CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT: THE POWER OF SILENCE
Silence was a peculiar thing. It seemed to have physical weight at times even though that was impossible. At others, it felt strangling as if it was an animal at one’s throat. But most times it was a stick that prodded one into unwise speech and action. The silence between himself, his mother and the rest of the Thaf’ell on the dropship had aspects of all three.
It got heavier when they arrived at the Ashaton. It closed off Khoth’s throat as the gangway lowered with a burst of steam clouding the air and obscuring the hanger bay. And yet Khoth thought and discarded half a dozen conversation starters from the moment his feet touched that gangway to the moment they left it.
There was an honor guard forming a line for them to walk down. It struck Khoth as odd at first, because while there had always been efficiency and respect for command on his own vessels, there had never been needless pomp and circumstance. There was simply too much to do to require women and men to stand at attention so that some diplomat’s ego was not bruised. But there were dozens of warriors, three rows deep on either side of the gangway when they emerged. And, despite what had evidently been done with time and care, his mother looked neither right nor left at the warriors who bowed their heads and crossed their arms over their chest in unison.
Jace would likely think this dismissive of the people who serve her, Khoth realized as he seemed to see his people from an outside perspective for once. He told himself though that Jace would be incorrect. She is honoring them by honoring her role as High Councillor for it is not her, personally, they serve but the position.
Yet Khoth still had a niggling feeling that Jace would just say that meant the position then treated those who served dismissively. He could also imagine Thammah cheering Jace on. The faint smile on his lips caused his mother to cock an eyebrow at him. He quickly smoothed his expression to one of neutrality. But he held onto the happiness that imagining Jace and Thammah brought him. He had a feeling that there would be little else to sustain him from what was to come.
The silence did not end until they entered his mother’s quarters, which were in the center of the Ashaton, the safest place on the ship. It did have its own escape pod, which would send it slingshotting down a tube at a high rate of speed and out of the colossus-class ship.
The guards who had accompanied them were left outside so it was just the two of them in her quarters. But even then she did not speak at once. This was her way. She dealt in silence. It was a sword and shield for her. His father had often said that her silences were more powerful than any words he could ever utter. Khoth was finding that true at the moment as well. But he would not break the silence, because that would automatically have him on the “losing” end of their conversation. And he had a feeling that he needed every “win” he could get with her. What he had done and why he had done it were complicated. He had no idea how to explain his careful consideration of each act.
I did what I felt was right, but that is not an answer that will satisfy her. It did not when I saved Daesah, he thought.
His mother’s quarters were large for a spacecraft, even a colossus-class, but mostly spare to match her tastes. Upon entry there was a circular introduction chamber with a star-shaped pattern on the floor where guests would wait before being ushered into the command quarters. In the command quarters, there was a large desk that allowed her to access all ship systems and three chairs.
The walls were currently a soft orange like morning skies on Haseon. There was a large clear screen mounted on one that showed their planet with its sun just about to rise over the horizon. The walls’ color would change with that sun’s position as if they were on the planet.
Everything here--and not just here--relates to Haseon, Khoth realized and it disturbed him.
Shouldn’t his mother be streaming Earth since it was orbiting below them? It would help with the time lag that many suffered from when going through far gates. But no, it was Haseon time and it would always be Haseon time no matter where they were.
He followed his mother into the command quarters. The floor was a deep blue, the same color as their ta’na. It was polished to a high shine and it reminded Khoth of water. He half expected to fall in at any moment. She rounded the desk and seated herself on the executive side while he stood between the two other chairs, waiting for her permission to sit.
The one “frivolity” in the room was a glass bowl on the right side of the desk that held two hasker fishes. They had luminous bodies the color of new kelp and often appeared to be kissing. They were a gift from Daesah. She’d found them on a nameless world and given them to their mother as an almost kind of joke. Two fishes constantly kissing was the least thing his mother would have. Yet she gave it pride of place. It was the only personal thing she kept onboard.
There was a sleeping chamber to his left and an entertaining chamber to his right. Both of those rooms were closed. But he knew that they would contain no other personal things. It could have been because his mother rarely left Haseon these days. Why would she keep anything onboard when she would hardly ever see it or be able to use it? But she was this spare at home, too. If his father, Daesah and himself hadn’t brought warmth and character into their dwelling and left it to their mother to decorate, it would have been as bare as this.
What would Jace think of her if he saw this space? Khoth found himself wondering. Would he just be so awed to be in a spaceship that he wouldn’t look deeper? No, he would notice the lack of things. He would make a judgment about it. He’d probably be concerned for her and want to cheer her up. Just like Daesah...
“You can sit, Khoth,” his mother said and from her tone he realized she had offered this more than once and he’d been so deep into his daydreaming that he had not heard her.
He immediately sank down onto one of the chairs. His stomach clenched as he realized that such inattention was worse than if he had spoken first. He could not be distracted for this meeting. He could not risk being sent away, though Jace had offered him an independent commission on the Osiris. But he had never seriously considered it. He was Alliance through and through. He just had to convince his mother that he was the person for this job. That he hadn’t messed things up so badly. That this was a benefit for all of them and he must be allowed to see it through. The thought of not seeing Jace again was… He couldn’t fully capture it, but his Xi seemed to shrivel in on itself.
She told Jace that she would “return” me to him. So, hopefully, no matter what happens during this meeting she will keep that promise, Khoth thought.
“You need not worry that I will keep you long,” she said, smiling as she took in his erect posture that seemed to indicate he wanted to leap out of the chair and race back to Earth. “I can tell you have much on your mind.”
The question was if she guessed what was on his mind. Or rather who. He cared for Jace’s well being, because he was… a person. Like one would care for any comrade that had gone through an experience like they had. It was no deeper than that. But he kept envisioning Jace smiling at him in the kitchen. He’d not enjoyed himself that much in… in a very long time. So long, he couldn’t remember when.
“It has been a trying cycle,” he stated neutrally instead of trying to parse out his complicated thoughts about Jace Parker and everything that had happened that day.
She nodded. “When I sent you to Earth, I had hoped to give you time to bring your Xi and Xa into alignment after…” Here she paused and that pause was the same as a scream for someone else, but then forced herself to continued, “After Daesah’s leaving.”
Khoth was relieved she had not used Daesah’s rank when she said her name. This meant that this conversation was between mother and son.
“But, instead,” she continued on, “we have both an opportunity and a threat before us.”
Khoth’s forehead furrowed. “I see the opportunity, but not the threat.”
She actually allowed herself to smile fully. “Yes, I am aware of that. But your exposure to humans has been limited and you have not heard their demands before now..”
He opened his mouth to say that Thammah’s exposure had been far longer and she appeared to quite enjoy them. But his mother would not be impressed with Flight Commander Thammah Pyrrhus’ opinion on anything. And, really, in the past, he would have agreed with her. But he’d flown with Thammah. She had saved his life, not once, but many times. He could see her value, even if she was eccentric to say the least.
“Despite the few sub-cycles I have spent with Jace, I can ascertain that he is nothing like what humanity has been described to me as,” Khoth finally answered to express how he did not agree fully with his mother’s assessment of the species.
“They are an immature, violent and aggressive species. Even if there are individuals among them that might cause some admiration, overall, they are quite dangerous,” his mother countered. “For they see none of their weaknesses, at least not enough to question whether they ought to play a major role in galactic events or leave that to more advanced species who might know better.”
Khoth held his tongue for a moment. How worthy a species was, how advanced, had always been determined by their ability to use Precursor Tech. He pointed that out.
“Jace is the… Pilot. He has access to Precursor Tech at a level that no one else has,” Khoth stated. “It stands to reason that humanity should be a great part of the Alliance, should it not?”
“Jace is only important because of the ship,” his mother countered. “The Osiris is like no other. If it had not crash landed here, it would have taken on a more… appropriate Pilot. But it was clearly desperate and did what it had to do to survive.”
Khoth had no hard data to suggest she was wrong. But he felt she was incorrect. Yet such an argument would be lost before it was begun because it was based upon his gut and not facts.
“If we were to use that as a guiding point, others might say that because Haseon was rich with Precursor Tech is the only reason that the Thaf’ell hold so many important roles. Not because we are truly advanced, but because… of chance,” he said.
His eyes flickered to her to see her expression.
“You are being far more fair minded than I thought you would be about this, Khoth,” she said, tapping her lower lip.
“I am just pointing out the potential hypocrisy of such a statement. We do not know that the Osiris would have bonded with another species. In fact, the Osiris has had opportunities to bond with Thaf’ell and did not,” Khoth simply answered.
“We normally do not send our best to Earth,” she answered with a faint, wry smile. “You were the exception, of course.”
“Thammah is an exceptional pilot. She is being wasted on Earth. Or she was,” Khoth stated loyally.
The wry smile on her mother’s face grew. “She is… unique. That is why she does not get on.”
Khoth was tempted to state that she got on quite well with humans. That humans had “adopted” her into their families for their celebrations and, in general, as their friend. But his mother didn’t think much of humanity’s judgment.
“I have gone on a mission with Jace,” Khoth turned the subject back to the young man. “I observed someone who would impress even you.”
She regarded him carefully for long moments. The silence stretched. “I am glad that you think so highly of him. I believe that it will make your task easier.”
He frowned, but then his heart rate increased. She was going to agree that he should remain with Jace and the Osiris as the Alliance’s representative. Despite everything that had gone so very wrong, the questionable choices he made, all of it, she was going to give him the one thing he wanted.
“The humans wanted to be part of the Alliance before, but now with their Pilot and the Osiris--knowing their arrogance and overreach--they will want to have a seat on the Council itself,” she told him and stabbed a finger against the top of the table.
And he did see. But, unlike his mother, he did not necessarily blame them for their desire to have control over their own destiny. Why should they trust the Alliance to do what was best for them when it had demonstrated again and again that it would not?
“So…” She paused and gazed at him again long and deeply, “we must find a way to keep the Pilot and the Osiris on our side when we deny humanity what it's grasping claws want.”
Khoth held himself very still. Jace had agreed he would help them against the Khul. There was no doubt in Khoth’s Xi of that. But Jace needed assurances in return that Earth would be safe. He said as much to his mother.
“Jace’s greatest concern is the return of the Khul to Earth in retaliation for taking out their ground forces and their Hive,” Khoth told her. “He wants Earth protected. Surely there are some ships we could spare to do that.”
His mother tilted her head. “We would have to take them from somewhere else. Perhaps Obeven, Este or Jint.”
Khoth noted that she did not mention Haseon even though most of the fleet patrolled there. It was the location of the Council and the Thaf’ell homeworld, but it had more than enough ships. He thought of the three worlds she suggested.
“Obeven has only one command there. The colossus-class ship, Afridi, and two saber-class ships, along with a few dozen paladin-class,” Khoth stated. “Este and Jint have even less than that.”
“Your objection?” she asked.
“You are asking for Jace to risk his life for us and leave his planet in our hands,” he said. If we send but a few vessels from each of those worlds, that will hardly be enough. If… no, when Earth is attacked Jace will see our failure to protect his homeworld as a complete breach of trust.”
“We could send them all,” she suggested.
He jolted in his seat, catching himself only at the last moment, but the movement had been seen. “All of those worlds’ ships? But that would leave those planets completely undefended, Mother. You know this. You cannot be serious.”
“They bring little in way of benefit to the Alliance. They are not near strategic gates. It is unlikely that the Khul will attack them,” she said with a shrug, but she was watching him closely even if her other movements suggested otherwise.
“Unlikely? My recollection tells me that each of those planets has suffered over a dozen attacks each over the last grand cycle alone!” Khoth’s voice was rising and he strained to control it.
“So you think we should send resources from other planets instead to protect Earth?” she queried.
“If the Osiris is as important as we think it could be then we should be generous with our protection of Earth,” Khoth stated, controlling his tone. “We should draw down resources from places where there is an excess.”
“We place assets, Khoth, where the members of the Alliance want them,” she reminded him. “If you remove vessels from well-trafficked and fully important worlds there will be bad feelings and dissent.”
“There are places that I can name right now that have excess vessels--”
“You consider it excess, but I assure you those worlds do not. If we were to move those excess ships, we cannot give the humans anything more,” she told him. “We must remain firm that Jace and the Osiris are fully under Alliance control. The humans will be kept safe, but not members of the Alliance, let alone on the Council. That way the other members of the Alliance will accept--grudgingly--the assistance we are giving Earth. It will cost considerable political capital to do even this.”
Khoth realized as she said this that she had not yet told him what his task was and dread filled his belly. “I do not think that Jace will be agreeable to such a deal. It is wholly unfair to Earth.”
“You are likely correct. Unless… Jace had another reason for doing this. A personal reason.”
She put her hands on the table and laced her fingers together then unlaced them then laced them again. This was an uncharacteristic show of nerves. Khoth’s sense of dread deepened.
“I do not know what reason Jace might have to consider this lopsided deal,” Khoth said stiffly.
“I think you do. And that’s why I’m relieved… glad about what I saw regarding your interactions with him earlier,” his mother’s voice was slightly softer.
Khoth straightened. “We are… comrades in arms. He has shown considerable power over his Xi and Xa. He…” Here he paused and swallowed deeply, but decided he would say what he thought in the hopes that it would short circuit whatever plan his mother had that he was certain he would not like and Jace would like even less. “He reminds me of Daesah.”
He had been right that those words would affect her. His mother went silent. Her shoulders sagged. She seemed… exhausted, despairing, and, even defeated for a moment.
“Is he?” she murmured softly.
“Yes, he’s as intuitive as she was. As brave. As determined. He takes risks, but there is always some logic behind them,” Khoth found himself smiling faintly even as his throat constricted, comparing Jace’s actions to his sister’s.
“Then you will not have to pretend to like him,” his mother said with a sort of relief in her voice.
Khoth blinked. “Pretend to…”
“Khoth, it is clear to me that Jace Parker has taken a great interest in you. He depends upon you. He seeks you out, needing your strength and guidance, yes?” his mother asked.
Her voice wasn’t exactly that of the High Councillor, but it wasn’t exactly his mother either.
“He appears to--to appreciate…”
“Your presence comforts him,” she continued on.
“We are just learning one another’s ways,” Khoth answered awkwardly.
Even as he said this, he wondered if Jace was having a good time teaching Jack to fly. And he suddenly wished he could speak to his father then.
“That is good.” She flattened her palms against the table. “I need you to deepen and maintain your relationship with him.”
Khoth blued. He knew what she was suggesting, but he could not believe she was saying it. That she was also his mother and saying it was even more awkward.
“You are suggesting that I… I seduce him so that he will betray whatever his people want to work for the Alliance?” Khoth asked, though really he already knew the answer. “And tell him we cannot… cannot be together if he does not?”
His mother did not disappoint him. “Yes.”
Just yes. No explanation. No telling him how hard it was for her to ask him to do such a thing. Was it hard? Was it easy?
“How far do you wish me to take this… ruse?” he asked.
Would it be a ruse? His mind asked and he slapped that down.
He and Jace were becoming comrades, perhaps even friends. But lovers? Jace was… interesting. He remembered the hug. A simple embrace for a human, but for a Thaf’ell… meant so much more. He had given it to be sure. He had… hardly hesitated. Jace had needed him.
“As far as it needs to go,” his mother answered.
“A physical relationship?” His lips were numb.
“Yes, that would be wise, I think. Humans are very physical creatures. There is research on this that I would encourage you to study it,” she said. “As you already know, they are greatly moved by their Xis. You will need to know how to handle this.”
“I did not say I would do this,” Khoth finally managed to say.
His mother blinked slowly. “Khoth…”
“The reason that a friendship is developing between Jace and I is because we are being… authentic with one another. It is not forced,” Khoth struggled to explain. “He would know if I were… being false with him.”
His mother studied him again and he almost snarled at her, “What? What are you looking for? What are you hoping or fearing to see? Just tell me!”
But he remained silent. He would not let her use this silence as a sword or shield against him. He would ignore it.
“I think you underestimate yourself, my son,” she murmured.
“Perhaps I should rephrase. I will not be false with him,” Khoth stated firmly.
Silence fell again. She broke it with a sigh as her whole posture changed again. She became High Councillor Nova Voor between one moment and the next.
“I am not asking, Commander. This is an order,” she told him, her voice firm and emotionless. “You will do this on behalf of the Alliance.”
He was again stunned into silence. She likely saved him from what he would have said by standing up at that moment to leave. He rose on slightly shaky legs, but she waved him down.
“I have things that I must attend to,” she told him. “You need to compose yourself and prepare. I will want your thoughts on all the humans you have interacted with, but I want a clear view of them myself for our meeting next cycle. I know that you need to return to Jace’s side in any event.”
Khoth sank back down into the chair. She walked past him, heading for the door. At the last moment, she put one hand on his shoulder. Her fingers barely brushed the skin of his neck.
“We all must make sacrifices, Khoth,” she said. “Your sister gave her life. I am just asking for you to--to do what is already in your Xi to do. The Alliance needs Jace Parker and… Jace Parker needs you already.”
“If you really thought that, why not let things take their natural course?” Khoth asked.
“Because nothing can be left to chance these cycles, my son. Things are more dire than you know,” she said.
And then she left and he was alone with the fish in her quarters and a heavier silence than he had ever known.