CHAPTER FORTY-SIX: WHICH KHOTH
Khoth’s Xi and Xa had been in the best balance ever since his sister’s death when he had left Jace. He was practically buoyant. He could still see that irresistibly sweet smile on Jace’s face as he had gone out the door. Jace was still in bed. He had dozens of holo-screens with all the potential human crew members surrounding him. There was a bag of pretzels on the one side of him and salad on the other. Khoth had insisted on the salad.
“Eventually everything I eat will be made of space paste so I guess I can eat junk food all the time then since it will be the same as a salad,” Jace had said as he mournfully looked at the greens.
Khoth had leaned in and kissed his temple. “Your body needs something other than carbohydrates to work optimally.”
Jace had sighed theatrically but had accepted the kiss eagerly, even earning a second one by eating some of the salad. “So while I am picking some human crewmates, what are you up to?”
“I must go see Thammah,” Khoth explained.
Jace’s eyes widened, but then he flashed a grin. “That’s good. You guys need to be on the same page again. Uhm, that means--”
“That we are friends?”
“Yeah, exactly. I think she’ll understand what you did and why,” Jace assured him.
“I hope you are right.”
“I definitely am. Thammah loves you.”
Khoth had felt a momentary qualm then. Humans used the word “love”with such abandon. Was Jace doing that now? He hoped not.
“What are the criteria for your choices of crewmates?” Khoth asked, distracted by one of the holograms that floated near him.
It was for a human female, aged 47-years-old, who was a science fiction writer. Not a scientist. Not a military person. Khoth frowned.
“Oh, you know, people that will mesh with our mission,” Jace answered with a wave of his hand.
“I think that the parameters you have given General Intoshkin are not being followed then,” Khoth said as he studied yet another of the submissions.
This one was a human male architect. It specifically highlighted his interests in Star Trek. He went to conventions, did something called cos-playing, and even wrote articles for fanzines about alien architecture.
“Oh, these aren’t from Intoshkin. All his are military,” Jace said.
“I would imagine so as those are the types of people you need,” Khoth stated even as he felt Thaf’ell soldiers would be better.
“Well, we will have some of those, but that’s not really all who we need,” Jace said. “I had the Osiris look for other types of people out there. People who don’t even know about us yet.”
Khoth checked another of the floating submissions. This one was a female medical physician, which would have some usefulness for the human crew, though he guessed that the Osiris would have plenty of facilities to assist with human biology.
“She would be a useful addition,” Khoth indicated the doctor.
Jace glanced up. “Oh, yeah, she’s really into imagining alien biology.”
“But she is a human doctor. Her usefulness would be for that,” Khoth objected.
“That’s another small point in her favor,” Jace agreed and nodded as he continued to peruse the other--to Khoth seemingly--inappropriate submissions.
“Ah, perhaps we should go over these together when I get back from seeing Thammah,” Khoth suggested.
“Sure, I’d like that.” Jace looked up and grinned at him. He waggled his eyebrows. “But I like doing anything with you.”
“As do I with you.” Khoth kissed him again.
And I will be able to guide him towards more appropriate selections, Khoth thought.
Yet Jace’s confidence in Thammah’s love and his worthiness of it buoyed him only so far. His balance had deteriorated completely on his way to the hanger bay. His palms were sweating. His left eye was twitching. And he continually paced before the door to the hanger bay. He had never behaved this way before. Well, that wasn’t true.
He had been in a similar state before he learned if he had been accepted into Haseon’s Flight Academy. Daesah hadn’t even laughed at his lack of balance, but instead had hugged him tightly and assured him that he was worthy and would get in. She had been right. But she was not here now to tell him that he could repair things with Thammah. What he had said had hit at the core of her. It was meant to scar her and make her wish to avoid him. Could that be undone?
He paced. And paced some more. He thought about going back to Jace’s quarters and helping with crew selection. That might be better. He paced some more. He was careful not to step near enough that the sensor opened the door. He imagined it opening and shutting as he paced. That would have looked ridiculous. But was it not ridiculous already? Thammah would be laughing at him. He would actually have become less nervous if she did. For that meant she could not be so angry as to never establish their friendship again.
A message appeared on the comm on his forearm. It was from Thammah. You can stop lurking out there. I am done with Jack’s flying lesson.
She was most definitely laughing at him. He tried to hope that his supposition was right that meant she wasn’t irretrievably against him.
Squaring his shoulders, he entered the hanger bay. Thammah and Jack were by the Kryptoria II. Jack had a broad smile on his handsome face. His cheeks were suffused with color and his eyes were bright. Khoth knew this look. It was the same look that appeared on Jace’s face when he was excited and happy.
Like father, like son.
Jack flashed that smile at him as he caught sight of Khoth. He was dressed in a smart black flightsuit. It was a new design that the Osiris had evidently come up with.
“How was your first lesson, Captain Parker?” Khoth asked.
“It was amazing, Commander.” Jack beamed.
“Jack is a natural,” Thammah enthused.
“I have a very good teacher.” Jack flashed another grin.
“I sent you a list of the manuals you should review.” Thammah checked her comm, flicking through holographic menus to make sure she had marked everything of interest. “But I’m a big believer in hands-on learning. I recommend that you spend as much time as possible in the flight simulator.”
“Sounds like a plan, Flight-Commander.” Jack gave her a salute.
Thammah rolled her eyes, but then said, “Dismissed. We’ll meet tomorrow at 0800 to continue.”
Another salute and Jack was off, jogging out of the hanger bay. Both of them watched him go. Only when he was out of sight did they speak.
“How was his performance truly?” Khoth asked.
He assumed she had said “natural” in order to avoid actually grading Jack’s performance in a way that might put him in a bad light with Khoth. So he wasn’t expecting her reaction.
Thammah let out a sharp laugh. “You’re expecting me to say not as good as the worst Thaf’ell’s, aren’t you? So typical.”
“Is that accurate?” Khoth lifted an eyebrow even as he felt like was in a field filled with landmines all of a sudden.
“No.” Thammah shook her head and headed into the Kryptoria II without asking her to accompany him.
He paused a moment before following her up the gangway. Had she not asked to speak with him? Why was she seemingly moving away from him? Perhaps her Xi and Xa were still out of alignment from their fight like he feared. She could not see him without remembering his cruel words. He stood awkwardly at the top of the gangway while she moved around inside.
“Jack is already a skilled pilot,” she said after noticing him standing there. She did not invite him in. “He’s just learning a new starcraft.”
“In a new medium as well. Space is different from Earth’s atmosphere,” Khoth pointed out.
“Well, Jace already let him pilot his ship to the Moon,” she said. “So he’s picking it up pretty quickly.”
Khoth frowned. Jace hadn’t mentioned that. But there were always the ship’s systems to take over if Jack made a mistake.
As if reading his mind she added, “And Jack didn’t make any mistakes requiring the ship to take over. I reviewed his flight and he did well then too. Like I said earlier: he’s a natural.”
She headed over to the sleeping area in the ship. A pass of her hand over a sensor and the bed slid out from the wall. She sat down on it and began to take her boots off. Khoth lifted another eyebrow. He had forgotten that she was using the Kryptoria as her berth instead of living in the quarters the Osiris had assigned her.
“Will you be using your quarters at any point?” he asked.
“I will, but I’ll be spending most of my time training new pilots. Easier to be here all the time. Maximizes the amount of time I have with them and for myself,” she explained.
“You anticipate being very busy. But that will only be the case if Jace does not bring in Thaf’ell pilots,” Khoth remarked.
Thammah froze in the middle of what she was doing and stared at him for a long time before saying, “Jack saved both of us the other day with a jerry-rigged aircraft that is primitive at best.”
“His actions were useful, but if we had other Thaf’ell pilots perhaps we could have saved your ship,” he said.
Her stare got harder, which almost had him shifting from foot to foot. “If you want honesty about who I would rather fly with, I would rather have Jack than the Thaf’ell’s best pilots as my wingman.”
“That is illogical. Please explain why,” Khoth requested as he stood before her, arms crossed at the wrists at his lower back.
She gave him a jaundiced gaze. “You going to hawk over me, Commander? Or will you sit down and stay awhile?”
She waved her hand over a second sensor and a chair emerged. Khoth hesitated a minute before he sat down. This had potentially become a discussion between Commander and Flight-Commander rather than Khoth and Thammah.
“Will you answer my question? I am concerned that you would make such an illogical choice regarding who to take into battle,” he said with a frown.
She let out another sharp laugh. “Oh, boy, this is going to be a really fun time with you and a crew of non-Thaf’ell. And don’t you arch your eyebrow at me, Khoth!”
He was arching an eyebrow, but he let it drop back into place. “From your tone and words, I am to infer you think I will not perform optimally with our crew?”
She rubbed her face with both hands and let out a breath as if to steady her Xi and Xa. “Every species comes to us with pluses and minuses, right? You would agree to that, yes?”
“In certain situations, a species’ pluses will outweigh another species’ pluses, could they not?” she asked as she brought down her hands and gazed at him almost beseechingly.
He was following her. “I see that as logical generally, but not in your choice regarding wishing to have a human--”
“Jack. I said Jack. I didn’t say a human. Him in particular. Him for certain. Though other humans might do just as well if not better, but I think those who did better would be rare,” she clarified.
“He is the father of the Pilot, but other than that I am not seeing his individual qualifications as being all that much greater than a normal human’s,” Khoth admitted.
Thammah was looking at him rather sadly. “Jack has great instincts.”
“Instincts are not truly quantifiable or to be counted upon--”
“He’s got massive empathy. He won’t leave another soldier in danger if he can help,” she continued as if he had not spoken. “He’s brave by default. He’ll take extraordinary risks to save others.”
Khoth was comparing these traits to Jace. They were very similar. But Jace was the Pilot with all the power and abilities that entailed. Jack was just a human. He decided to give that voice.
“I concede that there are admirable qualities in a warrior. Jace shares many, if not all of them, with his father. But Jace is also the Pilot,” Khoth said.
Now it was Thammah’s turn to lift an eyebrow. She smiled in a challenging way as she asked him, “Do you think what makes Jace special is the Osiris or Gehenna?”
Khoth opened his mouth to say “yes” but then closed it. Because there was a tug inside of him that said “no”.
“Do you think Jace’s body makes him special?” she pressed.
Again, he knew that Jace’s specialness did not stem from any one singular quality. It was almost undefinable. Jace was the Pilot. He inhabited that role so fully and without any doubt that it was hard to explain what singular thing about him was greater than any other. But all of these traits together were part of what made Jace special.
Khoth began, “Logically, Jace--”
“No, no, no.” Thammah waved her hands as if waving off his logic as if it was a physical thing. “What does your Xi tell you about Jace?”
“But isn’t what my Xa assesses of Jace’s abilities more important?” he asked.
“Your Xa will list things like the AIs and the information they provide him or the improvement to his body,” she said. “But those things--while important--are not what truly sets Jace apart. Your Xi knows this.” She touched the center of his chest. “Just like my Xi knows that I can trust Jack down to my bones. I will go into battle with him at my side without any doubts or fears that he will let me down. I know I can do what needs to be done and Jack will back me up.”
“I see you believe this,” Khoth said with a nod. “You are training him. You can best assess his piloting and your--your comfort level with him.” He still did not agree with what she was saying about Jack, but it felt like an argument to have at another time after they had settled old differences. “But it seems we are off track. I came here in the hopes that we could discuss what happened between us when I made the decision to--”
“To… yes, to insult you in order to end our friendship,” he said stiffly.
She snorted. “Which would have protected me as you betrayed the Alliance in your oh so spectacular fashion.”
“Yes, but you have already told me that was in error. You would never have chosen to stay with the Alliance,” he said as her lifted eyebrow went higher. “Yet I do wish to apologize for the insults I--”
“No,” she cut him off.
“No?” he asked, tilting his head to the side.
“No, I won’t let you apologize, because you believed what you said. On some level at least. Maybe the level that you’re leaning into here,” she said.
“That is not true. I indicated by word and deed that I did not respect you. That you were somehow lesser. That I would not ally myself with you,” he stated. “But I do respect you. You are my equal. You are my… friend.”
“You can actually believe two things that are completely opposed to one another at the same time. There should be some dissonance to it, but I think for Thaf’ell it’s quite easy to do,” she said and grabbed a long, red rope and took a bite out of it. She offered him one. “Liquorice?”
“No thank you. Jace already required me to partake of too much of this junk food.” He shook his head and the lack of clacking selchitte sounded louder in here than anywhere else so far.
“We’re indulging while we can though the Osiris is learning to make space paste taste almost like Slim Jims,” she said as she chewed speculatively. “I like my sugar and fat pure.”
Khoth tried to bring the conversation back around again to their disagreement. “Flight-Commander… Thammah, I do not believe those things I said to you in the hangar bay.”
She focused on him. “You’ve changed.”
He blinked, confused by her non sequitur. “Since when?”
“Continually, I think, since Daesah was captured. After that, in human parlance, you had no fucks left to give. You abandoned all the Thaf’ell ways to do what was right,” she said with a crooked smile. “Then you came here and were determined to prove yourself a good Thaf’ell, but then you met Jace. And again, the no-fucks-left-to-give-Khoth came out once more and you did what was right. You discovered your mother’s plot against humanity and this--”
“That is not another Khoth. It is me,” he stated. “I am the same Khoth.”
“I think it is you too. The real you. The you that you would have been if the Thaf’ell training hadn’t gotten to you. The you that you would have been if your mother and father hadn’t been in the positions they were. If they were poets instead of warriors and justiciars,” she said sadly.
“This real me,” he touched his own chest, “does not believe the things I said to you.”
“But the other you, the Khoth-who’s-a-superior-Thaf’ell does believe those things,” she corrected. “That Khoth is still there. It’s what makes you look at Jack and automatically think he’s lesser and that I must have hit my head to want him over two random Thaf’ell pilots.”
“Stop! Oh, by the gods, you must stop with that!” she cried and covered her head as if trying to hide from it herself.
“I do not understand your aversion to my Xa.”
“Because your Xa is aligned with the other Khoth! The Khoth who could think of all those cutting, awful, but true for Thaf’ell things you said to me,” she told him. “That Khoth cannot win out or we’re all in trouble.”
His forehead bunched up. “I do not understand.”
She leaned forward. Her elbows resting on her knees. She put her hands together as if in prayer. “Jace’s whole plan is to create a crew who are not all one thing. Each individual will have pluses and minuses. And he must be able to evaluate those cleanly.”
“My Xa will be very useful in that--”
“Not if it is infected by Thaf’ell superiority!” She shook her head. “Not if your Xa makes you believe what they told you instead of what is really there. Think about what we were told about humans. Is that true of them?”
He grimaced. Of course humanity did have some of the qualities that his mother and the other Thaf’ell painted them with. But those they had exaggerated and they had missed so many other qualities that were good. He knew this. Those who spoke of humans like this, and who had met them, were doing so because they either wanted humanity to be viewed badly by the rest of the Alliance or were simply too blinded to see them otherwise.
He could tell Thammah that people who spoke this way were not using their Xa. But he had assumed they were. He had taken their word for it. Only coming here to Earth and being forced to interact with humanity had changed his mind. But doing those same things hadn’t changed his mother’s.
He regarded her silently. Thammah chewed her liquorice rope and rubbed her feet with the other hand.
Finally, she said, “When Jace asks you for your advice--and he will because he cares for you and respects you--which Khoth will answer?”
He slowly got up. Her eyes were filled with worry, but she didn’t beg him to stay or take back what she’d said.
“The Khoth that will answer,” he said quietly, “is the Khoth that is your friend and is ashamed that any part of him felt anything but respect for you.”
He started to leave, but suddenly Thammah was hugging him. She’d leaped out of bed and thrown her arms around him from behind.
“I know that hugs are for family and mates, but… but I think of you as my family, Khoth,” she whispered against his back. “I don’t expect you to feel the same--”
“I do.” He covered her hands over his chest with one of his own. “You make me a better Thaf’ell.”
She let out a dry bark of laughter. “Oh, by the gods, I hope not.”
He smiled. It was true though. Very true.
Later, when he re-entered Jace’s quarters he found Jace much like he had last seen him: in bed, surrounded by holographic images, but with all the pretzels gone and the salad finished too. Khoth removed the salad bowl and set it on the side table.
“I am pleased you ate something green,” he said.
Jace chuckled. “Yeah, I figured it would earn me kisses later.”
“It does.” Khoth said as he got into bed beside Jace, sliding an arm around his shoulders and kissing his temple.
“So you still want to take a gander at the people I’m considering and give me your thoughts?” Jace asked.
Khoth hesitated and then said, “I would actually like to hear your thoughts on these individuals and why you wish them as members of the crew.”
Jace’s eyebrows lifted, but then he snuggled back down against Khoth and said, “Cool! All right, let’s take Alice Peters. She’s an author.” He spun the holograms in a circle until the human female writer was before them. “I want her and a bunch of other writers from non-fiction to poetry aboard the Osiris to document the journey, the worlds we find and the people we meet.”
“But the Osiris will keep a record of everything,” Khoth pointed out.
Jace nodded. “It will keep a record of cold, hard facts, but artists make that come alive for people reading what they’ve written. They convey more than just the facts. They convey what matters. Ms. Peters’ works show she has a hunger for space exploration, which she likely thinks she can never experience. Now, if she agrees to come if we decide to invite her, she’ll be able to share that with her work.”
“I see. But non-combat personnel will be in danger, Jace. Our mission is to destroy the Khul,” Khoth reminded him gently.
“They won’t be pilots or going into Hives. But yes, there’s still danger, and they will be told all about it so they can consent. But the danger and why we’re doing what we’re doing will be important to capture,” Jace explained. “If we’re successful then we can share this with people down the line of generations. If we aren’t… then we’ll be a different kind of lesson.”
Khoth considered this. “Our artists have long reflected the war in their creations. But they are only allowed second-hand accounts and so their work has become more tenuous.”
“Exactly, the artists, some of them anyways, need to be here. With us,” Jace explained.
“What about the architect?” Khoth asked.
“We’re going to be visiting alien worlds, many with Precursor architecture. We need people who can understand what they did in order to recreate it and also meld it with the styles we have now,” Jace answered. “Again, he’s another lover of the idea of exploring space. He has dreamed of alien worlds since he was a kid. The sheer joy and awe he will bring with him will translate into what he takes back to Earth.”
“And the doctor?”
“Obviously, the Osiris can handle most human medical conditions without even speaking to the crew member. But I think a doctor will help people feel better. Someone to talk to when things are new and exciting and frightening and stressful,” Jace said. “Obviously, she’ll learn new techniques for helping humans and other species. It will grow humanity’s knowledge hugely.”
“And she, too, has dreamed of space?” Khoth asked.
“Now I understand what you are looking for in part of the crew,” Khoth said with a slow nod. “These things are not what I would have ever considered.”
“You don’t think it’s wise to bring civilians aboard this craft when we’re on a war footing, I know, and I--”
“Yes, I have concerns on that, but… you are opening my eyes to other pluses about having such different individuals with us,” Khoth said and smiled faintly.
Jace snuggled against him. “I’m… glad. I thought I’d have to argue my case a little more with you.”
“Oh, there are still discussions to be had,” Khoth teased. “But… but I am on your side and my Xi and Xa are open to new ideas.”
Jace wrapped his arms around Khoth. “Thank you, Khoth. You’ve no idea how much that means to me.”
Khoth ran his fingers through Jace’s hair. He was so glad that Thammah had treated him like family and told the truth. He owed her much junk food.