CHAPTER FORTY: MERCY
Khoth turned his chair so that his back was facing his mother. “May I have a word, Pilot?”
Jace barely turned his head to face him. His gaze remained forward on Khoth’s mother. His expression was bland. Khoth knew that would frustrate his mother. She expected humans to display emotions. Since she, herself, was doing so, such placidity from Jace likely was infuriating.
“Respectfully... what are you doing?” Khoth asked.
Jace sighed as if he had expected the question and Khoth hadn’t disappointed him. “I am trying to salvage this.”
Khoth grimaced. He suspected there was only one reason for Jace to not be condemning his mother and requiring new leadership from the Alliance.
“For me?” Khoth asked.
There was the slightest pause, but that told Khoth all he needed to know even as Jace answered, “The devil you know is better than one you don’t.”
Replacing the word “devil”--which had some kind of religious connotations that he did not fully understand--with “enemy” made the sentence make sense to him. Jace believed them to be better off with someone whose prejudices were well known to them. That would lessen any surprises.
As Nova was his mother, who better than her? Khoth would be the most likely person to understand her motivations and what she would do. On some level there was truth to that. But Khoth was beginning to think that he hardly knew his mother at all. Yet he was certain that Jace was weakening his position simply to spare Khoth pain. That was not acceptable.
Khoth stated, “I know Councillor Ardath Ulgex’s views and likely positions on Earth and humanity--”
“Are hers better or worse than your mother’s views?” Jace asked.
Khoth opened and shut his mouth without answering. He would have weighed Ulgex’s views as more negative before, but after what had happened today he did not know. Another point in them not keeping Nova on. She was either acting completely out of character or this was simply a part of her that he did not understand. Would he have ever thought her capable of what she had done that day? Of her order for him to seduce Jace? Of her blindness regarding humanity’s usefulness? No. He had always viewed her as someone who was extremely logic based. But that image had been shattered.
“High Councillor Voor threatened to kill civilians,” Khoth pointed out.
“Yes, but, as she stated, she didn’t. And the Ashaton’s weapons were aimed at the desert,” Jace reminded him.
“She would have fired upon them if you would not surrender yourself and the Osiris,” Khoth countered, certain of that. His mother didn’t bluff. That much about her hadn’t changed.
“Do you think that Councillor Ulgax would have threatened or simply done it?” Jace asked.
“Councillor Ulgax would have ordered it done, but it would not have been attributed to her,” Khoth admitted.
“So she’s underhanded. Your mother is more upfront. I like people who say and do what they mean,” Jace told him.
Khoth drew in a steadying breath. “Then I must tell you that sparing my mother the just consequences of her actions is unwise. You wish the Alliance to understand the strength you hold and--”
“Mercy,” Jace interrupted softly.
He was looking at Khoth now. Khoth turned his head slightly to see Jace’s face. That arresting visage haunted him. Humans showed what they felt in their eyes. It was like peering into their Xi. It was both fascinating and unnerving.
“Mercy is illogical,” Khoth stated and dropped his gaze from Jace’s for a moment.
“Again, I would not have you weaken your bargaining position with the Alliance simply to ease any distress I may or may not feel--”
“May not?” Jace’s voice was gentle, and yet it was so probing. Khoth felt exposed.
He sat very still. The lack of weight of the selchitte suddenly made his head feel very light like it might float off. Normally, after one had lost their family, their people and the Alliance, they went into isolation. But Khoth would not get that chance. In some ways, he was grateful. He was already doing something useful to regain his honor. But in others… he worried that his Xi might be compromised. Just like his mother’s...
“I will mourn who I thought she was,” Khoth finally said. His voice sounded thick and muddied with grief. He cleared his throat and continued, “That is inevitable. But it must not affect your judgment. You must do what is best.”
Jace was quiet for long moments before he answered, “I have always thought that mercy showed strength, not weakness.”
“But can it also not show… innocence?” Khoth asked carefully.
“Your mean naivete? Not innocence.”
“I do not mean--”
“But you should,” Jace interrupted. “You know my life must have been sheltered due to my… conditions. And you’d be right. I’ve spent most of my life listening and watching. I’ve never been the one really in charge of anything except the Con-Ve on a slow day.”
“I did not mean to suggest that you are not fit for your position--”
“No, you’re not. You’re offering your take. And I want that. But I have to explain something about where I’m coming from,” Jace said and chewed his inner cheek. “The U.S. has been attacked before. Sometimes foreign. Sometimes domestic. And we’ve reacted with force. Overwhelming force. Shock and awe.”
Jace paused and his gaze went distant as if he were thinking of something else.
“But when we did that, we allowed our enemy to limit our options in how we responded. Out of fear, we punched as hard as we could in whatever direction seemed best,” Jace explained.
“In some ways, it had the effect we wanted. It may have discouraged some future attacks. It eliminated some of our enemies. Likely made us others, too, but… The force we used was to make us, at least, feel safer. Whether it really made us safer? I don’t know.” Jace shook his head sadly. “But I do know that it also compromised us. It compromised some of our values. It tarnished us in a way. It took some of our freedoms from us. So the enemy achieved its goal.”
Khoth thought of what his mother had done. Had she not acted with force out of fear? Because she, too, felt that force was the only path open to keep the Alliance safe? Had that not made him ashamed of the Alliance? For, instead of a joined group of enlightened species, they had come across as violent thugs who would harm the innocent.
Jace continued, “I will not let your mother or anyone else force us down the path of violence. If we choose violence then we choose it. No one chooses it for us, especially not one that means us harm. Or the enemy will have won no matter what the final outcome is.”
Khoth slowly nodded. “I just fear that anything less than… well, then shock and awe will be interpreted as an inability to act rather than mercy.”
“It could be. But I’m hoping that at least some in the Alliance recognize restraint,” Jace said then pressed, “Eliminating your mother could just as easily be interpreted as my being afraid of her, of her being a threat. But she isn’t.”
“She isn’t,” Khoth repeated, but not as a question. It was still hard to get his mind around Jace’s power.
“No. Nor is Councillor Ulgax or anyone else the Alliance sends.”
Jace rolled his lips and licked them. Khoth wondered what it would be like to touch them at that moment, which was ridiculous considering where they were and the seriousness of their discussion, but the urge was there.
“Does your Commander doubt the wisdom of your approach in keeping me on?” Nova’s voice rose up. “Or is he urging you to do so?
Khoth’s back stiffened, but he forced himself to let the tension bleed from his shoulders as he turned back around in his chair. Had expressing his opinion to Jace been a mistake? He did not think so. Jace did not appear to regret it either. He laced his fingers together and put them on the table in front of him.
“I value your son’s advice. That’s why I made him Commander of the Osiris,” Jace said, emphasizing his familial connection to her.
“I have no--”
“Son? You have no son, right?” Jace’s voice was clipped and there was an angry buzz undercurrent.
Khoth saw Jace’s mother shift in her seat. Diane had always been very respectful of Thaf’ell culture according to the reports. The Thaf’ell had always assumed it was because she recognized their superiority. Knowing her a little now, Khoth guessed that it was more likely to be polite so that she did not alienate them.
“I think it would be more accurate to say that Khoth has no mother,” Jace suddenly amended.
His mother said nothing, but there was something in the way she held herself that told Khoth that Jace had struck a nerve.
“If I wanted to, I could know every single nuance of Thaf’ell culture,” Jace continued, head nodding slowly. “I know I should respect that we are different species and that there are things I will likely never completely understand about the way you think and vice versa. But there are certain things that we must be clear on if we are to go forward.”
“I am listening,” Nova said and she leaned forward.
“I will never forget what you did to Khoth,” Jace said.
Khoth’s head snapped towards him in shock. Jace did not mention the planned attack on Sunrise. But him. What his mother had done to him. He quickly lowered his head and stilled all movements.
Jace’s expression was mild, but somehow implacable. His mother’s expression was carefully blank.
“You have your reasons, which I am sure that you consider right and true. You’re likely suffering inside for what you’ve done… or I hope so,” Jace continued. “But the fact that you sacrificed him tells me something about you that I will not and must not forget.”
“Which is?” She lifted an eyebrow.
“That there is something missing or broken inside of you,” Jace answered. “And while some may claim to respect what you’ve done, I am betting more than you know will look at you aghast and distrust you deeply. Because if you could do that to your son, what could you do to them?”
“I serve the Alliance,” she said calmly. “If those people stand in its way then they are right to fear me. I do what must be done. You will learn that there is no other way, Jace Parker.”
Jace nodded. “I’m not surprised you believe that.”
“Leadership has taught me this. I am the longest serving High Councillor. I have kept the Alliance safe despite… worsening conditions,” Nova listed her accomplishments. “I have had to make choices that others could not because they were not strong enough. Misplaced sympathy would have damned us all. You are the one in control… for now.”
Khoth watched Jace’s profile to try and read Jace’s thoughts.
“We are not the same,” Jace finally answered her. “But I think we understand each other.”
“Now, you want to remain High Councillor,” Jace said.
“I do. It would be best for the Alliance and, though this matters to me not, better for you,” she added. “Councillor Ardath Ulgex is next in line. She has the political will to take my place. She will be emboldened by my… lack of success in regards to this matter.”
“What an interesting way to put that,” Jace said with a faint smile on his lips.
Khoth doubted that Jace found his mother’s actions amusing, but more that he had expected her to qualify what had occurred that way.
“It was a complete failure!” General Intoshkin let out a bark of laughter.
The human general had been watching the exchange between Jace and Nova with huge interest. His dark eyes had flickered between them the whole conversation and he had stroked his chin speculatively. He was learning about both of them too. Khoth wondered what he would take from the conversation. Jace was not hiding the type of leader he wished to be. Nor was Nova hiding the one she was.
“What do I need to do exactly to gain your help to keep my position?” Nova asked.
“The Alliance espouses to be just that: an alliance of disparate species who have bound together against a common foe, right?” Jace asked.
She nodded. “Indeed. Each species brings its own strengths to the Alliance.”
“And the Thaf’ell are the backbone of its military might, correct?” Jace asked.
Again, she nodded. “In addition to holding most political roles.”
“I believe that there is an almost… caste system, is there not?” Jace asked. “Certain species are considered more valuable than others? Certain species, for example, are not welcome in your military? Certain have no representation on the Council? Correct?”
Nova spread her hands as if, while she saw what Jace was driving at--that this ranked species--it was logical, even if he found it distasteful. “As I said, every species has its strengths.”
“Strengths in your eyes, correct?” Jace sounded more like Khoth’s father conducting a cross-examination than simply engaging in a conversation.
His mother seemed to recognize that as well and she straightened slightly. “The Alliance has withstood the Khul for hundreds of your cycles because of our judgment regarding who can best serve where.”
“Or you’ve just managed to eek through until you no longer have enough borrowed technology to defend yourselves any longer,” Jace replied dryly.
Khoth winced internally. Was that true? Could any of the other species have done better than the Thaf’ell? His instinct was to say: no. The Alliance would have fell long ago if lesser--other--species had been in charge. Those that were too violent. Or those who were not violent enough. Those who would have sought other solutions to the Khul problem that would have left them too fractured, too divided, to keep the Khul at bay. Others who would have tried to find peace with the Khul.
“The Khul are implacable enemies. Yes, we have been worn down through attrition, but we have done more than anyone else could have done with what we had,” his mother answered. “But… if we had the Osiris we--”
“Would have it circle Haseon,” Jace cut in. “Don’t claim otherwise. That is where most of your fleet is. In your homeworld’s system. You send them out when necessary but they remain closer to home than most would like. Your home.”
“It is the seat of the Alliance,” his mother answered coolly. “If we were to lose the Council, the whole of the Alliance would fall. But if we had more ships, better ships, then we could--”
“Do what you’ve done for hundreds of years? Put Thaf’ell pilots in them and allocate them to star systems where the more important Alliance species are and maybe spare a few for the lesser ones, right?” Jace again interrupted. “Come now, High Councillor, change is something that the Alliance seems to regard as an anathema.”
“What we’ve done has worked.” She laced her fingers together in front of her. It was a self-comforting gesture. Khoth had seen her do it with Daesah when they were fighting. It meant that she knew her position was not as strong as it could be. “We don’t change things on a whim, because we feel like it.”
“What you’ve done is the equivalent of slow death,” Jace disagreed. “The Khul do not respect detentes. They have identified Alliance space as their pond and Alliance species as their fish. They are just going to keep fishing you. They won’t stop.”
His mother was silent.
“High Commander Daesah Voor believed much the same,” Khoth said. “She believed that attack rather than defense was the only way to stop the Khul.”
“We did not have enough resources to supply High Commander Voor’s plan,” his mother said evenly.
“Did you tell her that?” Khoth asked. “Or did you lie to her as you did to everyone else?”
His mother did not answer.
“I think High Commander Voor had the right idea, Commander,” Jace said to him. “I think we have to attack the Khul where they live and harry them.”
“You will need excellent military men and women who are eager to take to the stars and defend them,” General Intoshkin said.
“Indeed, General Intoshkin,” Jace said.
“So you will fill ships with humans instead of Thaf’ell?” Nova’s voice was mild, but it was clear what she thought of this idea. “I would hope, Jace Parker, that you are at least aware that Thaf’ell not only have superior biology but also the experience to pilot. No humans do. You would be at a distinct disadvantage if you were to go that route.”
“I am sure you are right that Thaf’ell pilots are excellent.” Jace gave her a warm smile, but that seemed to confuse his mother “But would they listen to me and follow my orders?”
Her expression was curiously frozen.
“No,” Jace answered his own question. “They would listen to you or the Council. With your rigid social structure, your belief in your superiority, and your inflexibility, I believe that most Thaf’ell pilots--no matter how skilled--would simply not be useful to me.”
“So humans then--”
“Some humans, yes,” Jace agreed with a bright grin.
He brought up a holographic screen that he “pushed” which sent it spinning through the air only to blow up between all of the tables so that everyone could read what it said. It was a list of Alliance species. All Alliance species.
“I’m going to put out a call for pilots from every species in the Alliance,” Jace said. “Everyone will have a chance to apply.”
Khoth blinked as he thought of a xols applying for a piloting position. Or what about a neenda? Or… well, there were many objections, but were they valid? Again, his instinct was to say: yes, of course, they were valid! But was he right?
“And I’m going to reach out to many of the species that you have blocked from power and I’m going to ask them if they would like to have a representative on the Osiris as part of her crew,” Jace continued.
His mother’s brow furrowed. “You seem to think we have excluded these species out of base prejudice and not logical--”
“Your logic has not won you anything, High Councillor Voor,” Jace told her. “In fact, I would argue, it has stopped you from progressing and has, in fact, threatened the very existence of every single Alliance species. So, forgive me, if I don’t give a rat’s ass about your judgment.”
“You seem to not have a good high opinion of the Alliance, Jace Parker,” she said.
“I don’t have a good opinion of the Council,” he corrected her. “You asked earlier what you had to do to retain your position.”
“Yes,” she said carefully. Her hands were now clenched around one another.
“The truth is,” Jace said again with that smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes, “that I need you to do is to simply keep the Council out of my way.”
“But we run the Alliance!” she objected.
“No, Mother,” Khoth found himself calling her by that familial term as he realized Jace’s plan, “the Pilot is telling you that he runs the Alliance now.”