CHAPTER SEVENTEEN - BLADE DANCE
Despite his easy words and the surge of adrenaline that had filled him at the thought of using the laser sword, Jace didn’t have an easy time keeping a smile on his lips as he faced off against Khoth in the circular area the ship had provided them to duel. The Thaf’ell Commander didn’t just swing the sword--or rahir, Gehenna helpfully provided him with the Thaf’ell word for this weapon--but literally flipped it up into the air, caught it and swirled it about his body as though the sword was a silk scarf. He moved so fast that the sword was a blur. Jace fought not to have his mouth fall open.
From what I could obtain on his background, Khoth has been training with a rahir since he was a child of about 5 Earth years, Gehenna told him.
Oh… Jace responded weakly.
He couldn’t exactly remember his own training. His body seemed to even as his mind didn’t, but he was pretty sure even his body didn’t know how to do what Khoth was doing now. He had thought of this being a fun and friendly encounter where he would hold his own since he was supercharged. He was wondering though if he hadn’t underestimated Khoth a wee bit and overestimated himself by a lot.
Gehenna was in his “corner” of the circle while Thammah was in Khoth’s like they were two boxers about to enter the ring. Thammah gave him a thumb’s up and a grin. He wondered if she thought he would do well or be crushed.
“Woo hoo! Go Team Khoth! Go Team Jace!” Thammah pumped a fist into the air. He wondered if she’d read Twilight with her use of “teams”. The thought of Thammah ensconced in her spaceship reading vampire fiction made him smile.
His parents, the general, and the soldiers were all around the outer edge of the circle, watching Khoth now roll forward, lift his body up into a handstand with only one hand then balance on a single finger before rolling forward again and flipping up to a standing position. Jace gulped. Could he do that? How could anyone do that?
He saw the soldiers elbowing each other as they took in Khoth’s uber moves and then chuckled as they looked at him. He’d seen those looks and laughs before at school. Despite his many disabilities, his father had taught him to defend himself with fists while his mother had with words. While he hadn’t exactly been a champion fighter when he’d been in school, he’d managed not to get the tar knocked out of him. Jace gritted his teeth.
Here’s a little bit more information for you about Khoth! Gehenna prattled happily on, showing him images of documents that rated Khoth’s physical prowess. He was ranked First, even above his sister, in all physical challenges Oh, my! And he’s won the championship on Haseon with the rahir. He has some fancy titles like Sword Master or something like that. There’s not quite an Earth equivalent translation.
You do realize you’re making me more nervous now than if I knew nothing at all about his titles, don’t you? Jace laughed. He’s like a foot taller than me and twice as broad even with all the new adjustments to my body.
Yet despite Khoth’s heavily muscled frame, the Thaf’ell Commander moved with a quickness and fluidity that belied the layers upon layers of muscle Khoth possessed. At that moment, Khoth had easily dropped into the splits. He was limber too, evidently.
And now you tell me he’s a Sword Master! Jace continued. Like couldn’t you have told me that before I agreed to duel him?
He is a most formidable opponent, Gehenna agreed, which was again, not what he wanted her to say. You will most likely lose.
W-what? Jace turned toward her. That was what he thought but to have her confirm it was sobering, to say the least!
The squid head turned towards him. What?
No, no, I asked “what?” first so you have to answer me first! Jace cried.
I am not certain--oh! You thought your training would be enough to hold your own against him? Gehenna sounded pleased that she had teased this out of his psyche.
No! I mean… yes? Sort of? You trained me so don’t you know? Jace grimaced. And what I could do worked against the Khul. In a way. But then again, I can’t use Metal Rain against Khoth!
Multiple tentacles flew up in the air and Jace was reminded of one of those scrubbing poles at a car washer. It’s actually worse than you’re thinking!
Worse? Gehenna, you really need to work on your pep talk. Jace squeezed the top of his nose.
Gehenna continued waving her tentacles. You see, you’ve just been changed, you don’t know your body’s strengths at all! Let alone your weaknesses! I don’t fully know them either. The training is good, but… well...
Yeah, yeah, that’s about right, Jace agreed with her dryly.
So why did you ask him to duel again? She asked.
He was wondering that himself. It had seemed like a good idea at the time. The moment that he had touched the rahir’s hilt and saw the thin laser edge on it, he’d thought of Star Wars and who wouldn’t want to fight with a sword like that? He hadn’t really contemplated what it would be like to face off against someone so skilled. This wasn’t going to be the fun tap-tap thing he’d imagined. But if he was really honest with himself, he’d thought he’d do well, because of the training, but now? Khoth was flipping the sword in the air again while he stood there like a tree stump!
He attempted to put his feelings into words, I was trying to--
Impress Khoth? You like him! Gehenna sounded even more pleased at this.
Jace colored. He could feel the heat on his cheeks. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw his parents watching him carefully. Both of them would notice the blush. They would talk to him about it later he was sure, especially when he lost. They were already freaked about what had happened to him--and who wouldn’t be?--and now he was taking up a weapon against Khoth, who they already didn’t like or trust. And when Khoth justifiably trounced him, making them believe he should have any say in anything might be lost.
I like Khoth just fine, Jace answered her stiffly. But that’s not the point!
I’m sorry? What is not the point? Gehenna reached over with one of her tentacles and pushed a piece of hair off his forehead. This will be a most instructive lesson when he--oh what is that delightful human phrase you’ve used before? Oh, yes!--hands you your ass!
Jace winced. She definitely had a way with words. Gehenna, I was trying to impress him so that he’ll know it’s safe for me to go to the Khul ship!
Impress him! Impress the general! Make my parents think I’m capable! Jace grimaced. If you haven’t noticed, no one actually thinks I’m up to being the Pilot! Losing here will… be bad.
He glanced over at his parents then. His mother’s expression was too smooth. She was hiding what she was feeling. She smiled at him when their eyes met. His father was chewing on the nail of his right thumb. He flashed a grin, too. The fact that they hadn’t insisted he be examined had probably taken more strength than he would ever know. So if he royally messed up, the strength would drain away as their trust in him did the same.
On the way to the armory, they had asked him question after question about Gehenna, Osiris and the “training”. He’d answered as much as he could, as much as he knew. But maybe he’d been a little cocky?
There was a pause and lights appeared and disappeared in Gehenna’s squid head in quick succession. I see. Yes, I can understand your concern now. That would be bad. Everything you do now has consequences.
So… any suggestions to salvage this? He asked.
Well… you should try to not lose too badly? She made that sound like a question.
Uhm, yeah, that’s a good idea. Hopefully, that’s a possible idea? Now he was making statements sound like questions!
You could call off the duel! She suggested.
No, it’s gone too far. And everybody is waiting to see what I can do, Jace said.
Your training is quite good, Jace, but Khoth’s a master at this, she told him. I think… I think you can hold your own if you allow yourself to just react. Don’t overthink! And Khoth does not want to hurt you. So there’s that.
Jace met the Thaf’ell Commander’s blue-on-blue eyes. They were unreadable. Khoth wasn’t big on showing his emotions, but Jace knew that there was no antagonism there. After all, Khoth had given up so much for him to live. So much, that if he thought about it, it made him slightly ill. Not that he wanted to die. No way, no how. But maybe the fact that he’d been allowed to live had made him want to seem like he was all cool, calm and connected before he actually truly was. But Gehenna was definitely right that Khoth wouldn’t want to harm him at all.
No, he doesn’t, Jace answered with a sigh.
But Khoth wanted to see what he could do so he could assess Jace’s skills. Jace winced again when he thought of how he had suggested he would protect Khoth. The thing was that he wanted to protect Khoth. He wanted to protect everybody. But was it the smartest idea to act like a badass or maybe be a little more humble?
You are the Pilot, the Osiris’ voice rolled through his mind.
Yeah, well, Khoth is the Sword Master.
You are the Pilot, the Osiris repeated.
No pressure or anything. I’ll do my best! Jace laughed internally then sighed. The Osiris did not answer further. He wondered if Osiris would be disappointed in him if he lost. Another person counting on me! Just great.
Khoth was waiting for him now. He wondered how one started a duel. Khoth would, of course, know.
“So how do we do this?” Jace asked as he surreptitiously wiped his sweaty hand on his thigh.
At least, he didn’t have a headache or was seeing auras or had the tinny ringing in his ears from tinnitus. No wonder he’d thought he was invincible. Compared to before, he certainly felt it!
“We bow.” Khoth demonstrated.
He bowed without taking his eyes off of Jace. Jace tried to do the same but instead of the fluid movement that Khoth made, he was stiff and awkward, but at least he didn’t fall forward. He switched the blade from his right to left hand and back again. It felt good in his hands. Light and balanced. It also felt familiar. He’d done this before.
Don’t overthink this. Just trust in the training, Gehenna urged.
Right. Got it.
“Now, we touch blades,” Khoth said.
“Wait, wait, one more question. How do we stop from cutting off limbs?” Jace asked. That was one thing he didn’t want to replicate from Star Wars. He didn’t look at his parents though he was sure his father was gnawing his whole entire thumb off with those words.
“Our suits will protect us,” Khoth answered and patted the front of his suit. “The rahir will not cut through the material, though any score marks will show up before the nano-material fixes them.”
“Oh, that’s good. But… ah… our heads are not covered,” Jace pointed out and slid a finger across his exposed throat.
“Don’t go for the head!” Thammah said helpfully.
Great! Now I have to worry about cutting Khoth’s head off? Jace thought.
That is highly unlikely. His speed would seem to indicate, he’ll be able to block you, Gehenna said. Then she put two of her pincers together. That wasn’t helpful, was it?
No, we’ll have a talk about pep talks later, he told her.
We used all of the training manuals I was able to find for the Pilot, Jace, she told him. The Osiris has added a lot of stuff to you. I was so proud of you for facing off against the Khul. You were fearless with ice in your veins. Remember that. You’ll do just fine.
Now THAT was a great pep talk, Gehenna!
But that was the truth, she told him. Just like the negative stuff.
Yeah, I know. But thanks.
Jace let out a breath. He tried to empty his mind. His goal wasn’t just to not overthink, but maybe not think at all.
Don’t think about my parents. Don’t think about the general. Don’t think about the fact that Khoth is a Sword Master. Don’t think.
He took another breath as he and Khoth approached one another and touched blades. The laser edges hissed and spat when they came into contact with one another. It was the coolest sound ever and Jace found himself smiling. He looked up at Khoth’s face and the Thaf’ell Commander was smiling too.
And then Khoth was swinging that sword so fast that Jace shouldn’t have been able to counteract it, but his arm came up all on its own and he blocked the strike. There was sizzle, spat and hiss as the blades met and flew away from each other. Their blades met again and again. Sizzle, hiss, spat!
Jace dove to the side just as Khoth chopped the air where he’d been. He felt something touch his left shoulder. When he got up his hand closed upon it and he winced. Khoth’s blade hadn’t cut his arm off, but that would leave a mark. Jace slashed at Khoth’s left side. But his blade didn’t even get close to the Thaf’ell Commander’s body. Even if Khoth hadn’t parried, the tip of his blade was a good six inches away.
He’s taller. I need to get under his reach and get close.
Jace realized this as Khoth sliced the rahir across where, again, he’d just been standing, but Jace had pivoted and leaned back. The tip of Khoth’s rahir just caressed the front of his suit. He felt heat, but no pain this time. Jace dove forward as Khoth was recovering from the swing.
He popped up just a few inches from Khoth’s chest and stabbed his rahir at the Thaf’ell Commander. Khoth leaped backwards but there was a zap and a line of smoking black appeared on his chest. There was a momentary silence and then wild claps all around. Jace pumped a hand up in the air as he realized he’d actually managed to hit Khoth.
“Good job, Jace!” His father cried. “But don’t get--”
His father’s last word was drowned out as Khoth moved lightning quick, but Jace knew it was “cocky”. Khoth moved faster than before, obviously having gone easy on him. He slashed right, left, right, right, left! Jace was jumping backwards, just a hair’s breadth from having his chest painted with black lines.
Just as he was running out of room to retreat, he shifted his footing and was able to turn his body and block one of the strikes with his blade. Sparks flashed. The blades whined as they ground together. Khoth bore down on Jace with his considerable weight. Jace was forced down so that he was resting his weight on one knee! His back began to arch away from Khoth as he simply didn’t have the strength to remain upright. He was reminded of being a reed in the wind.
Bend! Don’t break!
Sweat streamed down Jace’s face. Khoth’s wasn’t that far from him and he saw the slight tightening around the eyes and mouth. This was hard for the Thaf’ell Commander too. Suddenly, there was an overlay of glowing orange lines over Khoth’s form. Jace could see several wire-forms demonstrating moves that would break the stalemate. Jace laughed.
Are you doing this, Gehenna? He asked her.
No! I think… hmm, I think it’s Osiris! She responded. What are you going to do?
Jace actually didn’t need to think too hard. He knew the move that appealed to him. Just as his body was about to completely collapse under Khoth’s weight, he said, This.
Jace dropped to both knees.The blades slid along one another with a grinding sound. He struck out with his right leg and connected with Khoth’s left knee. The Thaf’ell Commander let out a grunt and his body swayed just a moment. Jace used that momentary unsteadiness to thrust Khoth backwards with much of his last remaining strength. Khoth staggered away and Jace went on the offensive, finding dregs of energy he didn’t know he had.
Whatever fears he had of his body not knowing what to do were seemingly unfounded. Time seemed to slow for him. He could almost linger in this moment as he saw himself lunge from his position on the floor and thrust towards the hand that held Khoth’s blade. He caught Khoth’s wrist and Khoth’s hand released the rahir. The blade fell towards the ground, but Jace caught it by the hilt.
Khoth brought up his arms to block Jace, but Jace had both blades crossed at Khoth’s throat. They both froze. Inches apart. Sweat coating their faces. Breathing coming in ragged gasps.
There was silence all around.
And then Gehenna said, You did it, Jace! You were amazing! Even though I trained you… you far exceeded my hopes!
Then there was tumultuous applause, whistles, and cries of delight. To Jace’s surprise--and happiness--Khoth smiled and inclined his head.
“You were quite extraordinary, Jace. I believe you will be saving me,” Khoth stated.
Jace flashed a grin. “I got lucky. You almost had me. You should have had me.”
Khoth frowned and tilted his head to the side. Osiris had cheated by showing him the way to break Khoth’s hold on him. Maybe it wasn’t cheating, but Khoth didn’t have an AI analyzing Jace’s moves.
“I’ll tell you when… when we’re alone,” Jace said.
He was suddenly feeling incredibly weak. His head began to thump heavily like when one of his headaches was coming on. A touch of terror came over him. Had he overextended himself?
He drew the blades down from Khoth’s neck, being very careful in his movements so as not to harm the Thaf’ell Commander. He handed Khoth his rahir back. Khoth bowed his head in thanks and took it from Jace’s faintly shaking hands.
It’s just adrenaline. That’s all. I’m fine. I’m fine. I’m fine, Jace told himself.
“That was incredible,” his father said as he came up to Jace and hugged him. He pulled back and said, “You weren’t kidding about the training. You moved so fast! Not to mention with so much skill!”
“Khoth’s really the skilled one, Dad. I--I’m maybe more programmed to do this stuff. He learned it all on his own,” Jace said, feeling terribly shaky like he needed sugar and wondering if there was any food on the Osiris. He saw over his father’s shoulder that Khoth was watching him carefully.
“Jace, that was…” His mother shook her head as she came over and embraced him too. “You’ve never held a sword in your life, but you used this one as if you were born with it.”
The pounding in Jace’s head increased. He could hardly hear her words over it.
I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine, he kept repeating.
“Well, son, that was some show of skill,” the general said as he hovered by his mother’s side. “He’s never held a sword before, Colonel Parker?”
His mother grimaced, but quickly hid that look of unhappiness. “No, there’s little call to have such a skill.”
“Especially as a store clerk!” the general chuckled.
Jace glared at him even as the whine of tinnitus started in his ears. “You’d be surprised at what a lowly store clerk has to deal with.”
The general actually smiled. “I wasn’t putting down being a clerk, but just comparing it to what one of our soldiers would encounter. The skills you’ve been given… well, imagine a whole army of people like you, Jace. We’d be safe from the Khul then!”
Jace frowned. “I don’t… I’m pretty sure it doesn’t work that way.”
There is only one pilot, the Osiris whispered in his head.
He, once again, looked over at Khoth. The Thaf’ell Commander had heard what General Intoshkin had said and the frown on his lips showed this was what he had feared would happen when he saved Jace’s life. Thammah and Gehenna were standing beside him. He should have wanted his parents right then when his body was malfunctioning once more. He should have wanted Gehenna. But… he wanted Khoth. This was the man who he had counted on before and he knew he could count on him again.
“Excuse me. I just want to congratulate Khoth again,” Jace said as he turned from his parents and the general.
He walked carefully as the pounding in his head and the whine in his ears was distracting as it always was. Gehenna was looking at Khoth’s exo-suit and examining the damage, making observations about the duel. Thammah was grinning at Jace, but her grin changed to a look of concern. That concerned look was mirrored on Khoth’s face.
“What is wrong, Jace?” Khoth asked him softly.
Jace licked suddenly dry lips. The sweat on his face felt cold and he shivered. “I think I need to sit down somewhere with some food and water. Could you--you find someplace for me to do that?”
Khoth nodded and put a hand around his shoulders. Jace leaned into that large body that he had just fought so hard against. He was grateful for that strength and size now.
“Just pretend we’re going to look at something in the armory,” Jace told Khoth.
“Jace, what is wrong?” Khoth asked again.
“Not sure. May have overdone it or something,” Jace said.
Gehenna was suddenly in his head, Oh, you need sustenance! Your body burned through your slender resources--
You mean the coffee and bite of toast I had this morning? Yeah, that feels like last year, Jace told her.
“I just need a brief moment without someone dying or something crazy going on,” Jace told Khoth as they moved into an adjoining room.
“What can I do?” Thammah asked.
“Get him food and drink,” Khoth stated.
She nodded and headed out quickly. Knowing Thammah, Jace bet she had snacks stashed everywhere. Gehenna hovered by them helplessly as Khoth helped him sit on top of a low cabinet. Jace put his face in his hands and rubbed his temples.
I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine.
“Why do you not want your parents or the general to know of your… condition?” Khoth asked.
“Because they’ll want to test me and I don’t want the general to think he can make an army of super soldiers by what he finds from that testing,” Jace answered, still rubbing circular motions on his temples.
He was shocked when Khoth took over for him, massaging his head. He gasped as the pain retreated almost immediately as Khoth seemed to know exactly where to touch on his head to release the pressure.
“Whatever you’re doing, don’t stop,” Jace begged.
“I did this for my sister. She often had headaches,” Khoth said then clamped his lips shut as if afraid more would come out.
His sister was killed by the Khul, Gehenna informed Jace. He was exiled here because he went into a Khul ship to--to help her the only way one can help a prisoner of the Khul.
You mean he had to kill his own sister? Jace gasped.
Yes, Gehenna’s voice was filled with sadness.
“Can an army of super soldiers be made?” Khoth asked quietly.
There is only one Pilot, the Osiris whispered.
“No,” Jace said with a shake of his head that brought more pain and dislodged Khoth’s hands. But thankfully the Thaf’ell Commander continued the petting. “For better or worse, it’s just me.”
“Just you? From everything I have seen of you, Jace Parker, we should all be grateful you are the Pilot,” Khoth told him.
A stab of guilt went through him. “Even after what I said about not helping the Alliance?”
Khoth nodded. “I have thought about what I said. To ask you to abandon humanity is not fair. It is not realistic that you could justify letting your whole race potentially be destroyed to save other races.”
“The Khul will come back here. They’ll take revenge on humanity, if nothing else,” Jace said.
“They likely would,” Khoth nodded again.
“So… what do we do about it?” Jace asked.
“First, we end the suffering of those in the Khul ships,” Khoth stated. “And then… we find a compromise.”