CHAPTER FIFTY-ONE: GRAVITY
“So you’re not going to leave me on my own for the rest of the night, huh?” Jace grinned up at them as they mingled with the crew.
“No,” Khoth answered and handed Jace another cup of water to drink from. “Your blood sugar may be low. You’ve hardly eaten. We need to--”
“I’m fine, Khoth,” Jace answered patiently despite interrupting him.
Jace had been answering some form of this question from him though over a dozen times so anyone’s patience would be tested. Yet Jace seemed to understand it came out of a good place.
“Dr. Isa has my same concerns.” Khoth nodded at the ship’s doctor who was speaking to a knot of several science officers. She nodded back.
“She’s not hovering,” Jace pointed out as he dutifully drank the water.
“She is watching quite closely and is within striking distance at all times. I do not believe you have not noticed this,” Khoth pointed out.
Jace sighed. “I’ve noticed. She is wasting her time. She needs to enjoy the night. As do you.”
“I am enjoying it. I am with you,” Khoth told him, and felt a faint blush blue his cheeks. “What better place to be than by my Pilot’s side? Do you not wish me… near?”
Jace let out a sound and bumped his shoulder against Khoth’s. “You have no idea--no idea--how hard it is not to hug you, kiss you, cuddle against you.”
Khoth smiled. “Yes.”
“You recognize how hard it is for me not to touch you?” Jace let out a chuckle.
“Yes.” Khoth smiled broader.
“But you’re, of course, not struggling with that at all? Because you’re superior?” Jace’s eyes were sparkling with barely suppressed mirth.
“You will never let me forget that, will you?”
“I believe I told you that no, never will I forget that.” Jace laughed. “But it’s only funny because there's more than a bit of truth in it.”
Khoth was not so sure himself as he met more and more humans like Dr. Isa and Matias. He had just been about to hold Chili when Jace had his attack. Now, he could not risk being distracted by the pig. Jace needed his full attention. Perhaps someone truly superior would be able to do more than one thing, but Jace was too important to risk.
“Hmmmm,” Khoth said noncommittally. “More water?”
“I’m good. Really.” Jace smiled at him. That smile dimmed a little. “Timmy and Danny--the two boys who died… were killed by the Khul--were in the store that morning. I caught them stealing. They weren’t the nicest kids. They were sort of jerks actually. And I got one over on them.”
Jace let out a mirthless huff of air.
“It was just one battle in the long war with them though, because I knew they would be back, you know?” Jace continued. “And maybe next time they’d win. Or I’d keep catching them. But they would be back.”
Khoth began to understand that the death of those two children was more than what it seemed on the surface. As shocking and horrible as their deaths were in a vacuum, these were tied into the warp and weft of Jace’s old life. Not only was that old life gone, but parts of it were never going to be coming back
“I wish I could even imagine them trying to steal from the next clerk, but I’m not even sure if Walter will reopen the store. Maybe he’ll even leave Sunrise,” Jace sighed.
Walter had come up to them right after Sami had left. He had a kind face and gentle eyes that had softened when he’d looked at Jace. He’d warmly clasped Jace’s hands in his. Jace had turned the hand clasp into a hug.
“You’re making me nervous, Walter, like you’re going to salute me or something,” Jace had laughed as he’d embraced the older human.
“Isn’t that what I should be doing? You’re the Pilot,” Walter answered as he pulled back and gazed at Jace with a touch of awe. “You look like you, but so different.”
Jace self-consciously ran a hand through his dark brown hair. “Yeah, but everything looks different from up here.”
Walter hadn’t been told about exactly what had happened to Jace. But he had been there when Jace had brought down Metal Rain. So he had clearly put two and two together now that he knew Jace was controlling the ship.
“Who knew that those Naruto-runners were right!” Walter gave out a cough-laugh.
“I know, seriously!” Jace grinned. But just like it would later on with Khoth when talking about the boys, that grin had dimmed. “Earth is going to be safe, Walter.”
Walter swallowed and his easy demeanor was replaced by a sudden stiffness. Everyone who had experienced the attack was likely suffering psychologically from it. It was something that Dr. Miranda Kerr had said as she’d spoken to General Intoshkin.
“You’re going to go out and kill those sons of bitches,” Walter stated instead of asked.
“We are. But while we’re out there, the Alliance will be sending ships and weaponry here to protect Earth,” Jace said. “It should arrive…” His eyes glowed blue. “Within the hour, actually. High Councillor Voor has kept her promise.”
This last statement he had said to Khoth. Khoth didn’t know whether he was surprised or relieved that she had held up her end of the bargain. Everything that Jace had said to her about how she really had no choice was true. But his mother had not been acting rationally for some time.
“So even if another Hive comes, you’ll be safe while we’re gone,” Jace assured him.
Walter nodded. “The military has offered to pay to restore the Con-Ve or simply give me the money if I don’t want to… to, ah, reopen.”
Jace’s look of dismay was quickly covered up with a bland expression. Khoth doubted the older human had caught the momentary flicker of unhappiness. Jace would not let his feelings affect Walter’s decision. It was such a Thaf’ell thing to do--it was as always like his sister’s actions--that Khoth’s throat had suddenly felt tight.
Jace squeezed both of Walter’s hands in his. “You do… whatever you feel is right for you and your family, Walter.”
The older human nodded again. “I keep telling myself that it doesn’t matter whether we’re in Sunrise or New York City. Those things can get us no matter what.”
Jace took in a deep breath. “We’re going to stop that from happening. You’ll be as safe here as you would be in New York City, Walter.”
“Well, I do appreciate that more than you know, Jace.” Walter’s face brightened for a moment as he added, “I always knew you were special.”
Jace snorted. “I could barely last an 8-hour shift on my own, but you’re kind.”
Walter’s expression grew sober. “No, Jace, I’m being serious about this. I knew it. I could feel it. Everyone could. You were different, not because you were sick, but because of who you are inside.”
Jace ducked his head. “Thanks, Walter. I hope I can live up to that.”
“You will, Jace.” Walter patted Jace’s arm with an affectionate, watery smile. “You will.”
Jace’s lips pursed as he looked off in the distance at where Walter now stood, chatting and drinking with Sami’s parents and Gehenna, of all people. A small smile was on his lips as he watched them accept the huge robot.
“Do you think Gehenna’s Terminator body fits her personality?” Dr. Miranda Kerr asked as she stepped up to them.
She was in medical colors. Her green eyes were fixed on Gehenna and there was a faint smile on her lips.
“What? No, she’s… she thinks that’s a protector. She didn’t misunderstand the movies. She just…” Jace petered off with a shrug, unable to fully explain the AI’s behavior.
“Pilot,” Dr. Kerr said with a broad smile as she extended her hand, “my name is--”
“Dr. Miranda Kerr.” Jace took her hand and shook it. “Yes, I know. The Commander chose well when he chose you.”
Khoth acknowledged the complement with a faint nod of his head. The lack of clicking still bothered him. He wasn’t sure if that would ever change. Dr. Kerr smiled broadly.
“I’m honored to be here. It’s going to be interesting to see how humanity handles leaving our homeworld and interacting with other species.” She smiled at Khoth. “Though you both have chosen people who are very open minded.”
“Had to. This is the last time the crew will be mostly human,” Jace told her. “We’ll be bringing in crew from all different species from the Alliance.”
“Ah, yes, you are seeking to create a new Alliance?” Dr. Kerr nodded. She sipped her drink. “You know that even people with… open minds have difficulties when dealing with new things. Add into that, we are facing an implacable enemy.”
Jace lowered his eyes from her. “Yeah, I’m sure that you will find yourself quite busy, Dr. Kerr.”
“Well, I might be busy if people admitted to needing help,” she said gently.
Khoth lifted an eyebrow. Dr. Isa, evidently, hadn’t been the only doctor to notice Jace’s reaction to Sami’s revelation. Everything that happened to a leader was noticed by his followers. Jace’s reactions were felt overly large by those who looked to him.
“Hmmm, yeah, I’m sure. But we did engage people who are very adaptable and bounce back from things,” Jace said.
She nodded and smiled. “Yes, indeed, but everyone will have issues sometimes. But it is hard to admit that, especially, if the leader doesn’t like to admit he needs help.”
Khoth lifted his eyebrows. She was talking about Xi and Xa. Jace grimaced.
“Doc, I’ve got to appear okay.” Jace shook his head. “I’m pretty sure you heard about my little… uhm, reaction earlier. People freaked out. If I’m seeking therapy people will really freak out.”
“Or, they will realize that everyone--no matter how strong, resourceful, adaptable or open-minded--needs to talk things out every once in a while,” she said gently. “You’ve gone through alot just from what I’ve heard, and, what I’ve heard is probably not the half of it.”
Jace sighed. “Maybe.”
“Your Xi and Xa need to be in balance, Pilot. We have seen when they are not in other people,” Khoth offered, thinking that Jace would ball around his worries--which he had many of--instead of releasing it. His mother was proof of the damage that caused.
“I can’t order you to come see me, but I hope that you’ll come, if not for yourself then for others who will follow your example,” she said.
Jace nodded. “You’re right. Maybe talking about things will be good. We should set something up.”
“I will coordinate with the Osiris,” she answered kindly. “I promise, Pilot, that I am here to help you and will help you in any way I can.”
Jace smiled again. “Thank you, doctor.”
Khoth was pleased that Jace was seeing to his Xi and Xa. He would, of course, offer his own support, but there were things that he could not necessarily do for Jace. A lover was a support, but he knew that Jace would want to spare him things.
Dr. Kerr turned to Khoth. “And you must feel free to come see me as well, Commander. Change can be very difficult.”
Khoth blinked. “I--I am quite well--”
“I’m sure you are, but as the Commander, you, too, set an example. Again, only if you wish to meet with me,” Dr. Kerr offered.
“I--I shall consider it, doctor,” Khoth said stiffly.
She said goodbye and drifted off. Only when she was out of hearing did Jace chuckle.
“Hoisted on your own petard! Or I should say rahir!” Jace laughed.
Khoth frowned. “I do not see what you mean by that.”
“You were very happy to have me talk to Dr. Kerr about my feelings, because you’re worried about my Xi, my inner self, right?”
“Yes, you are our leader and great stress will be placed upon you,” Khoth agreed, putting into words what was normally private, but he wanted Jace to know how much he cared. “I would do anything to lift some of that weight from your shoulders. So if Dr. Kerr can assist in this, I fully support her.”
Jace’s expression softened and he gave Khoth a devoted look. “T-thank you. Now you make my joke seem lame.”
“Your joke… ah, that I wished for you to see Dr. Kerr, but I balked at seeing her myself?” Khoth guessed.
“Yeah, by the way, you don’t have to see her. I am not ordering you to or anything like that,” Jace assured him.
“She is… is human. I fear she will not understand the complexities of Thaf’ell inner life,” Khoth said, then he paused and added, “but you seem to understand me very well. So perhaps I should not quickly come to the conclusion that she cannot help.”
But Jace didn’t appear offended at all by that.
“Look, I get it. We don’t know if she can understand us, let alone where we’re coming from,” Jace said. “But it is good for us to set an example.”
“Indeed.” Khoth inclined his head.
“Pilot! Commander!” Jack called as he and Jace’s mother came over to them arm in arm.
Khoth was startled to see the open affection between the two at an event. Perhaps he should not have been. Humans were different than Thaf’ell. But the evident love between them had his Xi twisting in his chest. He wanted to loop an arm around Jace’s back, put a comforting hand on the base of his spine, and feel Jace’s warm weight against him. But he remained stiff and untouching Jace. They had to be professional. Even Jack was calling Jace “Pilot” and him “Commander”.
“Mom, Dad,” Jace said then, “I was supposed to call you by your titles. Ah… forget it. I’m not calling you anything else right now.”
Jace embraced them both warmly. Jack thumped his back after squeezing his son. Diane hugged Jace, too, but pulled back after smoothing her hands over his shoulders. He could see how she was trying to give her son the respect he deserved as the Pilot, but this was the last night really that she would be with him above Earth for some time. She would not be flying to Haseon on the Osiris with them, but going in another ship that was arriving within the hour. These ships were to be humanity’s and she and General Intoshkin would be flying in them separately to represent humanity.
“You know how to throw a party, son,” Jack said. His cheeks were flushed, but not from the alcohol being served. He, too, was drinking water.
“Well, we have to give Earth an appropriate sendoff,” Jace told them.
Diane shivered though she kept smiling. “We’re really going to leave. You know, I thought about flying on the Osiris everyday when it was on the ground. I thought about what it would be like to be in the stars. Tomorrow… we’ll be on another world. An alien world.”
“I know, right?” Jace’s eyes were bright.
He gestured up to the ceiling that was currently just showing spinning galaxies. It changed to show Haseon. The crew gasped and looked up at the ceiling. Before them appeared holograms that would let them learn everything about his home planet, the Thaf’ell and whatever else the Osiris found useful.
The gold-green planet that had Khoth’s Xi twisting in his chest. He had not considered--or perhaps he had not wished to consider--what it would be like to return there as he was now.
But can my return be any worse than my mother’s? The Voor name is truly on the edge of complete discredit and dishonor in Thaf’ell eyes.
Jace looked up at him in the corner of his eye and seemed to notice his discomfort. He spun the scene so that it showed the Milky Way side of the Gate. There was another “whoa” and other oohs and ahhs of delight as they saw the Gate spinning in space, waiting for them. Jace brushed his fingers over the back of Khoth’s nearest hand. The touch stayed with him, burning a trail. But it also relieved the strain within him and his Xi settled as if it were an eager Chili waiting for a kiss.
“The morning will bring much excitement and change,” Diane said as she gazed lovingly on her husband. “I think I would like tonight to be about what I know and love.”
Jack linked his fingers with her. “May we have permission to leave the party, Pilot?”
“Very funny, Dad.” Jace rolled his eyes. “Go! Get along with you both!”
Diane kissed his cheek while his father gave him another hug before the two of them headed out of the ballroom.
“They’re making me a little jealous, but I suppose we have to stay for a while longer before we take off.” Jace turned a hopeful face up to Khoth.
“Sometimes the crew likes not to be under the Pilot and Commander’s watchful eyes,” Khoth told him.
One set of those eyes widened. “Oh… oh! Well, then maybe we should head out so that while the cats are away, the mice will play!”
“I think that… metaphor works,” Khoth said. “Though with the Osiris on hand, there is never truly a time when you do not know what is going on.”
“Unfortunately, that’s true. But I sort of ignore it,” Jace said with a shrug. “Before we go though, I want to speak to Sami.”
“Do you think she will change her mind about coming aboard?” Khoth asked.
But Jace surprised him by shaking his head. “No, and I think I would be doing her a disservice by trying to change her mind. It’s clear she wants to, but it’s just as clear she feels she needs to stay.”
“She is a dutiful child and sister.”
“And a member of her tribe. Yeah, she doesn’t ever just act for herself,” Jace said with admiration and sadness.
“It appears that Dr. Isa has taken her under her formidable wing,” Khoth said.
Dr. Isa, Matias, Chili and Sami were all standing together. Dr. Isa was speaking as she had up the holographic comm and she was showing Sami something.
“She’s sending her information on grants for colleges and medical schools,” Jace said with a smile. “Encouraging her to apply. Promising her she’ll follow up. And we actually can with the quantum entanglement system.”
“So tonight will not be the last time you speak to her until we return to Earth?” Khoth said.
A smile bloomed on Jace’s face. “Yeah, you’re right. So it’s not really goodbye I’m going to be saying.”
“No, it is not.” And Khoth brushed the back of Jace’s hand. He wondered--he hoped--that it gave Jace some of the comfort that it had given him.
That smile grew.
The two of them walked over to the group. Dr. Isa was just finishing up and they all brightened at their approach.
“Oh, look, Chili, it is Commander Voor! He has come to hold you, I think,” Matias said to the pot belly pig.
“I love the bow around her throat,” Jace laughed.
“Of course, Chili must look her best,” Matias said as he handed the pig into Khoth’s already extended hands.
“That is the best dressed pig I’ve ever seen,” Sami said, her lips twitching.
The soft, warm body was a light weight in Khoth’s hands. She oinked eagerly and her sproingy tail quivered as he petted her. Jace was smiling at him so broadly that his eyes were slits. In fact, everyone was grinning at him. Dr. Isa was chuckling. Matias took a photograph of him and Chili. He blinked.
“I wish I could share this on Chili’s Instagram,” Matias sighed as he looked at the holo of Khoth and Chili.
“Send me a copy of that,” Jace said. “And maybe, in time, you’ll be able to share that. All of Earth will find out about… well, everything.”
“You’re making history,” Sami said a little wistfully.
Khoth felt Jace’s desire to ask her to join them again, but held true to his promise not to. There was such nobility in this.
“Are you heading out?” Dr. Isa asked.
Jace nodded, but then, he paused, and looked up at the ceiling. He changed the view again, but this time to show Earth, not Haseon or the gate. Everyone stopped and glanced up at the beautiful blue and white planet that spun slowly above them. The bright lights of cities shone and the sun touched the edge of the planet. It was a startlingly beautiful sight. Jace looked up silently and his expression was both sad and determined.
“The first time you left Haseon, what did it feel like?” Jace asked him.
“As if I could not wait to leave, but also that I desperately wished to be back,” Khoth told him.
Jace nodded. “Yeah, I can totally understand that.”
“You’ll be back when it's safe,” Sami said with a certainty that could not be denied. “And then we’ll all want to join you out there.”