CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE: MARKS OF BATTLE
“You must explain the mystery of the word ‘ranch’ to me,” Khoth said to Jace as he studied the ranch-flavored Doritos.
“There’s a mystery to do with the word ‘ranch’?” Jace was already grinning.
This was bound to be good. Khoth always had such a different way of looking at things. And, though the Thaf’ell Commander was definitely playing the “straight man” in terms of comedy, Jace was pretty sure that Khoth was trying to make him laugh. In some ways, that seemed like a very un-Khoth-like thing to do, but that was only if one looked at the surface of the alien. Underneath the logical and cool exterior, Jace thought that Khoth might be the most empathetic person he knew.
And he hugged you! Gehenna reminded him. It’s quite a big deal for a Thaf’ell to show physical affection like that. It’s… uhm, well sacred and such.
Jace wasn’t quite sure what she meant by sacred. Even if such an act was sacred normally, he was pretty sure that Khoth wasn’t being sacred with him. But was, instead, trying to stop him from breaking down entirely, which he pointed out to Gehenna.
Yeah, yeah, but that was because I was having a nervous breakdown, he reminded her, but he remembered the feeling of strong arms and a firm front and the sense that he was safer against blue skin than he’d ever been anyplace else.
But you’re better now. Aren’t you? You seem better, Gehenna said as she pressed pincers together from her spot by the oven.
I’m much better. Thanks, Gehenna, he assured her. Just a little bit overwhelmed back there.
Of course. You’re doing so well, Jace! It’s good to let these things out! She told him loyally.
She had been the one to suggest he go home after taking care of--killing--the last of the infected human beings--people I knew, people I cared for--in the Khul ships. He shook himself. He didn’t want to fall back into that pit of despair again. He and Khoth were no longer hugging after all, and he didn’t want to press his luck in needing a second, sacred hug from Khoth.
The two of them were seated on the kitchen floor as the table was not big enough for all the snacks they had opened. Both of them were cross legged and faced one another. In orbit around them were bags of chips of all kinds, not to mention various two-liters of sodas and candy. Gehenna was heating burritos, Hot Pockets, and pizza rolls. Jace was determined that Khoth try at least one of everything from their haul from the Con-Ve.
Khoth held up the triangular chip that was dusted with the white and green powder. “This is ranch-flavored.”
“Correct.” Jace crunched on some tortilla chips and fresh salsa.
Khoth then gestured to the house around them. “And this is a ranch-style home.”
“Ah… yes, that is correct, too,” Jace said with a nod as he plucked a Cheeto from an open bag.
“And there are homes nearby that are called ‘ranches’ though they do not look like this home, but are called that because they have cattle and other animals that graze on the land?” Khoth proceeded.
“I think I see where you are going here,” Jace said as he realized how confusing this must be for Khoth.
Khoth then touched the bottle of dressing beside him--they had been dipping hot wings into the creamy dressing--and said, “This is also ranch. Ranch dressing.”
Jace started laughing around a mouthful of food as he nodded vigorously.
“It does not appear that humans lack imagination,” Khoth continued as he finally bit into the chip, tasting it, and making a face before putting it aside.
“No, we definitely don’t lack that,” Jace agreed.
“So why the same word for things that are not truly related?” Khoth’s brow was furrowed as if he truly was considering this problem deeply. “And those that are slightly related, but are very different such as this home and a ranch with animals, dilute the word’s definition. It makes it confusing and random.”
“I see what you mean. But humans like to use words that elicit certain ideas--like the freedom and old West from a cowboy on the range--to a milky dressing. It’s all advertising,” Jace said with a shrug.
“So a person eating ranch dressing would do so because it reminds them of a cowboy?”
Khoth’s eyebrows were doing that thing where one popped up then the other did. This was a two eyebrow up situation. Sometimes there was a third eyebrow raise when Khoth brought them both up at the same time. It was just one of the things that Jace was learning about the Thaf’ell Commander.
“Don’t you ever want to--to pretend you’re someone else? Or… something you admire, don’t you want to be close to that? Feel like you’re connected to it?” Jace tried to explain.
Khoth lifted up the ranch bottle. “This does not make me feel close to a home with animals.”
Jace let out another burbling laugh. “I’m sorry! I shouldn’t laugh. You’re just… seeing all of this from your eyes makes me see how it's a little crazy.”
“But you still enjoy it?” Khoth made that sound like a question, but it was more of a statement.
“I do. I think I’m going to love this silly stuff more when we’re in space and it’s hard to get,” Jace said.
Khoth’s head lowered. “Yes, there will be as many ‘ranch’ mysteries for you in the Illumen Alliance as there are for me here though I dare say that our words are more precise.”
“Thankfully, between Gehenna and the Osiris I can understand and speak…” Jace cocked his head to the side and let out a low whistle, “over five-hundred languages and dialects. And I can learn more.”
“Impressive.” Khoth tipped his head.
“Not really. I’ve got two AIs in my head. It’s not me. It’s them,” Jace quickly amended. He didn’t want to take credit for any of this when he felt he hadn’t earned it. Like beating Khoth during their duel.
“You only have those AIs in your head because you are the right person to have them,” Khoth said, clearly seeing Jace as worthy regardless.
“Since I’ve answered your ranch question, can you answer one of mine?” Jace asked.
“You may ask.”
The way Khoth phrased it left the Thaf’ell Commander room not to answer.
“Those marks above your right eyebrow.” Jace pointed to the dark blue, stylized triangular tattoos on Khoth’s face. “Do they mean anything or are they just for decoration?”
Khoth reached up towards them as if to cover them with his hair, but stopped at the last moment and let his hand drop back into his lap. Jace had just been curious, but now seeing Khoth’s unhappy expression, he wished he hadn’t asked.
“You don’t have to tell me! Let’s have you try a Sour Patch Kid candy--”
“It is a ta’na,” Khoth interrupted. “We commemorate great battles normally on our backs.” The Thaf’ell Commander gestured towards his covered back. Jace wondered how many were there. “But, if a battle is truly great and the soldier’s actions are highly honorable, they are allowed to mark it on their faces.”
“So… that was a really big battle that you were highly honorable in?” The truth was that Jace couldn’t imagine a time that Khoth would not be brave and honorable in battle after what he had seen in the Hive. After Khoth nodded, Jace asked, “I guess the thing we did in the Hive wouldn’t be that… big a deal or…”
“It would be worthy of a ta’na, but I will not be requesting one,” Khoth replied stiffly.
“Why not? You were incredible in there. You were willing to sacrifice your life so that I could get away,” Jace told him.
“We should discuss your actions in coming back for me--”
“We’re not discussing that,” Jace cut him off and made a movement like a slice through the air with his arm. “Leaving you behind was not an option for me.”
Khoth frowned. “That is not logical.”
“It doesn’t matter if it is logical or not. It simply was not--and never will be--an option for me,” Jace told him.
“We just met.”
“Yeah, I know. It’s not even been 24 hours since this insanity began.” Jace made a movement of looking at a watch he didn’t have on. But the suit’s computer did show him the time not only on Earth but on other planets. “Look, humans… ah, packbond with people they are in dangerous situations with. They also packbond with toasters if they have googly eyes on them, but let’s not get into that.”
“You have… packbonded to me?” Khoth was doing that eyebrow lifting thing.
“Yes, yeah, I have. You’re someone I… trust,” Jace told him awkwardly. “You’ve saved my life a bunch of times. You were there from getting me to Gehenna to jumping into the dark void of space. I’m pretty bonded with you.”
Khoth’s forehead furrowed. He was quiet for long moments and then said slowly and carefully, “We have something called the Rule of Duuskukeh.”
“What’s that?” Jace asked, even as he had a feeling he wouldn’t like it.
“It is difficult to explain in one sitting,” Khoth stated, “but its most concise meaning is: to put the needs of the many over the needs of the one.”
“Okay,” Jace said slowly, too. “And what does that have to do with me going back for you.”
“I think you know.” Khoth’s blue-on-blue eyes were fixed on him. They glowed a little in the low light of the kitchen. “Your survival is more important than mine for the sake of all in the Illumen Alliance. Your packbind to me is less than your duty to the whole.”
But Jace was shaking his head. “I don’t work that way.”
“You may not now, but you must learn--”
“No, I won’t,” Jace said fiercely. “There’s a concept in our military where they swear that they will leave no one behind. They will do whatever they have to do to bring that person back with them from battle. If that person is captured, they will go rescue them. If they are killed, they will do all they can to bring their remains back.”
“Makes everyone take risks to protect each other and to protect the whole that they wouldn’t take otherwise,” Jace said. “They know that they are valuable. They know that they will not be forgotten about. It adds to their courage or maybe even gives it to them in certain situations. Knowing that they won’t be treated as if they are replaceable makes people act selflessly. I may not be a Marine, but I believe in this. I believe in leaving no person behind, because the whole is made up of individuals and the moment we stop caring about them… well, the whole doesn’t mean a lot now, does it?”
Khoth’s brow was furrowed again. “We have learned the Rule of Duuskukeh, because of the danger of bringing the infected back. The reason I will not ask for our battle to be marked with a ta’na is because…” Khoth paused and looked down at his hands in his lap. He twisted them together. “Because I went back for my sister, Daesah.”
That’s the one I told you about, Gehenna whispered.
Having seen what the Khul did to their prisoners, Jace’s heart lurched in his chest. Seeing Mrs. Lo and other neighbors in those pods had been bad enough, but to see his mom or dad or Sami or George… He felt like throwing up.
“Daesah was more than my sister. She was my commander. She was the High Commander of the Illumen Alliance’s military,” Khoth explained. His mouth tightened as he said her title.
“Wow… that’s… that’s impressive.”
“She was impressive. The best of us,” Khoth agreed and then swallowed hard. His hands trembled, but with a seeming force of will he stilled them. “I went back for her because…”
“Because she was your sister,” Jace said as the silence stretched on too long.
Khoth nodded jerkily as if admitting this was gut wrenching. “I told the Council that I did so because of my concern of the Khul gaining all of her insight and our strategy. That is true. But… I went because she was my sister. I broke the Rule of Duuskukeh and was exiled here because of it.”
Jace could and couldn’t understand such a punishment. Terror of infection would require the need to have people abandon those they cared about to cut down on risk. Jace understood this. He even understood why they would punish people who violated that. It was too great a threat. But such a rule came with an incredible cost. Leaving those loved ones behind would make anyone cling to logic, because the emotional scars otherwise would be debilitating.
“I should have been ordered to remove this ta’na because of my actions,” Khoth finished. “But I will consider this ta’na now for actions taken after my exile.”
Jace nodded. Again a long silence fell. What was there to say about a fallen sister? The breaking of a rule that was both good and bad? The horror of this unending war with the Khul?
But, finally, Jace did find the words and said simply, “I’m glad you’re here, Khoth.”
There was another silence and then Khoth deadpanned, “Because of our packbond that is also shared with your toaster?”
Jace snorted and wagged a finger at him. “Now, now, you’re trying to make me laugh. I should be the one doing that for you now.”
“Being with you…” Khoth rolled his lips together as he clearly considered his words, “has… helped with my feelings about Daesah. You are… strangely similar.”
Jace’s eyebrows rose. “Really? Now that sounds like a very big compliment.”
“It is. It is a fact.” Khoth shook himself. “She would have appreciated the idea of no one left behind, I think. But… my mother will not.”
“You’re worried about what’s going to happen when your mom comes,” Jace guessed.
Khoth hesitated, but then nodded. “You will be hard pressed to convince her to leave a fighting force on Earth.”
“Yeah, well, then I’m not leaving until she does. I can be just as pigheaded,” Jace said.
“Pigheaded…” Khoth’s lips curled into a smile.
“Yep! Another one of those words that relates to something else.” Jace grinned. “She can’t just kidnap me, Khoth.”
“Oh, she can.”
“No, she can’t. Well, maybe she can physically, for a while,” Jace said with a shrug. He had a sudden fantasy of being in one of those ridiculous Barbarella space suits and being held by the wrists and ankles in some infernal machine. “But think of the politics. Forget Earth and humans for a minute. Maybe she doesn’t care what we think, but what about the other worlds in the Alliance? How would they take to her just snatching a citizen of another world?”
Khoth’s lips pressed together. “They would worry the Thaf’ell would simply take their people too and leave their worlds undefended. It would foment rebellion.”
“Exactly!” Jace opened a packet of red licorice that was filled with Pixie Stick sour powder. He bit in and loved the sour bite. “Especially when all we’re asking for is protection, to be treated like an Alliance world. So I don’t think your mother is going to stuff me into her spaceship and go back through the gate to Haseon.”
“She wants the Osiris too,” Khoth pointed out.
Jace’s lips thinned at mention of the ship. They were in a fight. “Yeah, well, I get that."
He ripped off another mouthful of licorice. Khoth was keenly watching him so he offered the Thaf’ell Commander one. Khoth stared at the bendy, red stick for a long time before taking it from him.
“This is edible?” Khoth asked as he twisted the elasticky, sweet rope.
“Yeah, it’s candy. Licorice with sour sugar inside Try it. Bite off a piece,” Jace told him and demonstrated again.
Khoth stared at him and then the licorice dubiously. He licked the tip. “It has very little taste.”
Seeing Khoth licking things was causing Jace’s libido to come to life. Khoth had licked his fingers clean from orange dust due to Cheetos, he’d licked sour cream off his lips, he’d licked soda from his chin, and so on and so forth. Jace drew his hoodie closer around his front. The Syntheskin suit did not hide anything let alone a multitude of sins. Being attracted to Khoth was… complicated.
From his heart rate, I can tell that he’s quite pleased to be with you, too, Gehenna told him as she bustled to plate the nuclear hot pizza rolls from the oven. Cheese covered a couple of her pincers.
You shouldn’t be monitoring his vitals, Gehenna. We talked about that, Jace reminded her. It’s an invasion of his privacy.
But I’m helping! Gehenna protested as she accidentally speared another pizza roll, which squirted out marinara and mozzarella. Oh, dear! I really must get a better body that isn't so clumsy!
Jace smiled and shook his head. I don’t know how many pizza rolls we’re going to be having in space. Maybe we should do a grocery run before we go?
Yes, we should! The Osiris, she said the ship AI’s name with a lemony precision, can scan them and recreate them for you!
Huh. So there’s some kind of replicator on board? He knew the answer to his own question before he’d formed it as the Osiris showed him the exact machine that would formulate food.
Is it still trying to talk to you? Gehenna asked.
It is trying to be helpful, too, Jace replied dryly. But we’re not on speaking terms right now.
So it won’t answer whether it released the lock on the Khul ship or not? Gehenna asked as she carried over the plate of pizza rolls.
Every single one had been speared through by a pincer. The red sauce looked like blood. It appeared like a pizza roll massacre had occurred, but Jace popped one in his mouth even though it was way too hot and he had to chug some Coke to cool it off.
No, it won’t, Jace finally said to her. Which is an answer in and of itself.
Would you have gone to address the Hive? The Osiris asked.
Jace’s eyes narrowed. He’d been ignoring direct questions from the ship for some time. But this question was like a red flag to a bull.
Yes, I would have. Which you would have known if you’d talked to me about it, Jace said, grinding his back molars together.
It had to be destroyed within a certain timeframe. I could not risk interference in this, the Osiris said in that sexless, nearly inflectionless way.
That’s not your call. I’m the Pilot. You’re the ship. You don’t get to decide things for me or Khoth or anyone else! Jace snapped. You did not just put me at risk, but Khoth and Gehenna too! You are not the boss of me. Nor of them.
There are boundaries and limits. You don’t cross them, Jace said, and he felt that there might be a way to place those boundaries upon the AI.
Oooooh! You can! There are levels of permission! Gehenna nearly tossed the tray of Hot Pockets up in the air in her excitement. The Osiris has the highest level right now because you were just produced, but you can change that!
There was a yawning silence from the Osiris, which just like its previous silence, said quite a bit. Jace considered what he wanted to do. He could punish the Osiris and take away some of its freedom, but that would place more responsibility on his shoulders and, at the moment, he felt quite incapable of dealing with any more. Or he could forgive the Osiris this one time. Knowing the terrible things that were going on in the Hive, Jace could very well understand the Osiris’ need to get him on mission without delay or objection.
I’m going to chalk this interaction with you up to us not knowing one another, Osiris, Jace stated. I’m going to leave you with full permissions, but that will change if you act without consulting me on something like this again.
Understood, the Osiris said with more alacrity than usual. He sensed it was relieved he hadn’t bound it. Will you return to the ship now?
That was a little eager, too.
No, I’m staying here for the night, Jace said.
There was a long silence. He knew the Osiris did not like this. It wanted him on board, in his rightful place.
Do you not want to explore your quarters? The Osiris asked, and Jace’s right eyebrow went up.
Nice try. But I can do that tomorrow. I need… Jace popped another one of the skewered pizza rolls in his mouth, time. I’ll be back tomorrow. Now, I’m going to focus on Khoth.
That will not be possible, the Osiris stated.
Why? Jace frowned.
“What is wrong?” Khoth asked and immediately reached for his rahir where he’d laid it down by his side.
Khoth’s suit’s comm was already lighting up even before Jace could say, “Your mother has arrived.”