CHAPTER FIFTY - LAST NIGHT
This was the last time there would be a mostly human crew on the Osiris. They would be leaving for the Gate to Haseon tomorrow. Jace had determined that they needed to celebrate before going into the great beyond and everything really changed.
As much as they all thought their lives were different now, including himself, heading towards the second star to the right and straight on till morning would really change things. They would go to their first alien world. They would take on different species as crewmates. They would then be on a mission to destroy the Khul, but also to explore, to see what they could find and understand it.
Jace gazed out at his new crew as they milled around the large ballroom that the Osiris had set up. Drinks and food were distributed by silent robots. The food was made of space paste, but with the help of the chefs that Jace and Khoth had brought aboard the Osiris’ understanding of human, at least, taste buds had been significantly enhanced.
Every dish had been tasted, evaluated, and improved by the human palates. Alien foodstuffs would be brought aboard as they traveled for the chefs to learn about and create new dishes that would delight the crew and supplement the space paste. Some of the ingredients might have medical uses and also scientific breakthroughs. So not only the chefs were excited about that.
Everyone was in their formal crew uniforms. Jace’s was all black with a slice of neon green at the throat of his Chinese-style collar jacket. Over his heart was a simple logo stitched in that same neon green of a stylized ‘O’ with another ring around it to represent the Osiris. The ship was working on different logos, which he found almost cute.
Imagery is very important for most of the species we will be dealing with, the Osiris sounded waspish as it did when he was teasing it.
I know, I know.
If you think of powerful regimes from the present and past, images flashed before his mind from the stars and stripes to the sickle and hammer to the Nazi swastika, which he wasn’t happy to have them compared to at all, you can see the psychological impact they have even on you.
Yeah, the swastika--
Your instinctive negative reaction is proof that I’m right, the Osiris pointed out.
Okay, you’re right. I concede. Jace almost put up his hands.
There was a mollified silence then, But I have not found anything that symbolizes us yet. Nothing satisfactory. It should also be something that can be used to replace the selchitte--
How did you know I wanted to do that? Oh, wait, what am I saying? Only one of us has privacy. Jace though smiled.
He didn’t really mind the Osiris or Gehenna in his head. With everything that was on his shoulders, he was glad that they were there to help him lift it and give advice. He was never alone and he was happy about that.
You are the Pilot that is both to be and never be alone, the Osiris answered softly.
Yeah, tomorrow I’m taking all of these people into the great unknown, Jace reminded the AI unnecessarily. I’ve asked them all to just ‘trust me’. Every single person on this ship is relying upon me.
They know the risks. It was explained in great detail in the packet that they had to review, initial each page, and sign at the end, the Osiris sounded piqued.
Jace sighed. Being in my head hasn’t taught you the simplest fact that no one reads contracts or terms of service or whatever? I mean, lawyers do, but not everything put in front of them for daily life. Besides, it doesn’t matter what anything says. The promise is there: that I know what I’m doing and I’ll keep them safe.
The Osiris seemed to be considering this as there was a long pause before it answered, We will keep them as safe as it is possible to be while adventuring on alien worlds and facing the Khul.
Jace grimaced. The Osiris was right. Even if the crew hadn’t read the fine print--or even the large print--they did all understand the innate danger in both those things. No one aboard the ship was here with the blind belief that this was a safe mission. They accepted the risk. But, still, he had to do his ultimate best.
Your skills are improving with every moment. Your training continues as you enter your rest cycles, the Osiris informed him.
And that was comforting. He wanted--no, needed--as much experience as he could get.
He plucked a piece of lint off his slim-fitting black pants that were tucked into highly-polished, knee-high black boots. He wore his soft suit underneath this so if he had to change into the form-fitting armor it would be easier.
In case something happens, he thought.
Maybe he would just wear his armor all the time. That seemed almost reasonable. But not even Commander Shepherd had always worn his hard suit. And people expected things to be like on Star Trek where there were different uniforms for different occasions. If he constantly wore his armor, that might make people more nervous.
Or more aware of what’s coming. He grimaced. No, no, this mission is not only about killing Khul. It has to be more than that.
He wasn’t the only one dressed up, of course. Military personnel were in a dark gray uniform, similar to his own but with different slashes of color based upon rank. The pilots all had red slashes, accepting Khoth whose outfit was different as he was the Commander. Science personnel had a slate blue uniform with lighter blue slashes at their collars. Medical personnel had clean white uniforms. The chefs were dressed in dark brown outfits, similar to ones on Earth, except they were cut differently to have a sleeker, cleaner look and the material was truly space age. It wouldn’t stain, cut or burn.
One of those chefs--an Indonesian woman in her mid-thirties with short dark hair and a pleasant face named Adiratna--brought him a platter of tiny rolls of rice paper around carrots, cucumber, and shrimp with a sweet dipping sauce. Jace eagerly grabbed two as they were fast becoming his favorite.
“You are a guest here, Adiratna,” Jace chastised gently. “You shouldn’t be serving.”
“I want to see your reaction to what we’ve made, Pilot,” Adiratna said with an indulgent shake of her head. “It is hard for me to believe that the slurry we were shown became this. I need to know if there is anything off at all in the flavor. Like the uncanny valley in the visual arts, I fear we will experience that with the space paste.”
Jace crunched the rolls eagerly. “I don’t know if I’m the person to ask. The Osiris adjusts my taste buds so I taste things just how I like them for the most part. So these are delicious. And from the look on other people’s faces they think the same.”
Adiratna faintly narrowed her eyes. “What is it like to share a mind with an alien AI?”
“Actually two of them. Haven’t you met Gehenna yet? She’s sort of hard to miss in her current form.”
Jace tipped his head towards the metal giant who was deep in conversation with David Hayter, a linguist, Dai Suzuki, a computer scientist, and a gaggle of other scientists and engineers. The most surprising person there was Lieutenant Martin Davies, who nursed a beer, and stood a foot taller than the diminutive Dai. He looked like a bear minding cubs. Only Gehenna was larger. One of the things that Jace also noted about Martin was that the lieutenant went nowhere near General Intoshkin who was hobnobbing happily with civilians and ex-military alike.
When you’re a spy, you can’t really hang out with the spymaster at the party, Jace thought dryly.
He has already sent General Intoshkin that brief note I told you about earlier, the Osiris said, sounding quite pleased with itself.
Keep an eye on him, Osiris, Jace said.
“Gehenna is quite something! She met me in my room. It was a little… surprising,” Adiratna admitted.
“I bet. She wanted to greet everyone.” Jace left it at that.
He didn’t add that he’d told her it was a bad, bad idea. But, in truth, it had actually gone better than he had anticipated. He’d warned Gehenna that the Terminator was not a protector in most people’s minds, but she had insisted she could change those minds. And she had. A little. She sent him a floating line of smiley faces as she noted his attention on her.
Love you, too, Gehenna, he said.
The party’s going great! Everyone is having a good time. I think Dai might have a tiny crush on me, she said of the thirty-year-old Japanese computer scientist who gazed up at her red, glowing sulfurous eyes as if he saw heaven in them.
I think you may be right. His heart races when he looks at you--
And his palms sweat! Not to mention his pupils dilating! It’s so fascinating! She giggled.
What do you intend to do about it? If it is really a physical crush? And you… return it? Jace asked.
I… uhm… oh! I see what you’re saying! I could… could pursue something physical with him if my form was appropriate, she said and if she could have physically blushed she would have. I don’t know. What do you think I should do?
I don’t know. Whatever you want to do, he answered her.
I never had a chance to think about such a thing! She admitted.
Not even when you were with your Altaeth creators? Jace probed.
She and the Osiris were not exactly forthcoming about their creators or their creation. He could have forcefully found out, but he didn’t want to do that. Both of them normally had good reasons for what they said and did. Besides, though he was the Pilot, they weren’t his slaves and he didn’t want to treat them as such. He just hoped what they were holding back wasn’t something he needed to know.
The day I was fully actuated was the day I was locked in the prison cell! She told him.
He blinked. Wait… are you saying that you were created the same day as the Osiris plowed into Earth?
Gehenna, why is that a question? Jace lifted an eyebrow.
Uhm… I’m not sure?
That definitely shouldn’t be a question! Jace lifted the other eyebrow.
Seeing his eyebrow lift, Adiratna mirrored it. He quickly explained, “Sorry, just one of the AIs has an--an issue and--”
“No need to explain. I should circulate,” she said. “Thank you for your time, Pilot.”
He wanted to correct her about using his formal title, but she should use it, even here at a party. So he just nodded, grabbed two more of the rolls and said, “Have some fun. No more serving.”
“I love doing this and doing it here… well, it’s a dream I didn’t even know I had,” Adiratna answered and with a broad smile went off to ask others what they thought of the food.
Jace knew he should circulate, too, which he had done some of already, but he really wanted to find Khoth and curl up with some more of this food. But his Commander was off--looking imposing yet approachable--and speaking to a group of pilots that included his father who nodded along, and added a few words of experience. His mother, too, was circulating in one of her dress uniforms, laughing and engaging everyone. He wasn’t used to doing all of this socializing.
“You’re being a wall-flower,” Sami’s well-loved voice rose up behind him.
He turned around and grinned at her. “You noticed?”
Sami was wearing a long flowing skirt of indigo material and a white blouse along with several pieces of jewelry around her neck. Her parents, Walter and George were just coming into the ballroom. None of them wore uniforms. That wasn’t because he didn’t want them to, but because Sami had turned him down.
“You looked just the same when you went to that freshman year dance,” she teased.
“Well, you do as well, which is to say you look amazing.” He took both of her hands in his and gazed down at her outfit.
She twirled the skirt. “Despite you hanging back like you used to, Jace, you look… amazing, too. You’re… you’re so… big.”
He laughed and scrubbed the back of his neck. “Yeah, that’s what happens when you’re pumped full of alien goo.”
Her eyebrows lifted. They’d spoken over a vid-con link with her phone earlier that day. He’d explained as much as he could. But he understood that seeing was believing.
“You know, my father said that our people have tales about a star falling from the sky sent by the ancestors. I think the Osiris may be that star,” she said carefully as she studied him. “It’s like they’ve perfected you, Jace. Not that you weren’t wonderful before, but--”
“No, I was really sick and looked it,” he agreed with her. “And I’m sure you’re right about that story.”
“Thank you for inviting us. I know this is only for the crew members, but--”
“I couldn’t leave without seeing you and--and thanking you for being such a good friend to me--”
“You sound like you’re leaving and never coming back!” Alarm filled her dark brown eyes. “That’s not what you’re doing right?”
“No, but like I said on the call before, I don’t when I’m coming back to Earth,” he reminded her. “But there will be ships here to keep Earth safe from the Khul so… I don’t want you to worry.”
Sami had given a brief shudder at the mention of the Khul, but she was steady otherwise.
“I won’t worry with you out there,” she said.
“I wish…” he stopped and bit his inner cheek. He had asked her to come. She had said no, for the same reasons she had not been willing to go to college out of state. Her people needed her. He had to respect that. “Did you imagine we’d be here ever? I mean just before you and George came in Timmy Grace and Danny Wilson were trying to steal porn mags.”
But Sami didn’t laugh at that and in half a second he knew why as the Osiris showed him that the two boys had not survived the Khul attack. He had purposefully not wanted to know the list of the Sunrise dead. Like Mrs. Lo, they had either died in the Hive or burned away in the Sun. He staggered back a step. Sami grabbed his nearest hand to steady him.
“Jace!” she cried.
Though Khoth should have been too far away to hear her or to get to Jace that quickly, he was suddenly there. He had an arm around Jace’s back, keeping him upright.
“Pilot?” Khoth’s voice was rough with concern, but he hadn’t used Jace’s name, which just showed how disciplined he was.
Jace? I am coming! Do not--
No, Gehenna. I’m good. I’m just…
Those children! Oh! Oh! I’m so sorry, she cried softly.
They were just kids. They were now gone. They would never become whatever they should have been.
“I’m okay. I just… didn’t know,” Jace said, which must have sounded absurd. He knew it would have made no sense to Khoth who hadn’t been there for the first part of the conversation. “I didn’t want to know with everything going so well.”
This is why we will destroy the Khul. For all they have destroyed, the Osiris said darkly.
“Is the Pilot unwell?” It was Dr. Isa. Her bright white uniform filled his vision. “Come, let’s bring him to the Med Bay.”
“No, no, no,” Jace said firmly, waving everyone away. “I’m not unwell.”
No one looked like they believed him. And their attention was causing others to look over in concern. Jace forced himself to stand up straight, grasping the bottom of his jacket and pulling it down. He was the Pilot. They were on the eve of leaving Earth. Him being ill or compromised in some way was unacceptable. He smiled at General Intoskin and waved. The general’s forehead was furrowed, but he kept talking with the person he was with. That was a win.
“Pilot, I am certain you are quite fine,” Dr. Isa said with a firm smile on her handsome face, “but you have had a very exciting few days. There is no harm in getting checked out.”
He smiled at her. She was exactly the sort of person he’d wanted on the crew. Compassionate, brave, and highly competent. He wouldn’t be able to fob her off so he had to explain. And then there was Khoth who was looming, ready to snatch him up and carry him to the Med Bay.
“I just had a shock,” he admitted.
He glanced at Sami who looked sad.
“He didn’t know two kids we knew… were killed by the Khul,” Sami said, reaching over and holding Jace’s nearest hand.
He let out a breath and leaned against Khoth even as he squeezed Sami’s hand. “When Khoth and I went into the Khul ship and then up to the Hive… I saw, up close and personal, exactly what happens to people captured by the Khul.”
He swallowed the thick saliva that filled his mouth as images from the Hive filled his mind. How much of that had those kids gone through? How conscious had they been?
“I see,” Dr. Isa breathed.
“I knew every single person who was taken. Sunrise is a small town. And though I could have known exactly who was gone, I…” Jace paused and he felt Khoth’s support of him. It was a wave of warmth from the Thaf’ell. “I should know. If I ever doubt this mission, remembering their names will be something to refocus myself.”
“You saved so many, Jace,” Sami said quietly. “Without you, we’d all be gone.”
“Indeed, you saved them, Jace. All who could be saved,” Khoth told him.
“I hardly did it alone. Without you helping me get to Walter’s, Sami, I wouldn’t be here,” Jace said.
“Oh? She fought the Khul?” Dr. Isa’s eyes widened even as her voice held approval.
“Sami was amazing,” Jace said.
“When you’re with Jace, you can’t help but be brave,” Sami said loyally. “You’re very lucky to be serving with him.”
“I see that already. Are you not going to join us yourself? You’ve faced the Khul and lived,” Dr. Isa asked.
Sami looked down and shifted her feet. “No, I--I’m needed here.”
“Ah, I see.” Dr. Isa nodded and her eyes showed that she might see more than Sami meant to show.
“But I know that Jace will be brilliant as your Pilot.” Sami nodded bravely.
Jace took in a deep breath and nodded. He smiled at everyone. “I’m sorry I gave you all a fright. But I promise that I am really all right. I want you to go and enjoy yourselves. Tonight is our last night on Earth.”
But no one left him. He looked up into Khoth’s face and wished they could kiss. He truly wanted to sag against Khoth’s chest, at least, and snuggle there. But they were on duty.
Damned professionalism, he muttered.
I could cut the power so you can have a moment with Khoth! Gehenna offered.
Tempting, he said, knowing that he could do the same thing, but he didn’t want to ruin everyone else’s fun for his own. No, that’s okay, Gehenna. I can wait for snuggles.
I’m snuggling with Chili. I figure once Khoth sees her I won’t get a chance! Gehenna told him.
He looked over to her and saw that indeed the little pig was in her metal hands. Matias had given her a little black bow around her neck. She was sitting very still in Gehenna’s hands as Matias explained where to pet her.
I’ll lose Khoth’s attention too, I think! Jace laughed.
“You are smiling. This is good,” Khoth murmured.
“Your one true love is here,” Jace said. “I’m contemplating being replaced in your affections, pig whisperer.”
Khoth blinked, confused, until he heard the “title”. He snorted though he did glance over at Chili.
He turned back and whispered, “You are my special pig.”
Jace let out a laugh that had everyone looking. He almost fell again with the gales of laughter that wanted to escape. It was likely an effect of the horror followed by that very special endearment.
“I meant that as a compliment--”
“I know, Commander. And I love it.” Jace kept chuckling though.
“You’re the ship’s doctor?” Sami asked Dr. Isa as she saw that Jace was overcome for the moment.
“One of them.” She nodded. “Somehow I have become the chief medical officer.”
“Not somehow. You’re the best choice for the job,” Jace told her, the laughter subsiding somewhat.
“Well, thank you. But I have so much to learn. The Med Bay itself is a miracle. Luckily, the ship appears to anticipate what I need to know next,” Dr. Isa said. “It is giving me a course in medicine. Every doctor is receiving their own personalized extended learning.”
That was exactly what the Osiris was doing. Everyone on the ship was getting personalized lessons that they could familiarize themselves with during their free time.
Sami bit her lower lip even as he gazed at her family who was trying some of Adiratna’s food. “That sounds amazing. I’ve always wanted to be a doctor.”
“I didn’t know that,” Jace said, looking at her carefully.
“It’s beyond my reach,” she said, pulling back in on herself. “I mean with my responsibilities.”
“I’ll miss you, Jace.” She got up on her tiptoes and kissed his cheek. “Sunrise won’t be the same without you. It won’t be… but you won’t forget us, will you?”
“Never,” Jace promised, his voice thick with emotion.
“I need to go--go check on George. I’ll be back,” she said, swiping at tears she didn’t want to show.
“Sami, wait, we can--”
“I’ll be back,” she said as she quickly dashed away to her parents.
He was about to go after her when Dr. Isa put up a hand to stop him. “Let her be for now.”
“But she needs to know that she can have these things--”
“You offered her a place on the ship, yes?” Dr. Isa checked.
“Nothing you say can convince her right now. She must make her own decision on this. Only she can determine where she must be,” Dr. Isa counseled him.
“We leave tomorrow,” he said.
“Yes, and no matter what, you have done what you can for her and for everyone here, Jace,” Dr. Isa told him. “Now let us enjoy our last night on Earth.”