“You know, finding out just how deep in shit you are from a Holo-viz is not a good way of learning anything,” May cut off her own narrative to comment, her lips curving down in remembrance. “Especially when it's something you should already know about.”
Never losing his humor, Fence grinned, and quipped, “I shall endeavor not to get to that point.”
Yeah, especially if any of your shit got put under a spotlight, it would likely feature your arrest or investigation. May thought unkindly.
“In any case, as annoying as Sak’tehun is, he blabbed enough to give me some idea on what Kajakh had been keeping from me, and the picture he painted was not a pretty one.”
Hearing a familiar name, the Earth-native aborted her finger-flicking and stayed on this channel.
The 3D holo perfectly depicted two aliens sitting semi-facing each other on floating chairs, one with dark green skin and another with orange-tinged one.
The green one must be a native Ernan; May had seen enough of them in the hospital to identify their characteristic six fingers, red irises, and hexagonal pupils. No idea about what the orangey one might be though. She noted that he had three antennas, three fingers, and slanted eyes place on a triangular face.
“That is quite an extreme claim,” said the orangey-one, tone rife with faux-astonishment that made May’s fist itched to test whether those high cheekbones were as fragile as they appeared.
Startling from the intensity of her own emotions, May narrowed her eyes, a hand patting her chest. May Ling’s residual emotions? she theorized.
“Ling Interstellar Freight is the definition of extreme,” the Ernan said, body moving in an approximation of a shrug. “The current situation is a tragedy long in the making. Since their inception, LIF charted the stars by going straight into them head-on, heedless of the dangers hidden in its midst. It is only a matter of time when their adventurousness ceased to work in their favor.”
Orange-Triangle nodded sagely. “One can also argue that their adventurousness has added dozens of new starcharts to Al-Jurba system’s interstellar and beyond. This is an accomplishment that brings them to the top of the interstellar freight industry.
“Now look here, I’m neither discounting their merits nor devaluing their contribution to our galaxy, but we have to admit that testing out a new route with only the Voyagers as escorts is a risky endeavor; sending out cargo without guaranteeing the route’s safety is a recipe for a complete disaster.” The Ernan waved his hands passionately. “The late President Ling and his wife took the risk and look what happened!”
“Charting out a new star-lane always takes its toll,” Orange-Triangle acquiesced sympathetically, then turned to face the audience. “This is not the first time the LIF has employed this unconventional method to establish new shipping routes or its largest casualty to date. However, none of the previous failures had resulted in such a blowback.”
“This time, the President is no longer around to take care of the blowback,” the Ernan cut in callously.
May inhaled sharply as a sudden pain pierced through her breastbone. They are putting the fault on May’s parents death, she realized with mounting anger.
Unperturbed at the interruption, Orange-Triangle turned to the Ernan, “So does that mean opening a route to the Federation Capital Homyu is impossible? Many have tried and failed. The route, as the more superstitious among us would say, is cursed.”
The green alien laughed, his whole body shaking with the force of his mirth. “Not at all. We have the tech now. LIF especially. However, techs can only bring you so far. A team of dedicated, formally trained escorts goes a long way in combating various dangers and ensuring successful delivery.”
“LIF’s policy to rely on the Voyagers has been their defining characteristic,” Orange-Triangle said, catching on the point left hanging by his interviewee. “Experience cannot be bought and who else in could claim to be more familiar with space-traveling than the brave Voyagers who spend most their life traversing through stars.”
As beautiful as his words sounded, May did not miss the underlying ridicule hidden in them. Whoever these Voyagers were, they did not command the respect of these two.
“For viewers who are not aware of LIF’s origin, the freight was established as a way for the Ling family to assist Voyagers who were down on their luck,” Orange-Triangle once again addressed the audience. “A typical interstellar freight has its own security team, limiting their delivery quantity and increasing their operational cost. By hiring Voyagers on an ad-hoc basis, the Ling family managed to create a wider, faster, cheaper delivery model.”
“LIF’s policy stems from its founders’ sentimentality,” the Ernan argued, waving a hand dismissively. “Ling family does have several adventurous Voyagers in their rank, so I can see where they are coming from, but time’s changed. Mercs are legal now. They are better trained, better coordinated, and always available. Logically, LIF should be going to them instead, like many other freights. But it didn’t.”
On a roll, the Ernan leaned towards his host intently as if he was about to impart a great secret. “The fact that it still stands after the Nimuth-Homyu route fiasco and losing its owners is a miracle in itself.”
Orange-Triangle’s three antennas twitched on the apex of his bald head. “Rumors are flying around about the possibility of a takeover. What is your opinion on that?”
Accepting the to-the-nose topic change, the Ernan leaned back in his seat, dialing down his personal feelings towards LIF – that kind of vitriol could not be anything but – as he delivered a more professional observation.
“It is very possible. With the current situation, a takeover might be the only thing that can save LIF from closing down. With any luck, they might even preserve their name in the end, but to prevent a sudden collapse in the economy – their company employed at least one-tenth of Er-na’s population after all – their Common Directorates has to seriously consider this alternative.”
The green man’s gratified expression towards the end rubbed against May the wrong way, making her hand itched to throw her glass at his head. Pity this was only a realistic holographic rendition.
“Speaking of Board of Directors, we have confirmation that May Ling, the sole heir to the company has recently been released from the hospital.” The orangey creature turned to the audience while explaining, “Though the company’s communication officer had not given any statement as to the cause of Ling-sa’s collapse, we have received confirmation from a reliable source that the company is currently under the leadership of Ozi Mun’ahsa and his son, Kajakh Mun’ahsa, who we know – ”
The channel suddenly changed to a bunch of singing and – was that dancing? – aliens.
“Don’t listen to that rubbish,” Kajakh said, smile taut as he slid into the seat next to her. “He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
Cursing his impeccable timing in her heart, May resisted the urge to pout. The first solid hint of May’s life Before-Amnesia flicked away just like that.
She hadn’t even heard him returned from the other room.
May stole a glance at the man, noting his tense jaw and wrinkled forehead. For all that he preached about indifference, Kajakh did not seem to be taking his own advice.
“Is the company doing that badly?” May asked.
Kajakh might want to hide the world’s problem away from her, but this was not an issue she could let go and forget.
He took his time to mull over his response before exhaling sharply. “We’ll pull through,” he assured, reaching out slowly to place his six-fingered hand on her free one, only relaxing when she did not pull back. “Father and I will take care of it. We’ve promised Uncle and Auntie.”
“That person sounds very sure of LIF’s downfall though,” May pressed.
Kajakh looked as though he didn’t want to reply, but she shot him a pleading look and he caved.
“Azi Sak’tehun is a sad creature who could never reconcile with the fact that LIF succeeds in working hand-in-hand with the Voyagers where his own freight did not. He never does understand that Voyagers are not mercenaries. The two are not interchangeable.”
May tilted her head questioningly. Kajakh sighed, placing his hand on her head briefly before answering her unspoken question.
“We employ the Voyagers for more than just their protection, you know. Their experience and adaptability are crucial in charting a new route. And when anything unexpected happens? Well, their versatility usually solves the problem in a nick of time and make sure the shipment is well. Mercenaries tend to be too rigid for this kind of versatile job.” He paused, before adding, “Not to mention illegal until recently.”
Put that way, LIF’s policy didn’t seem so bad, but still. “Green-man mentioned something about a Nimuth-Homyu fiasco?”
“Opening a new route always comes with a risk,” the orange-eyed man huffed. “We explored the route successfully. Twice. Until the first shipment.” Kajakh adopted a faraway look, as if seeing something she did not. “We’ve pinned it down on lack of security, but LIF has hired the best Voyagers for this trip. Not to mention we’ve kept the route secret. We lost them just before they left the Al-jurba system and we have no idea why.”
Turning towards her, Kajakh warned, “This is not public knowledge. Don’t talk about it at all if you can help it.”
May snorted. She’d had to meet people first before that even became a risk.
“There was a leak,” May hypothesized.
“So we think too,” Kajakh murmured. “But don’t worry about it.” He caught her worried expression and smiled. “You should rest. Don’t think about unhappy thoughts.”
“That Azi guy makes it sound so severe,” May complained.
“This is not the first time LIF pushed the boundaries to an extreme. The green-slug only brought it up because he resents the idea of Terran-led company holds such a prestigious position,” Kajakh stated, doing nothing to hide his resentment at the ‘green slug’.
From the looks of it, the animosity went both ways, May thought quietly.
Unexpectedly, Kajakh chuckled, and revealed, “And partly because Father is part of the Common Directorate.” May didn’t bother hiding her inquiring noises, prompting the orange-eyed man to continue his narrative.
“His family wanted to marry one of his cousins to Father, but before they could make any formal arrangements, he decided to elope with Mother instead. Until today, Sak’tehun still accuses Father of breaking a family pact.” He let out a snicker laced with schadenfreude, “He can’t accept a full-blooded Ernan choosing to ‘sully’ our blood with a Terran.”
May laughed at the ridiculousness of it all. A blood feud! Over such trivial things!
Before she could ask more questions, seeing that her info-mine was in the mood to indulge her, a sudden buzzing drew their attention to Kajakh’s wristband.
Seeing how it blinked red, then green, then back to red, orange eyes closed in an apparent bid for patience, muscles tensing as if bracing for a hit.
May felt the device’s vibration through Kajakh’s hand before he pulled it back, swiping a hand over the bracelet, then flicked his eyes to the side. A sure sign he was reading a private message via his CINe-comm.
In an instant, a scowl appeared as his hand twitched, as if resisting the urge to close the message. She’d know – he had shown such expression before when he visited her in the hospital, except back then, he didn’t hesitate to dismiss unwanted messaged with a flick of his wrist.
The fact that he hadn’t now highlighted its importance. Especially after the call he finished not minutes ago.
“If you have somewhere to be, don’t mind me,” May said, intuitively caught onto his internal struggle.
Kajakh turned to her, still scowling. “I shouldn’t leave you alone,” he stated, eyes flickering towards something she could not see and back at her. “You didn’t even know how to use the Holo-Viz.”
Rolling her eyes, May snapped, “I’m quite sure I can nap unsupervised, Kajakh.”
The sarcastic remark came out reflexively before she could stop it. She couldn’t tell which of them felt more surprised by it, but strangely enough, the outburst seemed to alleviate some of his burden, his shoulders relaxing slightly. She took this opportunity to press her case. “I’ll be fine.”
Kajakh hesitated, clearly weighing his options before waving his hand – presumably to close the message. “If you’re sure,” he finally conceded.
“Yeah,” May confirmed. “Besides, I have EVE with me. She’ll let you know if anything happens. You can do that, right EVE?”
“Affirmative. Kajakh-jo is still listed as primary emergency contact,” EVE’s voice crisply responded.
He raised his hand towards her, visibly hesitated, then rested it on her shoulder. “Promise me you won’t do anything but rest.”
May rolled her eyes at the unwarranted solemnity. “I promise,” she said, feeling like a child whose parent was leaving for work and the babysitter was not around.
“If you need me for anything – anything at all, call me, okay?” he insisted.
“I will,” May responded, placing her hand over the one on her shoulder. “I can take care of myself.”
The way he failed to reply was a huge tell in itself, making May twitched with indignation. However, she wanted him out – fast – so she limited her rants into the confines of her own head.
She followed Kajakh to the door that disintegrated as they drew near. As awe-inspiring new technologies would be, May had spent a week in this world. She’s had time to acclimatize, especially to doors shimmered in and out of existence instead of opening and closing like normal doors.
Once they reached the hovercar, Kajakh turned to her after opening its door. It took her all not to blurt out, “What now?!”
“I know you’ve forgotten everything,” he began, reaching into a compartment in the vehicle to pull out a thin box. “But I hope you would still wear this.”
May glanced at his hopeful expression, taking the box from his hand. Inside the crystalline box was a metal bracelet, craved in a tribal pattern that wove red, blue, gold, and green curves together. A pang of familiarity ran through her, and the next thing she knew, she had worn it on her left wrist.
The weight of it felt right.
Kajakh smiled one of his rare happy smiles, and took her hand gently in his left one, pulling his long sleeve to show an identical bracelet.
“They had to take it off to – when healing you,” Kajakh stumbled over the words. She gripped his hand in comfort. Whatever procedure the doctors had done on her, her friend did not seem to be over it yet.
“It’s our star-band. Stupid name, I know,” he chuckled at the incredulous expression she hadn’t manage to hide, “but we never took it off since Mother and Aunt made them for us.” His six fingers caressed the one on her wrist gently. “They said we designed them ourselves.”
May looked at the inconspicuous band with mixed feelings.
A friendship bracelet.
One important enough for the two of them to keep until adulthood.
Despite the ridiculousness of it all, telltales of impending tears prickled her eyes. “Thank you.”
“You’re always welcome,” Kajakh said sincerely, releasing her. “Remember – ”
“If I need anything, I’ll call you,” May promised seriously.
He sighed. “I’ll see you at dinner.”
With that promise, the man finally left her alone, reentering the sky city’s traffic with disgusting ease.
May made her way back to the living room, retaking her seat and staring blankly at the empty space. Beside her, the nutrient solution floated in its container, like a stringless Christmas bauble.
“EVE,” she called out.
“Yes, Miss May?” the AI responded readily.
May hesitated, as guilt rose in her heart, gnawing at her conscience.
She knew Kajakh wanted to keep her away from whatever trouble brewing outside of the bubble he put her in. Knew that he did it with good intentions.
Knew that by doing this, she would be spitting on her friend’s – only ally’s – kindness.
Her fingers traced her newly acquired bracelet, feeling what had been a comforting weight now transformed into a shackling burden to her morals.
She shouldn’t do this.
But she must.
As nice, as wonderful, as magical this whole place was, Planet Er-na was not home.
And May must return to it.
Bracing herself, May tilted her head up, and asked the one source who would not – could not deny her.
“How did I end up in the hospital?”