CHAPTER FORTY-THREE: NEXT STEPS
“Now, open your mouth in preparation,” Jace told Khoth, trying to hide the wide smile that wanted to bloom on his face.
“I do not understand the purpose of this endeavor. If we are going to eat the popcorn, would it not be better to place a piece in our mouths instead of trying to catch a piece you toss into the air?” Khoth sounded dubious about the whole endeavor. “There is a greater than even chance that we might miss it altogether.”
“And you won’t eat dirty popcorn? You don’t know about the five second rule?” Jace let out a chuckle.
“Five second rule?”
“Food touches the floor for less than five seconds and it’s perfectly clean. The dirt does not have time to adhere to it and--”
“That is not scientific. You must know this,” Khoth interrupted him. His whole face scrunched.
“I know that, but I still tell myself it’s true,” Jace said.
“So you believe something you know is not factual?”
“All the time.” Jace winced. “That’s one of the good and bad things about humans. It often leads to bad things, I admit. But not the five second rule.”
“It will if the food becomes contaminated and someone becomes ill though it is unlikely that you will get ill. I am assuming that the Osiris has upgraded your digestive tract.” Khoth’s head shifted.
There was no clack of selchitte when he did so. The Thaf’ell frowned and one of his hands lifted to his head, but he firmly lowered it to his side. Jace mourned the loss of those beads, too. He wondered if there was something that he could give Khoth to replace them. Something that would represent his new family.
But maybe that was incredibly presumptuous. Maybe it wasn’t something that Khoth would want. Selchitte represented family and rank in the Thaf’ell. Would it seem lesser to Khoth to have non-Thaf’ell “family” and rank? He would have to ask Thammah about this before he even considered speaking to Khoth.
“You have to take risks, Khoth, even if you don’t have a cast iron stomach like me. Because it’s all part of the experience of popcorn,” Jace told him. “You have to throw some up in the air and catch it in your mouth to truly understand this superfood.”
“Why?” Khoth was doing that furrowed brow thing that Jace loved and the smile kept threatening to bloom.
“Well… it’s just a thing you do with popcorn,” Jace answered, finding that his ability to speak seemed to become reduced the more those eyebrows drew together.
“Does it taste better?” More dubiousness and frowns though they were hard to see as the two of them were laying on Jace’s bed on their backs.
The ceiling up above them was showing worlds that Jace wanted to explore that might have manufacturing facilities to create ships for Earth. They were supposed to be napping. Or, Jace was supposed to be napping, but he’d found a second wind the moment that they’d come into his quarters. So food and planet gazing were the plan. But it had led to popcorn and cuddling. Well, sort of cuddling.
Deeper frowns. “Does this act make the popcorn more nutritious? Though I cannot see how that would be.”
“No, it’s just… fun,” Jace explained.
The bowl of popcorn was between them. One side resting against Jace’s hip and the other against Khoth’s. They were one popcorn bowl apart from cuddling. Both of them had kicked off their boots and taken off their jackets. But they weren’t undressed. They were very far from undressed and Jace wondered if he should press this issue. But Khoth, for all his strength, seemed so fragile still.
“This is very perplexing. I am beginning to think that I do not understand the meaning of the word fun,” Khoth told him.
“Just try. See if you like it,” Jace suggested and picked up a single kernel.
The popcorn was perfectly buttered and salted. A few grains of salt stuck to his fingers and there was a faint sheen of butter too. The Osiris had sent it up, along with a bunch of other snacks. It had also refreshed Khoth’s lunch, though it had sent up a different dish that his mother hadn’t made for him, but was a favorite. The dishes for that were empty by the side of the bed. Now there were just the snacks surrounding them.
Khoth’s handsome face was filled with interest. There was none of the emotional strain he’d seen there after they left the elevator. That relieved him though he was under no illusions that Khoth was “fine” yet. But a stress valve had been opened and some of the steam had been released.
I really wonder if I should have made that deal with his mother and not gone with someone else, even if they were a lesser known quantity, Jace thought.
But he realized that even if Nova Voor wasn’t the High Councillor, it wasn’t like Khoth was going to forget her. And he might think of her anyways every time he faced whoever took over for her. It would probably have hurt more. Not to mention that he thought Khoth maybe needed to deal with his feelings about his mother, his father, his sister and his exile.
“All right. I will open my mouth. You,” Khoth turned his head to look at Jace, “will aim well, Jace, will you not?”
“Oh, most definitely,” Jace said.
In truth, the Osiris was already giving him the exact angle and speed he needed to send the popcorn piece up into the air to land it perfectly on Khoth’s blue tongue. Jace turned off the assistance. He aimed. He threw the popcorn piece. It landed in Khoth’s right eye. Khoth made a sound sort of like a cat’s hiss.
“I’m sorry! Oh, Khoth, I’m sorry!”
Jace couldn’t help but laugh though and he curled onto his side towards Khoth. The popcorn bowl tilted precipitously. He wondered if they could put all the popcorn back in the bowl before the five second rule expired. But Khoth saved all of it and placed the bowl on the ground, safe and sound. The popcorn bowl was not the only snack in danger. There was a crunching sound. A bag of Cheetos had slid under Jace’s butt. He reached back and nudged it off of the bed.
“You are causing destruction, Jace,” Khoth said slightly disapprovingly, but one of his arms had slid around Jace’s shoulders.
That felt amazing.
“I know. I can’t help it. Your face… you were so upset about the popcorn,” Jace chuckled. “It was very funny.”
“There is salt in my eye,” Khoth muttered as he dabbed said eye with a napkin. “And butter.”
“Not space paste meant to taste like butter?” Jace asked.
“You would be a better judge than me about that,” Khoth pointed out.
“It tastes pretty real. I think the Osiris ordered some take out. I wonder how it got the snacks up to the ship,” Jace thought out loud.
I sent several of the cleaning bots to the Con-Ve and took all of its stock, the Osiris answered.
Uhm, please tell me that you paid for the snacks… wait, you don’t have any money and I don’t have enough money to cover it so…
I merely created the funds. Your currency is mostly a construct so I--
Created it out of whole cloth?
Ones and zeros actually, but yes, the phrase is applicable, the Osiris answered.
Oh, God… I’m going to have to teach you about right and wrong, aren’t I? Jace muttered.
I am well aware of all philosophical views on these concepts. Shall I enumerate them for you? The Osiris almost sounded chipper at the idea.
No, no, that’s okay. We’ll talk about this another time, Jace said. Just don’t take over any planets while I’m distracted.
I will attempt not to, the Osiris stated.
Jace was intent on being distracted. He cuddled against Khoth, resting his head on Khoth’s broad chest. He was pleased when the Thaf’ell’s long fingers trailed through his hair. His fingertips ghosted over the bare flesh at the base of Jace’s neck. That was one of Jace’s most sensitive places. Though it was where collars brushed, it felt somehow intimate to have another person run their hands over it.
“Did you discover your answer?” Khoth asked. “Your eyes glow blue when you communicate with the Osiris or Gehenna.”
“They do? Cool though I think we’ll have to turn that off when I’m in combat. Give me away if my eyes are always glowing,” Jace laughed. “Well, I did get my answer. It was a sort of down the rabbit hole trip.”
“Down the rabbit--”
“Long, long story. The Osiris is potentially a criminal mastermind,” Jace told him. “The Osiris got the supplies from Walter’s shop. It transferred funds to Walter’s account. Except, of course, the Osiris doesn’t have money itself so… it created some. I’m afraid if I know much more than that I might be the Osiris’ accomplice in many crimes.”
“This concept of currency you have makes no sense. While some have more money than they could spend in twenty lifetimes, there are plenty who starve to death for lack of funds,” Khoth mused.
That was a terribly good point.
“The Thaf’ell don’t have money? You barter or something?” Jace asked.
“Citizens are tested at a young age to see what they are proficient at. These jobs are assigned after they reach the age of majority. No funds are given for their work. All are given a home, food and the ability to enjoy life,” Khoth explained.
“Wait, so there’s like no money? And people don’t, uhm, hoard stuff? Like keep all the best stuff for themselves?” Jace asked.
Khoth was frowning again. “Why would they do this? Hoarding is illogical. One cannot eat all the food. One cannot appreciate all the art. One--”
“Yeah, yeah, but people like to have more than the other guy,” Jace pointed out.
“Humans feel this way? Yes, they do. I saw that in my research. It is most illogical,” Khoth said with a shake of his head.
“Yeah, it is. I just find it hard to believe that all Thaf’ell are so… good,” Jace admitted.
“It is not out of goodness. And the logic behind it is enforced by strict rules against breaking the norms,” Khoth admitted.
“So everyone has the same home as you and your family even though she is the High Councillor?” Jace asked.
“No, her station commands greater resources. But it is the position, not her, that requires this,” Khoth answered.
Jace wondered if that was true. It wasn’t like Nova Voor was keen on letting those greater resources go. He had assumed it was because she had a vision for the Alliance, and she likely did. But he also wondered if she feared losing those greater resources and the admiration they brought. But he wasn’t going to press that, because whatever the weaknesses in the Thaf’ell’s way of doing things, humanity’s was worse.
“I just realized something a little… freaky,” Jace said with a grimace.
“Well, your point about how there are starving people? That there are people who have more than they could ever spend? That things could be… evened out?”
“You are thinking that you now could do that? With the Osiris’ help?” Khoth guessed.
“Totally. In fact, right now, the Osiris is offering me a method to move the ones and zeros that now represent most money on Earth…” Jace raked a hand through his hair. “But it would cause a cascade of other problems. I can’t just pull one thread and expect the rest to stay put. And no one is asking me to play god, which it would be and--”
“You do have so much power, Jace. But you will seek the wisdom from within and from others to know what to do with it,” Khoth said without hesitation.
Jace could hear the solid thump of Khoth’s heart in his left ear. It was soothing and he needed soothing right at that moment. Because Khoth’s words were sort of freaking him out. In the past few days, he had been so focused on the tasks before him that he hadn’t thought much ahead of that. Now he realized that maybe he had been thinking too small.
“After the Khul are dealt with… I have some choices to make, don’t I?” Jace asked softly.
“You could change the whole trajectory of the human race more than you already have,” Khoth agreed.
Jace lifted his head up and stared at Khoth’s face in horror. “More than I already have?”
Khoth lifted his right eyebrow. “Yes, Jace, you have introduced humanity to the stars and to the Alliance. That will change everything.”
“Yeah, but that was always going to happen!” Jace cried, suddenly desperate to not be responsible. “Humans would have either figured out the tech or the Alliance would have broken down… eventually.”
“You did meet my mother today, didn’t you?” Khoth lifted the other eyebrow.
“Uhm, okay, I see your point but it's not like she is going to live forever! Like… like me… oh, my God…” Jace lowered himself--or more like collapsed--onto Khoth’s chest as he contemplated these things.
Khoth’s hand was back in his hair and his steady heartbeat thumped in Jace’s ear. Jace just closed his eyes and breathed. Khoth smelled incredible too. A mixture of spice and incense.
“Calm yourself. You are getting ahead of the moment,” Khoth urged. More stroking. Jace wanted to purr.
“I don’t know…” Jace murmured. “How can I forget this now that I see it?”
Would you like a sedative? The Osiris asked.
No, no, I want to be awake with Khoth, Jace said. Maybe later.
He had to admit that there was something alluring at the thought of dreamless sleep though in Khoth’s strong arms. But he rather liked being awake in Khoth’s arms, too. Besides, Khoth’s words were almost soothing. Yet his brain plucked at him.
Jace continued, “If I don’t think about the future then I won’t be prepared for it--”
“There is much between now and then, yes? Much to do. Much to decide. Much will happen,” Khoth asked and his fingers curled around Jace’s right ear.
“Uh, yeah. Like a ton,” Jace admitted. Now he was getting stressed about that! But Khoth kept petting him.
“This cycle alone you have already done much and it is not done. You will meet with your parents and the general. Review potential human crew. Determine if you need be worried about the Osiris’ money manipulation--”
“Tcha. Yeah, it didn’t steal from anyone, but it just created the money out of nothing,” Jace said with a sigh. “So long as Walter doesn’t get in trouble, I’m okay with it. Sort of. Kind of. It’s just money. Oh, God.”
Jace buried his face in Khoth’s chest and breathed deeply. Khoth’s hand ran up and down Jace’s back now.
“My point is made though. You have concrete decisions to make in the short term. In the medium term, you also have greater decisions such as who among the Alliance species you will choose for the crew. That will change things for those species too,” Khoth pointed out.
“That last part was not calming. You had me easing back down here, but now I’m all tense,” Jace laughed and then sighed.
“You are a force for change, Jace. You were made to be. Trained to be,” Khoth suggested.
“I was made to destroy the Khul,” Jace said softly.
“You are more than that. For I could say the same thing about myself. Trained since birth to fight our enemy and defend our people. But I am more than that,” Khoth pointed out.
“Yeah, but you weren’t genetically modified to be who you are. I literally had stuff pumped into me to make me better at doing this.” Jace waved a hand blindly around the room.
“On the contrary, the Thaf’ell test and train us to be what we have a proficiency for, remember? I was made into the warrior you see today,” Khoth said. “It might not have been as time-saving as being injected, but it was the same process.”
“I guess… I can see that,” Jace said.
It was hard to think of himself as a weapon though. But it made him remember that dream-training he’d last had with Gehenna where he’d feared a greater connection to her and the Osiris. He worried about losing himself to being the Pilot. As they faced greater and greater dangers, would he be so averse to letting go? Wouldn’t it be selfish to not give himself over fully? Hanging onto Khoth at that moment made him feel more human than ever. And he didn’t want to lose this.
“It’s got me thinking…”
“About?” Khoth asked.
“Where our first stop should be after we get the crew,” Jace said. He bit his lower lip and had the Osiris show the planet where it and Gehenna were created. “I think we need to know more about the Osiris and Gehenna and the two factions of Precursors that made them.”
“Could not the Osiris or Gehenna answer these questions for you?” Khoth asked.
“They could. Well, maybe. But they aren’t. They’re being really quiet about it. A little shady about it actually. And it's putting the wind up me, to be honest,” Jace admitted.
The Osiris was completely silent. Gehenna was working on her new body. She wanted to surprise him so she was blocking their connection all but for necessary communications, but he was sure she wouldn’t answer him about this either.
“It’s making me suspicious,” Jace quickly amended. “I want to understand something about the people who made the AIs and through them… me,” Jace admitted. “I know we have to manufacturing hubs and--”
“No, that is a wise decision. We do need to know more about the Osiris and Gehenna. The fact that the ship was on Earth and Gehenna--”
“Was a prisoner? Yeah, and the fact that the damage to the Osiris’ hull was from the inside… so, so many questions that need answering,” Jace said.
“My sister met with Dr. Kantor Lafrei, an expert on the Osiris. To the extent there is such a thing. She is a Neenda so--”
“She could feel what the Osiris and Gehenna’s pasts are! Cool!” Jace grinned as information on the doctor’s species entered his mind.
“Yes, exactly. We are retracing Daesah’s steps. I cannot help but think that is a wise thing,” Khoth said.
“Yeah, for sure.” Jace bit his lower lip. “What would Daesah do if she were the Pilot?”
Khoth surprisingly chuckled. “Whatever you are planning to do, Jace, that would be what she would do. I know you well enough already to guess that.”
“Then that makes me feel better, because she seems like she was pretty damned smart,” Jace said.
“She was. And so are you.”
Khoth’s hand was running over his head again. Jace arced and his back let out soft pops in his spine as he stretched out.
“Man, I wonder if they have massage bots on board,” Jace laughed.
Khoth went very still and Jace wondered why. The Osiris had all the answers suddenly.
The activities you are engaging in are already establishing a bond of the type that leads to a mating, the Osiris answered. To massage you would be to take another step in that process.
Mating… wait, what? Don’t Thaf’ell date? Jace blinked.
Do you merely wish to date him? The Osiris asked. For my understanding of your thoughts on this matter--
No, I don’t want to just date him, Jace admitted. But Khoth has already had a lot to absorb and now you’re telling me that I suggested we--
Khoth’s hand dropped to his shoulder and squeezed it. It was Jace’s turn to freeze. “Hmmm, you do appear tense. I think you do need a massage.”
“I’ll find that massage bot and--
“We do not need a machine,” Khoth murmured, his voice lowering and his eyes hooding. “Now, Jace, lay down on your front.”