by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Daily Science Fiction, August 2017
Roscoe’s long ears would not stand tall, no matter how he strained to hold them up. His reflection in the empty viewscreen looked haggard and scared, but he’d stared at it for long enough trying to compose himself. He would never be composed. He had to proceed anyway.
With a nervous twitch of his nose, Roscoe opened a communication channel to the planet below, and moments later, a familiar face filled the viewscreen: his cousin Chilchi. Her ears stood tall.
“Roscoe! We thought we’d never see you again! It’s been three years!”
Roscoe’s nerves calmed a little at the warm sight of his cousin. “Can you put me through to the High Royal Quejon?”
“Of course,” Chilchi said, suddenly all business.
Roscoe felt bad rebuffing her like that, but he had to do the hard part of this first. There would be time to catch up later — if he could get through the hard part. If he could stand up to the High Royal.
Chilchi’s fuzzy, round, lapine face disappeared from the screen and was replaced by the long, narrow face of the High Royal Quejon. Her fur was as fine and pale as dandelion down, and her primatoid features were pinched and creased. Her black eyes burned like the void.
“You are dead to me, runaway bunny.” The High Royal Quejon spat the words, as if it was beneath her to speak to a former slave at all.
“I am free from you,” Roscoe corrected, finding his voice in spite of his nerves. He had feared this day for years, and yet the Quejon wasn’t nearly so scary to behold as he remembered. She was twice his height, he remembered, but on the screen she looked small. He had bested her once before, escaping into the crowds on Crossroads Station to become a free lapine. Now he would best her again.
“I’ve come back to free my family,” Roscoe said, ears straightening proudly above him. He transmitted a list down to the surface, containing every extended family member and friend he’d ever had — one hundred some uplifted lapine slaves in all.
The High Royal Quejon frowned as she read the transmission. “This is every one of my servants, many of my compatriots’ servants, and some servants that have been traded into different keeps during the last several years.”
“I’ll also need the spouses and children of anyone on that list,” Roscoe added.
“You can’t seriously expect me to hand this many uplifted lapines over. Even if you could afford them, as a runaway, you have no standing for purchasing them. Furthermore, my keep couldn’t handle this level of upheaval. I could never part with this many well trained servants for any price.”
Roscoe’s ears didn’t waver as he said, “I’m not buying them.” He’d already spent all of the money he’d saved during the last three years to rent this starship — a vessel large enough to ferry all of them back to Crossroads Station. “I’m offering free transport to them.”
“On their behalf, I turn you down.”
“I don’t recommend that.” Roscoe’s fuzzy face had never looked less cute. He was a lapine ready to fight. He would give no quarter to this primatoid who had owned the first half of his life. “Enslavement of sentient beings — evolved, uplifted, manufactured, or otherwise — is a crime of the first order in the Western Spiral Arm Treaty Alliance.”
The High Royal Quejon’s ears were too small to splay, but the look in her black eyes was priceless. She was cornered, and she knew it.
“You knew about that law,” Roscoe said, piecing together what had happened three years ago after he’d run away from her. “That’s why you went home without joining the alliance. Because you learned about that law, and you decided you’d rather keep my people enslaved.”
“We uplifted you!” the Quejon shrieked. “You were feral rabbits until we tweaked your genes, changing you over generations.” Her long-fingered hands balled into fists, and her black eyes flashed like stars collapsing. “It was painstaking work. Hard work. You owe us. You belong to us.”
“Not according to interstellar law.” Roscoe could see the Quejon weighing her options. He only had one ship; he couldn’t back up his claim. But if he’d registered his plans with Crossroads Station, then someone might come looking for him if he didn’t return. If they came looking for him… No, she had to keep her planet hidden to preserve her way of life.
If she sent him on his way without what he wanted, he could report a massive sentients’ rights violation.
If she gave him what he wanted… It might buy her species a few more years, before their entire way of life was overturned.
“You are an ungrateful creature, and we should never have uplifted your kind,” the Quejon said. Then her sour primatoid face disappeared.
A moment later, Chilchi reappeared on the viewscreen, looking bewildered but happy. “I’m told that I have some arrangements to make for you?”
Roscoe’s ears couldn’t stand any taller as he said, “Let me tell you about where I’ve been living — it’s an interstellar hub called Crossroads Station, and I think you’d like it there.”