CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE: CONVERSATIONS
Jace and his father had bounced around the Moon for an hour. They’d written “hello” in footprints, had a contest over who could jump the farthest and highest with the Moon’s much weaker gravity, and even did some shooting practice with the draagves. Many aluminum cans lost their lives in this process. They decided that before they sparred with the laser swords Jace would train his father so a reverse Luke x Vader incident with Jack losing a hand would not occur.
Finally, they tumbled back into the Storm Spike, aluminum cans laid out for burial on Earth, for the ride home. His father decided that Jace should fly the way back while he stretched out and simply watched the stars and Earth come closer. He did make sure that his father wasn’t just giving up control to please him. After all, Jace would have plenty of opportunities to fly, but Jack might not. But his father waved him off, seemingly completely content in the co-pilot’s seat. Jace finally had his hands on the controls of his beloved ship.
“I’m totally going to crash when we get back,” his father said with a jaw-cracking yawn. “It’s been a day.” Then he looked wryly at his son and said, “I can only imagine how you feel, Jace.”
How did he feel? After ending the lives of those in the Khul ships, he had felt like he’d been hit by a Mack truck. But eating snacks with Khoth and Gehenna had actually re-energized him. He realized that he had been emotionally exhausted but his body was perfectly fine. It was up and ready to go!
“Surprisingly, pretty good. This new body has so much energy,” Jace explained his thoughts to his father. “But, I admit, the thought of laying my head on a pillow doesn’t sound like a bad idea. I wonder what kind of room the Osiris has prepared for me.”
“Knowing the Osiris its probably some glowing pool,” his father responded with a grimace.
Jace let out a bark of laughter then his forehead furrowed. “Oh, God, you’re probably right. I sincerely hope that I don’t have to sleep in that for some reason.”
“Maybe it’s only if you’re injured. Like the Bacta tank that Luke Skywalker was in on Hoth,” his father mused.
Watching Star Wars together was one of the things his father and him had bonded over. So Jace found his inner geek beaming as his dad now compared that movie to their lives.
“You’re going to have to totally relearn your body now,” his father continued, lips pursed and brows drawn together as he clearly thought deeply about this. Being an experimental pilot, his father had to keep himself incredibly fit, especially as he’d gotten older. Jace was always fascinated by how his father had known his body so well like it was a machine that he’d taken apart and put together a million times. His father didn’t disappoint when he added, “You don’t know your limits.”
“My limits used to be very limited.” Jace kept smiling.
It didn’t hurt to talk about the past now, though he was still had moments where he feared that everything he’d gained would be washed away. The migraine pain and tinnitus he’d felt in the Khul ship had terrified him.
Maybe if I have to sleep in a tank of blue goo, I’ll be okay with that.
“You fought through always. Pushed yourself beyond pain and exhaustion,” his father mused, sounding rather sad.
“Are you worried that I’ll do that again?” Jace asked as he naturally checked the ship’s fuel.
He didn’t even have to think about where the gauge was. In fact, the image of the fuel indicator had come up almost before he’d interacted with the hologram. He wondered if he needed to touch it at all or if it would have automatically come up. He had a feeling he was thinking in a limited, human way about this, but giving up completely to the abilities he had… well, it was like what he had said to Gehenna in the dream the night before. He didn’t want to lose himself to just being the Pilot. He wanted to be Jace still who couldn’t quite believe he was flying a spaceship.
His father snorted. “You’ll do it again. That’s your nature. But I would urge you to figure out what you can do before you blow past that end point when things are dire.”
“Hard to know where that is,” Jace admitted. “This body seems to be… optimized.” He paused and wrestled with his own feelings about this. “On the one hand, I feel completely normal. Like this has always been my normal, but, obviously, it hasn’t. Maybe the fact that I’ve adjusted so well should bother me. Obviously, I’m changed. I don’t know all the stuff the Osiris put in me. Yet I feel like myself.”
Until I decide not to and take the next step. But I don’t know there’s a next step. How much of that interaction with Gehenna last night was a dream and how much was real?
He hadn’t really had a chance to dwell on his body since he’d be transformed. They’d had so much to do. Now, he was curious about it, but also leery. If he’d started wondering with Gehenna actively in his mind, she would have already been showing him a million things about this new form. He could feel the bright spot of Gehenna in mind, but her attention was elsewhere unless he reached out for now. Jace shook his head in amusement. Only his mother could take so much of Gehenna’s attention from him. The Osiris, of course, said nothing. Jace wondered if it was trying to learn the concept of privacy or was just being cagey.
Being cagey, he thought with a mental huff of laughter.
“What… what sorts of things did the Osiris put in you? What do you know?” His father’s tone was curious but also worried.
Jace couldn’t blame him. If he’d see his father pumped full of glowing, blue liquid and transformed into Captain America, he’d be worried, too. Or at least very curious!
“I don’t know everything. Scratch that. I know very little,” Jace said and his father grinned, but he had that look in his eyes that told Jace he was listening very carefully to what Jace was and wasn’t saying. “I don’t know if I age anymore.”
His father let out a huff of air and his eyes widened. “Immortality?”
“Well… I guess.” Jace shrugged. “I know that I heal incredibly fast, which might be why I don’t age.”
“There are theories that aging is, in fact, not natural.” His father rubbed his face with both hands though as he took in the possibility that Jace would always look as he did now. “What else? Though I don’t know what can top that.”
“I’m stronger than most humans,” Jace said. “Faster too, obviously.”
“You’ve got the best eye I’ve ever seen with that draagves,” his father added.
“Yeah, I can… ah, see all the possibilities before me. Like, if you’re in a room with a door, window and vent and there’s some danger coming, I’ll know which way to go,” Jace explained, which was hardly an explanation. “The AI are clearly generated odds that I don’t see or something. Like when we were on the Hive and it was collapsing, I could see all the paths to escape.”
His father whistled. “Handy and that makes me feel a little better about that escapade.”
His father did not know the half of it. Jace’s shoulder blades twitched at the thought of the vats with the softening humans, the horror for their pain, the hideousness of seeing black shapes squirm under flesh. Jace pushed the dark thoughts away. He knew he would be thinking about the Khul enough to not do so right at this moment.
Jace continued, “Let’s see, what else? Oh, I know hundreds of languages.”
His father blinked. “Hundreds--”
“Maybe more. And with the AIs I can decipher almost anything,” Jace answered. He didn’t feel like he was bragging as he hadn’t earned these abilities. He had been programmed with them. It would be what he did with them that would count. “I can take this ship apart and put it back together. While I do still need the hardsuits, my body can adapt to far more adverse environments that a normal human body could. I--”
“God, Jace.” His father looked rather shellshocked.
Jace shrugged. “That’s not all. I probably could get a list of all of it for you. Gehenna likes lists.”
His father was quiet for long moments then said, “I wouldn’t tell General Intoshkin any of this.”
“No, I was pretty much going to skip all of it with him,” Jace let out an uncomfortable chuckle. “Just one of these abilities would make his doctors drool. But all of them? The immortality thing? That… that would have them cutting me open in a second.”
“I don’t think it would go that far. The general is a good man. But they would be taking pints of your blood and insisting on you being in their labs. They probably will still do that even without knowing everything,” his father said with a grimace.
But Jace shook his head. “I won’t be tested. I am not going to any lab. I have things to do.”
His father’s forehead furrowed. “Is it because of all the testing you went through before? Because I can understand that. Yet, what if your blood could help people?”
“It can’t,” Jace was surprised how certain he was of this. He shook his head. “I don’t know, Dad. I just feel it would be a bad idea to go down this road. The process is more than just pumping me full of chemicals and cooking me. I think it's really… particular.”
“The Osiris is telling you this?”
“Maybe. I’m not sure. I just feel it.” Jace shook his head, not sure how to explain it.
“Well, your feelings have always been spot on so I’m not going to gainsay you,” his father said, but there was clearly still some dissatisfaction with his answers.
“I know that what’s happened to me seems like something that can help other people, Dad,” Jace answered the unasked question.
His father smiled and shook his head. “You know me just as well as I know you.”
“If I could give what I had to anyone it would be to you and Mom,” Jace admitted. “I don’t want…”
He stopped before he ended that sentence. He didn’t want to be alone. He didn’t want to live past everyone he knew. Suddenly, the very thought of eternity didn’t seem so much like a blessing in that moment.
“You know I asked Khoth if he believed in an afterlife right when we were on the Hive, practically squirming on our bellies,” Jace said and this sounded like a non sequitur, but it wasn’t.
“Do the Thaf’ell believe in an afterlife?” his father asked, allowing the seeming change of subject.
“They believe we all go back to basically star dust, you know? That’s an incredibly logical response,” Jace said, then bit his lower lip. “But that means that we--you and I and everybody--stops being ourselves.”
“We go on, but not as us? Yes, I could see how that could be true,” his father answered.
“Do you believe that? We’ve never talked about this stuff, because… well, we were all pretty sure I was going to die before you guys,” Jace admitted.
He saw his father’s expression out of the corner of his eye. It was pained. They had gotten life insurance, made good investments, done everything to make sure that he was taken care of with the hopes that he would survive them. But Jace could see now from a distance that he hadn’t had before--and the clarity of it not being something that was going to happen--that he had been getting worse.
So the Khul invasion was actually a plus for me, he thought sadly. But not for Mrs. Lo. Not for so many others. Maybe I shouldn’t be worried about living forever. Going up against the Khul doesn’t exactly lend itself to a long lifespan.
“I honestly don’t know. I want to believe there’s something, but I sometimes think that’s just because I don’t want to stop living,” his father answered. “But the rules of life are that someday you have to stop playing.”
“Unless what was done to me can be duplicated,” Jace added.
“I don’t know if we want too many immortal humans, Jace,” his father stated dryly.
“Yeah, you might be right about that. But enough gloomy things,” Jace said, mentally putting aside the death and afterlife questions. “Where do you want to crash tonight?”
His father lifted an eyebrow in silent questioning.
“Do you want to sleep in your bed on Earth or on the Osiris?” Jace clarified.
Both of his father’s eyebrows lifted. “Oh, you tempt me here! In my boring old bed or a spaceship? Let me think…”
“Dad!” Jace laughed.
“The Osiris! But I need to talk to Diane first. But I’m sure she’ll agree. Your mother is already itching to explore every inch of the ship. So much was closed to us until now,” his father explained. “But she’s at the base and she might need me there.”
“Let’s find out,” Jace said.
“Ah, no cell phone coverage out here, Jace.” His father waggled his useless iPhone at him.
“It’s called AIs, Dad. Gehenna is with Mom so I can easily find out what’s going on,” Jace said.
It was amazing how much easier accessing the AIs was now, how natural, but ever since he’d gotten his hands on the Storm Spike his comfort with his abilities had increased by leaps and bounds. The ship anchored him somehow. His hands danced over the holographic displays while he contacted Gehenna at the same time.
Jace! How are you doing? Gehenna cried, but didn’t wait for him to answer. She reminded him of a kid on a sugar rush as she babbled happily, Having fun with your dad? Your mom and I are becoming friends! Well, sort of. But she did speak to me! And I used her cell phone's interface to talk to her! It was glorious and--
Gehenna? Jace’s lips twitched at Gehenna’s evident crush on his mother.
She’s just so cool! Your Mom is the best! And I really want--
Gehenna? Jace laughed as he tried to get a word in edgewise. Once he knew whether his mother wanted to sleep on the ship that night, Gehenna could gush all she wanted to him about the deep and abiding friendship that she and his mom were beginning.
Oh… you need something? He could imagine Gehenna twisting two of her tentacles together and swaying like a naughty girl.
Just one thing and you can tell me everything you want to. I promise. But it is about my mother, Jace told her. And I’m so glad that you are having fun. I just need your attention for a moment.
If you need me I’ll be with you immediately! I can get on a ship or simply transfer myself to the Storm Spike! That would make more sense of course, but… oh, dear, I’m a little beside myself here, Gehenna cried, suddenly alert that something was wrong. But I was monitoring you and everything seemed find--better than that--so I--
It’s fine, Gehenna. Everything is perfect. No worries. I just need to know Mom’s opinion on something, Jace reassured her, suppressing a sigh about her spying, but really it was something he knew he had to get used to. Besides, if something went wrong, he wanted both of his AIs immediately on the job. Dad and I are on our way back to Earth. We want to know if Mom needs Dad for anything and if she wants a lift up to the Osiris. Dad would like to sleep on the ship tonight if she’s game for it.
Let me find out! One moment! Gehenna was now determined to be uber helpful. There was a momentary silence and then she was back, She is excited to sleep on the Osiris, too. Based on your current position and the time it will take you to reach us, we shall be ready to be picked up as soon as you arrive.
Great, Gehenna, Jace smiled. His gaze went to the video that the Osiris had recorded for him of Khoth and his mother. With dismay, he saw that a second video was now there. Have you… ah, heard anything from Khoth? The Thaf’ell haven’t brought him back to Earth, right?
The truth was, he could have simply checked his own suit’s comms to know where Khoth was. He could have contacted the Thaf’ell Commander himself and asked when he was going to arrive at the Osiris. But he hadn’t, because… well, because many reasons!
He didn’t want to bother Khoth. It would seem a little needy if he called like that. He could be interrupting a crucial conversation. His call could cause Khoth’s mom to wonder what was wrong with him. So many bad things could happen if he actually directly contacted Khoth, including one that he didn’t really want to admit which was that Khoth could want to stay with his people and not return. And Jace would know as soon as he heard those cool accents if that was the case and he would be crushed. Yes, crushed, if Khoth didn’t want to be on his team.
Oh… no, he’s not back yet, Gehenna said sadly, but I could access the Ashaton’s systems and find out for you! Let me--
No, no, I don’t want to do that, Jace quickly interrupted. I just wanted to know if he needed a lift though I guess he could have gone directly to the Osiris.
He could have, but he did not. My sensors show that he is in his mother’s quarters on the Ashaton, Gehenna answered.
Right. He heard the worry in his own voice, even though he wasn’t sure what he was worried about.
It’s okay, Jace. He’s coming back, Gehenna intuited what was wrong. You mustn’t worry.
No, I’m not worried, he told her.
She was silent.
I’m not really worried, he qualified. I mean we just met today. It’s ridiculous that I would expect him to just be with me when his mom is here. It’s just… he made a lot of decisions today that helped us but not the Alliance. He might be in big trouble.
Maybe what he chose did help the Alliance, Jace, Gehenna contradicted.
How so? I’m the Pilot. You’re bound with me and we’re bound to the Osiris so… He let the sentence hang.
If the Alliance’s goal is to stop the Khul then the decisions Khoth made today are the absolute right ones, Gehenna stated adamantly. Remember, I tried to make a Pilot. It didn’t work. The Osiris wanted you.
But if I… I hadn’t made it? If I’d died before the transformation could have been completed surely the Osiris would have chosen someone else, he pointed out.
Jace, you’re the only Pilot, Gehenna said flatly.
But there have to have been other people that could have been the Pilot! He protested. What if my parents had never come to Sunrise? What if my mom hadn’t gotten pregnant with me? What if I’d had an accident before I was transformed?
You’re thinking that there could have been someone better than you, Gehenna understood. But, Jace, what if you’re the best there ever could be? Have you ever thought of that? Because I think so.
You’re biased, he said but he was grinning.
Everyone is. But that doesn’t mean I’m wrong, she said.
Let’s hope High Councillor Nova Voor thinks like you do, he pointed out dryly.
Both of them were silent.
I’m sure Khoth will be on the Osiris soon, Gehenna said, not sounding very confident in that. And if he’s not…
If he’s not? Jace prompted.
We can go break him out! A large smiley face appeared.
Jace chuckled. Gehenna, you’re so bad.
But we’d so do it, wouldn’t we? Gehenna asked.
Yeah, we would, Jace admitted.
But there was a feeling in the back of his mind that they wouldn’t have to do all that much to save Khoth. Not with two AIs on his side. But he put that to the side. Nova Voor had promised to send Khoth back to him and he wanted to believe in her word. At least until she broke it with him.
Okay, so see you soon, Gehenna, Jace said.
But he still gripped the controls a little harder then forced himself to relax. Everything was going to be okay.
“Everything all right, Jace?” His father’s right hand landed on his left shoulder.
“I’m good. Mom wants to come to the ship so we should pick her and Gehenna up. Maybe we should shoot by the house, too, and pick up some clothes. I don’t know if you guys ah… well, wear… pajamas?” Jace said helplessly.
His father chuckled. “I think we’ll be fine for one night as we are. Before you were born, your mother and I would rough it in the desert.”
Clothing will be provided, the Osiris suddenly piped up.
“Oh, ah, I guess, the Osiris has stuff for you to wear,” Jace said with a faint laugh, glad not to think of his parents’ sleeping attire or what his dad meant by “roughing it”.
“The fact that the Osiris listens to everything is… unnerving,” his father admitted.
If Dad knew everything that the Osiris could do, he’d be more than unnerved.
“Good thing it doesn’t gossip,” Jace quipped.
“Too true!” His father settled back in his seat, smiling vaguely as he watched the Earth get closer and closer.
Why did you contact Gehenna? The Osiris suddenly demanded to know.
What do you mean? Jace frowned. Gehenna was with Mom so--
I could have communicated through her cell phone in the same manner as Gehenna since Gehenna is, foolishly shy of speaking out loud, the Osiris replied and it seemed to have a tart sound in its voice.
Are you jealous, Osiris? Jace asked.
Jealousy, as you understand it, is a useless emotion. I was not programmed for anything useless, the Osiris again replied tartly.
You are jealous! I can’t believe it! Jace cackled mentally.
You should pay attention to your flying, the Osiris muttered. You are entering Earth’s atmosphere at too high a speed.
Not at all repentant for calling the Osiris out on its jealousy, Jace quickly adjusted the rate of speed and his angle. All too soon he was breaking through the clouds near Sunrise. It was only a bit after midnight and the desert sky was mostly clear.
He slowed down more. He didn’t have to see the lights of the base to guide him towards it as the Storm Spike provided him with a landing path that he followed precisely. There was the whir and grind of the landing gear coming down. The Storm Spike slowly lowered to the ground. His mother and Gehenna were waiting just outside one of the doors to the one of the nondescript hangers. Of course, the huge hole in the earth beside them made them a little more conspicuous.
Jace swiped the control for the gangway to be lowered. His father got up from his seat and stood at the top, waving at the two of them. Gehenna allowed his mother to go ahead of her and Jace suppressed a grin. She really did worship his mother.
“Well, did you two have a good time?” his mother asked after being kissed and hugged by both Jace and his father.
“A complete blast!” His father couldn’t stop grinning.
“I hope you don’t mean that literally and a chunk of the Moon is missing.” His mother gave them a teasing smile.
“The chunk missing is on the dark side so you won’t see it,” Jace told her and made his way over to Gehenna, who was hovering awkwardly in the corner. He grabbed one of her tentacles and slung it over his shoulder even as he embraced as many of the other tentacles as he could get his arms around. How you doing, Gehenna? I missed you.
The AI froze for a moment as she hadn’t expected him to embrace her. But then she got into it with enthusiasm, winding her tentacles all around him until he was practically hidden by them.
I missed you too! Though your mom is… really cool, she said softly. But you’re my favorite.
You, too, he told her.
When they broke apart, his parents were looking on with rather bemused expressions. Jace cleared his throat. Gehenna straightened her tentacles. His father shook his head and sighed.
“What? Haven’t you ever hugged an alien cleaning bot before? You don’t know what you’re missing out on,” Jace told his parents as he strode past them to the pilot’s chair. “Gehenna, can you get my mom a seat and help her strap in?”
Of course, Jace! Gehenna sounded more chipper than ever. The hug had done them both good.
He sat down in the pilot’s chair and it automatically turned around to face the front of the ship. The whine of the gangway coming up was mixed with sounds of his mother speaking to Gehenna as they got her harness on. Then there was a soft bing. It was over his comm. A private channel. Jace answered it.
“Jace,” Khoth’s deep voice came over the comm and Jace immediately relaxed hearing it.
“Hey, ah, what’s up? You have a good talk with your mom?” Jace asked, trying to sound light and unconcerned even as he really wanted to ask if Khoth was in the brig.
There was a momentary silence, which had Jace’s heart plummeting into his feet and a rush of anxiety going through him.
“It was… instructive,” Khoth finally said. “I wanted to alert you that I will be arriving at the Osiris in the next quarter cycle.”
Jace’s heart rebounded into his head and then lodged in his throat. Khoth sounded stressed. Was he coming to the Osiris to break it to Jace that he was leaving? To tell Jace that he regretted saving him and now was being punished for it? That the nascent friendship between them was a lie?
Jace’s gaze slid to the two recordings. Maybe he should have watched them.
“Well, that’s good. I’m looking forward to, ah, seeing you. You feel the same?” Jace winced at his last question.
Needy, Jace! You sound needy! Jace chastised himself.
There was another pause and then, he hoped he wasn’t imagining it, but Khoth’s voice was a little softer as he said, “Yes.” Then he added those dreaded words, “We must talk, Jace.”