CHAPTER FIFTY-THREE: TENTH MAN
The Gate opened and Khoth felt that familiar thrill of going home. For just a moment. He looked down at the railing where his and Jace’s hands were half an inch apart. Home was here. Standing beside him.
Jace glanced over at him. He was beaming. His eyes were bright and a healthy color flushed his cheeks. The urge to draw the back of his hand down Jace’s cheek, to see that flush deepen, was almost irresistible.
“We’re going through!” Matias shouted excitedly. “Chili, we’re leaving Earth!”
Jace’s head shot towards the screen to see the moment as the Osiris was drawn into the Gate. His nearest hand left the railing and settled back down “accidentally” on top of Jace’s for just a moment. Jace looked up at him again, blush spreading under the collar of his uniform. The pleased smile couldn’t be hidden either.
“I’m glad… we’re doing this together,” Jace whispered.
He saw the reflection of them entering the Gate in Jace’s eyes. There was a roar of excitement from the crew and Jace blinked. Both of them turned to the screen to see the endless blur of stars as they were transported to Haseon.
“We should be there in just under two Earth hours,” Jace said.
Khoth frowned. “That cannot be. The speed in the Gate is the same for all vessels. It cannot be increased or decreased.”
Jace chuckled. “The Osiris. It’s just simply better.”
“Indeed.” Khoth crossed his arms at the wrists behind his lower back.
“Pilot?” It was Lieutenant-Commander Martin Davies--or the spy in Khoth’s thoughts--speaking.
He had crept up behind them. Jace might have known he was there, but he’d almost gotten path Khoth’s observance. They were both turning just as the Lieutenant-Commander was upon them. Khoth stepped between the man and Jace, crossing his arms over his broad chest and looking down his nose at Davies. For his part, Davies did not back down but looked up at Khoth steadily despite their six-inch difference in height.
“I wish to speak to the Pilot,” Davies stated softly.
“You can speak to me. I am your superior officer,” Khoth stated coolly.
That had Davies’ lips compressing. He was someone who followed the chain of command. So this actually posed a problem to the core of him.
“This is something for the Pilot’s ears only,” Davies finally answered.
Khoth lifted an eyebrow. “You think there is something that he would not wish his Commander to hear?”
Davies regarded him steadily and said nothing. Khoth’s eyes swept past him over the rest of the crew. They were speaking together in pockets, eyes shining and faces beaming with delight. None seemed to notice the tension between him and Davies. Yet. Matias lifted one of Chili’s front legs and waved it at him as if the little pig was saying hello and urging him over.
“Lieutenant-Commander Davies might not have an answer to that question, Commander Voor, but I do.” Jace stepped around him. “There is nothing you have to say to me that my Commander cannot know.”
Davies’ gaze remained on Khoth’s face. The man had not blinked. Khoth felt the alpha challenge in it from the heavily muscled man.
“But it’s about his mother,” Davies finally said.
“I have no mother.” The words came from Khoth’s mouth before he even had time to think about them.
He saw Jace react for him with those words. The faint curling forward of Jace’s shoulders. The sad flicker in Jace’s eyes.
“Let’s take this discussion somewhere more private,” Jace suggested and gestured for the two men to retreat back down the walkway and head out of the Bridge.
The three of them headed out. Jace nodded and smiled at everyone, exchanging some kind words, brushing a hand over someone’s shoulder. Assuring everyone to continue enjoying themselves. Gehenna clanked over.
“Is that coming with us?” Davies asked.
“Gehenna is always with me. But yes, I’ve asked her to be there physically,” Jace said neutrally, but for Jace neutral was negative.
“Of course, I understand. She will be useful perhaps in solutions to what I have to say,” Davies quickly corrected himself.
Jace led the four of them to a small Ready Room just off the Bridge. There was a table that could seat six and screens that surrounded them displaying their travel through the Gate.
Khoth noted how Jace looked at the screens for long moments, smiling briefly, before sitting down at the head of the table and gesturing for them both to sit. Khoth sat on Jace’s left while Davies seated himself on the right. Gehenna remained standing behind Jace, looming over the table with her sulphurous red eyes. Davies’ gaze slid to her and then away. But it was evident in the tension he held in his shoulders that he felt her presence though he was trying to ignore it.
She frightens him. Not a fool then. And Jace knew she would cause him discomfort. Wise.
“What is so important that you chose to interrupt the maiden voyage while at the same time must not have been that important to bring it up beforehand?” Jace lifted an eyebrow at Davies.
Davies even sat at attention, which Khoth had to admit impressed him a little bit. The Lieutenant-Commander acted similarly as a Thaf’ell soldier would. But that must only be a skin deep comparison. Humans, for all their good aspects, were not superior like Thaf’ell were.
“The ship wouldn’t let me see you until now, Pilot,” Davies said. “I was under the impression that you told it to keep me away. This was the first opportunity I had to speak with you.”
Jace was quiet for a moment and Khoth wondered if he was speaking to the Osiris. It was clear to him at least that Jace hadn’t told the Osiris to keep Davies away. But it was also something that Osiris could have done after interpreting something Jace had told it to do. That was the Osiris’ way.
“Well, tell me now.”
Davies stared without blinking at Jace for long moments. “Pilot, do you not control the--”
“Lieutenant-Commander Davies, this is not your time to ask questions. Yours is to answer them. Do so. Now,” Khoth stated. “Tell the Pilot what he wishes to know.”
Davies nodded. “Forgive me, Pilot. It’s just there are so many new things to absorb. I am just trying to understand, to get my bearings, so that I am the most useful to you.”
You mean useful to General Intoshkin, Khoth thought dryly.
“We are all learning, Lieutenant-Commander. Tell me what’s bothering you about High Councillor Voor,” Jace said.
Davies took in a breath and drew his hands together on the table before him in a V-pattern.
He is settling his Xi. Another trait that is similar.
“While there is much that is new to me, there are plenty of things that are familiar. Terribly familiar,” Davies said. “I took the opportunity of reviewing all the interactions you had with High Councillor Voor. You are… quite the tactician.”
There was a breath at the end where Khoth thought something like “for one so young” or “for one so inexperienced” or “for a clerk” might have been. But Davies said none of them.
“You didn’t bring me here to compliment me. Backhandedly or not.” Jace grinned, evidently not caring that Davies underestimated him.
“No. I want to protect you,” Davies said.
Gehenna clanked. She was flexing one of those huge hands as if to suggest: what protection can you give that I cannot, you soft and fragile bag of meat?
“From High Councillor Voor?” Jace guessed.
Khoth stiffened. But he said nothing. He didn’t trust himself to say anything.
“Yes, from her and whoever would come after you whether from the Khul or… the Alliance,” Davies said.
“I see. You are the head of Security so it makes sense that you wish to protect me,” Jace said with a shrug.
“You take this too lightly and you overestimate your strength at the same time,” Davies said.
Khoth rose menacingly. “Lieutenant--”
“It’s okay, Commander. I want all crew to speak freely.” Jace put a hand out towards Khoth and Khoth slowly lowered back down into his chair. “Even if they are saying something I don’t want to hear. Pray, continue.”
Davies laced his fingers together and stared at his gripped hands. “You are incredible.”
Khoth’s eyebrows rose. Jace blinked a few times. Neither of them had expected to hear this. Gehenna creaked again, but this time she was leaning forward as if to get a better look at the battle scarred soldier.
What is this? Some kind of profession of affection?
He really should have looked up human mating, but things had gotten in the way. Khoth’s hands fisted in his lap.
“Okay. I am incredible.” Jace’s lips twitched in amusement.
“What you can do. What you are. How you are. Even that speech in there…” Davies nodded back towards the Bridge. “You’re inspiring on top of everything else. Your actions in the Hive--”
“You do not know what happened in the Hive,” Khoth stated simply.
“Really? Because the Osiris let me see it. Or did the AI not tell you that either, Pilot?” Davies asked.
“I don’t know everything all the time,” Jace said with another shrug. “I have to trust the Osiris to do some things on its own. It made that available to the crew to show them what we face.” He said the last to Khoth. Then he turned back to Davies. “After having seen the Khul and one of their Hives--just one--do you really think you can save me?”
Davies nodded, which had Khoth’s eyebrows shooting upwards again.
“You can’t know everything all the time. You have to delegate. You let people who have specialized knowledge contribute, right?” Davies asked.
“You’re a very skilled soldier. I know that,” Jace said. “It’s part of why we hired you.”
“I was the point person in my squad. I was the one to figure out what the dangers were by assessing the enemy ahead of time,” Davies explained.
“All right. And you’ve been assessing the Alliance?” Jace prompted.
Another nod. “I was what the Israeli’s call the Tenth Man.”
Jace nodded, but Khoth lifted an eyebrow, but this time in confusion.
“What is this Tenth Man?” Khoth asked.
“The Tenth Man is the Devil’s Advocate,” Jace explained, which just caused Khoth’s eyebrow to lift higher. “Basically, if there are ten decision-makers in a room and nine agree then it is the tenth man or woman’s duty to disagree. They are to challenge conventional wisdom and to think creatively. This stops groupthink and requires everyone to think on an issue from a fresh perspective.”
“I see.” Khoth frowned. “The Thaf’ell would not value such a person. Often received wisdom is right because it comes from experience and collective judgment.”
“Exactly, which means you are predictable,” Davis stated simply. “That’s why the Khul have been running circles around you, because tradition trumps innovation. And it's also why you, Pilot, are a bigger threat to the Alliance than the Khul.”
“We’re not trying to destroy the Alliance. They have a lot to offer. We’re trying to nudge them towards change,” Jace said.
Davies nodded. “That’s eminently logical.”
“Which the Thaf’ell will appreciate,” Khoth argued.
Davies gave him an almost sad smile. “You really think that. Or do you just hope it?”
“Thaf’ell appreciate logic above all,” Khoth said.
“I saw your mother, remember? Did she act logically? Threatening civilians? Thinking to threaten the Pilot? Someone she doesn’t understand? Someone who appears to be unique? Is that logical?” Davies countered.
Khoth grimaced. “She was emotionally compromised. She does not represent all Thaf’ell.”
“No, I’m sure she doesn’t.” Davis flattened his palms against the table. “I’m sure that the logical Thaf’ell will realize that the Pilot with his skills, with his ability to inspire, and with his fresh perspective is dangerous.”
“I am certain there will be people who will worry about what I represent and who don’t want change. But I think things are dire enough that many will listen to me,” Jace said.
“Some will. They might even let you do some of what you intend, but they cannot allow you to remain after a certain point,” Davies said. “Because if they let you do what you intend they lose everything. The Alliance as it stands now will not survive.”
“And those in power now won’t be.” Jace nodded. “I’m aware of this.”
“Yes, I’m sure and yet… I don’t think you want to believe it.” Davies lifted his eyes from his hands and met Jace’s. “You can’t speak like you do--from the heart--and not mean it. It’s the core of you. That hope. That belief in the goodness of people.”
“The Pilot is not naive,” Khoth objected.
“The Pilot is an optimist. And you’re a romantic, Commander.” Davies flashed a smile at him. “That’s why you left your home, your family and the Alliance on the belief in the Pilot.”
“The Pilot is the logical solution to the Khul,” Khoth insisted even as his hands tightened more.
“He is. And your defection will convince many of that fact. Your defection though makes him even more dangerous,” Davies said.
“You have not mentioned Flight-Commander Pyrhhus’ defection!” Gehenna pointed out.
“Because she’s not like the other Thaf’ell, is she, Commander?” Davies asked.
“You seem well informed about the Thaf’ell.”
Almost as if you learned about us from records you shouldn’t have.
“She’s great, don’t get me wrong. I hope there are more like her. She can adjust to new circumstances. Makes her invaluable,” Davies replied.
“We think so, too.” Jace grinned, happy with that assessment. “So down to brass tacks. You think I’m too much of an optimist to respond with sufficient seriousness to the threat the Alliance poses to us? And Commander Voor is blinded to it as well because he, too, looks for the bright side?”
“In a way, yes. You’re both too optimistic,” Davies said as he spread his hands.
“So you’ll be our Tenth Man?” Jace asked, looking actually excited about it.
Khoth frowned. Did Jace like this soldier? No, he was being… romantic. Jace liked the idea of a Devil’s Advocate. That it was their spy made it utterly galling though in Khoth’s opinion.
He must think we are so foolish not to know what he is, Khoth thought. No wonder he thinks to offer his services to us.
“Yes, that’s what I’m offering.” Davies’ strong jaw clenched. “You’re important, Pilot. More important than you seem to know.”
Khoth actually agreed with him on that.
“Do you perceive they’ll try to harm me when we arrive?” Jace asked.
“You don’t think they will?” Davies asked.
“I don’t but not because I’m being optimistic, but because those who see things as you’ve laid out must also know the Alliance is in trouble,” Jace said.
“They need the tech that the Pilot can recover, if nothing else,” Khoth said. “And they have seen some of his abilities.”
“You’re going to disagree with us, aren’t you?” Jace’s lips twitched.
“I wouldn’t be serving you if I did,” Davies responded with a faint grin. “Maybe it won’t be them. Maybe it will be simply someone unhinged after your display of power with the High Councillor.”
Jace’s gaze slipped down to the table top. He stared at it for long moments, unspeaking. His expression was no longer the bright, excited one it had been before. Khoth’s jaw clenched. This was Davies’ doing! He was stealing all the joy out of this moment for Jace. And yet wasn’t Davies right?
“It seemed like a good idea at the time,” Jace finally said. “Scaring her. Showing her that she couldn’t just do as she pleased.”
“And you showed her and everyone that. I assume that you didn’t show all you could do?” Davies asked.
Jace chuckled and gave the Lieutenant-Commander a smirk. “Want to know how truly incredible I am, do you?”
Davies’ eyes widened then he blushed. Khoth let out a sound that almost sounded like a snarl. But then he felt Jace’s foot against his calf. The briefest of touches. He was soothed though. Jace was his. He was Jace’s. This Davies wasn’t just the Tenth Man, he was a third wheel, another human saying that he now completely understood.
“No, Lieutenant-Commander, I didn’t show them everything. I don’t actually know everything yet,” Jace admitted with a shrug.
Davies shook his head. “I can’t believe it.”
“Believe what?” Khoth growled.
“After everything the Pilot’s gone through, he’s still willing to fly off into the unknown even when he doesn’t know everything about himself,” Davies answered. “Most would be too shattered by even one of the things you’ve gone through to contemplate all of this.”
Jace grew thoughtful again as if considering something then he said, “One step at a time. It’s the only way to do all of this.”
“I wish you had let the military scientists and doctors help you,” Davies said.
“You wish that the Pilot remained an ambassador of Earth and humanity alone?” Khoth asked.
“Yes, I do.” Davies met his gaze without any hesitation. He wasn’t lying. He was working for humanity after all so, of course, he wanted Jace to be their representative alone. “But I understand why you’ve done what you did. You’re freer this way. And the blowback won’t go towards Earth completely for any of your unpopular actions.”
“Besides I really do believe we are stronger together,” Jace told him. “While you might see the Thaf’ell as stiff, rigid and bound by tradition, those traditions are pretty damned good. You might even say, they’re… superior.”
Khoth closed his eyes for a moment. But Jace’s teasing meant that he wasn’t shaken by anything of what Davies had said. But fear wasn’t really in Jace’s vocabulary as he’d discovered in the Hive.
“I’m sure they all have valuable qualities. And I’m not saying that humanity can’t use the help or the guidance, but you--a human--was chosen by the Osiris,” Davies pointed out. “The Altaeth’s ultimate technology chose you, not a Thaf’ell, not a Xols, not a Neenda, you, a human, to give the secrets of the universe to. That has to mean something.”
“Perhaps I was the only baby available,” Jace pointed out. “The Thaf’ell weren’t sending their pregnant officers to us or their children. My mom was the only one pregnant by the Osiris.”
“Is that why it chose you to be the Pilot?” Davies challenged.
“No,” Jace said nothing more.
Khoth’s eyes slid to him. Had Jace found out something more about why he’d been chosen? What had been going on when he’d approached Jace on the Bridge? He’d looked so distressed? Had he learned something then?
He carries a great burden and he thinks to carry it alone, Khoth thought. I must show him that is not so.
“You’ve seen Star Trek haven’t you?” Jace asked.
“Of course. You're looking to start a Federation?” Davies guessed.
“The Alliance is that. In a way. We just need to be a part of it,” Jace said. “We need to reignite the idea of that.”
Davies shook his head and laughed. “You want to run it.”
“I don’t really have any desire to run anything,” Jace said.
“But it’s the only way you can make what you want happen,” Davies pointed out. “Like it or not, if you’re in charge you can make the rules.”
“I’m not looking to be a dictator. Benevolent or otherwise. I just want a seat at the table,” Jace said.
“Okay,” Davies responded with a smirk.
“You don’t believe me? Well, it doesn’t matter. So what’s your plan to protect me?” Jace asked.
Davies looked over at Gehenna. “Can I borrow your robot?”