CHAPTER SEVENTY-THREE: AFTERMATH
Khoth watched Jace sleep. Sunlight dappled the young man’s brow. His chest rose and fell softly and evenly under the light green coverlet. Jace’s lips parted and he made a contented sound. He might have even been smiling.
He is safe. He is safe. Everyone is safe.
That last statement was not altogether true. Now that they knew the Khul could enter Alliance space at any time… Well, they could be attacked anywhere and lose. No longer did Khoth believe that the might of the Alliance kept the Khul at bay. They stayed away for their own reasons, and none of those was out of fear or respect.
I am monitoring all Gates. No Khul are within a dozen Gates of Haseon and there is no movement of any Khul vessels in any part of Alliance space, the Osiris sent to his comm, though he hadn’t asked the question, out loud at least.
Why are they not following up on their near victory? Khoth asked.
I do not have sufficient data to answer that question, the Osiris admitted.
They must know that Jace and the database they were searching for are still here and that--other than you and a few refueling vessels--the fleet’s presence is practically non-existent, Khoth pointed out. Why do they not press their advantage?
I do not have sufficient data to answer that question, the Osiris repeated.
Khoth was surprised that the Osiris did not claim to be the determining factor in the Khul not seeking out further battles. The ship and its crew had done extraordinary things that day, but still, they were depleted. The Khul should be sending every available ship to this location. But they were not.
Are there different factions? Khoth wondered. A faction that went to Earth to seek out the Osiris? That same faction that came here? Is that why no others are zeroing in on our position?
He felt like he had more questions than answers. But there was one question he knew that the Osiris could answer for him.
Khoth frowned and sent, Osiris, it was my understanding that you can only read Jace’s thoughts, not anyone else’s. So how did you know I wished to be updated at that moment on the Khul?
There was a faint pause then the words tumbled across the screen, You are the Commander. This is what you would think based upon my extensive personality profile of you.
You missed that Dr. Hayter had military experience, but you trust that you know me? Khoth pointed out.
Am I wrong? The Osiris’ tone was arch. Testy. Tart.
No, please keep me in the loop on any movement by the Khul, Khoth responded. Is the fleet providing you with enough fuel?
There is sufficient H3 being provided for now. Once the Pilot is restored, I will need to find a nearby gas giant to complete my fueling, the Osiris answered.
Khoth did not dig deeper into that. The Osiris was already highly aggrieved that Jace was not on board. But Jace had insisted on staying on Haseon in the Moturin Compound no less. They were in one of the honored, expansive guest suites that opened up into a garden that Amana herself tended. Sweet koiu trees shaded the open windows and a babbling stream could be heard in the distance.
He shifted in his chair by the bed despite the peaceful surroundings Khoth’s shoulder blades drew tight at being in a space that had been contaminated by the Khul. But that contamination had been neutralized. Such neutralization was how he had gotten to Jace, his father and the rest of the people in the Control Room.
Even before the vibrations from the explosion had ceased, Khoth had been striding forward down the hallway again to the ruined Control Room. He knew the explosion would have destroyed the Omull, but likely not disintegrated it. In death, the Omull might be more dangerous than in life.
His stomach had felt filled with ice as he slowly approached the damaged section of hallway. Dust rose up in a thick cloud in the air. He was keenly aware that larva could be anywhere around him. The floor, the walls, the ceiling. He could easily imagine them dropping down from the ceiling and landing between his collar and neck. He twitched.
Khoth, stop! Jace commanded.
“I must get to you, Pilot!” Khoth shouted even though he could have whispered as he was speaking to Jace through the comm. “Are you--are you… functional?”
That had not been the right word. It had not even encompassed what he really wanted to ask, which was had Jace been touched by the Khul. But to even speak the word “contaminated” would give rise to people wondering if Jace was hiding something. If one was contaminated, one was to alert others, not wait until one was asked. It was considered dishonorable to do otherwise, but Jace wasn’t Alliance and might not know this.
Everyone is functional, except… except Gehenna. But just stay where you are! Okay? Stay where you are! Jace demanded.
His footsteps slowed then stopped. “What has occurred with Gehenna?”
Her body was destroyed. She should have had time to upload to the Osiris, but she didn’t. I’m not sure where she is. He could “hear” the bewilderment in Jace’s communication. She’s not dead, but I can’t reach her. It’s like there’s a bulletproof wall between us. I think she may have uploaded herself to some of the old tech here in the labyrinth beneath us.
Khoth’s gaze snapped up from his comm to a sudden blood red “V” of light that filtered through the dust. It originated about six clicks off the ground. Khoth brought up his draagves in one fluid movement.
“Pilot, there is an enemy--”
No! No, that’s the cleaner! Don’t shoot it, please! Jace commanded. That’s the only one we’ve got working right yet though more are on the way.
Slowly, Khoth lowered his weapon and watched as the “V” of light spread out and filled the hallway. It swept over him and the entirety of the blast zone. His skin tingled not unpleasantly. But more importantly, he saw Khul blood and tissue glow hot red and then break apart into what almost looked like embers in a fire before dissipating entirely leaving no trace behind.
Khoth saw that the light emanated from a metallic silver ball the size of his fist. It hovered in the air, making a soft whirring noise. The whirring sound increased as it flew through the blown open wall into the Control Room. More of that red light bathed every single millimeter of the space before it retreated back into the hallway. There was a single red glowing “eye” which faced towards him.
In a robotic voice, the ball said, “Contamination eliminated. Area is secure.”
It then floated past him, bathing everything around and ahead of it in the hallway with that red light as it went about eliminating the Khul’s presence there. Khoth let out a long breath and the tension in his shoulders eased slightly.
“Help me get the Pilot up into the chair,” Amana’s voice rose up from inside of the Control Room. “He’s more awake now, but his limbs aren’t moving very well.”
“Do I--I have drool on my chin?” Jace’s voice sounded weak.
Amana’s voice lifted in confusion, “D-drool? Ah, I’m not sure--”
“Do I look bad?” Jace asked.
“We all look a little worse for wear, Pilot,” his father answered.
“Oh, damn. Heroic bad or just bad?” Jace asked.
“Nothing will look better to my son than you alive and well, Pilot,” his father chuckled in what was a surprisingly familiar and affectionate manner as if Jace was already in their family.
Khoth’s head had snapped up towards the sound of Jace’s voice and he was moving with all deliberate speed. He found his father and Amana lifting Jace off the ground. His dark hair was filled with plaster dust and his body appeared floppy as if he were a doll whose strings had been cut. Khoth immediately swept Jace up against him. Jace’s head lolled backwards. His face was filthy, but there was a faint smile on his lips. And his father was correct. Seeing Jace alive and uninfected made the young man as beautiful as ever.
“Hey, you’re here, Khoth,” Jace murmured. “I’m so glad you’re here. You saved the day. Draagves blast to the head. Epic.”
Khoth blinked. “You saw my actions in the hallway?”
“Through the cameras. That’s why I’m sort of a mess right now,” Jace told him as he attempted to stand with only a little of Khoth’s help. But his legs gave out beneath him. Khoth clutched Jace to him firmly. “I spread myself a bit too thin without the Osiris’ help and I sort of let my body drop a little. I’m replugging in. Went into stasis.”
There were so many questions he could have pursued with that word alone, but he chose to pick others that had an immediate need of answering or his Xi might overcome his Xa.
“And your parents?” Khoth asked.
“Fine. The Osiris is preening about how awesome it was against the Hives. Apparently, it and my dad had some kind of bonding moment during the battle. I’m not surprised. My parents are… well, they’re awesome,” Jace said, a smile growing. “But we’re back in full communication. The Osiris and I, I mean.”
“So you will fully recover?” Khoth asked, hoping that no one noticed the stress in his voice. Ever since Jace had come to Haseon he had been so ill. It had been that much worse losing connection with the Osiris.
Jace nodded. “Yeah, after I rest a bit. It wants me back on board, of course, but--”
“We should return to the Osiris,” Khoth interrupted, seemingly unable to help himself.
But Jace shook his head. “First, I can’t leave here without Gehenna. My little AI buddies are tracking her in the old tech. Unfortunately, the Osiris can’t help with that part, nor can I. But they’re working. And second, the last thing the people of Haseon--or the Alliance--need is to watch me scuttle back to the Osiris. This isn’t a Staulis situation. It’s safe here. That’s why we’re staying in the Moturin Compound.”
Khoth’s spine prickled with unease. Yet he recalled the red light and the complete destruction of the Khul. “The robot I saw--”
“Is one of many that will be released everywhere in the city, starting with the Moturin Compound and the apartment building,” Jace explained. “Every trace of the Khul will be gone. The buildings don’t need to be abandoned or firebombed or whatever else was being contemplated.”
Amana put a hand to her chest. Her eyes were full of tears. It was such a display of Xi that Khoth felt his own chest tighten.
“Thank you, Pilot. I thought we would lose our home,” Amana said.
His father closed his eyes and whispered a prayer, which Khoth had not seen him do in ages. He opened them and said, “We are grateful to you, Pilot. More than any of us can ever express.”
“It wasn’t just me, you know? I mean it really wasn’t. Without Khoth here, well, things would have turned out differently. And the others,” Jace paused to nod to Typhon, Davies, Nova and Dr. Hayter who were just coming into the Control Room, “made Khoth’s actions possible.”
His mother and father’s eyes met for one long moment before his mother quickly turned away and headed out of sight down the hallway. Khoth’s emotions churned inside of him. On the one hand, it appeared that his mother had abandoned her dreams of ruling the Alliance to protect him and Jace. But that seemed like a tale a child would tell themselves. His mother wasn’t like that.
“Next steps,” Jace said as he tried to take that step and nearly went down. Khoth had to catch him. Jace grimaced. “Next step is that I do need to rest. Can you provide us with someplace to do that?”
“Of course, Pilot,” Typhon said as came to Amana. They embraced even as he continued to speak to Jace, “We will do everything within our power to help you.”
“I just need to lay down,” Jace admitted.
That was what had led them to this suite. While Jace had slept, Thammah had returned from the apartment block. Her uniform was ripped but her eyes were bright. She was holding one arm rather gingerly though.
“I just popped my shoulder back in. I need to have it looked at, but there’s too much to do,” she’d explained when he’d inquired.
“Flight-Commander, we need you to have both arms working,” he reminded her gently.
She nodded, but he saw the hyper-alertness of battle in her flickering eyes. “I’m having a hard time letting go of my draagves, you know? And I need to do that to go into one of the healing pods so… yeah.”
She carried her weapon at the ready, rather than slung over her back. He did understand. His hands kept going to the hilt of his rahir or for the stock of his draagves, but he forced himself to leave them sheathed and at rest. There was no danger here.
“I do understand,” Khoth gentled his voice.
Her eyes flickered over to him. “Gods, Khoth, if you’re speaking to me like I’m Chili, I must be a mess.”
“You are a mess,” he agreed, which had her letting out a bright laugh.
She continued to laugh. In fact, she laughed so hard that she started crying. As what he had said was not that funny, he realized that it was stress. He stepped towards her and awkwardly opened his arms. For one moment, she embraced him and allowed him to embrace her. But then she was stepping back and waving him off.
She wiped tears from her cheeks. “I was gone over by one of those bots that decontaminated me, but I still feel… you know? I don’t want to touch anyone until I’m cleaned up. Which means chemical showers at very high temperatures.”
“Yes, but Jace assured me that we are clean already.”
“Yeah, I know we are. I trust him with my life. With everything.” She looked over at where Jace lay, sleeping. “Poor guy. So much on his shoulders and he can’t even trust his own body not to give out on him.”
“He has had this issue all his life,” Khoth said, but he agreed with her. It was another burden.
After she had left, Davies had come in.
Davies had explained, “I know the Pilot wants everybody to feel things are hunky dory here, and that’s fine, but I want our armor and weapons. Lots and lots of weapons. We don’t go anywhere again without being fully suited up.”
Khoth had not disagreed. “Yes, Lieutenant-Commander, I am in full agreement with your assessment.”
“So I’m going back up to the Osiris to get our stuff. Also, Dr. Hayter needs some TLC and my understanding is that the Osiris has some requirements for things that need to be brought here for the Pilot.” Davies had flashed a surprising smile as he’d added, “I guess if Mohammed won’t go to the mountain, the mountain will come to Mohammed.”
“I believe I understand that saying,” Khoth responded. “The Pilot is intent that nothing in our plans change because of the Khul attack.”
Davies nodded, chewing his right cheek as he clearly thought about this. “But everything’s changed. It was one thing when Jace could show them all those pretty powers, but another thing altogether when he uses them for a cause that affects them. We’ve got the upper hand, Commander. We just saved the Alliance. Anyone who goes up against us… well, they’ll have their work cut out for them.”
“They will indeed.” Khoth nodded.
“What’s this about Gehenna being missing? We haven’t lost the murderball forever, have we?” Davies asked.
“Murder… no, Jace believes she had time to transfer her consciousness to some of the old tech below us,” Khoth explained.
“You mean the stuff the Osiris can’t access and makes the Pilot sick just being around? Oh, and that the Khul were interested in?” Davies’ eyebrows lifted with every sentence he made.
“Yes, it does indeed appear that all of these things are linked,” Khoth said.
Davies nodded. “Well, if I know the Pilot, and I’m beginning to, I’m sure he’ll get it sorted after he wakes up and has a shower. Permission to be dismissed, sir?”
“Permission granted.” Khoth watched him turn to leave the bedroom, but called him at the door, “Lieutenant-Commander!”
Davies turned around. “Yes, sir?”
“I thought you would like to know that… General Intoshkin and the rest of the crew of the human contingent survived the battle.”
Davies blinked slowly then nodded. “That’s good to hear. I’m sure that they acquitted themselves well. But all eyes are on us. I hope they stay out of the fray from now on.”
Khoth inclined his head. “Indeed.”
Davies had then disappeared out of the door. Khoth wondered at himself for saying what he had. Was he warning Davies that he knew he was a spy? Or was he simply relieving the man’s likely concern for a superior officer? Yet Davies had not seemed either alarmed or relieved. Just focused on their mission as if it was all there was. Davies had behaved valiantly on Haseon. He had exceeded any of Khoth’s expectations and they had not been low.
Maybe I am disappointed to think that someone such as him would not be on the Pilot’s side completely, Khoth realized.
Khoth was not left alone long in his vigil over Jace. He had just taken the young man’s right hand in his, stroking the soft skin on the back of it, when there was a soft chime. It was his mother and father. They were standing about three feet from one another, evidently having come from different locations in the Compound, but somehow had ended up here at the same time. He sighed, but allowed them in. He gestured for them both to join him outside in the garden. Already, he wondered that Jace had slept through so many interruptions. He did not wish a family argument to occur in front of Jace, sleeping or not.
There was a sitting area near a bubbling stream that was sheltered from direct sunlight by the gracious, spreading limbs of a golden koiu tree with dark red leaves. The three of them sat almost in unison. None of them relaxed against the chairs, but sat bolt upright and none of them met each other’s eye directly.
“Nova Voor, what brings you here?” Khoth asked, not addressing her as mother.
He saw her rock forward a little in her seat as if the use of her name bothered her. He’d called her mother during the fight, but not here.
“Councillor Esik Bhilkairs--High Councillor Esik Bhiklairs--has requested a meeting with the Pilot,” his mother said.
Before Khoth could ask anything, his father did, “Why would the High Councillor ask to speak to the Pilot through you as opposed to Justiciar Typhon?”
Her eyes narrowed a moment. “He has asked Typhon, but the Justiciar has rebuffed him, saying that the Pilot has no time to meet with the titular head of the Alliance.”
“Considering the Pilot’s health at this moment, that appears a wise course of action. It would be best to not advertise the Pilot’s complex situation. Unless you have done so already, Nova Voor, in an attempt to curry favor,” his father stated dryly, also with narrowed eyes.
Khoth opened his mouth and then shut it.
His mother responded, “I have resigned from the Council and seek no leadership position there. I believe the High Councillor believes that the Justiciar is seeking to throttle open communication between the Pilot and the Alliance through himself to gain power for the Moturins at the expense of the Alliance as a whole.”
His father retorted, “As a member of House Moturin, I take great offense to such a suggestion that Justiciar Typhon is doing anything but what is in the Alliance’s best interests. Dealing with the Council has--up to this point--been a hostile and dangerous exercise for the Pilot and the Alliance. I do not think that any fact-based determination would contradict my position here.”
Khoth’s head snapped back to his mother as she said, “Whether Justiciar Typhon likes it or not, the Alliance is run through the Council and not his House. If the Pilot is to have the legitimacy he needs to lead us against the Khul--”
“I think what happened here today show that only fools would suggest he does not,” his father interrupted.
There was a seething silence as his parents glared at one another. Khoth didn’t dare move for long moments. He hardly dared breathe. His parents had argued, of course, in the past regarding differences in opinion, but never like this.
“You are a guest here, Nova,” his father finally said, his voice soft. “You should not mistake this welcome as something more than it is, which is something very fragile that can disappear in an instant.”
His father snapped his fingers as if to demonstrate just how fast it could go away.
“Thadden, do you not see how Typhon is trying to maneuver things? He’s not in this for the good of the Alliance unless it serves himself! You might have joined his House, but I know that you’ve always put duty above all--”
“You’re right. And what did that get me? A dead daughter. A nearly dead son. And the loss of a wife.” Thadden smoothed his hands along the arms of the chair. “I will lose no more. I am glad you came to assist in the defense of House Moturin, but that does not undo all the harm you have done. It does not wipe the slate clean. It changes nothing at all.”
His mother’s right leg shook. Khoth saw her physically stop it with a hand. “What you saw today was worse than I knew, but not completely unexpected, Thadden. We need the Osiris and all of the tech--”
“The Osiris is useless without the Pilot,” his father countered. “If that young man were anything like you or High Councillor Esik Bhilkairs or Councillor Ardath Ulgex, Haseon would be a dead world, the Alliance would be shattered, and all hope would be lost.”
There was a gray pallor to her skin. She parted her lips. But no words came out. Khoth knew that his mother could argue that no one knew just how important Jace was or she could argue about humanity’s alleged barbarism. He was sure that there were a million arguments that could be raised, but they could not counter the truth of what his father had said.
When the silence had dragged on so long that Khoth felt he might snap with it, he said, “I will relay High Councillor Esik Bhilkairs’ request to the Pilot when he wakes. Is there anything else?”
His mother shook her head. She stiffly stood, bowed and walked out without looking back. His father only sagged when she was out of sight. Khoth reached for his father’s nearest hand. They were alone so this should be acceptable. He was surprised when Thadden covered Khoth’s hand between his own.
“I am so relieved that you survived this day, my son,” his father said.
“As am I,” Khoth agreed.
His father stood, squeezing his hands once more. “That is all I came to say. I see that the Pilot is sleeping and I do not wish to disturb him further. He needs your full attention.”
That last was said with a warm and somewhat knowing smile.
“Yes, yes, he has it,” Khoth said as he stood too.
He walked his father to the door. The older Thaf’ell cast one last look back at the sleeping Pilot and smiled fondly.
“Even if he were not the Pilot, he is a fine young man, Khoth,” his father said. “I should be proud to know him better.”
Before Khoth could say anything, his father had turned and gone. He stared stupidly after the other man.
“I think,” Jace’s voice came over to him, “that he just said it was okay for us to date.”
Khoth turned around to see Jace sitting up, looking rather bleary eyes with his hair sticking up in every direction.
“Jace, you should be asleep!” Khoth chastened as he closed and locked the door. It was now set on Do Not Disturb.
“Yeah, well, it was way too exciting in here to do that. I got a little sleep. Besides, I needed my warm Thaf’ell pillow to properly go to bed.” He yawned and stretched a hand towards Khoth. “You’re too far away. Come here. Lay down with me.”
Khoth came and after toeing out of his boots, he got up on the bed. Like Thammah, he wished he could shower before touching Jace, but the young man snuggled right against him with no hesitation. If there was some residual danger, Jace would know.
“So am I right? Was that your dad giving me the seal of approval?” Jace asked.
“My father admires you very much. Yes, I believe it was.” It was actually more than that. His father was telling him that he would accept Jace as family, as Khoth’s mate.
“That’s awesome. I think your mom’s still on the fence though. But she came. That’s progress,” Jace murmured against his chest.
“She did. But my father is correct. These actions do not undo her prior ones,” Khoth cautioned Jace, finding his own eyelids starting to droop along with Jace’s. “But rest now. We need not discuss her further.”
“We should get some zzzzzz’s now, because the Osiris is sending down the cavalry and it’s about to get complicated again,” Jace told him.
Khoth kissed the top of Jace’s head, which had Jace making contented sounds. If the day had taught Khoth anything about Jace, himself and their crew, it had taught him that, “Whatever comes, we will handle it.”