CHAPTER EIGHT - ESCAPE
It was strange to be so close to a human. Jace weighed practically nothing in Khoth’s arms. He was very slender and had delicate but masculine features. His hair was the color of a Haseon sunrise. Jace’s lips were full and sensual, indicating a passionate nature, though they were pressed together now in a grimace as he fought back pain.
Jace’s gray eyes were also filled with silent suffering, but a kind of wonder, too, as he gazed up at Khoth’s face as if memorizing his features. To be so scrutinized was strange as well. The humans Khoth had met so far had tried to act as if he were no different than them. But Jace did not hide what looked to be a sense of wonder.
Khoth would have liked to have scrutinized the young male human with as much openness as Jace did him, but it filled Khoth with uneasiness somehow to gaze into eyes the color of storms. He did not know why. Perhaps it was because humans were so filled with Xi and always seemingly in an unbalanced state that it naturally affected those who weren’t. As it was, he had to drag his gaze away from Jace’s face.
“Can I… Can I touch your face?” Jace asked.
Khoth frowned. “Why?”
Color rose on the human’s cheeks and his eyes immediately became downcast. “Because I’ve never… ah, seen someone like you. Oh, forget it. It was a stupid idea anyways. Probably rude and against the rule book of dealing with another species.”
“I believe your species has developed some kind of code of conduct with Alliance personnel, but as I have not seen it, I cannot say if you have violated it,” Khoth told him.
Jace looked up at him through dark eyelashes. “But did I offend you by asking?”
“Well, that’s good,” Jace answered with a weak smile. “Sorry, it's just you’re so much like I imagined an alien would be and nothing at all. The blue skin is really… interesting. And--and beautiful! I don’t mean interesting in a bad way.”
“So your desire to touch me is for scientific inquiry?” Khoth asked as he adjusted Jace in his arms so he was cradling the human and allowing for Jace to rest his head against Khoth’s shoulder.
“Scientific--uhm, sure?” Jace sounded like he was asking a question. “I’m just curious really. I don’t need to touch you. I just… wanted to. Want to."
“Then you may. But tell me where I should go once we leave this room,” Khoth stated simply.
“Right. Okay. You’re going to want to take a left and head down the hall,” Jace told him as his right hand hesitantly rose and his fingertips lightly trailed down Khoth’s left cheek. “Wow, your skin is so smooth. Why is that? And these beads in your hair, what do they mean? And the tattoo--”
“You have many questions,” Khoth interrupted him.
Jace let out an uncertain laugh. “Yeah, so many. So so many. You’re… you’re amazing.”
Khoth inclined his head. “Thaf’ell are superior to humans.”
Jace blinked. “Oh?”
“In every way. It is understandable that you find me amazing,” he said.
Jace blinked some more. “You’re very… literal. And honest, I guess.”
Khoth considered this. He wasn’t sure if Jace meant that as a compliment or found it in human terms arrogant. “I think it saves time to be honest. Do you not think so as well?”
“I think that honesty can be really good.” Jace’s gaze unfocused for a moment as if he were thinking of something else. “Yeah, definitely good.”
“I would answer your questions, but your condition is not stable,” Khoth stated. “Getting you to Gehenna will resolve this?”
Jace nodded then winced. “Yeah, we shouldn’t waste time on my questions about you. At least, not now anyway. But later. Will you tell me later?”
“If the conditions are right, I will do so,” Khoth answered and carried Jace to the door. “The soldier outside will attempt to impede our progress.”
Jace was so light that he could easily cradle him in one arm and manipulate the door handle at the same time. Earth and Haseon’s gravity were approximately the same. But humans were not as heavy as Thaf’ell and Jace seemed lighter than other humans.
“Don’t worry about the soldier. I’ll deal with him,” Jace said.
“Truly? You hardly look able to deal with your own pain right now,” Khoth pointed out.
Jace had winced with every step he had taken. Khoth had tried not to jostle the young man, but even the tiniest of movements apparently caused Jace discomfort. What was wrong with him? Had it something to do with this Gehenna? Or was it a reaction to the Precursor technology that had destroyed the Khul? He knew Jace was behind all that somehow.
Jace gave a laugh and then winced again as he brought a hand up to his temple. “Oh, that hurt. No laughing. But yeah, you’re right. I’m a mess. But I am a determined mess. I have to get to Gehenna.”
“Will you tell me who that is?” Khoth asked.
“Y-yeah, let’s just get out of this room first,” Jace said.
Just as he had suspected, the moment that he opened the door, the young soldier that had blocked him earlier immediately stiffened and stepped into their path, trying to block him once again. Khoth’s eyes narrowed. This soldier might be following orders, but he was getting in the way of the greater good. The moment though that Khoth thought that, guilt welled up in him. Failing to follow orders and following the alleged greater good had gotten him nearly exiled. He should respect this soldier’s devotion to duty, and yet whatever was going on with Jace was, undoubtedly, important.
More important than abiding by rules? He imagined his mother asking him.
But then he imagined Daesah saying, Khoth, you know what is right. Rules and laws try to lead us to that, but sometimes, they have us heading in the opposite direction.
“What’s going on here?” The soldier’s eyes were full of suspicion and his right hand dropped down to the butt of his primitive weapon. “I thought you were just going to speak to each other.”
“Don’t worry,” Jace said. Khoth could almost feel the effort that simply smiling and saying those words cost Jace. Sweat coated Jace’s pale skin. He was clearly in agony. “Commander Khoth here is just taking me for tests.”
Tests? What is he talking about?
The soldier’s forehead furrowed in the same evident confusion that Khoth was feeling. “Tests? But why would an alien--uhm, why would someone other than a nurse or doctor be doing that?”
“Because they’re alien tests. I was exposed to the Khul you see,” Jace stated with an almost guilty smile. As if his being exposed to the Khul was somehow a moral failing and not an incredibly brave act. Jace continued on almost merrily, “Yeah, I might be infected and if I am then only alien technology can save me.”
The soldier grew pale and took a half step back. He knew enough about the Khul, evidently, to fear them but did not understand their abilities. If Jace were truly infected, the only thing that could be done for him would have been a quick death and the incineration of his corpse.
“Ah, infected? That doesn’t sound good,” the soldier said, shifting uncomfortably.
“Yeah, it’s not! I hope I’m not infectious. Commander Khoth, do you think I pose a risk of infection?” Jace asked.
“I could not really say,” Khoth answered neutrally to Jace’s lies.
Again, he realized he was aiding and abetting the breaking of rules and orders. But these were human rules and orders so did it really count? Perhaps not even his mother or the Council would care about his breaking these. Humans were, after all, a lesser species whose reasoning was often clouded with their barbaric instincts. What he had seen Jace do today was far more important to investigate than to honor human laws.
The soldier retreated five more steps and licked his lips nervously. His eyes flickered all over Jace’s pale and sweaty face, taking in the pain the young man clearly was in. It was evident that the soldier feared contracting whatever alien disease that Jace had. Khoth nearly sighed.
“Uhm, well, then you’d best be on your way!” The soldier swallowed hard. “I’ll just ah, stay here and let your father know that you went for uhm, those tests. When he gets back that is. I’ll just… stay here.”
“Thanks, I really appreciate it,” Jace said. He still smiled at the soldier, but he seemed a little grayer than before. Khoth stirred uneasily. Was Jace’s condition deteriorating? “Commander, remember, you are to go down that way. That’s where the, ah, tests are going to be administered.”
Jace pointed down the hallway towards the Osiris digsite. The soldier pressed himself to the wall and edged away from them as Khoth carried Jace past him.
“You lied to that soldier,” Khoth pointed out when they were out of hearing distance.
“And you went along with it,” Jace pointed out back.
Khoth frowned. He had. “That is true. I did have qualms about doing so.”
“Really?” Jace let out a faint laugh. “That surprises me.”
“Why do you doubt me? Which way?” Khoth asked as they had come to a T-intersection.
“To the right and then left next chance you get,” Jace told him and pointed North. “Gehenna’s in that general direction.” Khoth moved swiftly as had been indicated. Jace continued, “As to your question about thinking you’re not above breaking some rules and telling some lies? Well, you saw I was awake, but didn’t tell my dad. You know that Gehenna is more important than anything right now.”
“I do not know anything about Gehenna. You were going to tell me or will you go back on your word?” Khoth asked.
He had a feeling that they were going to be breaking more rules and telling more lies before they got to this Gehenna. He needed to know what he was risking his honor again for.
“Gehenna is an AI. To be honest with you, I’m not sure of a lot. But since you’re helping me, I--I think I should tell you everything. Not to mention, she said she brought you to me to help,” Jace said.
Khoth thought of how his ship had suddenly not obeyed his commands. Had Gehenna somehow been able to access the Exarch’s systems and control them? This was utterly new. No AI had ever been discovered in Precursor tech before. Various species of the Alliance had dabbled in creating AI, but all had pulled back from such research when the dangers it presented outweighed the good. But if Jace was truly in touch with a Precursor AI… well, that changed everything. Getting Jace to Gehenna was suddenly the most important mission he could have.
“Tell me everything you know,” Khoth said.
“Okay. So let me tell you about my dreams…”
Jace told him of his dreams, of the training that he could half remember, of Gehenna being able to contact him more clearly once he had a Precursor gun, of connecting with the Osiris, and, finally, of Metal Rain. Khoth said nothing as Jace talked. His mind whirled with the possibilities of what Jace was telling him.
The Alliance should not have left the Osiris in human hands. That this human was somehow connected to a Precursor AI was unthinkable. That the connection was far from perfect was, undoubtedly, because humanity was simply not evolved enough to connect to it properly. If the Osiris had been in Thaf’ell hands then the connection would have been successful the first time.
Khoth was guessing at some of this, but past discoveries had shown that those races with a greater association with the Precursor species were able to access higher levels of their technology. While in the hands of a Xols, a Precursor gun was able to fire single shots, but in the hands of a Thaf’ell the gun would transform to offer different rates of fire, different energy levels and even different effects. So it only made sense that a Precursor AI could do far more with a connection to a Thaf’ell than to a human.
While he had somewhat doubted the course he was on by violating human laws, he realized now that he was doing the right thing and acting for the greater good. Captain Jack Parker had made it clear that he had no intention of letting Khoth know about the AI and Jace’s connection to it. That was unacceptable. No, he had to find out everything about this Gehenna for the Alliance.
As Jace finished with what had happened after the death of the Khul, he glanced down and saw that Jace’s eyes were shut and sweat poured down his face from the effort. Khoth felt a tug of worry.
“Gehenna claims that if you complete this connection that you will be well?” Khoth qualified.
“Hmmm, yeah, that’s what she says,” Jace got out. “Turn right here. And then… then we need to go down.”
Jace directed them into a hallway that ended in some kind of lift. The doors to this lift were guarded by two human soldiers. The soldiers were not the only security measures for use of the lift. His exo-suit’s scanner told him that it also required various DNA scans and access codes to work.
Khoth could easily get past the two human soldiers, because under the Alliance’s agreement with the humans, any Alliance soldier of his rank was automatically granted access to the Osiris. But he had not yet had time to get formally added to their primitive security systems. And while he was certain he could have simply bullied his way past regardless, he could not do so successfully with Jace in his arms. The soldiers would immediately contact Captain Parker and their quest would be at an end. But he needed to get to Gehenna as much as Jace did now. So there was really only one course open to him, which was to use the Alliance’s superior technology to override the soldiers and the security.
“What are you thinking?” Jace asked.
He looked down and saw that Jace’s eyes were open and watching him carefully. What would the young man think of his solution? Causing human soldiers to fall unconscious and then hijacking a lift was potentially beyond what Jace had thought it would take to get to Gehenna. Would he balk at such actions?
“We have a problem. Three problems.” Khoth tipped his head to the soldiers and the elevator.
“Oh, shit, yeah.” Jace bit his lower lip and more beads of icy sweat coursed down his face as he took in the setup. “You don’t think my infection ploy will work with them?”
“Somehow, I do not think so.”
“Gehenna is down there. Further down than the elevator goes. But we have to go through here,” Jace said. “There’s no other access point.”
“I can get us past the soldiers and the security protocols,” Khoth stated as his alarm at Jace’s deteriorating condition increased.
“How?” Jace stared at him out of glassy eyes that he struggled to focus.
“Funny seeing you here, Commander,” Flight-Commander Thammah Pyrrhus’ voice rose up behind them.
Khoth whipped around to see the other Thaf’ell pilot standing there. Unlike most Thaf’ell she had shorn her white hair close to her skull on the sides and top. Because of this she had no selchilite to show her family’s station. This could have meant that she was the last of her line and that she had no family living or that she had been cut off.
The closely shorn hair also revealed several raised, ropey scars visible along the right side of her head that crawled over her temple and transected her eyebrow. That these scars had not been able to be fully excised told him that the original wounds must have been quite serious, maybe even life threatening. Considering how she flew with wild abandon as if she had no Xa at all, he was not surprised. But he also guessed that they indicated that she was brave.
She had on a very worn black and blue exo-suit that had seen better days. But she wore it like a second skin. One of her hands was on her left hip while the other hung loosely at her side. A half smile curled her lips, but that smile changed as she took in his demeanor.
Her blue eyes narrowed. “You look very guilty there, Commander Khoth Voor. What are you up to with that young human in your arms? Are you about to take him aboard your ship and probe him?”
Jace let out a strangled laugh. Khoth stared at her in confusion.
“Flight-Commander Thammah, I have no idea what you mean by that, but I can assure you that I--”
“It’s a human joke, Commander. Aliens and probing.” She waved one of her hands through the air. “I see your very ill friend understands.” Her eyes narrowed further. “Who are you, young man?”
“I’m Jace Parker. And you are?” Jace asked.
“Call me Thammah,” she said even as her eyebrows lifted at the revelation of who he was. “Jace Parker? So you are Jack and Diane’s son? Well, the plot thickens. Why are you acting like a damsel in distress here?”
“It’s a long story, but Khoth is helping me. But we’ve hit a snag. Ah!” Jace cried out and curled forward. His lips no longer even had color. He was a mask of gray death. “Khoth--Khoth, we need to hurry.”
“We need to get him to the Osiris,” Khoth told her. “His illness can only be treated aboard the ship.”
He feared she would ask twenty questions about why they needed to get there, about how an ancient vessel that had defied human and Alliance tinkering to bring it back online could help Jace, and the many other issues his statement likely raised. But he should have known better. Thammah was not only an incredible pilot, which meant she needed to make split-second decisions without full information, he already knew that she was quite the risk taker.
“All right,” she said. “But neither of you have clearance yet to be near the Osiris. Hence, you spying on the soldiers instead of simply walking up to them.”
“Something like that,” Khoth answered stiffly.
“Something like that? I’m betting you were going to knock those two soldiers out and override the elevator’s security systems?” she asked, but treated it as a rhetorical question. “You really are exciting, Commander.”
“I am not exciting. I am merely doing what must be done,” he said flatly. She did not know about Gehenna. She did not understand the stakes.
“Of course, you are. Which makes you utterly exciting,” Thammah laughed. “Come on. I can get you two down without knocking out poor duty-bound soldiers and endangering the Alliance pact with Earth.”
Khoth squared his soldiers. He had been running that risk, hadn’t he? But a Precursor AI was surely something worthwhile doing that for. And, if he were honest, one look down at Jace’s pale face had him feeling the need to do it anyways.
Thammah led them down the hallway. She had a spring in her step and that ironic half-smile on her lips. The soldiers saw them approaching and came more to attention.
“We can’t let them call my parents and keep me up here,” Jace gasped out. He slightly uncurled in Khoth’s arms. “Can’t let them stop us. I think I’ll only have one shot at this before I pass out again. Won’t have the strength to convince them of what needs to happen… if I wake up..”
Again, Thammah showed her trust in Jace and him, he supposed, as she said, “Do not worry. You will get down to the Osiris. I’ll make sure of it.”
They stopped just short of the soldiers, who appeared familiar with Thammah, but were uncertain about him and Jace.
“Hello, Flight-Commander, what brings you and your friends here today?” the soldier on the right asked. She was a human female with red hair and brown eyes along with a faint scar through her upper lip.
“Private Norris, good to see you. I am bringing Commander Khoth Voor and Jace Parker down to the Osiris,” she stated.
Norris’ eyes narrowed as she took in Jace’s distress. “Neither Commander Voor nor Jace Parker is on the list, Flight-Commander.”
Thammah lifted her scarred eyebrow, but said in a measured tone, “They do not need to be, Private. Under Section 3.5.9 of the Human-Alliance Agreement of 1963, all Alliance personnel are allowed access to the Osiris.”
“Jace Parker isn’t Alliance. He’s one of us,” the male soldier to their left said. “That’s Colonel and Captain Parker’s son. And he doesn’t look good.”
“Indeed, he does not. That is why we are taking him to the Osiris,” Thammah stated, her voice going slightly icy. “There are medical facilities there that can help him.”
Again, Norris’ forehead puckered. “Like we said, we haven’t been made aware of Jace Parker having access to the Osiris, let alone to medical equipment down there. I think I should call--”
Thammah caught her wrist as she reached for her walkie-talkie. “Private, by impeding me you are threatening the agreement between our species. Commander Voor here is the son of the Head Councillor for the Alliance. Blocking him would lead to the very leaders of the Alliance having deep concerns. Not to mention that we have just saved you from a Khul attack. Do you really want to risk that agreement, right now?”
Norris and the male soldier exchanged nervous glances. They were potentially at an impasse. The human weapons could not hurt him or Jace. The shield the suit generated would be strong enough to cover them both from the projectile weapons. The humans were not half as strong or quick as even normal Thaf’ell let alone trained soldiers such as himself and Thammah. And Jace’s eyes were closed again. His breathing was rather labored.
Just as Khoth was going to go back to his Plan A in terms of taking out the soldiers and overriding the security system, Norris and her fellow soldier stepped aside to let them enter the lift.
“We’re just being careful, Flight-Commander,” Norris stated.
Thammah flashed her a smile. “Of course! But you made the right call.”
Thammah ushered Khoth and Jace into the elevator first before joining them. Her iris was scanned. Also, she pressed her palm to another scanner. Finally, she tapped in a code before the lift’s doors whispered shut and they started to descend at a great rate of speed.
Jace let out a soft chuckle. His eyes were still closed, but he was still conscious thankfully. “Those soldiers are so calling my parents right now.”
Thammah nodded as she stated, “Absolutely.” She turned to Khoth and winked at him. “I sincerely hope that you can run as fast as you fly, Commander, because if the humans aren’t waiting for us the moment we get off this lift, they’ll be hot on our trail.”
Khoth lifted his chin. “I will get Jace to Gehenna no matter what the cost.”