CHAPTER TWO - THE RULE
“Commander Khoth Voor, you are accused of violating the Rule of Duuskukeh by risking your command--twenty-four highly skilled pilots--to save one,” High Councillor Nova Voor pronounced from her seat at the council table, known as the Vakh, twenty feet above Khoth’s head. Her voice was even. Some would characterize it as cold. There was no familiarity in it. No one would ever know she was his mother from the way she spoke to him. “What say you?”
Khoth’s fingers curled slightly towards his palms. It was the only sign of emotion he showed. He quickly forced them straight. His voice was as even and cool as hers as he answered, “It was necessary.”
“I did not ask if it was necessary, Commander Khoth. I asked if you violated the Rule,” she stated crisply.
The six Councillors to either side of her nodded their heads in agreement. They loomed above him in judgment now, but not one of them had been in a battle for over ten cycles, some much more than that.
His fingers twitched. He stilled them again. He lifted his head slowly so that he was looking directly at his mother’s face, blanking out the rest of the Councillors, speaking only to her. She had commanded more missions than all combined up there. She had to hear him. She had to understand. The Rules were there to guide, but they should not--could not--become a prison that would stop a Commander from doing what was necessary.
Hear me, Mother, he willed even as his face showed none of his need.
She filled his vision. Blue skin like the color of the lakatch flowers that grew in abundance on their homeworld of Haseon. The whole right side of her face was tattooed with the ta’na, her marks of victory in battle. Her back had grown too full to contain them all. She was given a dispensation to mark those great battles on her face for all to see. He had been granted the same, but for only one battle with the Khul. He wondered if he’d be commanded to remove it after this. He felt he deserved to lose it.
I could not save Daesah. I could only end her suffering. We lost the best of us with her.
“I believe that the Rule does not apply in the situation I was in,” he answered, not allowing any of his raw feelings to taint his voice. “As it was a mission to save our High Commander, the concern of sacrificing the many for the one was not triggered.”
“You expect us to believe that you acted as you did because it was your High Commander in danger and not… your sister?” His mother lifted a white eyebrow. Her glowing blue eyes, a deeper blue than her skin, darkened.
And your daughter, his traitorous mind whispered.
A tremor went through him, but he stilled it and shook his head. He would have been gutted to lose Daesah, but he would not have risked twenty-four other pilots just to save her. They might be blood and he had loved her and would always love her, but the Rule of Duuskukeh was at the very core of Thaf’ell society.
The many above the one.
It was something that every Thaf’ell was taught from birth to death. The needs of the society were greater than the needs of the individual. To act to the detriment of the whole for the benefit of the one was verboten and punishable by exile, the worst of all punishments. Better to die than to be split from the whole. But there were exceptions. And risking himself and his command to save Daesah had been one of them. Saving her was saving all of The Illumen Alliance.
“That she is my sister played no role in my decision,” Khoth said with chin lifted, meeting every set of glowing blue eyes on that Vahk. Let them see the truth in me. He continued, “High Commander Daesah Voor was worth more than twenty-five lives. She was… invaluable.”
He included his own life in that. Twenty-four under his command plus his own equalled twenty-five.
I would give my life and so many others to have her back, Khoth thought and grief threatened to eclipse his powerful control.
“High Commander Daesah was a fine pilot and a keen strategist,” his mother stated. Her voice remained as even as ever. It did not catch over saying her daughter’s name. “But she was one person.”
He remembered every second of the mission where his sister’s saber class ship, the Alarion, had been overrun by the Khul and she had been taken. The Alarion had responded to a sighting of a squadron of Khul ships by a mining operation on the planet Dracelea’s surface. The mining operation was small and it was only a sighting of the Khul. There had been no attack. The Khul could have simply been passing through. It hardly warranted attention, let alone attention by the Alarion and himself. But his sister had thought very differently. After they had done a sweep of the system without success, she had contacted him.
He remembered her face on his view screen. She was not seated in the command chair of his Alarion. Instead, she had been in her quarters on the war vessel while he and his command were all in their Paladin-class fighters, about to dock and head back.
Her expression was rarely relaxed, but the tensity it normally carried was increased. She was the leader of The Illumen Alliance’s military branch. It was assumed that she would be their mother’s natural successor as High Councillor when Nova was ready to step down. Responsibility for everyone had been drilled into his sister every moment of every day of her life. But the usual weight on her shoulders had been doubled. But why? They had found nothing.
I am about to find out.
“Khoth,” she said using his first name without his rank. That and the fact she was speaking to him on a private channel from her quarters without any of her first officers meant that she wished to speak to him outside of their roles in the military.
Still, he answered automatically with, “What can I assist you with, High--”
She waved a hand through the air, cutting off his words. “This is your sister speaking. Not your superior. I need you to hear me, Khoth.”
He paused for a moment then nodded. “What is it? What do you sense?”
“We have searched the quadrant and found no sign of the Khul,” she told him, her expression growing grimmer. She was telling him what he already knew, but he understood that she was listing the reasons for why, logically, she should not do whatever it was that she was thinking of. She tossed her head and the selchilite, the beads in her hair that showed their family’s station, clacked together almost angrily. “But I feel that there is something more here, Khoth. I can almost smell the Khul in this place.”
He continued to be silent. His sister only confided these feelings to him. In the past, she had shared them with their parents, but that had stopped. Both Nova and Thadden Voor had been clear that following instincts was for lesser species, not the Thaf’ell. Let the Neccuk or--the stars forbid--the humans follow their “gut” as it was said. But the Thaf’ell followed logic and left emotion and superstition out of it. Yet her instincts had been proven right more times than anyone’s logic ever had been. It was part of her gift as a strategist.
“What should we do? If the Khul are here, we must find them. This may be the edge of Alliance space, but it is still our territory,” he stated.
She nodded, her eyes distant as she contemplated something inside of herself instead of outside of it. Finally, she shook herself again. The selchilite clacked some more.
“I want you to go down to the surface and speak, face to face, with those who called us here,” she instructed. “T’cklock was the name of the Zols I spoke to. He was sweating like a narlacc in heat.”
“Zols always sweat,” he pointed out with a twitch of his lips.
She smiled back. “Not that much. He was practically in a puddle of it.”
Khoth lifted an eyebrow. “Are you sure he was simply not intimidated by speaking to you, Daesah? He likely did not expect to reach the High Commander when he alerted the Alliance to a Khul pod.”
“I do not think so. In fact…” She tapped her lower lip as her eyes grew distant again, “I think he wasn’t surprised to see me at all.”
Khoth frowned. “Perhaps he did not recognize you then.”
A smile played on her lips a moment. “Well, then he could not have been intimidated by me if he did not recognize me, now could he?”
Khoth shrugged. “I suppose. So what do you think the reason was for his nervousness?”
“I think he was lying about something. I know he was lying,” she insisted. “I just need to know about what. And I trust you, little brother, to find out what that is.”
“I’m surprised you do not wish to pursue this yourself. You have a greater sense of other species’ emotions than I do.”
She smiled again. This time it was a fond smile. “On the contrary, you are very sensitive, Khoth.”
He left out a huff. “By the stars forbid!”
“It isn’t a bad thing no matter what Mother and Father say,” she told him softly. “They are caught in the old ways of thinking.”
“They are pure Thaf’ell!” he protested, thinking that nothing could be so good as that.
“If just Thaf’ell thinking could defeat the Khul, we would have done so already,” she said and passed a hand over her forehead.
He was too shocked to say anything at first then he managed, “Perhaps we should ask the Ode or the Grillix or the--the humans for their thoughts about defeating the Khul!”
He had meant his words to inflame her. The species he listed were hardly evolved. They had the most basic connection to the Altaeth, not like the Thaf’ell who's connection was deep and wide. But his sister did not rise to the bait. In fact, she looked sadly at him as if he had disappointed her in his answer.
“Maybe we should,” she said.
This time he was truly struck dumb.
She drew in a deep breath and released it, centering herself, before continuing, “Will you go down to the surface and find out what that Xols was lying about?”
She could have commanded him to do so, but she would not. Not about something like this that seemed like a fool’s errand. He nodded.
“Of course, I will do this,” he stated.
The weight on her seemed to lift a little and he felt proud to have taken, even a little, off the burden she carried.
“Report to me alone when you get back,” she stated and began making the motion to sever the connection.
“Daesah!” he called out before he could think better of it.
She paused her movement and lifted an eyebrow. He had intended to ask her if she had spoken of these ideas to anyone but him. He had intended to ask her if coordinating with the lesser species was part of her plans.
But all he said to her was, “Be careful.”
“And you, little brother.”
And then she was gone.
“Commander Khoth!” His mother’s voice was sharp.
His head jerked up. He had lost himself for a moment. What had they asked him? Ah, the many above the one.
“While it may be politically expedient to tell the masses that we are all equal, but she--High Commander Daesah--created our plans, both offensive and defensive against the Khul. She has been more successful than any other High Commander,” Khoth stated.
She was better than even you, Mother. You know this as well as anyone.
His mother was rigid and her blue eyes flashed as she said, “Rule of Duuskukeh is not something we just say.”
“I am not speaking about the value of anyone. No one is intrinsically more valuable than another,” Khoth stated, feeling he had nearly just stepped into a trap.
“And none is more valuable than the whole,” his mother added.
“Yes, so you know that if the Khul obtained that information then our best plans against them would be theirs!” Khoth shouted as his control cracked.
For a moment, his mind offered him the image of Daesah, already in one of the pools, body softening, already infested. Her eyes were focused on him. He saw one of the larvae moved underneath her right cheek. A black oblong shape that slithered as it separated softening flesh from softening bone. Nausea and horror bubbled within him.
“And by taking your entire command with you into that Khul ship could have given then twenty-five more of us,” his mother said softly. “No one taken by the Khul has ever come back uninfected. The moment they are taken they are injected. There is no coming back, Khoth.”
He swallowed and answered, “I know. But we could stop them from knowing what she did. I did not make it an order to accompany me to rescue her. There was a vote--”
“A vote?” Councillor Ardath Ulgex, his mother’s Second, scoffed. She did not hide her disdain. Her handsome yet sharp features narrowing with dislike for him. While she held the role of Second, she wanted to be First. “You are a Commander of the Thaf’ell! Any under you who would not follow your lead are not fit to fight!”
Khoth shook his head. The selchilite in his hair clacked together and Daesah’s face in that final agonizing moment was before him again. Despite the agony in her eyes, there had been a clarity too. There had been a pleading.
Do it, Khoth.
End this suffering.
Don’t let them take what I know...
Khoth got out, “This was a choice. I made it clear--”
“If it was a choice,” Councillor Esik Bhilkairs, the oldest on the Council, interrupted softly. He was known for his calm nature, but Khoth knew that Esik’s voice might rarely rise in volume, but his words could be the most cutting, “then shouldn’t your whole command be here to be punished as well for violating the Rule, Commander Khoth?”
Khoth had expected this argument. He would never allow his people to be punished for his decision. “Even if I agreed with you that the Rule applied, only a Commander is responsible for the actions of his command if he participates in the actions.”
Councillor Esik smiled almost sadly and nodded his head. “Your loyalty and intelligence make the actions taken by you to violate the Rule that much more painful to hear, Commander Khoth. No one…” His gaze slid to Councillor Ardath for a moment, “finds this Tribunal… easy. Indeed, I, for one, believe that you acted in what you believed were the best interests of the Alliance. While I am certain you felt great pain at Daesah’s loss, I do not believe that is what solely motivated you to break the Rule.”
Khoth found himself holding his breath. He had fully expected to lose his Command, his ta’na and, potentially, be exiled for his actions.
But I would still do it again.
He had just wanted to be understood. Councillor Esik seemed to do so. But did his mother? She was the one who would judge him ultimately. He searched her face.
Her eyes met his, but then they drifted to his father, Thadden Voor, who stood behind Khoth. His mother was High Councillor. In many ways, she stood alone. But his father had always been her touchstone. His father had urged his mother to recuse herself from this Tribunal. Khoth had hidden and watched them decide part of his fate.
“You think that my emotions will cloud my judgment?” She had asked his father as she had paced the length of their communal room in their home.
“I am saying that it does not matter. Whatever you do, whatever punishment you give, it will never be thought neutral,” his father had patiently explained as he stood still in the very center of the circular space. “Punish Khoth too harshly and there will be those who say that you are doing so not for his bad judgment, but for grief over our daughter’s loss. Punish him too lightly and they will think you are protecting him.”
“My punishment will neither be too hard or too light.” She stopped pacing. She crossed her arms at the wrists behind her back and stood stiffly, almost as if to attention even though she had been his father’s Commander when they met.
“I do not doubt that. But others will always believe that no matter what punishment you give that it is wrong,” his father had answered her smoothly. “That is why you must recuse yourself so that Khoth is not only justly judged but that there is a perception that he was.”
His mother had gone silent, but then she lifted her chin and said, “You know I cannot. Because to recuse myself is to show weakness. It is to say that I care more for what others think than my own judgment. I will lose face and we will lose control of the Council.”
His father had sighed and Khoth had wondered if his father believed they already had due to Khoth’s actions. Now, here they were, with his mother about to pronounce judgment upon him.
“Councillor Esik,” his mother stated without looking at the man to her left, “your words are wise as always. You see Commander Khoth’s motivations quite clearly.”
Councillor Ardath let out a sharp laugh. “Found a way to pardon your boy, High Councillor Nova?”
I just want you to understand, Mother, that I did not do this to dishonor you or Daesah or The Illumen Alliance. I did this to save us, Khoth thought.
His mother though ignored Councillor Ardath’s sneering comment and continued on as if nothing had been said, “But…”
Khoth tensed. But?
“But you still broke the Rule.” She lifted a hand, anticipating that he was about to speak, “For a good reason. And, maybe, you had to break it.”
Khoth blinked. Did she understand? Could she forgive him?
She continued, “But…”
He leaned forward. It felt like every cell of his being was waiting for her judgment.
“Everything you’ve said is true, Commander Khoth. If the Khul had managed to assimilate her, they would have known things that would have crippled us,” his mother said. “They would have been able to anticipate our every move. And we would have been scrambling, back-footed, and in great danger.”
His eyes flickered over her face. She understood! She knew he had not betrayed the Alliance! He had not broken the Rule simply out of grief or love or any of those trifling emotions.
“You did this thing for us all,” she said with a nod. But then she met his gaze. “Which is why you will not be exiled.”
Khoth let out a breath even as Councillor Ardath hissed coldly.
“But there is no question… my son…,” she paused then and he froze. “There is no question that you broke our most sacred Rule and there must be consequences. For if there are not, others might do the same for reasons as good and not as good as yours. If one infected gets back to one of the Illumen’s worlds… it would be disastrous.”
He knew that. Before the Rule had been instituted people had brought their loved ones home and had hidden it from the authorities. Whole worlds had been lost this way. But after the Rule, the spread had stopped.
“Your punishment, therefore, is to go to Earth,” she stated.
He stared at her. He couldn’t quite believe what she was saying and he was hearing.
That is the name of the human homeworld.
“That cannot be…” Khoth stated. “There are no Khul anywhere near Earth!”
“No, there are not,” his mother agreed.
“There will be nothing for me to do there,” he stated. “I will have no purpose!”
I will not be able to revenge Deaseh! I will not be able to defend the Alliance!
His mother’s gaze was steadily on him. “You will go to Earth. You will serve the humans. And there you shall remain.”
“For how long?” he asked.
“Until we call for you,” she answered, her voice dipping for once during this whole exchange.
And what those words really meant was that he would never come back. Earth was worse than exile.