This is not a love story.
It is my life, and as such, there is love, loss, war, death, and sacrifice. Its about things that needed to be done and choices made. I regret nothing.
Its 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.
Thats why Im on Laheng, after all.
The Lahengrin have been enslaved too long. Its time to change the status quo.
But after six months of futile appointments and following procedure, Im ready to tear my hair out. Instead, I sit obediently outside the legates 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, Ive 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.
Hes 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 Ive caught him, he cant 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 wouldnt do to a Nicuan citizen.
Come along, Ms. Jax,” he says with weary resignation.
Where are we going?”
Theres a place nearby that does an excellent salad, and they have truly superior wine. None of the local shite.”
Fantastic, so hes a snob, and he thinks nothing on Laheng 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 governors palace in the distance. In Jineba, the buildings are like Terran trees, where the rings reveal their age; you can judge a structures 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 Lahengrin 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 wasnt a choice, and they dont receive wages. Whatever the nobles call it, this is slavery. Since human interference on Laheng, this has been the situation on their homeworld; their protectors” have not treated them well. Over the turns, Laheng has changed hands multiple timessold off like a corporate assetand 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 doesnt matter. Once the niceties are attended, he steeples his hands and regards me across the whitelinencovered table.
Make your case, then.”
Under the Homeland Health Care Act, ratified by the human board of directors in 4867, the natives of Laheng have the right to the best possible treatments, including and not limited to experimental medications. Carvatis Cure ameliorates damage created by widespread exposure to RC17.” When humanity seeded the atmosphere with a chemical that was meant to keep the Lahengrin compliant, we didnt factor for their adaptive physiology. Its been centuries now, and the effects linger still. Therefore, the Nicuan council actively prohibits a treatment that will improve quality of life for the Lahengrin, which is unlawful according to article thirtyseven, codicil”
The legate sighs faintly. Yes, youve inundated my office with claims about your miracle drug. Unfortunately, you havent 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 Laheng to test your product? ”
The kind who makes the Lahengrin 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. Theres also a complicated caste system and petty aristocracy constantly warring for the emperors purple robes. Many nobles posted on Laheng 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 Laheng 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.”
Excuse me?” I bite out.
First, Farwan Corporation charged you with terrorism”
Those accusations were entirely baseless,” I snap.
As if the business with Farwan wasnt 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. Its 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 Ill have to start over with the permissions to initiate drug trials. Theyre trying to kill the resistance with blocks and delays.
Holding my temper with sheer willpower, I say, So you allege that youre denying progress with the cure for the good of the Laheng.”
Theres 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. Theres no way Im spending another minute with this jackass, now that I know its another dead end. In the past six months, Ive 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 theyve been sent to Laheng 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. Were off the beaten track for obvious reasons. As I trudge the last kilometer, I reflect that Vel can try to reason with assholes 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 its so fragging disheartening to think of starting over; it would mean refilling all the paperwork, permissions, and applications in his name.
And maybe theres 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 cant believe its 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 arent 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, hell be ready to move. In a way, Im his stalking horse. While theyre screwing with me, the nobles wont 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 its nice to have him waiting. Before coming to Laheng, we agreed that well 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, hes over two meters tall, covered in chitin, with hinged legs, and my mark on his thorax, a character that means grimspace in Ithtorian. His sideset eyes and expressive mandible no longer seem strange to me though people on Laheng sometimes stare if hes out of fauxskin.
For shit,” I mutter. Who I am is actually working against us. Or at least, theyre using my past to block my petitions.”
I am sorry, Sirantha.”
When we first met on Gehenna, Vel had taken a job to retrieve me for Farwan Corporation. He slid into a friends skin and figured out a way to get me to go to New Terra with him willingly. That couldve end 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, hes my dearest friend . . . with nuances of something else, maybe, someday. But he doesnt look for promises any more than Im looking to make our relationship more complicated. His mere presence defuses some of the tension and frustration that comes with the territory. Hes always supported me, believing the best of me even when I screw up, even when I dont deserve it.
I shrug. Loras warned us it would be like this, but . . . Im not used to such abject, consistent failure. I keep thinking Ill stumble on the magic handshake and get somewhere with these assholes.”
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. Theyll 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.”
His quiet assessment of their prospects makes me laugh, partly his calm tone, and partly because that day seems so far off. But Im capable of playing the long game, as the Nicuan will discover.