CHAPTER EIGHTEEN: JUNK FOOD
Khoth watched Jace drink water. Jace drank and drank and drank until the bottle was dry. He lowered it and wiped his mouth with the back of his right hand. Khoth took the empty bottle from him.
“More, please,” Jace said. “I didn’t know I was so thirsty.”
“Indeed.” Khoth gave Jace another bottle which Jace cracked open and downed in two swallows this time. A third bottle was soon in hand.
Khoth glanced at all of the food and drink that Thammah had been able to find. It wasn’t an auspicious selection. There was some old looking fruit, bags of “chips” with different “flavors” like “ranch”--which Khoth had thought was a type of home on this world--, not to mention long sticks of a meat-like substance in a plastic material, something called “Ho Ho’s” and varieties of hard, sticky substances with names like “Jolly Ranchers”.
When Thammah had dumped the armful of “food” and the case of water down on the nearby table, Khoth had looked at it skeptically. Thammah had blued.
“What?! It’s all I had in my locker!” Thammah had answered. “It’s good!”
Khoth’s lips had pursed. “I believe some protein paste would be--”
“Space paste?” Thammah had laughed as she’d used the derogatory term for the perfect mixture of nutrients on every starship. “I had Jack try some of that. It was not a good outcome.”
“It is perfectly acceptable for human biology,” Khoth answered crisply. “It has all the nutrients--”
“He vomited, Khoth. Profusely,” Thammah interrupted. “And even after his stomach was empty, he continued to retch. It was a bad time.”
“Can I have a Slim Jim?” Jace asked after another swallow of water, which brought Khoth out of his thoughts but not away from the food.
Khoth picked up the meat-like substance formed into a stick shape. There was a dark red oil surrounding the stick that stained the plastic. He turned to the ingredient list and began to read. Every ingredient had his frown deepening.
“Khoth! C’mon, don’t read the ingredients!” Jace whined.
“Why not?” Khoth’s frown was becoming permanently etched into his face as he went down the list of chemicals in the Slim Jim.
“Because no one wants to know what’s in them!” Jace laughed.
“Why would you eat something unless you were certain of its nutrient value?” Khoth was tempted to throw this Slim Jim in the trash.
“Because it tastes good!” Jace gave him huge eyes. “And I’m hungry. Please? C’mon, throw me a Slim Jim.”
“I would not feed these to my worst enemy.” Khoth sent the Slim Jim flying to a trash receptacle that had appeared.
“No!” Jace cried as both of them watched a small robotic creature take the trash and disappear through an opening in the far wall that slid silently shut. “What have you done?”
“Saved you,” Khoth stated simply.
He was scanning the fruits--grapes and a package of blueberries--and he frowned again. These had traces of pesticides that were cancer causing agents. Jace should not be allowed to eat these either. And the bottles the water were in contained--
“Khoth, I’m starving!” More big eyes at him.
Perhaps the vomiting had been a unique reaction of Captain Parker’s so Khoth suggested, “I have an emergency supply of protein paste--”
“Don’t do it, son,” Captain Parker said as he came into the room with a plate piled high with bread, meat and other condiments that the humans called “sandwiches”. “I didn’t recover from a mouthful of that vile substance for a week. Don’t you remember when I was constantly running to the bathroom?”
Jace blinked then laughed. He pointed at his father’s chest. “Oh, my God, I do remember! And Mom said you just had a touch of the flu, but it was really alien food!”
“Some alien food is good,” Captain Parker said. “But protein paste…” He didn’t finish the sentence but just shuddered.
Captain Parker put the plate down on the cabinet. Khoth immediately began to scan the sandwiches, but Jace grabbed the whole plate and turned his back to Khoth, blocking the scanner. He then began to stuff them into his mouth.
Around meat and bread, Jace mumbled, “Not taking this away!”
“I brought some full sugar Coke as well,” Captain Parker said as he placed six red and white aluminum cans on the counter.
“Oh, God, yeah!” Jace mumbled around more sandwiches.
He was dropping bits of crust on the ground as he couldn’t quite close his mouth around his big bites. Khoth wanted to tell him to slow down, but Jace was curled protectively over the sandwiches and when Khoth went to scan the “Coke” Jace made a growling noise and curled an arm around the cans. So Khoth backed off reluctantly. He would scan the dregs later and stop Jace from having more after this meal if it was filled with the toxins and cancer causing chemicals that seemed to be in everything else.
“Has the food police been at it again?” Thammah asked as she came into the room and saw Jace hovering protectively over his meal.
Jace nodded and sent Khoth a narrow-eyed glance as if he didn’t quite trust him to let Jace eat this terrible meal.
“He threw away a Slim Jim!” Jace cried after swallowing a mouthful of sandwich.
“No!” Thammah looked stricken. “Where is it?”
“There was this little robot guy that took it away!” Jace told her.
“The Osiris must agree with me that this food--and I only call it that lightly--is filled with toxins and is not fit to eat,” Khoth stated stiffly.
Captain Parker, who had been opening a bag with the word “Fritos” printed in colorful yellow lettering, quickly dropped it back on the counter and tried to pretend he hadn’t been about to poison himself.
“It is called junk food for a reason,” Thammah agreed, which shocked him, because she had been the one to bring it.
“Junk is a very apt description of it,” Khoth said with a nod even as he watched Jace eat more of it with growing concern.
Jace purposefully stuffed another sandwich in his mouth and opened a plastic bag that had the word “Doritos” in bright red lettering on it. These junk foods all seemed to use bright, primary colors that reminded Khoth of children’s toys. It certainly attracted attention like a toy.
Thammah gestured towards the Cokes. “Can I have one or do you need them all?”
“Go ahead. Drink away.” Jace opened one of the cans and there was a pop and then hiss of carbonation. He chugged half the can. After swallowing, he let out a moan, allowing his head to tip back. “Sugar. Caffeine. So good.”
Thammah followed suit. “So bad, but so good.”
“I know, right?” Jace laughed.
“Thammah, you have called this food and drink junk yet you indulge in it as if--”
“It’s like a drug, Khoth. A wonderful drug. You should try some!” She thrust a can of Coke at him.
He recoiled, which had both her and Jace laughing. Even Captain Parker snorted as Khoth smoothed down his exo-suit, trying to pretend he had not been afraid of a simple can of Coke.
“Don’t worry. If you don’t want it--yet--that just means there’s more for us,” Thammah said.
She then slung an arm around Jace’s shoulders. They leaned into one another companionably and Khoth was surprised at his Xi letting out a pain of jealousy. He knew this was illogical. Had he not been able to rub Jace’s temples earlier? Had the young man not reached out to him after the duel? So what that Thammah could hug Jace! He could do it too. As easily. If he wanted. Thammah wiggled her eyebrows at him, noticing his stare. He became still as stone and just as impervious to her barbs of amusement at his expense!
But Khoth’s annoyance with Thammah bled away as he saw that Jace’s cheeks had a warm color. His eyes sparkled again. Food and drink seemed to have been the problem. Khoth wanted to run tests on Jace to see if his systems were fully functioning. But Jace’s violent reaction to being tested--an almost angry horror at it--stayed Khoth’s hand. Whatever he could discover through scanning Jace was not worth the young man’s fear.
He will trust me. In time.
But the moment he thought that, he saw his mother’s face. He could almost hear her telling him that making Jace Parker trust him would be good for the Alliance. That he should do whatever was necessary to get Jace on their side. His hands curled into fists. These were the compromises that his mother had to make in order to move the Alliance in the direction she thought was best. It had been determined early on that Daesah, and not himself, were better suited to command at the highest levels, because Khoth balked at taking certain actions.
“Do not take Mother’s assessment of your nature as a criticism,” Daesah had urged him.
“But is it not a criticism?” He’d tilted his head at her, keeping his voice as neutral as possible.
Daesah had sighed. “Only if one thinks the highest good is where we end up and not how we get there.”
“One should try to get to the proper ends by the proper means,” Khoth had responded stiffly, but he already knew that was the “wrong” answer.
But his sister had smiled sweetly at him. “Yes, Khoth, that is a good way of seeing the universe and one’s part in it.”
Khoth thought of his sister’s ultimate fate then. If he could have saved Daesah by doing something underhanded, something improper, would he not have done it? Who cared about acting properly if one lost at the end! That was his mother’s point that he had not understood until the stakes were so very high. Yet when he looked at Jace he wanted to be proper. He did not wish to be underhanded to win this young man’s allegiance.
But to not gain it, to have Jace as an enemy or even an unwilling ally, would be a disaster as much as losing Daesah was to the Alliance cause.
Captain Parker was watching Jace closely, too. There was a momentary look of relief on his face at Jace’s renewed strength. Though Jace’s parents must have wanted to have Jace examined to see that he was functional--and to find out what changes had been made to him--they were both being exceptionally careful not to crowd Jace or let their concern show. Khoth appreciated this measured Xa approach, but it was confusing to him as it conflicted with what he had heard of humans.
After the duel, when Jace had reached out for him instead of the elder Parkers, Khoth had felt a wave of… something. His emotions were unreadable to him except for the surprise that he had been chosen over people Jace clearly loved and trusted implicitly. That had inspired him to act as well. So he’d touched Jace. And when he’d done it, it had been natural to try and soothe him. He did not understand why that was. But, like with Daesah, he found himself acting more on instinct than logic.
“Your parents are concerned, Jace. They are going to come in," Khoth had said to him.
Already, he could see through the glass walls that the Parkers were stirring. General Intoshkin was still enamored of the weaponry, but the Parkers were thinking only of their son.
“Yeah, I just need a minute or two to recover and then I can face them. Gehenna?” Jace had looked up at the squid.
Her answer appeared on Khoth’s suit’s screen as well as being heard by Jace telepathically.
“Block my parents, please? Tell them I just need a sandwich,” Jace said then muttered, “I hope that’s all I do need.”
But Thammah is already obtaining sustenance--
“I could eat a horse, Gehenna. Now that I’m letting myself feel it, I am completely starving,” Jace told her. “That’s got to be what’s wrong with me. I can’t be going back to how I was.”
Your vital signs are strong, Gehenna assured them both. But this new form needs more nutrition. And you have been going since this morning. Remember, you did just face off against the Khul and then you decided to fight Khoth too and you--
“Yes, yes, let’s not go through my many missteps today,” Jace laughed and then winced.
Khoth rubbed his temples some more and the tight expression left Jace’s face.
“Please, Gehenna, if you would speak with my parents?” Jace said.
Of course, Jace! Oh, I hope they will listen to me! Gehenna glided out of the room.
Through the glass walls, they both watched as Gehenna physically blocked the Parkers’ way. When Captain Parker attempted to dodge around her, she stretched out some tendrils that had the captain backing away. Finally, the two elder Parkers got out their phones and Gehenna was able to speak with them that way.
“She’s really got to fix her speech box or whatever,” Jace said dryly. “If she gives herself the voice she has in my head, she won’t frighten people as much as a giant, metallic squid does.”
“Indeed,” Khoth agreed, but then his mind turned to other things far more perplexing than Gehenna’s choice of form. “Earlier, what did you mean when you indicated that you had not won fairly?”
Jace’s eyelids had almost completely shut from Khoth’s massage. He opened them slightly. “Oh, yeah, well, the Osiris helped me in the fight. When you had me down on one knee, it showed me various methods to attack you. Like the perfect strikes.”
“I see, but no, I do not see. How is that not winning fairly? You used your abilities to defeat me,” Khoth pointed out.
“There’s a big difference between what you are able to do because you’ve trained for decades and what I can do because I was plugged into a tank and then given pin-point directions as to where your flaws are by an AI,” Jace replied dryly.
“On the contrary, the AI--two AIs, in fact--are a part of you. They are as much a part of you as my greater strength and speed are,” Khoth answered with a shrug. “We are all given various advantages and disadvantages.”
“But what I have wasn’t earned,” Jace told him with a shake of his head.
“We were not dueling to determine who has earned the win. We were dueling to determine your abilities in a fight against an opponent that is far superior to yourself,” Khoth reminded him.
Jace’s lips twitched. “Far superior, huh?”
“Yes, it is simple biology, Jace. Thaf’ell are superior to humans in our strength, speed and intellect,” Khoth told him.
That had Jace curling over. Khoth feared the young man was in pain. But those intriguing eyes were filled with mirth when Jace sat up again. He was laughing so hard that tears appeared in them. He wiped them away.
“Oh, man, and here I was worried that you would take losing badly!” Jace teased.
“I have no doubts about my abilities. I am quite--”
“Superior? Yes, I know. And you’re right. You’re amazing. The AIs just leveled the playing field a little bit,” Jace said with a nod.
“But now that I know that particular move you made, I shall not make the same mistake twice in our next training session,” Khoth informed him.
Jace’s eyebrows rose. “You want to duel again?”
“Of course. Do you think you have nothing to learn from me or Thammah or others?” Khoth asked.
Jace blinked. “Oh, I--I think I have tons to learn!” The young man then looked up at him through dark lashes as he added, “Especially from you though.”
“Then we shall train every cycle,” Khoth told him with a firm nod, feeling that heat again from examining this time Jace’s eyes and not his nude body.
A smile curled Jace’s full lips, which had Khoth staring at them for too long before Jace said, “Sounds like a plan.”
Now those lips were devouring sandwiches at an alarming rate, but Jace’s color was even better than before, his movement crisper, and his eyes brighter. Perhaps the brightness came from his belief that Khoth was going to take food away from him again though.
“Jace, maybe you and I could talk alone for a moment?” Captain Parker asked, his eyes meaningfully going to Khoth then Thammah.
“Anything you want to say can be said in front of them,” Jace said as he ate another sandwich. The “them” was himself and Thammah.
The Flight-Commander grinned as she settled back against a wall to listen to whatever information Captain Parker wished to impart.
Captain Parker grimaced. “I don’t think you fully understand that--”
“That the Alliance hasn’t really been our friend? That Khoth and Thammah could be ordered to grab me and take me to Haseon? Yeah, I know, but that’s not going to happen,” Jace told his father as he finished the last sandwich and gave the plate a sad look.
“How can you be so sure that Khoth’s mom won’t order us to dump you in the back of a spaceship and take you to Haseon?” Thammah asked.
“Because I’m going to prove to her that I’m better off as a free agent. Besides, the Osiris and Gehenna wouldn’t let you guys,” Jace said with a shrug.
“I notice you didn’t put the US Military in that,” Captain Parker said.
“Won’t get that far. Because if you thought I had some moves, Gehenna and the Osiris far outstrip me.” Jace sipped yet another Coke before continuing, “And that’s not what you want to tell me about anyways. You’re worried about our side. About the general. That’s why Mom has been in there with him, going through every weapon, instead of checking on me.”
Captain Parker blinked. “How do you know that?”
“I could say that I’m just that smart, but… it’s Gehenna.” Jace tilted his head towards the squid who was hovering behind the general and his mother as they went through the holographic catalogue of weapons and armor. “She’s telling me everything they are saying. Plus, she can read body language… well, sometimes. I’m helping her with that.”
Captain Parker snorted. “It’s amazing for something that big that she still seems to be able to hide.”
Gehenna was between two of the gun racks, but she was being quiet, if not looming.
“I know, right? Thing is she’s got a total crush on Mom, but she’s afraid Mom hates her and will never forgive what happened with me,” Jace said as he drained his first Coke and popped open another one.
Khoth really had to find out what was in that drink.
“Crush? Gehenna has crushes?” Captain Parker looked a little stunned.
Jace nodded. “She’s really cute about it. But, anyways, I know you’re worried. You don’t exactly need to be, because it's not just you and Mom protecting me.”
“We will keep you safe as well, Jace,” Khoth said stoutly.
He was rewarded by a smile. “I know. We’ll figure this out. We just haven’t had time…”
Jace looked down at his Coke can and bit his lower lip. Khoth wondered what he was thinking.
His whole existence has seemingly been changed. He has not had a moment to accept this.
Jace drew in a breath and looked up, smiling. “Well, I feel better. A lot better. So we should head out to the Khul ships, Khoth.”
Captain Parker came over to his son and grasped his biceps. “Jace, you just had a moment of--”
“I was hungry. Thirsty. Low blood sugar. It was stupid to not realize what that feeling was earlier,” Jace said quickly. “We need to… to help those people.”
“Jace.” Captain Parker’s jaw tightened. “I don’t know… if I want this for you.”
Jace nodded. “I know. But it is me.”
“I just want you to have time--”
“I know. Me too.” Jace let out a faint laugh. “But, Dad, people are suffering and I can stop that.”
Khoth approved of Jace’s words, but like Captain Parker, he suddenly wished Jace to remain behind and rest.
“Jace, I can go with Thammah and send the images back to you and the others,” Khoth found himself saying.
Thammah’s huge eyes told him what he had just said was unexpected, but that she approved. That, undoubtedly, meant his mother would not approve. Was he breaking the rule again?
But Jace saved him from himself. The young man shook his head.
“No, Khoth, I’m going with you,” Jace said. “We’re doing this together.”
Khoth inclined his head slowly.
“Okay, Osiris,” Jace said to the room about them as he rubbed his hands together. “We’re going to need some equipment and weapons. Impress us.”