CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN: GOOD FAITH
“Who here is going to take me to you, Jace?” High Councillor Nova Voor asked as she stood up.
It was eerie how calm she was all of the sudden. She had been desperate, frantic, almost manic. But now she was cool and calm, not even a trace of her earlier out of control behavior.
No, wait, that’s not true, Jace realized as the Osiris showed him that her vitals were all elevated.
There are indicators of long term stress, the Osiris murmured.
And she cracked wide open, Jace realized.
Her self-control is fragile at best, Gehenna interrupted.
That is not a scientific description, the Osiris responded tartly.
No, but Jace understands exactly what I mean! Gehenna retorted.
Guys, guys, now is not the time to be fighting. I need a clear head and both of your inputs, Jace reminded them.
His gaze slid to Khoth. The Thaf’ell Commander was staring down at the table. A muscle in his jaw was working. There was also a prominent vein in his right temple.
God, this is bad, Jace thought. He’s really in pain and I don’t know how to fix this.
I don’t think there is a way for you to fix this, Jace, Gehenna told him softly. High Councillor Voor made terrible choices.
Probably because she felt those were her only options, Jace said and grimaced.
“Well? I’m waiting to hear how you will force me to come to the Osiris for judgment,” Nova stated and spread her arms.
“You’re hoping that I’ll do something like threaten to turn off the Ashaton’s life support or something like that so we’ll be equal,” Jace responded dryly.
“I was aiming at an empty spot of desert. It’s hardly comparable,” she answered.
“Yeah, before you took that second shot at the innocent civilians,” Jace reminded her.
“We’ll never know if I would have followed through. I could have been bluffing,” Nova answered coolly.
“You don’t bluff,” he stated firmly.
He was certain that she would have harmed some of the people in Sunrise to get him to turn over the Osiris. If she hadn’t lost control she likely could have claimed that she was following the Rule of Duuskukeh. Maybe she still could. After all, what were a few dead humans compared to the might and possibilities of the Osiris?
Threatening to turn off the life support would be the most effective and efficient method to have her come here, the Osiris stated.
You’re way too eager to shut down life support and eject them all into space, Osiris, Jace told the AI.
Jace wouldn’t do that! So it would be an empty threat, which would make Jace look weak! Gehenna pointed out.
At the present time, we do not have sufficient personnel to board the Ashaton and retrieve her, the Osiris stated.
And I can’t use the human military to do this, Jace added. We’re a neutral-ish third-party.
There was a dragging sound as Khoth pushed his chair back and stood up. “I will go get her.”
“You will be shot on sight if you board the Ashaton,” Nova said, the skin around her eyes tightening and her heart rate accelerating to show that this possibility was unpleasant to her. “You are a traitor to the Alliance and you would be attempting to kidnap the High Councillor.”
“I wonder if your crew would see it the same way, High Councillor Voor,” Khoth’s voice was icy, which had Jace’s head jerking towards him.
Not “Mother” any longer. Oh, boy, Jace thought.
The Thaf’ell Commander--no, my Commander--stood rigidly. His blue on blue eyes were narrowed. He did not look like he regretted having to threaten his mother in this way. In fact, if Jace were to guess, the emotions he was feeling were anger and disgust. It was so rare for Khoth to allow his emotions to show so plainly that Jace was torn between wanting to reach towards his Commander to comfort him or take a step back to get out of his way.
You are correct in your assessment, the Osiris stated. Based upon the personality profile I have compiled on Commander Khoth, his mother’s actions are in direct conflict with his own internal structure.
Personality profile… of course you’ve constructed one. Jace resisted the urge to squeeze the top of his nose like he used to when a headache was coming on.
Of course, the Osiris answered, either not understanding or ignoring his tone.
“The Commander will not go alone!” Gehenna raised one metal fist into the air. “I shall accompany him.”
“I don’t think it would be a good look, High Councillor, if we had to haul you out of there,” Jace said, not wanting either Khoth or Gehenna to go over to the Ashaton. Even if they used non-lethal means of making their way to the bridge to remove Nova, it would have considerable downsides.
Not to mention if Khoth has to fight his own mother, Jace added.
“Your actions are being watched, High Councillor. Not just by your crew or me, but by the whole of the Alliance,” Jace explained.
She let out a disbelieving snort. “That is impossible. Transmitting such data, even at the highest speeds, would not--”
“Quantum entanglement,” Jace cut her off and that had her going silent. “I won’t go into the details of it--I think you have the jist anyway--but great distances are irrelevant. I could show you people watching you right now if you like.”
“With the AIs at your disposal that could be faked,” she said, but there was a trace of uncertainty in her voice. “But if what I am doing is seen and heard then you also are observed.”
“Yes, I am,” Jace agreed. “And I intend to make a big splash.”
“How so?” Nova lifted an eyebrow.
She clearly still thought she had him over a barrel of violence as if that was the only way he would think.
She still considers you human, the Osiris remarked as if that were the stupidest thing to think in the world.
Jace frowned slightly. I am human.
Mostly human, Jace countered.
Gehenna, tell me what the Osiris means. You must know, Jace said.
Maybe now isn’t the best time? You’re in a high stakes negotiation here. Gehenna tilted her metal death’s head towards the screen.
Okay, fine! But you’re both telling me later! Jace commanded.
Neither AI responded. Jace was glad that Nova had no idea how helpless he sometimes was against the Osiris and Gehenna. He supposed he could force the two of them to tell him everything he wanted to know at that exact minute. But he knew that both of them--or, at least, Gehenna--had his best interests at heart. And she was right that he was in the middle of negotiations here.
“Commander Nav’ud,” Jace addressed the first man who had defied Nova, “you seem like a person of conscience and principle. High Councillor Nova Voor has broken the treaty with Earth and has behaved against all of your norms. Her, ah, Xi and Xa are all, ah, out of balance.” The Thaf’ell terms were offered to him by both AIs. “She has been emotionally compromised by the death of her daughter and her son’s decision to do what’s best for the Alliance.”
“Emotionally compromised?” Nova’s mouth flattened for a moment. “How could a human even know a state other than that?”
“Your prejudice is showing, High Councillor,” Jace said evenly. “Careful now. You’re coming across as angry.”
“The Pilot is correct in assessing your emotional state, High Councillor. Human or no,” Khoth added.
His Commander’s arms were crossed at his wrists behind his back and he stood with his feet shoulder-width apart. It was a military pose he’d seen his parents take on many times, but somehow seeing Khoth do it was different. And Khoth was doing it for him. Not to mention that Khoth looked… well, he looked incredible with his chest thrust out and his chin lifted. So proud and strong and handsome and…
Stop thinking about the kiss, Jace! He chastised himself.
He went back to addressing Commander Nav’ud again, “Her actions and emotional state demand that she be relieved of duty and that you turn her over to me for judgment.”
He was guessing that this was something in the Thaf’ell rule book, and he was correct.
“You are enemies. You cannot tell my crew--”
“Actually we are not enemies. We are allies,” Jace said, though really Earth and the Alliance were allies. He and his crew weren’t exactly. “We want to be allies. If the Alliance wishes to be allies then it is going to turn you over. Your actions are putting every one of your crew in danger.”
Commander Nav’ud’s gaze slid to Nova and away. He was clearly thinking about it. But she was High Councillor. He was only a lowly Commander. Even if he agreed with Jace and Khoth about Nova’s state, Jace imagined that he wouldn’t fare well in how he was treated.
“You know what? I have a better idea,” Jace said as he scratched the back of his neck. “I don’t want to put Commander Nav’ud there in any danger of losing his position. So… why don’t we call the Council?”
“What?” The word came out of Nova’s mouth too fast. Her control likely would have stopped such a thing from happening in the past, but she was still just holding herself together. The cracks were definitely still there.
Jace snapped his fingers as he asked Khoth what he already knew, “Councillor Ardath Ulgex. She’s second in command, right, Khoth?”
Khoth gave a curt nod. “She and Councillor Esik Bhilkairs would be the two who could rule on this easily.”
Jace looked back at Nova. “And since they’ve been watching this the whole time their ruling would come in no time at all!”
“There is no need for you to involve anyone else. I am High Councillor--”
“I doubt for much longer if you keep this up.” Jace smiled sadly at her. “You have a chance to come peacefully and actually talk to me and humanity like you promised to do. I will forget this insanity--and it was insane, Nova--if you simply give up these mad plans of yours to take the Osiris and me and negotiate in good faith.”
She stared at him without blinking. He knew her mind was furiously working. She had to know she was beaten. At least for now. If nothing else, he hoped she would take the opportunity to simply give herself more time to think of another crazy plan.
“And if you reach out to my Councillors and they don’t give you what you want?” Nova asked almost sweetly.
“Because they hate humans due to being fed a bunch of bullshit about us? And they don’t want their High Councillor to be humiliated by me?” he offered. “Every other species in the Alliance will know that the Thaf’ell--because you’re all Thaf’ell on that Council, right?--don’t respect anyone else’s laws or personhood. Today, it’s humanity that you’re willing to sacrifice. Tomorrow? Who knows? Or maybe you have already begun to sacrifice them. Maybe people have noticed how thin the defenses are getting above their planets.”
Her face went blank, which meant he had truly shocked her. He sighed and did pinch the top of his nose this time.
“But really, if the Thaf’ell fail to see reason, I will simply have the Ashaton’s systems release a sleep agent into the air and you will all fall unconscious then I’ll have you brought here anyways,” Jace told her with a shrug. “Oh, and I’ll lock the gate to Earth in case anyone has the bright idea of coming here in a vain attempt to rescue you.”
Locking the gate was a temporary measure. He couldn’t keep it locked forever, the Osiris told him. But they could disable the rest of the Alliance’s ships.
I don’t want them to know that yet if we can help it. Let them think there’s still the distance thing, Jace said.
“But really all you need to do to fix this terrible mistake is to act in good faith, High Councillor. It’s up to you.” Jace sipped his drink and took another bite of burger while he waited for her to make up her mind.
“If you will allow it, I will fly to the Osiris,” Nova finally said.
“You’ll find one of the Paladin-class fighters will be operational and will fly you here,” he said.
“I will bring three loyal officers with me,” she said, pointedly not looking at Nav’ud.
It didn’t matter if she brought a dozen of her best fighters. The Osiris would neutralize them.
“I look forward to it,” Jace said and cut the connection.
Jace let out a breath that he hadn’t known he had been holding. He put his hands, palms down, on the table and stared at them.
“She has not given up her plans, Jace,” Khoth said. “Bringing her here as anything other than a prisoner is… unwise.”
“I am aware that your mother is likely thinking of attempting to smuggle weapons or explosives or neurotoxin or something with her. In fact, I am certain the Osiris and Gehenna will know,” he said with a wave of his hand. “They’re monitoring every move she makes.”
“You expect treachery from her yet you still intend to go through with the negotiations?” Khoth’s eyebrows lifted. “I know you have not forgotten that she has no bargaining power--”
“I’m not negotiating with her.” Jace scrubbed his hands over his face. “I’m negotiating with the Alliance, and more importantly, a whole list of individuals from species that will be useful in a fight against the Khul, but who have been treated very shabbily by the Council.”
Jace had the Osiris send Khoth a list of individuals from various species that could be partners with them in the likelihood that the official ruling members of the Alliance were not reasonable. A hologram appeared over Khoth’s forearm as he scrolled through the names of the individuals and species. His brow creased.
“These are… unusual choices,” Khoth stated too neutrally.
“They’re ones that I don’t think you would find valuable based on the current thinking of the Alliance,” Jace guessed.
Khoth lowered his arm, the hologram winking out of existence. “No, I would not. I believe you will not have to contact these individuals, because the Alliance will see reason.”
And when he says Alliance, he means the Thaf’ell, Jace thought. The superior Thaf’ell.
They are the best all around fighters, strategists and diplomats… uhm, despite what happened here today, Gehenna pointed out.
Yeah, well, I don’t think we’ll have the option of anymore Thaf’ell crew members than we already have, Jace told her.
“Oh! Thammah is at the door! Should we let her in? She’s banging quite loudly and yelling,” Gehenna informed them.
“I bet she is. She watched the whole thing in her ship. Let’s see what she has to say.” Jace released the door lock and Thammah’s voice could be heard then.
“Is this what you were hiding, Khoth? You big idiot?!” Thammah’s voice preceded her into the room.
“She’s mad at you? Wait, of course, she is. You were mean to her. You’ve got to make it up,” Jace told Khoth, even as he winced a little. Khoth had gone through a lot.
She stormed in, put her hands on her hips, and glared at Khoth. “Tell me that you didn’t insult me in order to protect me from your determination to get yourself exiled?! Oh, by the gods, what is that?”
She had just got sight of Gehenna in her new body.
Gehenna brought her fists up to her grinning skull mouth and said, “Oh, dear, this form is really not working out the way I’d hoped!”
“Gehenna?!” Thammah laughed. “Well, look at you! All gussied up, ready for a war.”
“I’m a protector!” Gehenna said, striking a pose that made her look like some kind of demonic presence that those she would protect would flee from along with her enemies.
“That you are. And considering High Councillor Nova Voor losing control of her Xi and Xa…” Thammah shook her head as if she couldn’t quite believe what she had seen. “You Voors feel deeply. You should have been poets, Khoth. Now back to what I was saying!”
“I did what was prudent.” Khoth straightened again and said, “If you were thought to be my friend you would be suspect of harboring anti-Alliance thoughts and--”
“Something must be pretty damned bad for you to consider exiling yourself, Khoth!” she snapped. “Something dishonorable. Something like we just saw. That everybody just saw! I’m surprised the general and your parents aren’t in here, Jace--”
“The Osiris has kept them in a meeting room for now,” Jace said. Dealing with Khoth’s understandable emotional distress had been hard enough. The general’s glee and his parents’ fears would have been too much to handle.
“They’ll all be mad as a nest of hornets,” she said with a slight laugh. “But I understand why you did it.” Her head snapped back to Khoth then. “But what you did made no sense at all! Do you think I would remain in the Alliance after your mother’s actions? Threatening to fire on civilians?”
“It’s actually worse,” Jace murmured, thinking of Nova’s grand plan to make them fall in love.
“What? How?” Thammah cried.
“It doesn’t matter.” Jace would not be telling her about the love plot. “What does is what you want to do now, Thammah.”
“I want to join your damned crew! I’m done with the Alliance,” she said. “I think you’re the best shot we’ve got of ending this war with the Khul. So tell me where to sign up!”
“Well, great, because I want you part of the crew,” Jace said. “You and my dad are going to have a blast together.”
“Jack has left the US military?” At first Thammah’s eyebrows were lifted in surprise, but then she shook herself. “Actually that makes total sense. Of course he would be with you.”
“You’ll get to really teach him how to fly,” Jace told her.
“Can’t wait! What about your mom though?” she asked.
“She’s staying on representing humanity, which I think is a good thing. She’s a moderating force on General Intoshkin,” Jace said. Here he had criticized the Osiris for having a personality profile on Khoth, but he definitely had one on the general. “This is going to be hard. Even harder than what we just saw. Khoth, you don’t have to be a part of this--”
“I am the Commander of the Osiris, am I not?” Khoth’s chin was tilted up.
“You will be dealing with my mother. I know her better than anyone.” Khoth paused, and Jace guessed that he was wondering if that was really true after what they had witnessed her do that day.
But, on the other hand, he was the one to recognize that she was emotionally compromised before anyone else did, Jace thought.
“I wish to be a part of this process. My… former relationship with her will not cause me to perform with anything less than optimally,” Khoth answered with a stiff bow.
“Ah, didn’t we just establish that Thaf’ell, even very superior ones, can have understandable emotional breaks?” Jace asked quietly. “You’ve gone through many of the same things your mother has and a lot more.”
Khoth rolled his lips together before open and closing them several times. The discomfort he was feeling made Jace want to go over there and embrace him, but he knew that Khoth would not welcome this intimate touch at that moment.
“I must do this, Jace,” Khoth finally said. “For the honor of my family. Whatever the Council will say or do outwardly, you are right that my… that High Councillor Voor has fully dishonored us in a way that even my exile… I need to show that a Voor can be reasonable, logical, trusted and on the right side of this.”
Jace slowly nodded. “Of course. I do need you there. I do trust you, Khoth. And there’s… honestly, no one more honorable I know than you.”
Khoth made another of those awkward bows. Even Thammah’s anger at him seemed deflated as she observed him. Pity was written across her face, before she quickly hid it.
“Do you intend to meet High Councillor Voor in the hangar bay?” Khoth asked.
Jace nodded. “And then we’ll go to a meeting room the Osiris has prepared.”
“If there is time, I must… attend to a personal matter.” Khoth’s hands rose up to the beads in his hair. “I would have these removed before facing the delegation.”
“You’re not going to cut all your hair off, are you?” Jace had not meant to sound so distressed at the thought.
“What? No, just the beads. Nothing else,” Khoth answered softly and, for a moment, there was a flash of something in his eyes that had Jace’s heart pitter-pattering.
He knows you find his hair beautiful! Gehenna gushed.
Yeah, I do, among many of his other traits, Jace admitted.
“Then I will join you in the hangar bay, Pilot,” Khoth said, bowed once more, and strode purposefully from the room.
They were all silent until it was clear he had left. Jace turned to Thammah.
“He really cares about you, Thammah. He was worried that your position with the Alliance would be imperiled,” Jace assured her.
She was studying him though very carefully. “I don’t think I’m the only one that Commander Voor cares about.”
Jace tried not to blush. “I just hope our friendship can survive this thing with his mother.”
Thammah let out a dry laugh. “Commander Voor is all about honor and doing what’s right, Jace. I am sure that whatever you do will be both.”