CHAPTER FOURTEEN - NATURE
“Stop the gas, get oxygen in there and open these goddamned doors!” Jace ordered the Osiris.
Again, there was the simple response, Yes.
Immediately, the gas that had been pouring out of the vents into the corridor was flushed out and oxygen was pumped in. The doors did not open until all of the gas was gone, Khoth noted, then they whooshed to the sides and Jace surged through them without thought. Khoth and Gehenna hesitated in the Core chamber’s doorway. They watched safely from there as Jace dropped down to his knees between his parents.
Worried they are going to put you in a cell, too? Gehenna asked over his suit’s interface. I don’t recommend it. I’ve rather spent too long in one as it is.
“Do you know why you were in a cell?” Khoth asked softly to the squid-like head.
That’s… unclear, Gehenna answered, but he didn’t believe her. But, regardless, Jace and I have things to do.
“Involving the Osiris? And the Khul?” Khoth asked her.
Yes. They cannot be allowed to continue on this path, Gehenna answered.
Thinking on what he had read in his sister’s journal, Gehenna might also have come from Thausia. She might be an experiment or something that this splinter cell of Alteath had created to help destroy the Khul. The Osiris was one method of attack. Maybe Gehenna was another. He couldn’t quite understand if part of being the Pilot required Jace to be connected to her and the Osiris or if she had just interfered at the wrong moment and become wrapped up in all of this. Like her error with the security protocols.
“What do you want, Gehenna? What are your plans for Jace exactly?” Khoth asked.
My first action will be to ensure that there is no damage to Jace, she said.
“No further damage, you mean,” he corrected her dryly.
Her tentacles softly clacked together as he made her flinch. Yes, quite. The process to become a Pilot should have happened all at once, but it was… stopped and restarted with Jace.
Khoth felt a touch of alarm. Jace appeared perfect. But he had been transformed hugely in just a sub-cycle of this planet. It would leave a mark. He carefully studied Jace as he interacted with his parents. The Parkers were already recovering. They were both sitting up and reaching for their son.
“Mom? Dad? Are you okay? Can you talk?” Jace asked them as they touched his face and shoulders.
They see the changes in him.
“Jace, oh, Jace!” Diane wrapped her arms around Jace’s neck and clutched him to her. “Are you all right?”
“Mom, it’s okay. I’m okay. Are you okay?” Jace asked as his mother held him and his father petted his hair.
“We’re fine,” Jack said. “But you--you, Jace--you’re--you’re--”
“Big!” Jace laughed with a touch of hysteria in his tone. “I’m big as you, Dad.”
“I think a little bigger,” Jack laughed as he squeezed Jace’s bicep with appreciation. “I can’t believe… what’s happened to you?”
“I’m the Pilot. It’s so wild. I can’t tell you how wild it is,” Jace told them both.
Diane drew back and cupped her son’s face. “Jace, we have things to tell you about that room. About--”
“Mom, I know. I know. All about Dr. Rancic and what you--you did to save her and to protect me,” Jace assured her and he touched her stomach. “I know. There’s so much I have to tell you guys.”
“Does it explain the giant squid?” Jack asked as he caught sight of Gehenna.
Gehenna’s tentacles clacked again and she retreated slightly as if hiding. Though how could one hide when one was a 10-foot squid?
“Oh, yeah. That’s Gehenna. She’s an AI in my head… and that’s a cleaning bot she’s inhabiting,” Jace answered. “It’s a really long story, which is surprising because I didn’t know any of this until this afternoon.”
“That… that explanation makes me have more questions than answers,” Jack laughed softly after a long moment of both parents just staring at Jace.
“Wait until I tell you about the Osiris giving me sass.” Jace gave a weak smile.
Diane and Jack hugged their son fiercely again. Khoth saw Jace’s eyes close. He was smiling and holding onto his parents just as hard. Khoth felt strange watching such an intimate act between the three of them. It should be private. But humans were not like Thaf’ell. They expressed their affections freely. But still, he wanted to at least give them the illusion that it was just the three of them.
The e-pad that Diane had been holding earlier with his own mother on it was on the ground. The soldiers--over a dozen of them--were groggily getting to their feet, their weapons seemingly forgotten for the moment. He took that inattention to grab the e-pad and retreat back into the Core, away from everyone. Jace would explain everything to his parents and, hopefully, there would be no confrontation. Or at least not an armed one. Besides, he had to report to the Alliance what had all occurred.
As he brought the e-pad up to his face, he saw that the connection was still live. His mother’s face was pale and filled with worry. When she saw him, she let out a breath, which showed just how much she had been affected by what she’d heard. He opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out. He heard Diane and Jace talking so earnestly to one another in the corridor and he wondered what it would be like to speak with such emotion to his own mother. To be so honest, too.
“Was anyone injured?” his mother asked.
“No, Jace Parker got control of the Osiris.”
“Jace got control of the Osiris?” his mother repeated carefully. “A human caused the Osiris to act?”
“More than that.”
Khoth’s gaze went to the screen that still had the single YES then slid to Gehenna. She was still in the doorway, peeking out at Jace and his family. The soldiers were eyeing her with unease, but their weapons were aimed towards the deck.
“What more?” His mother lifted her chin.
“The security protocols were triggered accidentally. Jace was able to order the Osiris to turn them off,” Khoth said, knowing this would just inflame his mother’s interest.
At least in part. I believe Osiris intended to keep the doors shut to keep Gehenna inside.
The use of his first name had his head snapping to attention. He had more than inflamed her. “M-mother?”
She gave a faint smile. “What have you gotten into, Khoth?”
“I think something… extraordinary,” Khoth answered her.
“Report then. I would hear it all,” she ordered.
And he did. He knew he surprised her. He wasn’t sure if he disappointed her. But he had intrigued her. At the end, her gaze was distant. He waited for her judgment. Was she going to tell him that exile was to be his punishment? He had chosen Jace over the Alliance. The one over the many.
“Perhaps Daesah and Dr. Lafrei was right. What you have told me is indeed quite… extraordinary,” his mother said. Her eyes focused on him. “We must have Jace Parker, the Osiris and Gehenna. They must be fully in Alliance hands. Earth is too distant to protect. They need to be fully in Alliance space.”
This did not surprise Khoth. Jace was far too valuable to leave in human hands. How long between another Hive--a dozen Hives--were encircling Earth? The Khul could be--would have to be--contacting others of their kind to come.
And we have nothing but a wounded Colossus ship and a barely functioning Exarch.
But the Khul would not be the only obstacle they faced in getting Jace, the Osiris and Gehenna to Haseon.
“The humans will, undoubtedly, object,” Khoth told her.
“But will Jace?” she asked.
He frowned. “I am not following you, Mother.”
“He’s shown a willingness to work against his own species to do what must be done,” she answered. “He is highly motivated by Xi, as are all humans, of course, but… his empathy can be directed.”
“Directed how? And to what?” Khoth replied stiffly, already feeling uneasy at his mother’s description of Jace this way.
“If the Osiris is truly meant to destroy the Khul and Jace is it’s Pilot then we need to make Jace understand why he needs to make that happen,” she said. “The Khul’s ships are still on the ground, yes? Full with their human cargo?”
He had not understood her until then. “You want me to show Jace what the Khul do?”
“Show him what he would be fighting against. Show him that whatever petty desires the humans might have don’t trump that,” she explained.
He could well imagine Jace’s reaction to the suffering that would be in those ships. His mind flashed to Daesah. The larvae had been dark under her skin, separating it from the fat, muscle and bone beneath. They had curled in her brain. They had nested in her eyes. Blood had flowed from every opening in her body. A body that was softening. The suffering that had been written on her face was only exceeded by the gratefulness that he was there to make it all end. Then his stomach curdled at the thought of exposing Jace to that. After all the young man had been through, he did not need to see that, did he?
“If I am right about him, I believe that he could not only be a great asset to the Alliance, but also against the human,” she said.
“Against them?” His eyebrows lifted.
“You do not approve of this plan, my son?” she asked.
He looked into her eyes. “You seek to use what is admirable about Jace against him, his family and his species.”
Her eyebrows lifted. “You find him admirable?”
“He is not like us. But that does not mean there is nothing there to admire,” Khoth responded simply. “I am surprised that you understand him so well that you thought up this plan.”
“Perhaps it is because I know you better than you know yourself,” she answered after a moment. His eyes widened. He had no idea what she meant by that. “We will be sending ships and personnel to Earth, Khoth. Make sure that Jace is ready to accompany us.”
Their connection cut off. Gehenna, he realized, was watching him. Or he thought she was. It was rather hard to tell as the cleaning bot had no eyes.
Your mother’s plan will work, Gehenna transmitted to his suit, expelling all doubt that she had heard. Jace will be moved by their suffering. He will want to avenge them and will want to keep others from that fate.
He flattened his lips. “The ships will have to be removed. It will be good for Jace to see… for the humans overall to see what we face.”
You don’t think that. You don’t want to do this, Gehenna stated.
“That would be illogical. It is best if this technology--including you--be in Alliance hands. Guided by the greatest minds--”
Forgive me, but your Alliance’s minds don’t hold a candle to mine, Gehenna stated.
“Really? So being tricked by the Osiris twice, or so it seems to me, makes you--”
The Osiris is far above your scientists too! But I will beat it. You will see, she said and he could almost hear a “humph” in her voice. So… what are you going to do?
Another one of the human military had arrived and from the medals on his uniform, he appeared to be a person of greater rank than even Colonel Diane Parker. This was not good.
“I need to get another Thaf’ell up here,” Khoth stated and used his suit’s communication system to contact Thammah. This time it went through without problem.
“Khoth?! Where are you? What happened to Jace? And that squid--”
“All are functional, Thammah. I need you by my side. We have… humans to deal with,” he said the last as the higher-ranking human met his gaze.
This human had dark brown skin and darker eyes. He was older than Diane and Jack. He held himself in that stiff posture of all of the military officers. The Parkers were speaking with him under their breath. Jace was adding his own commentary. It was more furious and intense from Jace.
They want to send Jace to the infirmary and take you into custody, Gehenna stated. Jace is arguing in your favor. He won’t be poked and prodded.
This leader smiled at Jace and patted his shoulder. He then fingered the material of the inner-suit that Jace wore and shook his head in amazement.
General Intoshkin is telling Jace it will be fine, Gehenna stated. They do not respect Jace. They are treating him as if he is a child. He is the Pilot!
“Knowing Jace he will show them that in short order,” Khoth said dryly as he thought of the young man’s ability to get into trouble.
“Are you ignoring me, Khoth?” Thammah sounded ready to burst. “If you think that I’m going to sit down here while--”
“Come to my location. The lift is working, Thammah,” he said as he sent her his exact location and cut off the connection as General Intoskin and all three Parkers were approaching.
Khoth straightened up and crossed his arms at the wrists behind his back.
“Well, well, well, so you’re the Commander Khoth Voor I’ve heard so much about,” General Intoskin said. There was a smile on the general’s face, but it did not reach those assessing eyes. “From the moment you arrived, you’ve brought trouble with you.”
“I had nothing to do with the Khul coming here. They arrived before I did,” Khoth reminded the man. “And without my assistance, you would have been overrun.”
“Without both of us remember, Khoth? Despite your heroic landing pose, you didn’t do all of this yourself. Metal Rain, remember?” Jace stated as he brushed past his parents and General Intoshkin.
“You were very instrumental as well, Jace,” Khoth agreed.
“We make a good team.” He patted Khoth’s arm before going over to Gehenna, who was again trying to hide.
“Jace! Where are you going? Stay with us!” Diane called.
“It’s okay, I’ve just got to talk to Gehenna for a minute,” Jace called, not stopping for them.
Jace smoothed his hands over the squid-like head and tentacles of the cleaning bot. Though Jace was not speaking out loud it was clear that he was speaking to her. Probably calming her down. Khoth turned back to the general and the parental Parkers.
Jack put his arm around his wife’s shoulders. “It looks like he has a very strange friend.”
“Can she be trusted? After everything she did?” Diane’s head swung to Khoth. “I’m not sure we can trust anyone.”
“It is interesting that you speak of trust, Colonel Parker, as the incident in this room that occurred before Jace’s birth was not reported to the Alliance,” Khoth replied coolly.
Diane became stony-faced. “We thought it a malfunction. Does one report malfunctions? Does the Alliance tell us all that it knows about the Osiris?”
“No, but that is not the agreement between us,” Khoth stated simply.
Diane’s nostrils flared. “I wonder if kidnapping my son and entering into the Osiris to release a prisoner AI violates that agreement?”
Khoth stared at her and said nothing.
“It seems to me that both sides have perhaps not lived up to the agreement,” General Intoshkin stated simply as if he were the reasonable one. “But the agreement will have to be reworked in any event as Jace is… the Pilot.”
Khoth saw Diane and Jack look at one another with a trace of alarm and unease. They’d had to tell the general some of what had happened evidently. But they didn’t look pleased to have done so. They knew that Jace would now be a pawn for the humans.
“Mom, Dad, uhm and General Intoshkin, I’d like you to meet someone,” Jace said with a touch of excitement in his voice.
Jace had a hold of one of Gehenna’s tentacles and was pulling the unwilling AI over to them. Jace was grinning. Those eyes of his were sparking with eagerness and happiness. He wanted his parents to meet Gehenna. Clearly, even if Jace had any qualms about her motives, her background or anything else, his evident affection for her outweighed all of those things.
My mother’s plan will work. He is all Xi. Glowing Xi. He needs to be balanced and yet…
“This is Gehenna!” Jace stated as he gestured to the squid. “Now, this isn’t her actual form. It’s a cleaning bot. She wants you to know that.”
Gehenna waved one of her tentacles at them as she hid most of her bulk behind Jace. Well, as much of it as could be hidden.
“She’s shy,” Jace stated as the three humans stared at the AI. “Mom, she’s a big fan of yours. But she’s worried that you’re… ah, well, after everything that you might not give her a chance.”
Diane stepped towards Gehenna. “Jace tells me that you and he are now connected for life.”
The lights in Gehenna’s skull burned brightly before becoming small.
“Mom, it was an accident. She was trapped. She never meant for you or me to--”
“But her actions caused all of this, Jace.” Diane’s eyes traveled over the squid-head. “She knows she’s responsible.”
Jace grimaced. “It can’t be undone, Mom. And other than the painful stuff done to you and Dr. Rancic, I don’t regret any of it.”
“You suffered your whole life, Jace,” Jack said. His jaw tightened. “In pain all the time. Thinking that you couldn’t have a life.”
“But I’m not in pain now. I won’t be again. And the life I can have now… is so much better than anything else,” Jace told his father. “Dad, I can fly spaceships because of Gehenna. I know how. I can teach you. We can fly together like we always wanted.”
Jack’s face showed a moment of… pain? Longing? “That’s good, son. More than I can say. But I don’t know if I trust someone who did what she did in the first place.”
Jace nodded. “She understands that. She wants you to know that… oh, Gehenna, no, we need to--okay, okay, I’ll tell them.” Jace grimaced and said, “She wants you to know that she will do everything in her power to keep me safe and happy.”
“She had better. Or we will have something to say about it,” Diane stated.
“Indeed, we will,” Jack said.
“She understands,” Jace said. “But I know she’ll make good on her promise.”
“While this is all very touching,” General Intoshkin stated, “I think we have other questions for Gehenna.”
Khoth immediately stepped between Jace and the general. “No questioning will occur without express permission of High Councillor Voor.”
“We are on Earth,” General Intoshkin stated. “Osiris is considered Earth property. Jace is a human and citizen of the United States of America. The Alliance has no authority here.”
“On the contrary, the agreement clearly states that the Osiris is a joint venture between the Alliance and Earth. Jace is the Pilot of the Osiris. So he is the concern of the Alliance,” Khoth stated.
“Our son is not anyone’s concerns, but ours,” Diane stated flatly as she glared at both him and the general.
“Colonel Parker--Diane, I did not mean to suggest anything to the contrary,” General Intoshkin stated. “But with Jace’s… new abilities and connection to Precursor tech, we have a right to--”
“Guys, I’m standing here.” Jace stepped out from behind Khoth. “Why don’t we stop speaking about me and start speaking to me?”
“The general wants to stick you in a lab and test you. He has no intention of letting you fly any spaceships or doing anything you are meant to do as the Pilot,” Khoth stated, seeing the lab-coated doctors that had appeared in the corridor. “Isn’t that what you intend, General Intoshkin?”
“I think a check-up isn’t an unreasonable request, Jace. Not after what you’ve gone through,” General Intoshkin said with a shrug.
Jace glanced over at the doctors and a moue of distaste crossed his lips. “I’ve had enough poking and prodding for today, I think. Besides, you won’t understand what you find anyways. And it can’t be duplicated.”
“How do you know that?” General Intoshkin asked. “Did Gehenna tell you that?”
Khoth was curious himself, but he knew that Jace was telling the truth.
Jace shook his head. He pointed towards the screen where the Osiris had communicated with them. The blinking cursor was back.
“The Osiris told me,” Jace answered.
“The Osiris… the ship?” General Intoshkin asked. “This ship is also an AI?”
“It’s something,” Jace said.
There was the sound of thumping boots as Thammah came down the hallway, jogging. Her cheeks were flushed a dark blue and she looked both excited and alarmed.
“What took you so long, Flight Commander?” Khoth asked with a frown as she ran into the room.
She put her hands on her thighs and breathed. “I hate running on this planet. I want my ship back.”
“Thammah, you okay?” Jace asked.
She looked up at him. “Holy hell, Jace! You’re two times the man you were when I last saw you!”
Jace grinned. “It’s wild, right? But… but you look at a little… winded.”
“I was delayed… and I’m winded,” Thammah gasped out. “Because I saw something. The ship… the wound in the side of the ship is healing.”