“It won’t be an issue, sir,” Leana’x said as she stood just behind the Captain’s desk, her hands clasped behind her back in a regulation pose.
Captain Chan stared back at her, one hand clamped on his jaw, the other drumming on his desk. “It better not be an issue,” he said, tone a controlled but warning growl.
Behind Captain Chan stood the recently promoted Commander John Campbell.
Though Leana’x was fresh out of the Academy, she’d heard about him. There were legends about him. And none of them – not a single one – were good.
He had a reputation for breaking ensigns – one that was way worse than Commander Sharpe’s.
Though she knew she should be cowering in front of him, she wasn’t. Not during this conversation, at least.
There were few things in life Leana’x had strong opinions on. This? Her heritage? This was one of them.
“With all due respect, sir, I’m 100th in line for the throne. It would take the complete destruction of the Artaxan Family for me to ever see the position as Prime Queen,” Leana’x said, and her voice didn’t waver at all.
Maybe it should have.
She knew what the Prime did. And though the Coalition thought it had a good enough relationship with the Artaxan Protectorate to understand their ways, they didn’t.
The Artaxan Protectorate dealt with 90% of the information resources of the Coalition. Her people had been bred for that specific task. It was what gave them meaning. To an Artaxan, dealing with information – whether it be collecting it, disseminating it, or hiding it – was what gave them purpose in life. And as for the Artaxan Royal Family? The ruling body of the entire Artaxan Protectorate? They bodily dealt with the information.
That was no colorful analogy. The Prime Queen’s entire physique had been altered on her ascendance to the throne to ensure that every single cell and every single neuron pulsed with the information of the Artaxan Protectorate.
Though it was true that the first 10 or 20 members of the Royal Family were important – and helped the Queen with her enormous task, Leana’x was the 100th in line for the throne.
The 100th. The throne line ended after her.
Captain Chan didn’t look impressed, so Leana’x cleared her throat. “Believe me, Captain, my people wouldn’t have let me join the Academy, let alone join active service, if they… cared,” she managed, and though she hadn’t intended to show any emotion in front of Captain Chan – let alone Commander Campbell – she did. Her voice wavered, if only for a second.
It was enough to piss her off.
Suffice to say, there was absolutely no love lost between Leana’x and the rest of the Royal Family. Why should there be? She was right at the end, the least important member of the Family. While that technically put her above the rest of the citizens of the Artaxan Protectorate, it put her at the absolute bottom of the Royal Family. And considering the Royal Family had a reputation for being aloof and weren’t allowed to be approached by their own people, that left Leana’x on her own.
There’d been a reason she’d joined the Academy – to get away from her people.
So she tilted her head back, let her chin jut out, and faced the Captain just as she had Commander Sharpe or any other bully who had ever gotten in her way. As the 100th, she had plenty of experience with it.
Captain Chan shrugged. “I suppose you have a point. But that’s not what I’m getting at. Though I agree that it is extremely unlikely that your position as,” he darted his eyes down to the data pad in front of him, “100th and last in line for the throne would have much of a bearing on your work here, I’m trying to warn you that any arrogant behavior will not be accepted.”
Leana’x tried to control her reaction, but it was hard. This felt like a slap. While Captain Chan didn’t know her, for God’s sake, he had her file right in front of him. It would tell him she had never acted inappropriately during her career as a cadet. Though the Artaxan Royal Family had a deserved reputation for being arrogant and elitist, as she’d already pointed out, she’d never had that luxury. Leana’x had always been alone.
She tried not to let her jaw harden too much – do that, and Commander Campbell would pick up on it instantly. His gaze was locked on her, his searching violet pupils like two targeting sensors ready to pick up her minutest movement and relay it back to the Captain.
She took a tense breath. “I think – or at least I would hope – that my service record stands for itself. There were no incidents,” she began, then she stopped with a twitch.
She’d been intending to say that there had been no incidents at the Academy during her entire tenure there, but that wasn’t true. During first year, one of the Artaxan lecturers had bowed down to her during class, before ultimately quitting because he didn’t believe he had the right to be anywhere near her. And in third year, one of the ordinary Artaxan recruits had quit for the same reason.
It was Commander Campbell’s turn to clear his throat. “Finish your sentence,” he warned.
Though her natural instinct was to stare at him exactly like you would a prowling predator – or one of the numerous arrogant princes she’d had to deal with through her life – she took a steeling breath instead. “Neither of those incidents were my fault,” she began.
“Two people quit over you, Ensign,” the Captain said.
“I didn’t ask them to.”
“But they did. And, though I specifically brought you here to grill you, you are right – I can see your service record. And on available evidence, you were absolved.”
She looked up, containing her excitement, just as she had been taught to as a child.
“But again,” Captain Chan said as he pulled his hand from his face, locked both of his arms flat on his desk, and leaned forward, “that’s not my point.”
She resisted the urge to swallow. Just as she’d dealt with arrogant, angry men like Commander Campbell before, she’d also dealt with leaders exactly like Captain Chan. Her upbringing as the 100th had given her just the skills she required to excel at the Academy. She had diplomatic and social abilities few did. But she hadn’t bothered to excel. She didn’t want to. Do that, and people would simply question her success. If she ever managed to do anything extraordinary, people would dismiss it, assuming she had cheated her way to the top because of her position as a member of the most powerful royal family in one of the most powerful sovereign states of the Coalition.
Her heritage would haunt her her entire life. If she ever rose through the ranks to become captain, let alone admiral, there’d be no respect there – people would just whisper behind her back like they’d always done.
So Leana’x’s ambitions were checked. They had to be for her own mental well-being. All she wanted to do – all she damn well wanted to do – was to become an engineer. A low-class engineer. The kind who would spend the rest of their lives crawling through tunnels, taking orders, and keeping their desires to explore the galaxy checked.
“With all due respect, sir, what is your point?” she asked. Though someone without her experience would’ve shown utmost deference, she could read the tone of the conversation.
Captain Chan looked right into her gaze. Commander Campbell? He growled, shifted forward, and locked a tense hand on the table. “You’ll speak when spoken to, Ensign. Show some respect,” he snapped.
There was that word again. One she knew she should ignore. Respect.
Could she ignore it?
No. Because from the second she’d walked on board the Hercules and endured Commander Campbell’s ‘welcoming’ of the new recruits, he’d started to rub her up the wrong way. He obviously thought she was incapable of showing respect. Which was a slap in the face.
She’d been wrong before when she’d said she had plenty of experience dealing with men like him. There was a slight difference. Though she’d been able to run away to the Academy to get away from the arrogant princes of the Artaxan Family, she would now be stuck here forever under Campbell’s command.
That didn’t stop her from standing her ground. She swiveled her gaze from Campbell back to the Captain and took a risk. “Forgive me for reading the conversation incorrectly, Captain. However, when you brought me here, you told me to speak informally.”
Campbell opened his mouth with such strength and speed it looked as if his jaw would unhinge and spring across the room.
Captain Chan raised his hand.
Though it didn’t seem possible that there would be anything in this world that would shut Commander Campbell up, let alone pull him back from an imminent attack, Captain Chan’s hand was it.
Leana’x had heard from several of the other chatty ensigns that Chan was a surrogate father of Campbell.
Campbell had lost all of his family during a Barbarian attack 20 years ago on a research facility. Chan had been in charge of the Hercules even then, and it had been the first ship on the scene to the research colony where Campbell had grown up.
Chan, as the story went, had taken a liking to the young Campbell, swept him under his wing, taken him off to the Academy, and taught him everything he knew.
Now Campbell was Chan’s own personal pit bull, not that the Captain would see it that way. Campbell, however, would. Just one look in his eyes, and Leana’x could tell exactly what ran the man – loyalty. Or at least a twisted sense of it. For it was a twisted sense of loyalty that had dogged Leana’x her entire life. It was the twisted loyalty of the third-year recruit and the lecturer at the Academy that had seen them quit, all because they didn’t want to sully her with their presence. It was the twisted loyalty of the Artaxan people as a whole that kept the Royal Family raised up like gods.
And it was a twisted loyalty she had specifically come here to get away from.
With her hands still tightly clasped behind her back and her head still tilted high with measured defiance, she took another step toward the desk. “With all due respect, Captain, you asked me here so that I could put your mind at ease. And the only way I can do that is if I speak freely.” She flicked her gaze toward Campbell just long enough to see he looked ready to explode. “My answer is this. I can’t guarantee how… other members of the Artaxan Protectorate will react to me. I can only guarantee how I will react to them. And hopefully my service record in front of you will confirm that I did not seek the resignation of either Cadet Haioco or Lecturer Jiovo. In fact, I did all I could to ensure they did not quit. I even agreed to a plan that would ensure I did not come in contact with them. I cannot… answer for my culture. I can only try to adjust my life in any way I can,” she said. Unconsciously, she started speaking in the same register and with the same diplomatic but forthright manner she’d been taught to as a child. Despite the fact Leana’x was the lowest member of the Royal Family and would never, ever, ever become Prime, she was still part of the Artaxan Family. As such, she hadn’t had an ordinary upbringing. She’d been schooled in the mannerisms of the Royal Family, even if she’d ignored them. Sometimes, despite her best efforts, they would shine through.
Luckily for her, Captain Chan looked impressed, not aggravated. He unclenched his arms from his desk, leaned back, rested them easily on the table, and looked at her evenly. “Say I believe you. Say I am willing to take your service record and your impassioned speech at face value. Tell me, Ensign, what happens if we come in contact with your own people? You must understand that you are no longer at the Academy now, and while there you could technically put in place systems to ensure that you did not run into your people, we’re in space now,” he said, voice grating down low on the word space. “It’s not impossible – and in fact, very likely – that we will be sent on missions where we will come in contact with your people. What will you do then?”
She let her gaze drift down to the table as she tried to control her expression. The last thing she wanted to do was run into members of her own race, let alone her own family – and the latter was far more likely than it seemed. While the first 25 or so members of the Royal Family were always kept on Artaxan One – the Prime world of the Artaxan Protectorate, which consisted of 10 of the most abundant planets in all of Coalition space – the other 75 members in line for the throne were deliberately spread across the galaxy. That’s why it had been so easy for Leana’x to join the Academy. The rest of the princes and princesses of the Artaxan Family became dignitaries, diplomats, important people. They were also forced to keep regular contact with the Prime. Leana’x didn’t have to. She was nothing more than a safety blanket. Or a round number, maybe – it was neater to have 100 members of the Royal Family rather than 99, right? It would take a catastrophic event of unforeseen proportions to eliminate the Prime, let alone the first 25 people in line for the throne. To kill all 99 people in front of Leana’x?
Everyone recognized this, except for Captain Chan and Commander Campbell, it seemed.
“What would you do, then?” Campbell snapped, voice reverberating and punching hard through his chest.
“Hopefully, sir, I’ll be safely tucked away in some engineering duct somewhere. Though you are absolutely right, and we will… statistically come in contact with my people, there’s no reason I can’t avoid them on this ship. And if,” she got there first before Campbell could snap at her once more, “I am forced to interact with my people, I will do so with the same level of dignity I have always done so. Though you may not believe this,” she specifically ticked her gaze toward Campbell, “I don’t share the same attitudes as most of the rest of the Royal Family.”
“And what’s that?” Chen pushed.
Perhaps she should’ve aimed to have ended this conversation sooner, because, despite her best efforts, she was starting to get emotional. The same twisted anger that had seen her leave Artaxan one and join the Coalition Academy in the first place started to climb up her back, wrapping around her spine until it felt as if she were being tortured by a babas – a unique information-gathering tool developed and later banned by her people. “I am 100th in line for the throne,” she pointed out, her voice defeated – but not with the fact that she would never ascend to the Prime – just the fact that she had to have this conversation at all. “I will never ascend. If anyone else before me dies, Captain, they will name new people to replace them. I will never be more than 100th in line to the throne. I am the last in the pecking order of the Royal Family. The lowest of the low. But because of their culture, I can never interact with the other Artaxans,” she said, and again she tried to control her emotion, but it was there – anyone would be able to hear it there twisting through her tone, constricting her throat, making her words breathy, sharp hisses. “If that’s a position you envy, go ahead and take it up,” she said – not to the Captain – but to Campbell as he snarled at her once more. She took a moment to compose herself before she swiveled her attention back to the Captain. “I apologize for my outburst, sir, but if that’s what it takes to make you understand my position, so be it. I didn’t ask for this life. I was given it. And though you may think it is one of privilege, let me tell you, you are sorely mistaken. Though I’ve never had to scrape for a penny in my life,” she said, borrowing a human phrase she’d heard on Earth a lot, “I have never been free. I would have preferred to scrounge for my life on a colony world than have lived in a golden cage.”
“You think—” Campbell began, and there was a particularly deadly look in his eyes. Her comment had obviously triggered something for him, but before he could explode, Captain Chan rose from his desk.
Leana’x watched him. Maybe she’d overstepped the line, maybe she hadn’t. Chan gave nothing away until he let out a sigh. “Good answer, Ensign. And though you have obviously been schooled to hide your emotions, I don’t mean to insult you, but you haven’t done a particularly good job today,” he pointed out.
Her cheeks stiffened.
“Which is a good thing. I can see you are honest. You came to the Academy to get away from your… unique solitary position,” he said, carefully saying the word solitary. “So I will answer the question for you.”
Momentarily, Leana’x was confused. She’d forgotten all about the question. Her mind was completely taken up with the exact ruddy color of Campbell’s cheeks, the exact hard line of his chiseled jaw. Though he was meant to be handsome, you wouldn’t be able to tell that now. Because now? He was angry. Seething.
What had she said? That she’d rather scrape for a penny than be a trapped princess?
Captain Chan cleared his throat. “The answer to the question is this – you will not have to actively avoid your people. You will be given warning if or when they come on board, and with Chief Engineer Barlow, we will ensure that you are… sufficiently out of sight. Do you agree to this proposal?”
Leana’x didn’t pause. She nodded vehemently, a few flecks of her ordinary hair spilling free from her ordinary bun. Though many of the other princesses closer in line to the throne were stunning, you could only just tell that Leana’x was a member of the Royal Family.
She had two lines of markings running up and down her entire body, from the tips of her toes to over her chest, to her throat, her cheeks, and her head, then down her back. They were barely there, though, and in poor lighting, you wouldn’t be able to see them.
As for the rest of her?
She kept it that way, too. Though there were tried-and-true methods to play up her looks, she wouldn’t dare. There was no damn point. Ensign Subclass Leana’x Artaxan was more than happy to spend her life in the shadows.
With her hands still clasped behind her back, she nodded low, only letting her gaze flick toward Campbell once or twice. That was enough to see that he hadn’t calmed down any. The way he was looking at her? It reminded her of a rampaging Varnax bull.
Captain Chan quickly shooed her out, and Leana’x turned hard on her regulation boots, snapped a salute, and walked away.
She’d known this conversation would happen. She’d been dreading it ever since the day she’d graduated from the Academy.
But it had gone pretty well. So now Leana’x could slip back into the shadows forevermore, right?
The rest of Ava Episode One is currently available from most ebook retailers.