is she down here?” Thammah muttered.
“Perhaps she was placed here to protect her,” Khoth suggested.
“From what?” Thammah lifted an eyebrow at him.
He saw that she kept looking over her shoulder as if she heard something following them. She was not afraid of the humans, he knew. Their exo-suits made it quite clear that the humans were well above them with no idea about the hatch or the shaft. Only Jace had been able to make the hatch work in any case.
“The rip in the Osiris’ hull, why has no one mentioned that it looks to have been caused by some internal act?” Khoth asked.
“That’s above my paygrade,” Thammah said.
Khoth’s forehead furrowed. “About your what?”
“It means that it isn’t something that I was assigned to look into,” Thammah told him. “I’d assumed that other Alliance members than me had their reasons for not including that in the previous reports. And I’m not much of a report person myself so…”
Khoth could very well believe that while Thammah would have any ship in pristine condition, she would likely never write even a line on a report.
“But this is crucial to knowing how and why the Osiris crash landed here,” Khoth said with a deep frown.
Perhaps the Osiris had been boarded. Or perhaps there had been spies who had tried to sabotage the spaceship. Perhaps there had even been a mutiny of some sort.
I have never seen such a large brig in a Precursor ship, but the Osiris is larger than most in many respects. Still, perhaps its purpose was to transport dangerous criminals.
“She says she doesn’t know. Some of her systems were damaged,” Jace replied faintly.
The sound of his voice--so weak and raspy compared to before--had Khoth practically throwing himself up the last few feet to the door of Gehenna’s prison.
“Jace, we are here. Are you speaking with Gehenna? How do we get inside?” Khoth asked.
Jace blindly reached for the door again without speaking. He seemed too exhausted to speak. Khoth had to guide his hand to it again. For a moment, Jace’s fingers curled around his. The young man held onto his as there was a momentary electric zap and the cold calcanth door suddenly rumbled to life. It sank back and then slid to the side.
Both he and Thammah leaned forward to see what was inside.
There was no light. No signs of life. Only the lights from their suits illuminated the square ten-by-ten foot space. There was a bunk that jutted out from the right side of the wall. He saw another receptacle for waste. An AI needed neither so this prison had not been intended for Gehenna when the Osiris was built.
But that was an afterthought as Khoth was transfixed by what was in the center of the room. At first, he didn’t know what he was seeing. It looked to be a jumble of black coils about twin inches in diameter tipped with metal claws and spikes. The coils were curled around one another like snakes. But they all merged--or perhaps emerged was the correct term--from one place. A bulbous glass-like sphere. The sphere appeared to be translucent, but right now had a dark center. It reminded him of a squid, an aquatic cephalopod found in some of Earth’s waters except made of metal and glass. All told, he imagined it would stand ten feet tall if the tips of the coils touched the ground and were completely unfurled.
“Is that… is that Gehenna?” Thammah asked, the confusion evident in her voice. There was a trace of alarm too. “This doesn’t look like… I mean… the tips of the coils are weapons.”
Jace’s arm slipped from his grasp. At first, Khoth thought it was intentional, that Jace was reaching for the “squid”, but then he realized that Jace wasn’t breathing.
“Jace! JACE!” Khoth cried. “He’s not breathing! He has no heartbeat!”
“What do we do? Put him in the arms of that thing?” Thammah gestured towards the “squid”.
But that seemed an insane suggestion. The “squid” was not operational. He set Jace’s body on the floor. Jace’s head lolled to the side. Those eyes were closed. He brought up his suit’s medical systems and adjusted it for human physiology. His fingers flew over the controls. Finally set, he placed his hands one over the other over Jace’s heart.
“Clear!” He yelled so that Thammah knew not to touch Jace in that moment.
An electrical shock went from his suit into Jace’s body. Jace “jumped” up with the jolt. But his suit told him that the shock had been unsuccessful.
Thammah stepped back. Her foot touched one of the coils. It shifted and slid into Jace’s palm. It happened just as he was applying the electric shock. He couldn’t stop in time. The shock ran through Jace and into the “squid”.
The “squid’s” head suddenly lit up like the sun rising on Haseon. The colors of molten red, orange and yellow bloomed so bright that he had to squint. The coils began to move. The “squid’s” head rose up from the ground.
“Whoa! It’s alive! Khoth, it’s alive!” Thammah cried out.
The coils slithered around Jace’s form, completely obscuring him from sight. Khoth had left his weapons, his rahir and draagves, back in the Exarch. But he still had the suit and his skills. He kicked out at the “squid’s” head. He didn’t even brush it with the sole of his boot.
The “squid’s” coils lifted Jace up off of the floor and then it rammed its bulbous head into Khoth’s middle. There was another electric zap and he was thrown out of the cell and landed flat on his back on the hallway. Except the hallway was sloped and he started sliding down it like a chute.
Thammah let out a yell before leaping onto the “squid’s” back, wrapping her arms around its head and coils. There was another zap and the scent of ozone filled the air. Thammah was launched against the cell’s wall. There was a solid thump as she impacted the calcanth. But the exo-suit generated a shield which stopped the back of her head from smacking against the metal wall. But still Thammah slid down, stunned for a moment.
And Khoth was still sliding.
But he was actually going in the same direction of the squid. It shot out of the cell and raced down the hallway. It levitated over him and continued to the far end of the hallway. The Osiris turned on as it moved. Lights that had been dormant blazed to life, blinding Khoth. Doors that had been sealed, opened at the squid’s approach. A thrum went through the entire ship. The Osiris was coming back to life.
Khoth jammed his feet against the walls and turned on the magnetic locks. He jerked to a halt just as the squid flew over him. He grabbed hold of those coils that were not wrapped around Jace’s body. For a moment, he stopped its forward momentum.
“ARGHHHHH!” Khoth cried as he strove to keep the squid in place.
But there was another zap and his suit’s magnetic locks failed. He was now flying along with the squid. He wrapped his right arm around the coils as he reached out with the left hand for something to hold onto. But the walls were smooth, even the thresholds gave him no chance to curl his fingers into the insets and gain some purchase. The squid headed for a lift that throbbed to life. The doors smoothly slipped open and the lights seemed to explode around them. The three of them were inside of the car and it was rocketing upwards before Khoth got his feet underneath him.
Khoth jumped up and spun around so that he was facing the squid. The seeming hundreds of tendrils curled around Jace in what seemed a protective stance. Other tendrils were suddenly lifted up and facing towards him. Spikes and claws all dripping with neurotoxins were aimed towards him. His exo-suit would block many of them, but not all. There were simply too many. The space was too small. He had nowhere to go. If the squid wanted him to die, he would.
What if this isn’t an enemy? Gehenna was supposed to be in that cell. Gehenna wants to save Jace. Maybe that’s who this is. Maybe she’s just trying to save Jace.
“Gehenna?” Khoth asked, his voice breathless, even as he was up on the balls of his feet and swayed from side to side.
The squid’s translucent head flashed with yellow lights. His exo-suit’s system fuzzed. He frowned.
“I cannot understand you,” Khoth said. He could see Jace’s body among the curling coils. “Jace is very ill.”
Jace might be dead.
His Xi hurt to even think that.
There were more flashing lights. Deep blues that were almost black. Greens the color of Haseon forests. Yellows like the morning sun.
“Are you trying to help Jace?” he asked. “Because I am trying to do so. I need to restart his heart. I need to get him breathing. Damage is occurring that cannot be undone.”
There were suddenly two straight lines that appeared on the squid’s face. The red line showed an erratic rhythm.
Heartbeat. That is Jace’s heart. It’s beating.
The blue line was more of a sine wave.
“So you’ve got his heart back and his breathing relatively stable. We need to get him--”
There were frantic flashes of lights. His exo-suit suddenly buzzed. He lifted up his right forearm and instead of his own vitals, there were words written in Thaf’ell.
Must get Jace to core.
He frowned. “Core? You mean the Osiris’ core?”
“Gehenna, is that you?”
Yes. Nice to meet you, Commander Khoth Voor. Help me?
Khoth’s gaze dropped to Jace.
“Can you save him?”
Yes. I do this for both of us. There was a pause and then Gehenna told him, We will have company when the elevator doors open. Ready? Three… two… one…
Khoth spun towards the doors as they silently whispered open. They had reached a level where the humans had breached. Khoth was staring into the eyes of three soldiers who were staring at the lift as if it were possessed. They hesitated before lifting their weapons. Khoth went for the one to the left. He lunged forward and hit the human soldier on the back of the neck. The soldier went down, unconscious, as if all the sand had been released from his body. The other two were hit with electric zaps. Their bodies arched before they, too, fell unconscious in heaps on the floor.
Gehenna floated ahead of him with Jace’s unconscious body in her coils. Khoth followed closely after her down the hallways that now flared with the Osiris’ own light rather than the humans’ strung lights. They met soldiers and scientists around every corner. The scientists ran. The soldiers didn’t have a chance to even reach for their weapons before either Khoth had downed them or Gehenna had.
He noticed though that her energy was flagging. She levitated lower to the ground and the last few soldiers that she attempted to zap caused them only to jerk back, confused. Khoth had to go in and slam heads against walls, crack skulls together, and kick legs out from beneath them before they went down.
Final hallway. There, Gehenna told him.
At the end of the hallway there was another door. There were boxes in front of it. This was a door that the humans had given up on trying to open. But it opened now. The boxes toppled. Gehenna glided over them while Khoth cleared them with a jump. Just as he entered the room beyond, someone called his name.
“Khoth!” Colonel Diane Parker called. He knew it was her the moment he turned his head to look back. She and Jace had the same cheekbones. Her face was stricken. “Commander Khoth! Please let my son go!”
She was surrounded by soldiers. They all had their guns out. Pointed at him and Gehenna.
Just as the doors were sliding shut, Khoth said, “We cannot. We are saving him.”