Spiritum – Chapter Forty-four

44.

After the throne room, it was back to walking for Llannaeia and the rest of the group. All questions went unanswered though, by that point, she’d be more surprised if they didn’t. They were whittled down until it was just her and the Chancellor. Their hosts still didn’t trust them. The feeling was mutual. Then came a point where the corridor split and they were forced to part ways, and then Llannaeia had only her escorts for company. She’d never admit it, but being separated from the others left her feeling more anxious than she’d felt in a long time. To be in such a strange place so far from home, with her only connections to anything familiar taken away; to say she was a little at sea was the mother of all understatements.

The palace was as much a maze as the ship that brought them to the world it occupied. They stopped at some nondescript door that opened at the wave of an alien hand. On the other side, Llannaeia found a room not that different from the one at the internment centre. Her only furniture was a slab sticking out of the far wall. She was surprised (and a little disappointed) by the lack of writing and pictographs on the walls. At least that would have given her something to pass the time. Overall, it may not have been perfect, but it was by no means the worst place she’d been forced to hang her hat.

Llannaeia lay down on the slab and reflected on the situation she’d found herself in. One of the first humans, or members of any species, to set foot on the homeworld of the Aq Quhn Ran Asten, enter the palace of the emperor, and argue with the emperor himself. Whatever happened next, one thing was certain. If she made it back to the Confederacy, she’d have quite the story to tell. She kept asking herself the same questions. Would she and the others make it home? How much longer would they have to stay here? Would the Emperor say yes or no? How was he making his decision? Was he thinking it over by himself, or discussing it with the others from the throne room? So many things they didn’t know, so much uncertainty. Would they even have a home to go back to when all this was done? The war between the Confederacy and the Imperium could have already begun for all they knew. The situation was pretty dire when they left. She couldn’t imagine it getting any better in the time they’d been gone. The Confederacy could have already fallen, everyone back home dead: her superiors, her fellow soldiers, her family, Iona.

Iona. Every time Llannaeia thought of her, she was taken back to their conversation on the Rimor, every word. No, don’t think about that.

She needed something to take her mind off all the bullshit accumulating inside it. Then she remembered; with everything going on, she’d neglected her exercises. That would help pass the time. She had a whole routine worked out for when she didn’t have much space or equipment: first some running and jumping on the spot, then a few sets of push-ups, crunches, squats, leg raises, burpees, and, finally, a few minutes of planking. The room might have been cold but it didn’t take long to warm up. Llannaeia then moved onto some shadow boxing, less than ideal but she made do with what she had. She would have killed to have a training automata to beat the shit out of, or at least a bag. That got boring quick and she shuffled closer to the wall, close enough for her fists to meet its unforgiving surface. She liked to keep her knuckles hard, all the better for when they impacted upon bone. So focused she was on her technique and not breaking her hands, Llannaeia almost didn’t notice the door open and one of the palace staff come striding in unannounced. Apparently, the Aq Quhn Ran Asten had no concept of privacy.

“You will come with me”. If the creature was at all puzzled to find her punching the walls, it didn’t show it.

“Where”?

“Come”. Of course.

Llannaeia followed, wiping the sweat from her forehead. The creature led her down a few more identical corridors before stopping at a door just like the one to her room. Inside, Llannaeia found a room exactly the same as her own, and the Chancellor seated upon a slab like hers. The door closed and they were left alone.

“Well don’t stand around on my account”.

Llannaeia hesitated before crossing the room. The Chancellor shuffled along and she sat down, close but with a noticeable gap between them. She never liked having people too close to her, not even those she considered friends.

“How are you holding up”?

Llannaeia shrugged. “It could be worse, I suppose. How about you”?

“Can’t really complain, all things considered. We’re alive. That’s got to count for something. I’ve just got a lot on my plate right now, as I’m sure we all have”.

“I just want to get out of here and back home, if we’ve got a home to go back to that is”.

“I understand. I expect you have a family waiting for you”.

“No”.

“No”?

“The military is the only family I have now. Everyone else is gone”.

“I’m sorry to hear that”.

“Don’t be. It was a long time ago. What about you? Do you have a family”? She knew quite a bit about the Chancellor from her public image but little of her personal life. She didn’t even know if she was married or had kids.

The Chancellor smiled, somewhat sorrowfully. “My children. I have a boy and a girl. Tobiah’s four and Alenna’s two. My world”.

“Where are they now”?

“They’re with their father”. Judging from her change of tone, the Chancellor didn’t hold much affection for the father of her children.

“You two aren’t together anymore”?

“That obvious is it? No, we’re not. Being the chancellor of a sovereignty, I was, naturally, very busy, and he took that as an excuse not to make much of an effort to keep it in his pants. Of course, when I finally confronted him, he made out that it was all my fault, that I never showed him enough love or affection. But enough about that, I had you brought here for a reason. There’s something else I wanted to talk to you about”. Llannaeia guessed it had something to do with what happened in the throne room, and braced herself for some admonishment. “What you did today, it was impressive. Have you ever considered a career in politics”?

Llannaeia wasn’t sure if the Chancellor was being serious. “I was just trying to help”. She’d never been one for boasting.

“Don’t be so modest. You did something today nobody else in the galaxy can claim to have done. You stood up to the Emperor of the Aq Quhn Ran Asten and convinced him to listen. You may have saved the Confederacy”. Llannaeia didn’t want to think about it. The thought of her actions having such far-reaching consequences was a frightening one.

“So what happens next”?

“That depends on the Emperor’s answer. If he says yes, then we’ll hopefully return home with a powerful ally to stand with us against the Imperium. If not… well then we’ll just have to find another”.

Llannaeia had something else she wanted to ask. There was probably no better time. “May I ask you something, Madam Chancellor”?

“Of course”.

“Why did you ask me to come here with you”? She’d asked once and the Chancellor answered but she didn’t find the answer completely satisfying. There were so many others she could have chosen, many others just as capable as her.

“It’s like I said; I was impressed with the way you handled yourself before, and you’re a strong and capable young woman. You’re brave, loyal, and the kind of person I would want to have by my side if I was walking into the unknown, which I was, and, evidently, it was the correct decision”.

“With respect, Madam Chancellor, you don’t know that yet”.

“Let’s just say I have a good feeling about this, and in any case, regardless of what happens next, I know I made the right call. You saw how it was back there. I was on the ropes. He didn’t care for anything I had to say but you made him listen. Even if we don’t get the outcome we want, you managed far more than I did and I’ll make sure the people back home know that”.

Llannaeia wasn’t sure if she liked the sound of that. Fame and renown weren’t things she’d ever sought after, and she still didn’t feel her question had been answered. “What you said about me. There’s tons of people like that on the Rimor”.

“I’m sure there are. But I wanted you. I admit I have other reasons for asking you to accompany me. I’m intrigued by you, Captain Aventius”.

Llannaeia was beginning to understand. There was no shortage of stories about her floating around the Rimor. She was one of the crew’s favourite topics of discussion. Crazy, broken Captain Aventius, the damaged psycho girl. How many people did she slaughter in cold blood this time? But she still had to ask, “Why”?

“Back on the ship, at the bridge; I saw what they were going to do to you before I stepped in. They were going to hurt you, and you were going to let them do it. All you had to do was tell them the truth”.

“I was just going my job. I didn’t know if we could trust them. I had to protect the mission, to protect you at all costs. If they found out who you were, it could have gone a totally different way to how it did”.

“They could have killed you”.

“It’s what I signed up for”.

Silence.

“You know . . .”, the Chancellor began, carefully. “It’s not in the official job description, but a large part of my work as chancellor involves the reading of people, analysing them, finding out what makes them them. Sometimes to find strengths and other times to find weaknesses, and sometimes to see if a person is going to be a problem or an asset. I’ve become very good at it over the years and, because I’ve been doing for so long, I now do it with everybody I meet. Every politician, every business leader, every aide and intern, even people I pass in corridors or in the street. Half the time, I don’t even mean to, it’s just become a habit of mine. I look at the way they carry themselves and the way they look at me and others, and I see things. Do you know what I saw when I first met you? I saw somebody who was damaged, somebody who was hiding so much pain and suffering, but doing everything she could to keep going. And then, as I was being shown to my quarters, I overheard some of your crewmates talking about you. The things I heard were quite disturbing, but then I saw you again on that bridge, and I began to understand. Did you want to die on that ship”?

Llannaeia wanted to answer, but she didn’t know if she could. She’d always kept her problems to herself, never entrusting anyone with the truth. But something about the way the Chancellor spoke made it seem so easy to open up. Her words seemed to reach inside her and soothe her mind. But still, she couldn’t help but feel the only way to truly answer her question was to tell her the whole story. “I joined the military when I was sixteen. On the morning of my sixteenth birthday, the first thing I did after I woke up was go to the nearest recruitment office and sign myself up”.

“Why”?

“I just had to get away. From everything: my family, the city, that fucking house, my… my sister”. Llannaeia’s stomach fluttered at the mention of Iona. “I didn’t even tell them about it until after I left. I just packed the stuff I needed and snuck out one day. I sent them a video message from the transport they shipped me out on”. She’d always beaten herself up about that, the way she let her family know she was leaving them. She wanted to hurt them as much as possible, at the time. Not saying a proper goodbye helped with that, as did sending a lengthy video message in which she revealed how she’d always hated them and all the time they’d spent together, and how she never wanted to see any of them again. She remembered feeling so big after pressing send, but it didn’t take long for satisfaction to turn to shame. Now, whenever Llannaeia thought about it, she just felt small and petulant.

“You told me your family was gone”.

“I lied. They shipped me out to Camp Melverton, near Auremeb. I did my basic and joined the light infantry, and then a bit later I joined the marines. My first assignment was to the Kaelerdon, and, not long after, they promoted me to sergeant. They said I was one of the youngest in military history”. At the ripe old age of eighteen, she’d been the latest in a very short list of people to reach the rank of sergeant so young.

“They sent us out to Eracin, close to the border with the FPR. Sikillian Blood Band had raided a few settlements and taken a couple hundred colonists to sell as slaves. It was our job to get them back. We spent a couple days cruising up and down the border but we didn’t find anything. Navy protocol is, if you don’t find anything after a couple days, you give up and come back. The slavers were long gone, and they’d probably already sold most of the people they’d taken. But Captain Tillek didn’t want to go back empty-handed, so we kept looking”. She didn’t want to the blame the captain of the U.S.N Kaelerdon for their predicament, but, as the days crawled by, Llannaeia found herself holding him more and more accountable. If it wasn’t for his ego and ambitions, none of it would have happened. He deserved more than the demotion he got.

“We spent nearly a week patrolling the border but we still didn’t finding anything. So then he took us into the FPR. We were there a couple days and still nothing and the other officers finally convinced Tillek to give up. But just as we were about to enter Warp Space, we detected a freighter. Engines were dead, the core was offline, and there were no life signs. It was just floating in the middle of nowhere. We should have ignored it and gotten out of there, but Tillek wanted to investigate. We got in close and were just about to dock when the computers on the bridge started going apeshit. The radar was picking up all kinds of anomalies. We looked out the windows and there were slaver ships all around us. We tried to enter Warp Space but the same thing happened as back on the Rimor. They took the drive offline and told us to surrender. Of course, Tillek wanted to fight back but the others managed to change his mind before he got us all killed. We stood down and then they took us. Turned out the whole thing was a trap. Someone had noticed us and went around telling everyone there was a naval vessel in their territory and they knew they’d get a good price for the crew”. Confederate military personnel of any vocation always fetched a decent price in the FPR, their expertise invaluable to the nefarious groups operating there.

“They took us to their boss, Lekket. He put on this whole fucking show for us, told us what was gonna happen, that we were gonna be slaves and there was nothing we could do about it. He just went on and on about how we were his to sell and couldn’t escape and were gonna make him a lot of money. Same shit over and over again. Then he saw me”. To that day, the look on Lekket Netchivecht’s face when he saw her for the first time chilled Llannaeia to the bone. That smirk, almost playful and innocent, like a boy experiencing his first crush. But in his eyes, she saw only evil.

“He came right up to me and told me I was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. I wasn’t going with the others. He wanted me for himself. Said he was gonna take care of me, for the rest of my life. He called me his little angel”. Judging from the Chancellor’s look, she need’nt have gone any further, but she’d already told most of the story. She might as well finish. “He took me back to his ship, back to his quarters. He hurt me, violated me”. Llannaeia paused to take a breath as the pain and rage came rushing back to the surface. “Again, and again, and again, for days on end. And he just kept on smiling, and laughing, like it was all just a game to him”. She could still see the smile on his face as he forced himself onto her, laughing at her screams and cries for mercy. It was all coming back, the helplessness and discomfort as she struggled against the restraints, his weight squeezing the air from her lungs, the pain between her legs as he forced himself inside. She was still a virgin.

“I realized it was useless begging for mercy. He just seemed to get off on it. So then I begged him to kill me instead. But he just laughed and said he wasn’t done with me yet”. She couldn’t hold the tears back any longer. The Chancellor was silent, eyes inundated with horror and disgust. She looked like she wanted to say something but couldn’t find the words. What she’d told her was enough but Llannaeia felt she needed to reveal everything. Telling her wasn’t enough. She needed to show her.

She went to the centre of the room, the Chancellor watching quietly. She thought she heard a gasp when she lifted her shirt. That would have been enough but she had more to show. She took off the rest of her clothes, giving the Chancellor an unobstructed view of every scar, cut and burn. Shoulders, back and legs, barely a patch of skin not adorned with his mark.

Llannaeia dressed again and sat back down. “I’m so sorry”. Diamonds gleamed in the Chancellor’s eyes. Her sympathies did nothing to help the pain, but they were nice to hear.

“It was about two weeks before we were rescued. The navy tracked us to the station where they were holding us for the buyers. A lot of us had already been sold off. They rescued what was left but Lekket got away”. That was about right. Despite his viciousness, at his heart, the big, bad leader of the Sikilian Blood Band was a coward. The moment he heard of the navy ships closing in, he scurried away to his shuttle, leaving his own people to fight and die.

“They shipped me back to Camp Melverton and put me through psych eval to see if I was insane. They said I was unfit for duty, and wanted to send me home, back to my family”. The family she’d rejected, who didn’t even know she was joining the military until after she’d left, the family she’d never spoken to since. After the video message, she’d sent them nothing: no more messages, no visits, not a single call. And after everything she’d been through, they were sending her back to them. How could she face them after what she did? Would they even want her back?

“And yet, here you are”. Llannaeia couldn’t blame the Chancellor for being confused. After all, the military wasn’t in the habit of allowing crazy, psychologically-scarred girls to run around with guns.

“I couldn’t go back. I just couldn’t. I wouldn’t let them send me back”. She remembered feeling so numb, broken, and crushed; a husk. Between therapy sessions, she spent her days in bed, staring at the ceiling and reliving everything she’d been through, feeling nothing. But then she did feel something. It started small, a flicker in the dark, but, as the days passed, it grew brighter, and stronger. It built little by little until it had taken over everything. It flowed through her veins, infecting every cell of her body. Her thoughts turned away from the pain she’d been forced to endure, and to the pain she would inflict upon Lekket Netchivecht, and anyone else who crossed her. All her agony would be repaid tenfold and, by the time she was done, he would beg her to end his pathetic existence.

“I didn’t let them send me home. I refused to leave and kept fighting them until they finally listened. Eventually they said I could stay if I did some trauma care bullshit and passed another evaluation. I spent a few months on that and passed the test, just barely apparently. But they said it was enough and they assigned me to the Rimor”. Boarding the U.S.N Rimor for the first time was the happiest day of her life, proving what Llannaeia had always suspected: her true home had always been in space.

“So, to answer your question, I guess I wouldn’t have minded if I died on that bridge. You know what it’s like to be scared to go to sleep at night because you’re afraid of what you might dream about? Not being able to look at your body in the mirror? Seeing something on the news, or just hearing a noise that takes you right back to the worst experiences of your life? Not being able to get close to anyone? To be intimate with anyone”?

The Chancellor stared, cheeks shimmering. “No, I don’t. I can’t imagine how all that must have been for you. Nobody should have to go through what you did. If there’s anything I can do for you when we get home, I-”

“That’s not necessary. You listened. That’s enough”. It felt strange opening up to someone. The Chancellor was the first person she’d felt a connection with in as long as she could remember. “The things you’ve probably heard about me, the stories; they’re all true, maybe exaggerated a little, but still true. I let my anger take over me and I’ve taken it out on anyone who ever crossed me. I’ve hurt people. I’ve killed people. A lot of them didn’t even really deserve it. I’ve made others suffer and I’ve taken pleasure in it. I’ve done terrible things and enjoyed it. I’m more like him now than anything else”.

“You are nothing like that monster. You are a good person and never let anyone make you think otherwise. You are the strongest and bravest person I have ever met. So many people would let that kind of pain destroy them but you kept fighting. That is the most courageous thing I have ever heard”.

Llannaeia sighed and rested her head in her hands. The Chancellor edged closer and put her hand on her shoulder. Opening up had knocked the wind out of her. It was the first time she’d ever gotten so personal with someone. She wasn’t sure if it felt good, or if she’d be able to do it again.

The door opened and the escort came stomping in. Apparently. they’d spent enough time together. They didn’t argue with the creature. Llannaeia headed for the door.

“Llannaeia”.

She turned to find the Chancellor standing now, surprised to hear her first name. The Chancellor went to her, put her hands on her shoulders, and drew her in. Every nerve yearned to pull away but, eventually, she managed to relax in the embrace of another. “You are a good person. Always remember that. Things will get better, I promise”.

Back in her own room, Llannaeia lay down on the slab, and stared at the ceiling. She almost felt like a new person. The burdens weighing on her were still very much there, but it seemed the weight had been lifted ever so slightly. For the first time in so long, rather than push someone away, she allowed them to get close. It felt good. For the first time, it felt like she truly had a friend. Immediately, she began conjuring every possible way she could fuck it up.

Any feedback, sharing, or following would be very much appreciated. Thank you very much for reading.

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