This is not a love story.
It is my life, and as such, there is love, loss, war, death, and sacrifice. It’s about things that needed to be done and choices made. I regret nothing.
It’s easy to say that. Harder to mean it. Sometimes I look back on the branching paths I took to wind up here, and I wonder if there was another road, an easier road, that ends somewhere else. Yet it all boils down to a promise.
That’s why I’m on La’heng, after all.
The La’hengrin have been enslaved too long. It’s time to change the status quo.
But after six months of futile appointments and following procedure, I’m ready to tear my hair out. Instead, I sit obediently outside the legate’s office, as if this meeting will turn out any different. The Pretty Robotics assistant monitors me with discreet glances, as if the VI has been programmed to see how long people will wait before storming off in a fit of rage. So far, I’ve been here for four hours. I hear a door open and close down the hall, and I recognize the legate as he tries to slide by me.
It is around lunchtime, so I push to my feet. “How lovely of you to make it a social occasion,” I purr, falling into step with Legate Flavius.
He’s caught the assignment to deal with all of our appeals, which makes me think he pissed somebody off. His favorite tactic is avoidance, but since I’ve caught him, he can’t dismiss me without calling for a centurion to eject me from the premises, and I have a legal right to be here. In fact, I have some grounds for a discrimination suit since he made an appointment, then refused to honor it, as he wouldn’t do to a Nicuan citizen.
“Come along, Ms. Jax,” he says with weary resignation.
“There’s a place nearby that does an excellent salad, and they have truly superior wine. None of the local shite.”
Fantastic, so he’s a snob, and he thinks nothing on La’heng could be as good as what they import from elsewhere. I make a note of that and walk beside him, mentally lining up my arguments. He makes polite, strained small talk on the way to the restaurant, which is atop one of the towering structures nearby. The floor rotates slowly, granting a luxurious view first of the harbor, then the governor’s palace in the distance. In Jineba, the buildings are like Terran trees, where the rings reveal their age; you can judge a structure’s age by the architectural style and which conquerors designed it. The Nicuan occupation results in a series of colonial buildings, where pillars and columns mask the modern heart.
The penthouse dining room shares that quality, and there are La’hengrin workers instead of bots. They take our orders with quiet humility, and I loathe their subservience because someone has ordered them to labor here. It wasn’t a choice, and they don’t receive wages. Whatever the nobles call it, this is slavery. Since human interference on La’heng, this has been the situation on their homeworld; their “protectors” have not treated them well. Over the turns, La’heng has changed hands multiple times—sold off like a corporate asset—and currently, Nicuan nobles hold the power. They treat the planet like a vacation colony, complete with native serfs.
Legate Flavius orders for us without asking what I want. To a man like him, I suppose it doesn’t matter. Once the niceties are attended, he steeples his hands and regards me across the white-linen-covered table. “Make your case, then.”
“Under the Homeland Health Care Act, ratified by the human board of directors in 4867, the natives of La’heng have the right to the best possible treatments, including and not limited to experimental medications. Carvati’s Cure ameliorates damage created by widespread exposure to RC-17.” When humanity seeded the atmosphere with a chemical that was meant to keep the La’hengrin compliant, we didn’t factor for their adaptive physiology. It’s been centuries now, and the effects linger still. “Therefore, the Nicuan council actively prohibits a treatment that will improve quality of life for the La’hengrin, which is unlawful according to article thirty-seven, codicil—”
The legate sighs faintly. “Yes, you’ve inundated my office with claims about your miracle drug. Unfortunately, you haven’t passed licensing through the drug administration. As I recall, there have been no trials. What kind of monsters would we be if we permitted you to use the La’heng to test your product?”
The kind who makes the La’hengrin your slaves, like the ones you have at home.
I grind my teeth, holding the retort. “We applied for permits to begin trials three months ago. They were denied due to lack of residency requirements.”
On Nicu Tertius, the slave trade is legal. There’s also a complicated caste system and petty aristocracy constantly warring for the emperor’s purple robes. Many nobles posted on La’heng exude a smug superiority that grates on my nerves. This legate is no exception, and it taxes my patience to deal with him.
Flavius smiles. “Ah, yes. Unfortunately, you must achieve residency on La’heng before you can expect to receive rights that come with citizenship.”
I want to come across the table and punch him in the face. Instead, I bite my inner lip until I taste copper. The pain focuses my anger into a laser.
“I applied for citizenship,” I say carefully. “And my request was denied.”
The unctuous smile widens. “I did see that. Your regrettable past makes you rather…undesirable, Ms. Jax.”
“As if the business with Farwan wasn’t questionable enough, your military career ended in a rather colorful fashion, did it not? To whit, charges of mass murder, dereliction of duty, and high treason.”
“I was acquitted. It’s illegal to deny me services due to crimes the court judged I did not commit.”
“Hm,” he says, feigning concern. “Well, feel free to appeal within the Conglomerate courts. Since we are, at least in the tertiary sense, subject to their laws and jurisdictions, if they deem our denial to violate your rights as a Conglomerate citizen in good standing, then we will certainly reconsider the decision.”
He knows that will take turns, damn him. Turns to appeal the rejection. Turns to get another application approved. Then I’ll have to start over with the permissions to initiate drug trials. They’re trying to kill the resistance with blocks and delays.
Holding my temper with sheer willpower, I say, “So you allege that you’re denying progress with the cure for the good of the La’heng.”
There’s that awful, hateful smile again. “Certainly. We take our duty as their protectors very seriously.”
“Sure you do.” I shove back from the table and stalk away. There’s no way I’m spending another minute with this jackass, now that I know it’s another dead end. In the past six months, I’ve met countless trifling bureaucrats who get off on jerking people around. The Nicuan Empire is full of stunted dictators who have secret dreams of being the emperor, and so they rule their tiny department with an iron fist. The fact that they’ve been sent to La’heng often only increases their despot tendencies. They fall into two categories: those who want to be here because the rules are more lax and those who have been exiled for some transgression. The latter tend to be the most difficult.
Inwardly seething, I depart the restaurant and make my way down to the street. Public transport carries me to the house Vel bought, which serves as our headquarters. Once I hop off the tram, I walk some distance as well. We’re off the beaten track for obvious reasons. As I trudge the last kilometer, I reflect that Vel can try to reason with a**holes like Flavius. Vel may prove harder to block as he lacks my tarnished reputation. He was a bounty hunter known for his compliance with all regulations, then he commanded the Ithtorian fleet to great personal acclaim. But it’s so fragging disheartening to think of starting over; it would mean refilling all the paperwork, permissions, and applications in his name.
And maybe there’s no point.
My old friend, Loras, with whom I have a complicated relationship, woven of mingled affection and guilt, thinks going through channels is a monumental waste of time, but he let me do it while he puts other plans in place. Sometimes I can’t believe it’s been so long since we first met; he was part of the crew that broke me out of the Farwan prison cell on Perlas Station, and for a short while, I owned him, which was pretty horrifying. Then I left him to die, which was worse. I feel like I owe him, in addition to caring about his cause.
But rebellions aren’t born overnight. They foment over time with careful nurturing, and while I waste my time with Nicuan officials, Loras is working other angles. By the time I give up the whole thing as untenable, he’ll be ready to move. In a way, I’m his stalking horse. While they’re screwing with me, the nobles won’t expect problems from any other quarter.
“How did it go?” Vel asks, when I walk in. He gets back from flight school before I finish up my work in the city, and it’s nice to have him waiting. Before coming to La’heng, we agreed that we’ll explore the galaxy together, once our business here is complete. To make that happen, I need a pilot; he needs a navigator. Symbiotic.
An Ithtorian exile, he’s over two meters tall, covered in chitin, with hinged legs, and my mark on his thorax, a character that means grimspace in Ithtorian. His side-set eyes and expressive mandible no longer seem strange to me though people on La’heng sometimes stare if he’s out of faux-skin.
“For shit,” I mutter. “Who I am is actually working against us. Or at least, they’re using my past to block my petitions.”
When we first met on Gehenna, Vel had taken a job to retrieve me for Farwan Corporation. He slid into a friend’s skin and figured out a way to get me to go to New Terra with him willingly. That could’ve ended badly for me. Fortunately, Vel was as honorable a bounty hunter as he is in every other regard, and once he realized the Corp was using me as a scapegoat, he became my biggest ally. Now, he’s my dearest friend…with nuances of something else, maybe, someday. But he doesn’t look for promises any more than I’m looking to make our relationship more complicated. His mere presence defuses some of the tension and frustration that comes with the territory. He’s always supported me, believing the best of me even when I screw up, even when I don’t deserve it.
I shrug. “Loras warned us it would be like this, but…I’m not used to such abject, consistent failure. I keep thinking I’ll stumble on the magic handshake and get somewhere with these a**holes.”
He crosses to me and runs his claws down my back, more comforting than it sounds. “It is unlikely.”
“I know.” My mouth sets into a firm line. “They’ll regret it. Someday.”
“You gave them a chance to do the right thing. They are more interested in maintaining their own luxurious lifestyles. I shall not care when we raze them to the ground.”