CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR: WHAT'S RIGHT
“Where is Jace?” Colonel Diane Parker asked. “Has anyone seen him? He was just here! Khoth, he was with you, wasn’t he? Inside the ship?”
The last of the Khul ships was blasting off from Earth. They were headed towards the Sun. The humans inside them had been given quick--and as benevolent--deaths as could be given. Jace had insisted on being part of every single one of those deaths. Khoth had been by his side, trying to give strength to his Xi and Xa simply by being there as words were inadequate to address the horror and pain and loss.
But now as Khoth turned his face from the blue-white glow of the Khul engines, he realized that Diane was right. Jace was not there. This last ship to go was the one they had flown in and there had been no humans to put out of their suffering inside. That had already occurred with the destruction of the Hive.
“I do not see Gehenna either.” Khoth frowned as he used his suit to search for both Jace and the AI.
“We just got him back and he wouldn’t explain…” Diane bit down on the frantic fear in her voice. Her nostrils flared as she drew in deep breaths to steady herself. “He asked us not to question him about what happened up there. Not yet. That he needed to get this done…” She gestured towards the last ship whose exhaust looked as large as another star in the desert sky now. “And then he would tell us.”
It was on the return trip to Earth that Jace had explained to Khoth this plan.
“Everyone will want to talk to me. Debrief us, I guess, about what happened and what we think it means and all that,” Jace had told him as he had paced around the interior of the pod chamber of the Khul ship.
The pods were empty now though there were still living larvae in the ship’s systems. The skin between Khoth’s shoulder blades twitched at that thought and he found himself looking carefully at the piping, seeing if there were any leaks.
“The thing is that we can’t really take time for all that right now. Gehenna tells me that there are a dozen Khul vessels in and around Sunrise, all of them with--with cargo. We have to stop the suffering of those people and we’ve got to get these ships with the larvae off Earth,” Jace continued and Khoth looked back at the lithe, yet muscular form that moved with grace yet tensity in that moment.
He couldn’t help but also remember then how Jace had risked his life for Khoth’s, had come back for him despite such an act being almost certain death, and then had put together an insane plan that had worked to get them out of the Hive. He’d respected the young man before that, but now… now he had to admit that Jace was rising in his estimation to almost Daesah levels. He tried to push down that admiration, reminding himself that Jace was very new to all of this, and yet… he was the Pilot for a reason.
“A debriefing in General Intoshkin’s hands would take considerable sub-cycles,” Khoth agreed with Jace.
“So I vote we don’t go back to the base, we don’t go back to the Osiris, not yet. Have them come to us,” Jace said as he paused in his frantic pacing. “We don’t ask permission to deal with the ships. We just do it. That will keep them off kilter.”
“I agree. That seems like a wise course,” Khoth answered.
Jace looked up into Khoth’s face. “No one can truly understand what it was like in there, but us, Khoth.”
Khoth’s voice softened, “No, they cannot.”
“Everyone is just trying to wrap their heads around me, the Osiris, Gehenna,” Jace told him. “They’ll want to think and regroup. They’ll want to have things ordered before they do anything.”
“Yes.” Khoth inclined his head.
Jace’s eyes became unfocused for a moment. He was clearly speaking more for himself than for Khoth right then. And Khoth didn’t think he was actually referring to those on the ground as Jace said, “The impact though of what we saw and did… it will get in the way of what we have to do right now to help people.”
They had not had a chance to speak more as Gehenna merrily texted them that they were about to land! But no more needed to be said. They were in agreement that speaking of what had occurred in the Hive, to those like Mrs. Lo, would not be discussed until they had dealt with the other Khul vessels, and made Earth safe for the moment.
Part of what Khoth had not had a chance to say to Jace was that his mother and a Thaf’ell fleet might well be through the gate by the time they had completed that task. She would not allow General Intoshkin or the Parkers to keep Jace from the Illumen Alliance’s grasp.
His eyes scanned the sky for any sign of his mother’s Colossus-class spaceship, the Ashaton, but saw no sign of it yet. So his gaze swung towards Colonel Parker who was watching him very closely. Her hands were clenched into fists at her sides and her whole posture was rigid. She didn’t trust him. She thought he had something to do with Jace disappearing.
“Yes, I heard him say this to you and agreed with it,” Khoth told her.
In the gathering dark, his gaze narrowed as he took in all of the people present. There were a dozen soldiers, all of them watching the ship leave. General Intoshkin and Captain Parker were speaking together in low tones. Thammah was somewhat in their circle. She cast a meaningful look at him and tilted her head slightly to Captain Parker and the general. Whatever the two were discussing, he was likely not to enjoy it. Where had Jace gone?
His gaze was back upon Colonel Parker. “It was best. What needed to be done… needed to be done with alacrity. If Jace stopped to speak with you and answer all of your questions--”
“I know,” her voice was hoarse. She rubbed her face with both hands as if to clean away the emotion. “But now he’s gone!”
Khoth checked his suit’s system. No sign of Jace or Gehenna. Their signatures were being hidden from the system. That meant that Jace had done this intentionally. There was no one and nothing on Earth that could have harmed Jace or taken him away now that the Khul ships were gone. The Osiris wouldn’t have allowed that in any case. It was still unclear if the Osiris had been behind the Khul ship ascending to the Hive, but what was certain was that the ship now had no intention of Jace being harmed.
“He is not in danger, Colonel--”
“Diane,” she corrected him. Her gaze became serious as she focused on him. “I can tell that Jace has taken to you. That he’s influenced by you. So if you’re going to be that close to my family, you can call me by my first name.”
Khoth inclined his head after a moment. He felt that by using her first name she was making their connection stronger. It would be harder for him to betray her. And she was right. Calling her “Diane” and then taking her son away… well, it would be hard. But he had done many hard things in his time.
“Perhaps he has gone back to the Osiris,” Khoth suggested, even as he knew that was not where Jace had gone.
It was actually the last place Jace would go if he read the young man right at all. Jace was still half convinced the Osiris had sandbagged them. Not telling Jace what it was planning showed it didn’t care about Jace’s agency in all of this as the Pilot. By staying away, Jace was punishing the ship in the only way he knew how. Besides, after all that had happened, the upheaval to Jace’s Xi and Xa that day, Jace needed something familiar and trustworthy. Someplace safe. The Osiris wasn’t that in Jace’s eyes right now.
But still, he lied, “That is one place where it would be difficult to track him. He wanted to have a word with the Osiris after all.”
She nodded and bit her lower lip. “Yes, I’ll try there. If General Intoskin realizes that Jace is missing… he wants to debrief him. We need to find Jace.”
Khoth nodded, but she was already turning and striding off. His gaze slid to Thammah. The Flight Commander was making frantic movements with her hands towards the general and Jace’s father now. He realized that they were about to do something very foolish, likely towards him. Khoth would not be there for them to do it.
He brought the helmet of his suit up and turned on the suit’s camouflage option. He did not exactly become invisible, but it was close. People would see a blur if he moved, but if he remained still he would become one with the landscape. But he was moving and it was dark so he was a dark blur that zipped off into the night that no one noticed. He requested the address and directions to where he thought Jace had gone.
Where are you going? Thammah’s text came up on his HUD.
Going after Jace. Keep them looking for us around the Osiris, he informed her.
Where’s Jace? Jace is missing?!!!! Thammah’s use of the human exclamation point was similar to Gehenna’s.
He is not missing. He has merely gone… home, Khoth told her. Keep the others away from there.
Huh. From what people are saying here, I don’t think they’ve even considered he’d go back to his house, Thammah admitted. Amazing that you--who has only just met him--knows him so well already.
Was there some kind of teasing in this statement? There seemed to be. Khoth cocked an eyebrow up at it even as he moved as swiftly as the wind down Sunrise’s darkened streets. There were no lights on in the houses. No children played in the yards. No adults congregated at the outside tables and spoke in low tones. Every single person in Sunrise had been taken into Area 67 for “debriefing” and containment. There was a three-day infection window when it would become clear whether someone had been infested with larvae or not.
Khoth wondered if there weren’t infected in the population. The Khul had been known to infect individuals and set them loose to infect others rather than taking them directly to their ships. Part of him considered advising General Intoshkin that the best course might be to euthanize all of the people who could have come in contact with the Khul, civilian or military. He had not had the heart to tell Jace this option for he feared the young man would break earlier.
He could still remember how Jace had stood in the last vessel and closed his eyes. Tears had squeezed out of them as the young man had whispered, “Let there be no death. Let there be eternal life.”
I will see to Jace’s needs before the Ashaton arrives, Khoth told Thammah. You must keep the others occupied until then.
There was “silence” over the HUD. There was only a blinking cursor and he could practically feel Thammah debating with herself over whether to tell him what she really felt or simply defy him.
Flight Commander Pyrrhus, he began then stopped as he thought of Colonel Parker making him use her first name. Thammah, I am doing what is best, not only for the majority, but for Jace. Do you think that his mental health is best served being made to relive what happened to those people in the Hive? Telling it again and again and again?
How bad was it? She asked.
Bad is a term that has no meaning, he reminded her.
This was a human word that was so amorphous as to be useless, and yet, despite what he had just said to her, he understood why it was used then. It had been quite “bad” in the Hive.
Jace found aliens exist, he fought them, he became the Pilot, and then he went and destroyed a Hive with you in one day, Thammah listed out the bare minimum of what Jace had been through that day. You’re right. He needs a break. I’ll do what I have to in order to give you time to make him as right as you can. But, Khoth…
Here she was using his first name and the pause held a peculiar effect. He almost felt her hand on the front of his suit, gripping it and him, bringing his face even with hers. Eye to eye. It was a mental impression only, but it felt real.
Don’t let the Rule of Duuskukeh get in the way of doing what’s right, she ended the connection.
He blinked. The Rule of Duuskukeh was what was right. The majority over the one. The selfless over the selfish. One’s personal desires had to bow to what was best for everyone else.
He had reached Jace’s residence. He slowed to a walk as he went up the front pathway to a door. The hum of an air conditioner turned on. The churr of night insects was obscured by the mechanical sound and yet there was something comforting in the whir of a fan, the clank of metal on metal. It reminded him of being in the Exarch. The mechanical processes were peaceful as when he was inside of the Exarch he was alone and cocooned away from all expectation and duty.
His eyes slid over the low, single-story home. It was solidly built. It hugged the ground as if hiding from the sun and moon. Cacti were the only vegetation and formed a protective barrier along the outside of the house. There was a single concrete step before a door painted white. There were no lights on inside. At least, there wasn’t at first, but then there was a flash of one and Khoth smiled. He’d been right.
He’d been taught that humans “knock” on doors before entering a dwelling. They also would wait after the “knock” to be let in. Or they might hollar “hello” and simply walk in to announce their presence if they were particularly close to the owner of the property. Before Khoth could determine what course was best for him in this situation, the door opened and Jace was standing at the threshold. In one hand he had a jar of something that said “Jiff” and in the other was a spoon with a dollop of tan, creamy substance that he was licking.
“Are you going to just stand there or come in? We’re letting the air conditioning out,” Jace said as cool air rushed past him and bathed Khoth’s face.
“I was debating whether to knock and wait or knock and yell a greeting as I pushed my way inside or… just go inside so you wouldn’t run away,” Khoth told him.
Jace’s face, which had looked lined with exhaustion had brightened with every word he said. At the end, Jace was just grinning and chuckling despite Khoth’s growing confusion.
“I do not see what is so amusing. Is that not the way of your species?” Khoth asked with a lifted eyebrow.
“Oh, Khoth, may you never change.” Jace just shook his head and laughed.
“I am certain I will. As do we all.”
Khoth though decided that such a discussion on change and stability would be best held inside. Jace was right. The cool air was leaving the home and considering that humans used fossil fuels for the most part to create their electricity, it was wasteful to stand outside.
Once he was inside, and Jace had shut and locked the door after him, Khoth was able to observe that Jace had retracted his hard suit. He still had on the Syntheskin suit, but the collar was undone and he had wrapped himself in a hooded sweatshirt with a zipper.
Jace caught sight of him noticing his outfit and gave a rueful smile. “I was actually going to get changed into sweatpants and a t-shirt, but none of my stuff fits. Too small. This is my dad’s.” He plucked at the zipper. “If I actually zipped it up, it would be skin tight on me. But it’s cozy open like this.”
“Your Syntheskin suit should perfectly regulate your temperature,” Khoth stated.
“Cozy is different from warm,” Jace said.
Khoth frowned as he followed Jace towards a small kitchen table where there were bags of “chips”, bottles of “Coke” and “Mountain Dew” and “Fanta”, along with various wrapped food items called “burritos” and “Hot Pockets”.
Gehenna was over in the kitchen proper. She had opened one of the “burritos” and put it on a plate before placing it in a microwave oven, likely to be heated up. Or so his suit told him. It was the light from the interior of the oven that he had seen outside.
“I went over to the Con-Ve and grabbed whatever I could. I’ll have to reimburse Walter…” Jace stopped and stared down at the foodstuffs. “The Con-Ve… do you suppose they’ll rebuild it for him? And the rest of the people… Their homes and their businesses… what are they going to do about that? Will the whole town be in on it now? That aliens are real and… Or will they lock them all up forever and throw away the key? Like Sunrise will become a ghost town. Or maybe they’ll fill it with secret agents that look like citizens, but aren’t.”
“I do not know. Any of those options are possible,” Khoth responded, while internally, he thought, And it will not matter. Because you will not be here to see it or deal with it.
“How did you find us? I had Gehenna totally block everybody’s ability to scan for us. Even the Osiris hasn’t quite gotten past her defenses yet.” Jace’s head was lifted up again and he was focused on Khoth in a way that had been similar to Diane’s gaze.
Khoth found himself straightening up under it. “I… surmised that after all you had experienced that you would seek someplace familiar. Someplace where you felt… safe.”
Jace blinked at his explanation. “Most people would think I’d want to be with my parents if I wanted to feel safe.”
But Khoth shook his head. “They lied to you. Even though the reasons for it were good ones. You would not feel… safe with them.”
Jace slowly nodded. “I love them so much.” He scrubbed his hands over his face, again like Diane. “But I just need a--a moment, you know? To just think. To just…” He made a gathering gesture. “Take everything in and sort it out. To feel like me again.”
Don’t let the Rule of Duuskukeh get in the way of doing what’s right, Thammah’s words echoed in his mind.
There was an electronic beep from the microwave. Gehenna used one of her pincers to press a button that made the door pop open. A smell, it wasn’t unpleasant at all, but rather meaty and rich, flowed out. She took the plate out with a pincer and set it down on the table. She urged Jace to consume this “burrito”.
“It needs sour cream. I think… I think there’s some in the fridge, Gehenna,” Jace said.
The AI in her cleaning bot body went over and opened the refrigerator and took out a small white plastic package. Jace took it from her and used the now clean peanut butter spoon--that’s what Jiff was, his suit had told him--and put two large spoonfuls of white cream on top of the “burrito”. Jace then dug into the steaming meat and corn mush. He was about to eat it when he noticed Khoth watching him carefully.
Don’t let the Rule of Duuskukeh get in the way of doing what’s right.
Jace, with a crooked smile, held the spoon up to Khoth’s lips. “Try it. You might like it. I know it’s something new, but--”
Khoth ate the spoonful of “burrito” with sour cream. The taste was surprisingly good. It was meaty, smooth in parts and chewy in others. The sour cream was cool and had a faint tang. He swallowed and licked his lips before finding himself staring at the “burrito” again and then at Jace’s face.
Don’t let the Rule of Duuskukeh get in the way of doing what’s right.
“Gehenna, I think he might like it,” Jace let out a soft, wheezing laugh.
I want to keep him laughing, Khoth found himself thinking.
Exaggerating the archness that was usually in his voice, and crossing his arms at the wrists behind his back to look extra aloof, Khoth stated, “Of course, I enjoy it. It is much like space paste--”
Jace threw back his head and laughed so hard that his eyes started to tear. The laughter started to change. Khoth had expected this. Tears were flowing down Jace’s cheeks. He was shaking and the laughter had turned to sobs. Khoth stood there, dumbly, for a moment and then he recalled how Jace’s parents had hugged him and the way the tension had bled out from Jace. Hugging… it was a sacred act, only done with family in private for the Thaf’ell. But Jace needed that comfort. And though Khoth was not family, he was the only one there to give it.
And he wanted to give it.
Khoth reached for Jace and, without hesitation, Jace came into his arms and clung to him.
Don’t let the Rule of Duuskukeh get in the way of doing what’s right.
“I will make sure that you always have the time you need,” Khoth found himself saying to Jace. “I swear it, Jace.”
This was what was right. So this was what he would do.