CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO: PLANS
Khoth stepped out of the drop ship and into one of the hangar bays of the Osiris. It was large and well-lit. Far larger than the Ashaton’s main hangar bay and this was only one of the Osiris’. One of many.
The gangway retracted and the ship that had brought him was retreating back out into space. None of his people were on the Ashaton and the pilot had not been known to him. The cold, formality between them had been usual for Thaf’ell interactions, but something in his Xi had curdled from it. As he saw the ship leave, he felt a sense of relief as if he had thrown off some great weight.
“Isn’t this amazing?!” Thammah’s voice was burbling with excitement from behind him.
He turned around. He had thought he was alone, but she had been in the Kryptoria II just a ship’s length away. He lost some of his rigid posture and found himself smiling faintly.
She jogged over to him from her ship. He saw then that the Exarch was also in this bay, but it was being repaired by robots that crawled over its surface. There were bright bursts and sparks from a robot that was injecting material into the Exarch’s damaged skin. Others were climbing up the gangway with new parts. Thammah stepped between him and his ship. Seeing where his attention was she glanced over and nodded.
“Exarch will be better than new! But I think you should just upgrade entirely,” she told him.
“I am proficient with the Exarch’s controls and its own peculiarities. I should lose that if I were to… upgrade,” he answered.
Her lips twitched. “Really? Because that answer sounds hardly logical.”
“Not in the least. It is a proven fact that people work more efficiently with systems they are familiar with and--”
“You’d learn the new system and become proficient in that,” she pointed out. “Besides I think the Osiris can mimic any of your old ship’s quirks if you really can’t be without them. Though that would make you sentimental, I believe.”
“I am hardly sentimental. That would be quite irrational and I--”
“Love your spaceship and don’t want to give her up.” Thammah chuckled. “You are a sentimental softie.”
A wash of warmth went through him. Only she of all the Thaf’ell would tease him this way. Not even his father was so warm. Daesah had been close to this, but responsibilities had eliminated all but a very few of their personal conversations. Unlike the cold and silent treatment he and the pilot had given each other, he felt… accepted by Thammah.
“Humans know what it’s like to have technological upgrades,” Thammah enthused, not waiting for him to say anything. “Every few of their months, there’s something new and better on the market.”
“That sounds wasteful.” He frowned.
“Oh, it is in many ways and they have a significant pollution problem because of it, but I think I now understand the desire for gadgetry that exceeds the last generation by being faster, having more memory, being able to do new things,” Thammah explained. “We don’t have that.”
“Indeed. Altaeth technology cannot be improved upon,” he intoned.
“But it can! It has been! You’ve experienced it with your new rahir and draagves. Not to mention the suits!” She poked his stomach.
“I suppose that is correct,” he answered.
“But that’s nothing compared to the new tech in the ships.” She was beaming again. “Though the Kryptoria was wonderful--rest her soul--the Kryptoria II puts her to shame. I’m just starting to get the hang of it.”
He listened to her humanized speech. Her talk of a “soul” and the easy uses of phrases like “the hang of it” and “puts her to shame”. Thammah was speaking like a native and maybe thinking like one too. He was certain that his mother--and many others--would see this as her being contaminated by humans. But he also realized it put her in danger of another sort. They would suspect her of having human sympathies...
Thammah’s eyes were shining. She had a smile from ear to ear. That bright and brilliant expression though dimmed as she realized that something was wrong.
“What’s got your Xi out of joint?” she asked, hands going to hips, all serious now.
“I need to find Jace,” he said as the realization that his mother intended to take the Osiris by force if need be washed over him once more.
He had no time to dawdle here. He was going to tell Jace. The Osiris had to be prepared for this. Humanity had to be prepared. But he could not reveal any of this to Thammah, he realized.
She would be outraged by it. He knew that. She was loyal to the humans and she wouldn’t see it as disloyalty to the Alliance to assist him in stopping it. She would think that by him disobeying a direct order from the High Councillor that he was saving the Alliance from itself. And maybe that was correct. That was his view of it.
But no matter if he was right or wrong, his life in the Alliance would be over after this. He would lose his family, his position, his friendships, everything. He would not destroy her life as well as his. He had to protect her.
“Jace is situating his parents in their quarters,” she said with another of those delighted smiles. “Both of them were like little kids about to spend their first night sleeping aboard a spaceship, you know? I can’t remember what it was like not to be able to travel to distant planets and star systems. But tonight was Jack’s first time to his own moon. It’s madness.”
The affection he heard in her voice for the Parkers could not be denied. Her Xi was fully exposed. He thought if there was a test of loyalty to either the Alliance or the Parkers it would cause a schism in her Xi and Xa. No, she could know nothing of what he was to do.
“Have you… been assigned quarters on the Osiris?” he asked.
“Oh, yes, of course! Jace already considers me part of the crew,” she laughed with joy. “But I’m going to sleep on the Kryptoria II tonight. She and I need to be fully acquainted. Besides, I’ll have to fly down to get my stuff from the base and then decorate. Quarters aren’t home until you put your little mark on the place. Don’t want to sleep somewhere sterile, no matter how nice. And believe me, the quarters here are nice.”
He contrasted that with his mother’s determination to leave no trace of herself in her quarters on a ship or anyplace else. Here Thammah was practically homeless, yet she had a few things that would turn an impersonal area into her own space and that would make it home.
“I understand,” he said. “But you are with the Alliance, you should be getting clearance to stay here.”
She let out a laugh. “Considering your mother wishes to practically crawl in here herself, I highly doubt that they’re going to tell me to stand down. Besides, I don’t really want to bring attention to myself. Jace wants me here and if the Alliance knows that they’ll probably make him pay for it somehow. Give us X number of ships! That sort of thing.”
“Have you noticed there being a problem with the number of our forces?” he asked carefully.
She lifted an eyebrow. “Ah, you haven’t? Where have you been? Oh, wait, son of the High Councillor! Likely not going to be on the front line without at least a Saber-class ship or ten present, unlike the rest of us who have our own ships and that’s it.”
“Earth was the only place where you had one ship--”
But she was shaking her head. “No, partner, that’s not the case. Part of my style of doing things on my own is because I had to. Often there was only me out there and no backup.”
“But that is…” He stopped because the word he was going to use “unthinkable” perhaps just showed a lack of imagination and data. Thammah would not lie to him. “Unwise.”
“Exactly. So that means there must be a shortage.” She shrugged. “But with the Osiris’ building capability, not to mention its maps of other Altaeth worlds, that won’t be a problem anymore.”
“You do not think Jace will withhold these things from the Alliance?” he asked softly.
She squinted at him as if she weren’t sure what she was seeing. “Jace wants to get rid of the Khul because that’s best for everyone. I’m sure he’ll ask for a security force for Earth and humanity as a member of the Alliance but that’s completely standard and your mother shouldn’t have a problem with it.”
She should not yet she has no power to give them what they want, he realized. She has no bargaining power at all.
“Humans are not useless in a fight, you know? Or maybe you don’t fully yet understand them,” she said. “It’s not just Jace--though obviously he’s super charged--but Jack and the other pilots are pretty damned great.”
“Humans do not have the reflexes necessary to--”
“They might not be as good as us in that area, but they have instincts,” she said with a nod as if agreeing with herself. “I let Jack, ah, fly a few times.”
“That is against regulations!”
“Uhm, well, yeah, but who was going to know? I was the only Alliance person there until you showed up,” she said a little sheepishly. “And he loved it. So it was worth it. Besides, I can report to you that humanity can fly. We’re constantly looking for pilots for the outer rim worlds. They’ll love to go instead of twisting other Alliance members' arms to do so.”
If only the other members would allow humanity in! The more Khoth thought of this, the worse it became. It would be so simple to let humanity join, have them earn their place, and change the other members’ opinions of them! But no, that won’t even be considered!
He suddenly saw one of those moving colored lines that had directed them to the Armory appear on the floor of the hanger bay. He knew that it would lead him to Jace. He started walking along it at a fast clip. Thammah quickly raced after him.
“Ah, some advice, Commander,” she said as she pumped her slightly shorter legs to keep up with him.
“Advice on what?” Khoth asked.
“If you’re going to speak to Jace, I would recommend you get your Xi and Xa in order first,” she said. “The kid has had enough ups and downs for one day. He needs a break. So… oh, emotional one, let’s talk it out.”
He stopped walking. She staggered a few steps ahead of him and wobbled around to face him. Anger raced through him. It was not directed truly at her. He knew this intellectually. It was with his mother. It was with the Alliance. It was likely mostly with himself. And yet, he found himself getting angry at her flippancy and the ease with which she claimed to know his emotional state.
It is most irritating because she is right!
But perhaps he should use this. Use it to end their budding friendship. His life with the Alliance was over, but hers didn’t have to be, he reminded himself. Yet even if she had no role in his determination to tell Jace the truth about his mother’s plans or did nothing to help them in it, she would still be blamed if she was close to him in any way. He needed to sever their relationship.
“My Xi and Xa are perfectly in balance, Flight Commander Pyrrhus,” his tone was clipped and cold, impersonal once more. A Commander’s voice. “I suggest that you go back to the Kryptoria II and review the flight manual--”
“Khoth,” she interrupted him almost sweetly, but there was a steely glint in her eyes. “You have no poker face so stop with the nonsense that you’re fine. You are so not fine.”
“Is poker not a game? I do not see how it relates to my face,” he said firmly.
“Poker is a card game where the way you win, beyond luck as to how the cards are dealt, is to bluff people. Make them think you have a great hand or a horrible hand, anything but the hand you have,” she explained. “And you cannot bluff me now. I know you don’t have a good hand. What is wrong? What happened on the Ashaton?”
He thought he was hiding his concerns.. He was bathed in an icy coldness. He was perfectly composed. And yet, Thammah knew that something was very wrong. This was disturbing. It meant that he was misreading himself or his impact on others at that moment. He had to push her back on her heels. He had to distract her Xi so that he could protect her from what was to come.
“Why are you here?” Khoth asked in his haughtiest tone.
“Here? In front of you?” She blinked. “I’m trying to help you, or at least, stop you from messing up your relationship with Jace because of something your mother said.”
The closeness of her words to the situation was astonishing. She knew him so well already. He would lose much when he lost her. But he pushed on, “No, I meant on Earth.”
Her eyebrows rose. “Why does that even matter--”
“Because I want to understand the quality of the person I am taking advice from,” he said stiffly.
“Quality?” She stepped back. Her expression went blank.
He felt a stab of pain. He wanted to stop this. But it was for the best.
So he pushed on and said, “I know the mistakes I made that got me here, but you? I know nothing about other than you cannot follow orders.”
“Orders? Yeah, like rules? Like the big rule you broke? You and I are the same,” she said.
“We are nothing alike. You adopt the ways of these lesser humans so easily and--”
“Like you,” she said stubbornly. Her brow furrowed. “Why are you pushing me away? Why are you saying things you don’t mean? Can’t mean?
Again, she was so intuitive. He wondered if his plan would work at all!
She shows her Xi. She wants friendship. She has been open with me. I must cut her to the quick.
“Because you are not the quality of soldier--or person--that I wish to associate with. Returning to the Ashaton has reminded me of that,” he said with cold precision.
He saw the moment his words hurt her. Some of the color ran out of her face. Her eyes stopped sparkling with brilliance or fun. It was like something died inside of her. The fact that they had just met should have made him judge her as foolish. But he did not. In fact, even though he knew this was best, he felt the desire to tell her that he didn’t mean what he had said. That she was one of the finest pilots he had met and thought of her fondly, but he couldn’t. If he were truly her friend, he had to do this.
“I thought you were different,” she said abruptly. “Maybe I was wrong.” She turned on her heel and started walking back to the Kryptoria II. She tossed over her shoulder at him, “Maybe it’s better if you mess up now so Jace sees the quality of person you really are.”
He watched her go. Perhaps he should tell Jace to order her to the Ashaton. That way there would be no doubt that she had nothing to do with what he was about to do. His heart seemed strangely heavy and it was hard to breathe or swallow around the lump that had formed in his throat.
The flashing lights seemed to urge him on to get to Jace. He turned and blindly followed them. The interior of the Osiris was, of course, familiar to him. It had the same white and black corridors as before with holographic signage. It was slightly unnerving to be walking these empty hallways when it felt like they should be filled with people. But Jace had only allowed a handful of people onto the Osiris. The likelihood of him bumping into anyone he did not want to was minimal. The flashing lights led him to a lift. The doors whooshed open and--
“Commander Voor!” General Intoshkin’s voice boomed. “Fancy meeting you here.”
“Indeed, it is highly unlikely we should meet,” Khoth stated.
The general grinned even as he held up his hands. “You got me. I was looking for you. Moment I realized you had come aboard the Osiris, I thought we ought to have a chat, you and I.”
Khoth considered pulling the man out of the lift and sending him reeling into the hallway so that he could get to Jace. But instead, he joined the general inside the lift. The doors silently closed once more. He did not have to indicate the floor as the Osiris had already taken care of that.
“So… how did the meeting go with your mother?” General Intoshkin asked. “When I get to see my daughter, I find myself spending hours with her. I don’t ever want her to leave.”
“My mother is High Councillor. Her time is limited,” he answered coolly.
“Oh, yes, a very important person. The most important person in the Alliance and she comes here,” General Intoshkin said with a bob of his head. “She’s already tipped her hand about Jace and the Osiris’ importance to the Alliance.”
“Jace and the Osiris are important to the Alliance,” Khoth agreed. “Notice that neither of us included humanity in that list.”
The doors to the lift opened on a floor that was different from the others. While the corridors below had been slightly sterile and uniform, this one showed subtle warmth. The lights were not as stark. The walls were still white, but the floor changed colors like a swirling night sky.
Portions of the walls projected images, not only of the view outside, but of various worlds that Khoth did not recognize. He stopped by one that had pinkish-orange clouds that parted for a moment to reveal a floating city. His breath caught at its beauty. It was Altaeth. But they had never found a floating city on any of the worlds discovered so far. This was a new world with tech they had not encountered!
His heart was hammering in his chest as General Intoshkin said, “Jace represents not only humanity but the United States of America, as well.”
“That is one of the meaningless divisions of your world, correct?” Khoth asked as he studied the flying city.
He could almost hear General Intoshkin’s teeth grinding. “Hardly meaningless, Commander. But Jace knows that he’s one of us, not you. And we’ll be by his side during any negotiations tomorrow. So if your mother believes she’ll be facing a young man on his own, she’s got something coming!”
Khoth nodded. “Understood, General. At least as to your position. Have you asked Jace if he agrees with you?”
“I was just heading there right now to speak with him after you. His quarters are this way,” General Intoshkin said as he started down the corridor past Khoth.
But suddenly a door to their left opened and Colonel Diane Parker stepped out.
“General! I’m so glad to see you. Won’t you please come in? We need to discuss a few things before the meetings tomorrow,” she said with a smile.
“I need to speak with your son--”
“We need to discuss things first,” she said, the smile dropping away.
Despite General Intoshkin outranking her, he gave a curt nod and entered what must been her and Jack’s quarters.
“He’s just down there, Khoth,” Diane said with a tilt of her head towards the end of the hallway. “He’s waiting for you.”
He nodded and moved at a good rate of speed. He needed to get in there and convince Jace to lock the general out until they had spoken thoroughly. Jace’s quarters were at the end of the hallway. The doors whispered open before he had even gotten there. He stepped inside and they closed behind him.
The quarters were dimly lit at the moment. Like his mother’s quarters, there was a formal foyer that led up a few steps to a circular meeting room. There was a table there instead of a simple desk with many chairs around it. There were doors opening up in all directions, but the lights showed that he was to continue going straight. He did so.
There was another set of stairs that led into a sleeping quarters. A huge bed that was covered with massives of fluffy blankets and pillows and… Jace. Sprawled out on top of it, half undressed, and completely asleep.
The ceiling and walls all around him projected scenes of alien worlds like the ones in the hallway. Khoth guessed that Jace had decided to lay down to watch them and his exhausted body had sent him asleep. Khoth felt that now familiar desire to protect this young man. He wanted to undress him fully and tuck him under the covers. To allow Jace to sleep and dream of worlds that he could now visit. But there was no time for that.
He had to wake him.
He took one step and, suddenly, the images ceased and a single blinking cursor appeared.
Just as suddenly beside the cursor, it playseda clip of his conversation with his mother, another with his father, and far more. Communications his mother had had with the Council. Communications that other council members had had with each other.
And it ended with his mother’s order that the Alliance would take the Osiris by force. The exact time it would happen. The exact plan to accomplish it. The Alliance was to use deadly force against humanity, if necessary.
“You know already,” Khoth breathed.
Jace slept on.
Yes, the Osiris answered.
“Then you understand that I must wake Jace to make a plan to stop this--”
No, the Osiris answered.
It showed him every ship in the fleet having its life support systems turned off. He saw them gasping for air, clawing at their throats, before going still and freezing, only to be ejected out of the ships. The Osiris showed him humans taking the Alliance’s place. And this just didn’t happen here. It showed him everywhere there were Altaeth ships that this would happen.
The Alliance will not interfere with the Pilot, the Osiris said.
“There is no need for this! Jace will not let you kill--”
This is the power of the Pilot. There is more. Much more. The Alliance is no threat, the Osiris stated.
“I see. You mean to show me that my mother’s plan cannot work. That Jace has control not just of you, but the entirety of the Alliance forces?” Khoth guessed.
Khoth felt his shoulders relax. The betrayal was already taken care of before it had begun. Jace was safe.
“Does Jace know all of this?” Khoth asked.
“Yes, I will tell him.”
I have all proof, the Osiris made that sound like a threat, not that it mattered to Khoth. He intended to tell Jace everything anyways.
Sleep now, the Osiris instructed.
Sleep suddenly sounded not only necessary but perfect.
“Where are my quarters?” Khoth asked.
He expected the flashing lights to come on again to lead him to his destination. But the blinking cursor was replaced by one word, Here.
“These are Jace’s quarters not--”
Khoth wasn’t sure if the Osiris understood what he was asking or suggesting that Khoth sleep here.
The Pilot wants you here, the Osiris explained. So you will stay here.
The walls and ceiling returned to the beautiful views of the planets. Khoth stared at Jace. He was certain that the doors would not open for him to leave or the general to come in. It was best he was here when Jace woke so that they could talk.
He slowly walked to Jace’s side before doing what he had wanted to from the moment he’d seen the young man sprawled on the bed. He removed his boots and the half shucked off suit, leaving Jace in only a pair of boxer briefs. Then he tenderly lifted Jace fully onto the bed. Jace didn’t stir a bit before he covered him with a blanket.
Khoth then got on the bed beside him, on top of the covers, making sure to keep at least a foot from Jace and looked up at the strange worlds, thinking to meditate for a time, but his eyelids too drifted shut for a moment and they did not open again as he fell deeply into sleep.