CHAPTER THIRTY-NINE: ONE REASON
Jace caught Khoth reaching up to where the selchilite had hung from his head. But each time he did his Commander dragged his hands back down to his sides and fisted them as if to weigh them down so that they could not traitorously lift up to shorn places on his scalp. Jace gritted his teeth and forced himself to say nothing. Even though there was so much wrong in having Khoth be punished for what Nova had done. What the whole of the Alliance had done.
They value logic allegedly, but what is logical about punishing the one person who is doing what is right? Jace thought.
But he would not say any of this to Khoth. This was his culture. This was the Thaf’ell way. And Khoth did not have to be answering for his mother as well as the Thaf’ell. He was suffering. That much was clear to Jace. And all Jace wanted to do was fix it. But screaming about it to Khoth would only hurt his Commander more.
The elevator doors silently whisked open to take them down to the meeting room that the Osiris had prepared for their conversation. His parents and General Intoshkin were already there. Gehenna and Thammah had agreed to meet Nova and the Alliance contingent and bring them to Jace and Khoth. Even if Jace had been inclined to greet them himself for reasons of strategy he was too angry right now to do so. He wondered if it was wise to even have this meeting now.
And he wasn’t just pissed that Nova had interrupted some alone-time with Khoth. Though his body still tingled at the memory of it. Everything about Khoth was exciting and arousing to him, but it would also be the first time that Jace would be able to be physical with someone without being in agony. Not having to manage his pain while kissing was… unique. He now understood the big deal about sex. Or he would. If he and Khoth ever had enough time between crises to be alone.
The elevator doors whisked shut and Khoth’s right hand lifted towards the bare skin on the side of his head. He jerked it down again. His knuckles whitened from the tenseness of his grasp. So Jace reached up and lightly brushed his thumb over the bare space. Khoth jerked away in surprise, but then slowly moved back into touching distance.
“Your hair is so soft,” Jace murmured. His Commander held himself very still as Jace touched each and every bare spot. “The short strands here are even silkier.”
“We take great care of our hair, especially those the selchilite are attached to,” Khoth answered.
“Because of the importance of the selchilite? If you neglect your hair you’re neglecting your family and accomplishments?” Jace inferred.
“Yes,” Khoth answered, still without moving. “The Khul have been known to remove the scalp of Thaf’ell and leave them behind as if to say that they are not important. That all the Thaf’ell is… is meat.”
Jace grimaced and shut his eyes for a moment. “Of course they would do that.”
The Khul were not dumb bugs. They were incredibly intelligent in that they understood other cultures vastly different from their own and what would offend and hurt them most. It was almost malicious.
No “almost” about it, Jace thought. The Khul don’t just destroy other species, but do so almost gleefully.
To Jace that sounded like a culture that had devolved into a decadent period, an old culture that had gotten to the point where feeding people to the lions was entertainment at its finest. For some reason he had assumed the Khul were less civilized than the Alliance, but, in truth, they were acting like a species that was far older and had fallen into jaded brutality.
The door to the elevator whisked open again. He lowered his hands from Khoth’s hair. That was actually incredibly hard to do. Khoth had watched him with utmost intensity as he did it. He wondered if Khoth had liked the touch or if Jace had just made him more self-conscious about the lack of selchilite.
The hallway stretched out before them in brightly lit antiseptic white and black. Jace liked the cleanness of this design. There was something a little Star Wars about it and he wondered if the Osiris wasn’t emphasizing that and subtly--or in the case of Khoth’s quarters not so subtly--changing things in the interior to suit its occupants.
Orange arrows appeared on the floor, lighting up the space with a sunshine-like glow, leading them towards the meeting chamber. Of course, Jace didn’t need the visual cues. He was starting to be able to sense the Osiris’ intent now almost like intuition. He bet he could have gotten to this room blindfolded. Jace stopped though outside of the door and put a hand on Khoth’s chest.
“My Xi and Xa are… in balance, Pilot. You need not worry that I will… make a scene,” Khoth again used an English idiom.
Jace nodded. “I really wasn’t worried about that. I mean… I’m worried that you’re hurting. But I think you’re more likely to suffer in silence and stillness than to show it outwardly.”
Khoth gave a quick blink, which told Jace he’d hit the nail on the head. “And you are worried about this.”
“No. Yes. No.” Jace shook his head as Khoth’s eyes widened in confusion. “Like I said I am worried about you bottling stuff up. But I’m not worried you’re going to suddenly explode during this meeting. Which would be fine, by the way. If you wanted to rant and rave at your mom and the Alliance for all their stupid… uhm, their illogical ideas about me and the Osiris.”
Khoth blinked again. “If such behavior would sway people to our side, I would engage in it. But I fear it would only alienate potential allies.”
“So I shouldn’t do it either?” Jace smiled tentatively up at him.
“You’re angry,” Khoth stated after long moments regarding him.
“Furious. Fucking filled with rage actually,” Jace admitted.
“Why?” Khoth’s voice was soft.
Jace bit his lower lip. “I swore I was not going to say anything critical about this.”
“I would prefer you be honest with me,” Khoth replied. “And it appears that you are holding back emotions, which you claim not to be wise.”
Jace gave a rumbling half-growl which he mixed with a flash of a smile. “Okay, I think it's wrong that you are paying for other people’s mistakes. Your mother should be shaving her goddamned selchilite off! Not you! She should be the one that’s exiled while you should be lauded! There! I’ve said it! Now you know how I really feel!”
Khoth cupped his cheek, which had Jace freezing in surprise. He saw the faint glance that Khoth sent to make sure that no one was watching them. He was pretty sure that Khoth didn’t want their relationship to be a secret, but the Thaf’ell overall didn’t seem to be much into public displays of affection. Plus, Jace was his superior. He likely worried that for them to be seen like this would lose Jace respect or some such thing.
“I am… honored you feel I am doing the right thing,” Khoth answered softly. His thumb lightly glided over Jace’s cheek leaving little bursts of electricity in its wake. “You are a highly moral person. Even though our cultures are different, I think we hold to some of the same values. You and I.”
“Uhm, y-yeah, I think so too. Like a warrior’s code and all,” Jace said, still having a bit of a hard time thinking of himself as a warrior and not the sick kid that had to watch everyone else play the hero.
“Yes, a warrior’s code.” Khoth nodded, evidently pleased with this description. “And your words also indicate that you care for me.”
“I--I do. A lot. I…” Jace grimaced again. He was doing a lot of that this morning. “I told you that from the first time I met you--”
“Yes, and I feel that way too. As if we have rediscovered one another,” Khoth interrupted gently. “Please do not think that I do not relish the adventure ahead of us, of the connections we will make, of the things we will discover and accomplish. I believe… I believe that this will be the most exciting part of my life. But change is hard.”
Jace was the one blinking now. Those simple words had his chest feeling tight and warmth rising behind his eyes. Change was hard. He was riding the wave of excitement into the next moment, the next him. But he knew that soon, very soon, he’d be leaving all he knew behind and he’d miss it. No matter how many good things were ahead of them, change was hard.
“I understand. You need to mourn what you’ve lost even if what replaces it is--”
“Better,” Khoth finished.
“Yeah.” Jace nodded.
“But right now neither of us can be worried about what we have lost. Our focus must be on the future and what we need to gain,” Khoth told him and the Thaf’ell seemed to grow less somber with each word. “This is a pivotal moment, Jace, for what is to come. I would not have you worrying about me in it.”
“That’s sort of impossible. I worry about people I care about,” Jace said with a shrug. “But I do take the point. I need to have my head fully in the game. At the same time, I can’t believe that no one else out there in the Alliance doesn’t feel the same thing I do about these rules.”
“I am certain that there are many who believe the Thaf’ell way is the incorrect one,” Khoth said, but he didn’t seem to think they were right. “But I am Thaf’ell, even if I am no longer Alliance, and I… I will observe them.”
“You really think that no Thaf’ell will feel its wrong? Thammah does,” Jace said.
Khoth sighed softly and an affectionate smile crossed his lips. “Thammah is not like other Thaf’ell. Surely you know this?”
“And you aren’t like other Thaf’ell either.” Jace grinned.
“I do not know about that,” Khoth said humbly.
Jace drew in a deep breath to center himself. “Ah, now we get to deal with General Intoshkin and his belief that I’m Earth’s property.”
“Do you have a plan?” Khoth asked.
“No.” Jace grinned again when he saw the flare of alarm in Khoth’s eyes. “I am totally flying by the seat of my pants.”
Frowning then, Khoth asked, “How can one fly--”
“Don’t ask. I don’t even know what it originally meant. And I’m not even going to take up the bandwidth to know.”
“I see.” Khoth was still frowning, evidently attempting to parse what the phrase meant.
Jace almost thought to put him out of his misery and ask the AIs to explain to him so he could relay it to his Commander, but then thought the frown on Khoth’s face was cute. If it kept Khoth from remembering the missing selchilite then all the better.
“We should get in. Gehenna and Thammah are on their way with your mother,” Jace said, his heart beating a little harder at yet another tense confrontation on his hands.
“Yes, if I see your pants coming undone in the meeting, I will assist you,” Khoth said with solemnity.
Jace bit down fiercely on his inner cheek to stop from bursting out laughing. Finally, he answered, “I do so appreciate that, Khoth.”
The door to the meeting room opened. Jace let out a whistle. The space was beautiful. The room was long and rectangular in shape with a curving ceiling overhead. Golden light painted that ceiling from behind molding all along where the walls met the ceiling giving the room an almost cathedral appearance. There were three tables set up in a triangle pattern. His table was the point of the triangle and was at the backmost wall.
On that wall it showed Earth, blue and white and beautiful, slowly spinning through space. The view shifted and he saw war-like Mars, the red planet. The view shifted again and they were in the rings of Saturn. Jace knew that all of the planets in the solar system would be shown one at a time and then the gate appeared before him. Jace felt his heart twist in his chest and he took an involuntary step towards that image.
The gate called to him.
The gate was freedom.
The gate was the stepping stone to all he was meant to do.
Khoth lightly touched his lower back, drawing Jace back to himself. He blinked and looked up at his Commander. How could he explain why that gate made his heart soar like it did? Adventure. Fate. Promise. A huge leap forward for all of humankind. It was like finding out that Star Trek could be real. Not in some distant future, but it could be right now. He thought of all of those people out there that, like him, had dreamed of going to distant planets, hearing alien tongues, walking in cities in solar systems that humanity had no idea about. Khoth had always had these abilities. Jace wouldn’t blame him for not understanding the almost painful desire of it all. And it was too hard to explain right now, especially with the general walking up to Jace briskly with one hand extended.
“Jace! Son! You look well,” the general said as he took Jace’s right hand and shook it.
“General, as do you,” Jace answered with a smaller smile.
“We saw what happened with High Councillor Voor,” the general’s own smile became a little thinner. “While it was well done, you should have talked to me beforehand.”
“And you’ve got to talk some sense into your father there! Your mother, too, though she, at least, isn’t pretending to leave the U.S. military!” General Intoshkin chuckled.
Jace realized that his mother was at one of the tables at the “legs” of the triangle. She gave him a small smile and tip of her head. His father stood at attention by the table at the front. And his father wasn’t wearing a flight uniform or any of his military uniforms, but was instead dressed like Jace.
Osiris? Jace asked, half laughing.
He has joined the crew, the Osiris answered. He needed appropriate attire.
So we’re going black Empire look? I admit… I like it, Jace said.
“So my parents told you about their plans. My mother will remain as a liaison or ambassador for Earth to all alien species while my father’s agreed to join the Osiris’ crew.”
“Well, yes, but they’re behaving as if your father has retired his commission and--”
“He has. The Osiris is not a U.S. vessel,” Jace said firmly. The general was not one to take a hint. “I meant what I said earlier. I don’t represent humanity or the United States. I am a neutral-ish third-party.”
“It’s better this way,” Jace told him.
“I can’t see how!” General Intoshkin erupted. “Without you, we have no leverage with the Alliance! We won’t even have the crashed Osiris!”
“Because I’m going to get you protection for Earth and humanity will have access to the stars,” Jace stated. “I believe humanity joining with other races against the Khul is important. I believe that humanity can prove itself a good partner to other species. I believe you and my mother can make that happen.”
General Intoshkin studied his face. “You do believe that.”
“You won’t be in charge. Not at first anyways.” Jace gave a faint smile.
In many stories humanity’s drive always led them to eventually be in the thick of things when they met other species. He had no doubt that would happen in real life.
“Oh?” General Intoshkin lifted an eyebrow and there was a faint smile on his lips too.
“It’s better that humanity earns its place rather than be given it,” Jace told him.
“We’ve only ever asked for a chance!” General Intoshkin took off his cap and wapped it lightly against his thigh.
“And be on the Council.” Jace sighed and shook his head. “But as to me and humanity being separate... some of the things I do in order to get rid of the Khul may not be things that humanity may want to hitch its wagon to. I can’t be ruled by a committee, general. I need my freedom. Full freedom.”
“I was told to stand down,” General Intoshkin sighed, not realizing that had been a clever lie by the Osiris. Jace wasn’t sure how that was going to go over when it was discovered. “So that’s what I’m doing. But I sincerely hope you know what you’re doing, son.”
He poked his cap against Jace’s chest.
“Me, too,” Jace said.
General Intoshkin turned to Khoth who had been hovering nearby in a semi-protective attitude towards Jace. The general’s expression softened.
“For what it’s worth, you not only did the right thing, you were honorable as all get out. Humanity will forever be in your debt, Commander Khoth,” the general said. “You’re a good man.”
Khoth tilted his head. “I did not do this for humanity, but for all species, General Intoshkin. I believe that the Pilot and the Osiris need to be independent.”
The general smiled and looked between them as if he sensed something about their relationship and that this was the real reason for Khoth’s behavior. In some ways the idea that Khoth would choose him over everything sounded romantic. But in most ways, Jace would have only felt horrible guilt if Khoth had compromised himself for that reason.
“We’re just going to get seated,” Jace said. “High Councillor Voor is nearly here.”
“Of course, another big moment or do you think that she will give up with a whimper this time?” General Intoshkin laughed and twirled his hat in his fingers before going to join his mother.
“The general does not like High Councillor Voor,” Khoth remarked.
“No, no, he doesn’t,” Jace agreed. “But I’m pretty sure the feeling is mutual.”
“He shows the ambition that many Thaf’ell feel but hide away,” Khoth stated.
“So does she see herself in Intoshkin?” Jace’s forehead furrowed.
“No, what she sees is a being who has been able to show his ambition and not be broken for it. I think she is jealous,” Khoth answered.
“Come. She really is almost here,” Jace said and led them towards the top table.
His heart twisted again in his chest as he said that. It had been easier addressing her over a burger and fries on a comm link instead of face to face. He reminded himself of Khoth’s earlier words that he had done nothing, except that wasn’t true. He had goaded her and lightly guided her into destroying herself. And this meeting was likely to go worse. Would he be able to hide his discomfort doing this? Would he feel as much discomfort as triumph? For he had to admit he’d felt good about what he’d done. Yet sad too.
His father saluted Jace and Khoth, which had Jace blinking and Khoth performing a formal bow.
“Uh, Dad?” Jace asked.
“Jace, I’m not Dad here and… you’re not Jace, you’re the Pilot,” his father reminded gently.
“Oh, right, I need to give you a title,” Jace said.
“Actually, the Osiris already did. Flight-Master Parker,” his father told him and saluted again.
“Aw! The Osiris took my fun away!” Jace groused. “We could have come up with cool titles together. Though Flight-Master is pretty cool. Though… you’re not quite a flight master yet.”
“I’ll be starting my training after today’s meeting,” his father said. “The Osiris anticipates that since I’ll be the first in the program that I’ll be the first to master it and train others.”
“The Osiris again?” Jace curled up an eyebrow.
“Yes and no. It was Flight-Commander Thammah’s orders about the training. Seems like the Osiris decided to keep her title,” his father said with a grin. He was clearly loving this.
I’m glad someone is, Jace thought with a sigh.
His father turned to Khoth, his expression serious. “You saved peoples’ lives today, Khoth. Your actions--”
“The Pilot is responsible for saving any lives,” Khoth interrupted smoothly. “I just choose to be on the side that would do so.”
His father nodded after a moment’s hesitation. “Still. Thank you.”
Khoth bowed again, but said nothing. Jace worried that his Commander was wearing down under all the emotional check-ins he was being forced to do with humans. But his concern about Khoth had to be left unexamined further.
Nova was now in the hallway that the meeting room was on.
“It’s time,” Jace said as he turned towards the table.
Khoth was already holding out a chair for him. Jace sat down and allowed his Commander to tuck him in before seating himself by Jace’s side. Jace would not rise when Nova entered. Her actions meant she did not deserve respect. He wanted her to know that she had entered his house now. In fact, she’d always been in his house since he had become the Pilot.
All of the Alliance had and he had to make them fully believe it.
The doors whisked open. Thammah was the first to enter. She was also wearing a new black uniform. It was similar to Khoth’s but had a high collar that was zipped up to her chin. It was a stunning look on her with her scars and shorn silver locks. Jace saw her eyes go to Khoth’s hair. She knew immediately what he had done. She gave his Commander an almost imperceptible nod before marching over to the third, still empty table in the room. She positioned herself in the corner.
Nova was next. She was accompanied by two other Thaf’ell officers, one female and one male. Neither was the officers that had defied her on the bridge. They looked hard. Like warriors. Not that it mattered even if they did think to attempt some kind of coup aboard the ship. Things just didn’t work that way.
Finally, Gehenna clanked into the space last. She sent a warm greeting to Jace even as her demonic red eyes gleamed and she stalked across the room to hang with Thammah. The two of them were watching the Alliance coalition closely. The door shut. Everyone sat down.
Jace met Nova’s steely blue on blue eyed gaze. “No one can see us. No one can hear us. The Osiris is recording this, but it is not sending it out.”
“Aren’t you pronouncing judgment on me?” she asked.
“You deserve far worse than simple judgment!” General Intoshkin growled. “You acted with no honor and--”
“As if everything you’ve done is by the book? Or do you act to get to the ends you want?” Nova challenged. “We both know the answer to that, general.”
“You were going to kill civilians!” General Intoshkin reminded her.
“I was going to make a hole in the desert. No one would have gotten hurt,” she countered.
“You were out of control!”
“You wouldn’t know what control is if--”
“Enough!” Jace’s voice rose up and cut off the bickering. Both looked at him and ignored the other. “I am not streaming this because we need to talk seriously.”
“Is that supposed to make me more comfortable to share secrets with you?” Nova asked, leaning forward on the table.
She had not looked at her son. Not once. But he was pretty damned sure she saw the missing selchilite. Jace felt a rising anger in him. But he stuffed it down. Hurting her would only hurt Khoth. He could allow her to continue to destroy herself or… or he could stop it and help her and help himself and… help everybody. But mostly he cared about Khoth. He wanted the Commander to be able to walk away from this and have as little regret and guilt as possible and he could do it without compromising his goals. He was pretty sure he could do that anyways. Well, he was going to give it a shot!
“You still don’t understand,” Jace said and shook his head.
“What don’t I understand?” she asked, her lips thinning.
“There are no secrets,” Jace told her. “Everything you keep in your databases, every message you’ve sent, every report that’s been written up, all of it… the Osiris knows and I know. There are no secrets, High Councillor Nova.”
She stared at him with no expression on her face, which indicated to him that she was starting to get it.
“Now, we can work together to come to solutions for the Alliance’s many problems and how to address the Khul,” Jace said. “Or we can just wait until Councillor Ardath Ulgex finishes convincing the Council to find you unfit and replace you. With herself, of course.”
“Of course,” Nova responded softly and her eyes flickered to Khoth. Just once.
“And then we’d be going through this farce once more with a person who hates humans so much that she’ll never negotiate,” Jace said as the Osiris offered him a sketch of this other Councillor.
Nova’s shoulders released a little tension. “So you’d rather deal with me?”
“I don’t know if I can. You’ve compromised yourself so badly,” Jace remarked.
Her mouth looked pinched for a moment. She said nothing.
Jace leaned forward on his table. “So what’s it going to be? Are you going to work with me or against me? Are we going to speak openly and honestly or do you want to posture some more and bang the table?”
“Is there any choice? As you say, I’m about to be… replaced. I’ll lose everything if I don’t work with you.” She let out a brief laugh that held no mirth.
“Of course, there is always a choice,” Jace told her. “I don’t need you to accomplish my goals so you can always exit stage left if you like. The choice is really about whether you want to be involved or not in what’s going to happen next. Still want to shake the pillars of heaven, Nova? Or do you want to be cast aside like so many before you and be replaced by someone far lesser?”
“Why do you want my help?” she asked. “If I am so inconsequential and compromised as you seem to indicate, why do you still want me in any position of power? I can’t imagine you won’t compromise Councillor Ardath Ulgex, too, if there are truly no secrets.”
Jace considered how he would answer this. He could praise her acumen. He could wax poetic about her past accomplishments. He could even say that her prior honor would be helpful in getting people to trust him. He could simply stress that she was the lesser evil and that the Devil known was better than the Devil that was not.
But none of that was true. Well, it wasn’t fully enough to keep her where she was.
They both knew that.
The overwhelming reason he wasn’t having her hauled to the brig and then taken to Haseon in chains was Khoth. His eyes slid to Khoth’s blue hands that rested on the table. She had been right to think that he had feelings for Khoth. And she had been right to think that he would be influenced by his Commander. She had just been wrong about how much loyalty that Khoth had to her.
Finally, he said, “You know why.”
He saw Khoth frown at him, not understanding what Jace meant. But Nova did. She gave a sad smile and a single nod.
“Then yes, I am interested in working with you,” she answered.
She still loves Khoth, Jace thought with a relieved sigh. She still has ambitions too. But she loves her son and understands why I’m doing this.
“Good,” Jace said. “Let’s get started then.”