CHAPTER FIFTY-FOUR: TOURIST
Jace was back on the Bridge with Khoth beside him. The crew he’d invited to be a part of this historic first flight were buzzing behind them with excitement. Chili was a hit. She had been held by just about every person on the Bridge, but she was back in Matias’ arms, her little eyes were closed now, and she was breathing softly, completely asleep.
“We’re close to exiting the gate!” Dai Suzuki enthused, clapping his hands together in excitement.
The Osiris had a map of the interior of the gate up on the screen and showed their location within it and the gate that was coming up.
“Our first alien world,” Dr. Isa breathed and shook her head. “Will they welcome us though?”
“The Pilot made clear to them that we need to work together,” Matias said with a faint frown. “They are evolved species, more evolved than us, so it should be fine.”
“Ah, yes, but the Khul are more evolved, too, and they want to liquify us and feed us to themselves and their machines,” Dr. Hayter pointed out, his chubby hands moving restlessly over his uniform. He wasn’t quite comfortable in it.
“The Pilot is prepared for whatever comes,” his father said with a flicker of a glance towards Jace, who smiled in response. “Have faith. Their technology is all Altaeth and the Osiris and Gehenna control it.”
“Let’s hope we don’t have to,” Dr. Isa said.
Jace rather agreed with her, but while inside the gate, the Osiris’ ability to know what was going on--and his own--was more limited. Davies clearly thought that elements at all levels of the Alliance would be gunning against him.
Yet Jace had hope. Haseon would be the first alien world that he had ever been to. Yes, he’d played around on the Moon with his father, but this was different. So different. But, in addition to that, he’d be fully starting something momentous for humanity and the Alliance. Which sounded insane, because somehow, he thought he was qualified to do this, to change things. But he had the training. And he had the dream. He had to make it work.
Your destination on Haseon is the capital city of Ylore in the Zaka Ward. Ylore is a city of 350,497 citizens and 10,301 non-citizens, the Osiris informed him. In addition to being the seat of the High Council of the Alliance, it also houses the Thaf’ell’s equivalent of the Supreme Court, as well as being home to embassies for all Alliance species that meet certain minimum requirements.
Those requirements being? Jace asked. Wait, don’t tell me. I’m sure that they are all based upon how useful the Thaf’ell sees each species? Or how well they can integrate with Altaeth technology?
Both your suppositions are correct, the Osiris answered.
Ylore was once an Altaeth city, yes? Jace asked.
Yes, Haseon itself was but a small outpost of the Empire, the Osiris said.
Small? A whole planet full of Altaeth cities and tech? Jace’s eyebrows rose.
Yes, small. Insignificant, the Osiris said.
Jace wondered what the Thaf’ell would think about their homeworld being called insignificant.
Okay! Well, I am looking forward to seeing what you would consider the heart of the old Empire, Jace said.
Yes, the Osiris answered succinctly then asked, Would you like to see a live feed of the city?
No, I want to see it with my own eyes for the first time when we land, Jace said. I want it to be a surprise until I get there.
I promise that the quality of the video is exceptional--
It’s not that. I want to experience it first-hand. Just be in the moment, you know? Jace explained.
It would be best if you were fully present in every moment and considering the future as well, the Osiris sounded slightly chastising.
Point taken, but this is important, Jace answered.
This is Jace’s dream, Osiris! Walking in an alien city! Breathing the air of a world no human has ever been on! Gazing at architecture that another species lovingly crafted, Gehenna enthused. She wasn’t on the Bridge, but with Davies, planning his protection. He wants to simply drink it all in.
Jace smiled. Gehenna’s got it.
Gehenna’s statements are illogical. This obsession with physical experiences is overrated, the Osiris said in what almost sounded like distaste.
Jace could understand that as the Osiris really couldn’t be anywhere yet was everywhere. It likely couldn’t understand experiencing things physically.
You’ll be experiencing it with me, Osiris. You’ll understand when we’re there, Jace told the AI. And while that’s happening, you’ll, uh, take care of things, right?
That phrase “taking care of things” was too broad. He’d learned that the hard way again that morning with Davies. But, at the same time, it would be nice not to be distracted by all that could go wrong. The joy and wonder of these moments would sustain him when things got dark.
You were not appreciative when I took care of things before with Lieutenant-Commander Davies, the Osiris pointed out, still sounding sulky after his dressing down earlier.
What happened on the Hive was… personal. It was something I wasn’t ready to share with others, Jace admitted.
But it is good for them to know what they’re going up against, Gehenna pointed out.
Do not take my side. You make me wonder if my actions were incorrect, the Osiris sniffed.
Osiris, be nice, Jace chastised.
I understand Jace better than you. You’re still so limited, Osiris, Gehenna now sniffed.
Jace rolled his eyes even as he smiled. The two of them bickering was cute. He probably shouldn’t think that, but he did.
I know what I’m asking is a little selfish, but I really want to enjoy this without worrying about things, Jace said.
You have me and Lieutenant-Commander Davies for that! Gehenna sent fighting smileys along with the message.
Uhm, why is this worrying me? Jace laughed.
He is quite impressed with my capabilities! He thought I was limited to just this form and had no idea about my access abilities! Gehenna gushed.
Uhm, you aren’t telling him all our secrets, right? Jace lifted an eyebrow.
Oh, no! Just enough to make sure his plans to keep you safe are accomplished appropriately without additional risk to the crew, she answered.
Good, that’s what I mean when I say “handle things”, Jace said. I want to make sure everyone’s okay.
Sometimes everyone cannot be okay, the Osiris pointed out. But I understand your desire to keep damage to the crew and others as minimal as possible while accomplishing your goals.
Yeah, pretty much. Obviously, break in if you need me, but I want to just… love this, Jace admitted.
“Your Xa appears disturbed, Pilot. Is there something I can do?” Khoth asked.
His Commander’s arms were crossed at the wrists behind his lower back. One of those expressive eyebrows was raised. With the sleek black uniform, he looked amazing. Jace swallowed.
Must be professional, he reminded himself.
“I was just thinking about the first moments on Haseon and wanting to truly enjoy it,” Jace said.
Khoth bobbed his head. “Ylore is quite aesthetically pleasing. The buildings are made of a glassy substance that mirrors the sky, which is often blue striped with gold and green.” Khoth’s blue on blue eyes grew distant. “The air will smell sweet to you with xanth flowers that grow in abundance in the public parks. An Altaeth city is always in harmony with nature. Everything is recycled and used to support the whole. The air is as clean in the heart of the city as it is in the far reaches of the poles where no one lives.”
“Sounds amazing. Humanity could use some of that,” Jace admitted.
“You will be able to change things for them, if you choose to,” Khoth admitted.
Jace nodded. “I wonder how many people will want to leave Earth behind though. Start fresh. I hope that won’t stop people from wanting to keep the Earth safe and well. Humans have a tendency to think if they have a way out then why worry? Even if they don’t have a way out, they think they won’t be around for the bad stuff.”
“That is a surprising attitude as humanity has not mastered space travel in any meaningful way that they could destroy the one planet that is habitable to them,” Khoth said.
“Ah, yeah, exactly,” Jace grimaced. “Remember, good qualities and bad qualities.”
“Humans are complicated.” Khoth smiled though. “But you looked pensive, Pilot.”
Jace dipped his head. “I asked the AIs to take care of things so I could… enjoy myself when we land.”
Khoth’s brows drew together. “I do not see why this would be problematic.”
“I don’t know if it's possible, but I want to just be a tourist for a minute before everything changes,” Jace admitted.
“There are many places I desire to show you. I only wish…” Khoth’s lips pressed together. “I only wish I could introduce you to my father and show you our family home. But that is not possible.”
Jace’s lips parted in sorrow. “Oh, Khoth, I am so sorry. I…” Jace reached for Khoth, not realizing he had blown all of their personal professional lines at that moment. He caught himself at the last moment and snatched his hand back, curling it around the railing’s top. He cleared his throat. “I should have realized how uncomfortable this will all be for you and here I am wanting to enjoy myself and not thinking of that.”
“There will be some discomfort, but you must not be concerned that will affect my performance,” Khoth stated.
“Of course it won’t.” Jace shook his head. “But I don’t want you to have to do something that is painful for you either.”
“I do not regret my choice.” Khoth stood straight and tall like a monolith. “I will be by your side, assisting you in the way only a son… a person with my former connections can.”
“I know.” Jace’s fingers curled against his palms.
He so wanted to reach out and embrace Khoth. He hurt from not doing so. But he also felt the eyes of the crew on them. Everything they did was watched. He drew in a steadying breath.
“I have no doubt that I will need you and that you will do an exemplary job as always,” Jace said.
“I do not wish your Xi or Xa to be disturbed by concern for me,” Khoth said. “Therefore, if my presence would be a cause of distress, I will not--”
“I need you. You heard me say that part, right?” Jace interrupted. “You’re my Commander.”
“Then I will be there.” Khoth inclined his head.
“And I want people to see you. I want them to know that people like you, who are brave and true, are rewarded for that,” Jace said. “It cost you a lot to be here. But I intend that you have everything in return… as much as that is possible.”
Khoth stared down at Jace’s face. “I truly wish I could touch you at this moment.”
“You, too, huh?” Jace let out a soft sputtering laugh.
“Knowing each other’s desires must be enough. We have arrived,” Khoth said.
Jace turned his head towards the screens. The smear of stars slowed and then the streaks of light shortened until they became points. The two calcanth portions of the gate appeared and they slipped through. The green-gold and blue of Haseon rose up before them with its three moons. He heard awed gasps from the room.
The planet was both familiar and not. It wasn’t a blue-white world like Earth. It glowed in the darkness of space in tones of green and gold. He imagined what it would be like when they took a drop ship down to the planet’s surface and landed on alien soil. He could almost imagine the heat of an alien sun on his shoulders.
“It’s… beautiful,” Jace breathed.
“Yes, but those war ships are not,” Khoth murmured.
“Ah, a welcoming party,” Jace said. “So much for being a tourist.”
There were a dozen Colossus-class ships arrayed between them and the planet. The planetary systems were also online and at high alert, according to the Osiris.
“Pilot, do we have company?” His father was at high alert, standing at the base of the walkway.
“We’re being hailed,” Khoth said.
“Of course we are.” Jace grimaced. He turned towards his father. “Can you keep everyone calm?”
His father nodded and turned back to the crew who were standing there, wide-eyed and mouths parted. They had been told about the Alliance’s attempt to steal the Osiris and him from Earth. They’d also been told he had convinced them to act together. Evidently, he’d spoken too soon.
And, Osiris, keep them out of range of the view that we show the other side, Jace commanded.
Of course, Pilot.
“Put them on screen,” Jace said.
You do not need to say that out loud, the Osiris said as the image of a handsome, older Thaf’ell appeared on the screen.
Yeah, not for you. But everyone else, Jace said.
Understood. That is High Commander Thran Staed. He was second-in-command under Daesah Voor and was appointed to her position in the last cycle, the Osiris informed him.
So this all happened after Nova left? Jace asked.
Yes, this was not unexpected, the Osiris answered.
It was to me. You didn’t mention this, Jace pointed out.
The individuals they place in the ships is not important, the Osiris answered.
And, of course, to the Osiris that was true.
We’re trying to work with these people, Jace said.
You are trying to do so, the Osiris answered.
Ah, you think it’s a bad idea? Jace asked.
I do not yet have enough data to come to a conclusion, though this data point is significant, yes? The Osiris asked.
Jace tried to hide his disappointment. But had he really thought the Alliance was going to roll over that easy? Or let him poach those people and tech he wanted? No, of course not. He had to win them over. Sometimes by force and sometimes by peace. He hoped it was peace today.
“High Commander Staed,” Jace greeted the other man, “this is unexpected. Unless you’re part of the ticker-tape parade to welcome us.”
Khoth turned so that his face was away from the screens and Staed could not see him. “Daesah said Staed was a good warrior, but also had no imagination and a large dislike for non-Thaf’ell. This is not a welcoming sign. He is also a great favorite of Ulgex.”
Just great, Jace thought. I’m sure I’m his favorite person.
Their weapons systems are hot, the Osiris stated. And aimed at us.
You’ll take care of that, won’t you? My mother’s ship will soon be arriving through the gate. I don’t want them hurt, Jace said. Though her ship had entered the gate first, it was not as fast as the Osiris. But it would arrive soon.
Understood. Shall I disable the weapons’ system now? The Osiris asked.
Yes, but don’t let them know they’re offline, Jace said.
You wish to test them? The Osiris asked.
Yeah, let’s see what they do.
Staed stood straight and tall, much like Khoth. His hair was longer than Khoth’s. The selchitte was extensive, braiding almost all of the sides of his head, and there were many ta’na that peeked out of the collar of his uniform on his throat. His blue on blue eyes were slightly narrowed. His hands were crossed at the wrists behind his back and his legs were spread shoulder length apart. These were things that always seemed to make Khoth more handsome, but made Staed appear rigid and unfriendly.
“Ticker tape? Ah, you think we should be welcoming you like a conquering hero?” Staed asked.
“I’m impressed that you know what this is,” Jace admitted. “I wouldn’t think that someone with such a low opinion of non-Thaf’ell would have any interest in humans.”
“Humanity has suddenly become of intense interest to me,” Staed said with a cold slice of a smile.
“So you do your homework.” Jace smiled back. “Yet you don’t learn terribly much from it.”
“Because you managed to control our vessels by Earth we should simply give up?” Staed asked.
They believe they have locked Gehenna and I out of their systems, the Osiris said.
It is extremely pathetic! Gehenna chirruped. She’d gone quiet, but clearly was on top of things as usual. I almost didn’t notice it, because it was so very ineffective.
Hmmm, okay, again, good to know. Keep a close eye, guys. I still want to see if we can’t settle this without showing them how ineffective they are, Jace said.
Davies is not surprised. He suggests… uhm, not letting them know what we can do if you can help it. He says, Gehenna paused, to let them think they’re safe. If at all possible.
Jace knew what Davies was getting at. If the Alliance still had the impression that it had a way to fight back, it might not act desperately. However, if it had that belief, it likely wouldn’t negotiate either. Davies was acting him to act from a defensive posture, but he might have to go offensive.
“You think I cannot affect your vessels now?” Jace asked.
“We have taken steps,” Staed said.
“Yes, I know.”
They stared at one another. He saw Khoth’s lips curl into a smile out of the corner of his eye.
“They think they have locked us out?” Khoth guessed.
“Yeah, Gehenna said it was pathetic, but, you know, it probably is as impressive as they could make it,” Jace murmured, though the Osiris was not letting Staed hear what they said.
“High Councillor Voor was not going to promote him, because his prejudiced views were too much for her,” Khoth said. “If the Council has appointed him as High Commander now, I fear that they have decided to go in a very unfriendly direction.”
“We’ll see,” Jace said, though he agreed with Khoth. It wasn’t looking good.
“Your Commander has his back to me,” Staed said.
Khoth turned around. His expression bland. “Staed. You were promoted. How… interesting.”
Jace bit down on his inner cheek. Khoth was throwing shade! And it appeared to have hit its mark.
“My promotion was only logical,” Staed answered tartly.
“Was it?” Khoth asked mildly.
“We needed something different than another Voor in charge,” Staed answered acidly. Khoth showed nothing, remaining upright and still, but Jace knew the words hurt. “Now that there are no more of the Voor bloodline in our ranks things will go better.”
And now he’s pissed me off.
“Staed, what do you want?” Jace snapped. “I’m here to land and speak with the High Council as well as certain representatives of various Alliance races. High Councillor Voor has already agreed to these terms. Unless you are here to renege on them.”
“On the contrary, we are merely here to escort the Osiris into Haseon airspace,” Staed said. “You did agree to abide by our laws. Did you not?”
Jace was tempted to say that they needed no such escort. But could he blame the Alliance for wanting protection from him? No. He had to respect their rules. He had agreed to them like Staed said. Yet not showing his power now meant that when he went down to the planet’s surface, they might attempt something foolish.
Osiris, I want you monitoring the Alliance’s communications, Jace said.
That is being done. They plan to honor their agreement with you, though there is chatter of others who wish to imprison you, the Osiris answered.
Oh, great, just great, Jace said. Definitely, not a tourist spot.
Don’t worry, Jace! Davies and I are on the case! Gehenna told him.
I have suggestions for those who you can get on your side, the Osiris said. There are fractures in their power structure. You can take advantage of these.
Send them to me. Everything you have.
One of the people that will be most useful in your favor is Justiciar Typhon Moturin, the Osiris said softly.
Jace met Khoth’s gaze. His Commander was patient and brave and knew he was talking to the AIs. He would do whatever Jace needed him to.
I have to protect him, Jace thought.
You must complete your mission, the Osiris said.
I can do both.
We shall see.
“Staed, we’d be honored to be escorted to Haseon,” Jace said with a cool smile. “I've been looking forward to seeing your planet.”