“Contact!” Klaxons blared as the end approached. Kallie and Trissa had a tiny viewport in the room in which they hid, and the massive, planty vessel outside took up all of it and then some.
The Affini Compact had come knocking — having subjugated Terra and its Accord, scattered rebel ships like the one these two marines were on were the only thing putting up a fight. But they had a plan.
A brilliant plan.
“We gotta get changed, quick,” Kallie barked, pointing at the mass of wire and greenish fabric in the corner.
“I-it’s happening now? We can’t do any more jumps?” Trissa replied, voice shaking at the prospect. This plan of theirs was the only thing that might keep them safe from the killer plants already ensnaring the Distant Thunder. It wasn’t even a big ship to begin with, but evidence from the poor sap who’d been vented for “lowering morale” suggested that the Terrans’ biggest battlecruisers were nothing more than a sneeze in a hurricane to the Affini.
“If they're here we might already be too late,” Kallie said, “so let’s get to it!”
“Fuck, alright…but you gotta be the legs, remember,” Trissa sighed, digging through the pile of material the two had envisioned as a “workable disguise”.
Kallie was easily the larger of the two, something she lamented the hormones being unable to change. “Yeah, yeah, help me get dressed.”
“Don’t forget your ‘vines’” Trissa said with a wicked grin. Kallie sighed and held her arms akimbo while the former slid on two hvac pipes haphazardly painted green.
“And don’t you forget your…what did you call it?”
“The Alien-Voice-atizer 9000!” Trissa boldly declared. It was the ace up their sleeve, a voice modulator that’d make them sound…not quite human, they hoped. They’d sacrificed countless sleep hours to assemble this junk, but luckily their exhaustion had only made them better at planning. She snapped it on “Do I sound properly menacing?”
“Sure, sure,” Kallie said, crouching down. “Get on my shoulders.” Trissa was about to ask what the hurry was, until they both felt the ship shudder and shake. “Hurry!”
“The door’s locked from the outside, right? We’re supposed to be the humans’ prisoners, remember.”
“Prisoner,” Kallie said, as she stood back up. “We’re only one person, don’t forget that.”
As the two — or rather, the one — pulled a muddy heap of fabric over them. Oh, how they would’ve killed for one of those ghillie suits that planetside peacekeepers sometimes wore, to get the drop on rabble rousers and communists.
“What do the affini actually look like?” Trissa mused.
“Huge monsters, ‘member? They’ve got…vines.”
“Not much to go on.” Gunfire erupted in the hall outside, alongside the sounds of hissing gas. “Oh fuck. Oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck…”
Kallie tried to put a hand on her partner’s knee before she remembered her hands were currently not quite usable. She settled for twisting her head a bit against Trissa’s jumpsuited thighs.
“We’ll be fine, okay? Even if we’re discovered, there’s no prison or mine or anything that can hold us.”
Trissa’s response was drowned out by the unmistakable metallic whine of a bulkhead being pulled off its hinges.
“Oh fuck,” Kallie whispered. Trissa flipped on the voice modulator with a shaking hand.
“Don’t worry, cuties…” a powerful-yet-dulcet voice sounded out. It was appropriately unearthly in its velvety sound, though distinctly feminine. Vines poured in where the bulkhead once stood, and a towering, humanoid figure bent down to sidle under the opening. “You’re safe now…hmmm?” Colorful and metallic eyes widened in some simulacrum surprise.
"Eep!” Trissa’s distorted voice sounded. The affini who’d stepped through the door watched as her carved bark face passed through a variety of expressions. She was easily twelve feet tall, towering above even the two stacked humans, and she wore a mantle of hundreds of lilac blooms.
“Now this is a surprise,” the alien eventually said. “Do I know you?”
“W—um, I was captured! By these…er…Terrans!” Trissa managed. The real affini cocked her head, before breaking into a smile. Kallie stepped back just slightly when she started shaking and sounding something that resembled laughter.
“Why…of course!” she said. “That makes sense. Your biorhythm must’ve already been doing wonders on these cuties while they had you interned. That’s why they were all so easy to pacify! But it’s okay now. You can finally help us help them.”
“Uh…yeah!” Trissa agreed. “Um biorhythm…I mean, yeah, my biorhythm!”
“Every affini has a natural rhythm that they emanate, and adorable sophonts can’t help but find themselves spellbound. But you knew that, of course.”
“Um, yeah, naturally! These…um…cuties tried to kill us…me…but I biorhythm’d all over them, and they couldn’t find it in their poor little hearts, uh, any longer! So they threw…me in here.”
“I’m sure you’re eager to teach these little ones some proper etiquette,” the affini purred, ambiently twirling perhaps dozens of vines. Kallie tried her best to mimic the movements. “It can be so hard to watch them act against their best interests.” She shook her head. “Poor things.”
“Oh yeah, it was, um…heartbreaking, for sure.”
“Heartbreaking?” Both girls tensed up as the plant pondered an apparently unfamiliar phrase. “I see you picked up some of these cuties’ dialect while you were held prisoner. Oh, but I’ve been so rude! My name is Syringa Persica, Fourth Bloom. And yours?”
“Um.” Trissa said. A name, they hadn’t thought of a name! What should they even call themselves? Something planty? “I’m Dandelion. Yeah, uh, Dandelion Fluff…”
“The number of blooms denotes how many times an affini has rebloomed, dear. Sort of like that Terran myth about the bird that comes back to life after being set on fire. But you knew that too, I know.”
“A-ah. Well, I’m Dandelion Fluff, er…First Bloom. Yup! Still young! So much of the galaxy I still want to see.”
“I'm sure you’ll have the opportunity with your newfound freedom, Dandelion,” Syringa said, pressing two vines together as if they were hands. “I think all these cuties have been gathered up by now. Won’t you be glad to be back home? Wherever that happens to be.”
“Uh…yeah! I really just go where the winds take me,” ‘Dandelion’ said. Perhaps a bit on the nose, or at least Kallie thought so.
“Solar winds are as good as any! Shall we get you onto a proper vessel?”
“S…sure,” Trissa said, and Kallie started to take some unsteady steps forward.
Syringa led them through the steel halls of their own ship. “My pronouns are she/her by the way. An adorable little human tradition we picked up…”
“Ah, um…yeah,” the afauxni said. “We did hear those humans use their pronouns frequently.”
“Have you settled on your own, Dandelion?”
“Er…yeah! She/her as well.”
“Splendid.” They passed by other affini, carrying their crew members in varying states of incapacitation. “We’ll get you set up on this ship for now, get you a hab unit, but first of course, you’ll need to fill out the papers for it, but I’m sure you’ve missed the paperwork!”
Trissa decided to push. “Would it be possible to get a personal shuttle? W…I long to feel the wind on…um, the solar wind on my back once more.”
Syringa turned to beam at them with those weird eyes of hers. The two humans felt an odd thrumming…Trissa felt comfort and ease settle over her mind…until Kallie brought up a ‘vine’ to hit the side of her head. Trissa retaliated with a slight kick backwards into Kallie’s ribs, causing the entire construction to stumble a bit.
The affini’s smile turned to a look of concern. “I must first ask…are you feeling alright, Dandelion?”
“Oh, uh, for sure! Just been a long time since…I’ve had more than a little room to pace about in, y’know?”
“Ah. I’m sure a short physical can help us pin down any problems that might arise.”
Dandelion stopped. “No!” Trissa gasped, as the afauxni shuddered. “I mean…I’m totally fine, don’t worry. Really!”
Syringa gave them a short look before laughing it off. “Of course you are, dear. Don’t you worry, we’ll get you your ship. Just a little bit of paperwork for you to fill out on that as well, and you’ll be well on your way!”
“Ah…mm…thanks!” Kallie continued to stumble along as Syringa led them off the ship and into some sort of large tube of…strangely uniform plant-flesh. There were subtle and unsubtle designs on glowing lines running all across it, fractal patterns weaved into less geometric art.
They stepped out of the tube and into a large, well-lit…it must have been a hangar, right? “Welcome to the Araucaria!” Syringa held a web of vines outwards to either side, a grand gesture to introduce a grand space.
“Uh…wow…” Trissa murmured. “I mean, er, so good to be back on a real ship!”
Kallie turned them around to reveal that the Distant Thunder fit neatly into the hangar in its entirety. Which only the grandest human supercarriers could hope to do with a frigate. Of course, that was to say nothing of the vessels trellised on the far wall — mostly human ships trussed up in vines, but some unrecognizable makes as well.
The legs of their operation had a mesh area of their big ugly cloak that she could see through, and see she did. “S-stars…” Dandelion’s midsection said.
“Hmm?” Syringa murmured, raising a carved eyebrow.
“N-nothing!” Trissa replied, delivering another kick to her companion. Dandelion’s midsection proceeded to quietly swear, hopefully unheard.
“Well, anyway,” Syringa said, chuckling again, “let’s get you taken care of, hmmm? Right this way…”
The girls found themselves increasingly uneasy as Syringa led them deeper into the behemoth. It had started when their guide had met with some other plants, and conversed in a rapid back-and-forth of flowing speech — of course they would find it suspicious if Dandelion couldn’t manage a lick of Affini.
And then they’d been taken into a central atrium-like space. It was like a small city, or maybe a big city, all within the motherfucking ship itself. A simulated sky with its own apparent day/night cycle overlooked streets and thoroughfares of planty hustle and bustle, amid colorful buildings of all different types, far removed from the cold corporate atmosphere of Terra’s wealthiest parts, to say nothing of the squalor Kallie and Trissa were more familiar with.
Syringa politely waited as they took it all in from the upraised platform they’d entered on, something they’d reached after — well, of course the ship had its own tram system. And of course it had been very clean, green, and welcoming.
But the most intimidating, frightening thing of all, beyond all the cheerfully shared decadence and excess, was their fellow Terrans.
Two sets of jaws had dropped, at first on the train and then as they stepped out. Humans on their own were few and far in-between. The rest were…closely tied to the plants themselves. Placidly following behind, or being carried, many on leashes, all with big dumb grins on their faces, distant looks in their eyes…
Makes sense they’d be hiding the ones that end up in the mines, Kallie thought to herself. There were countless other varieties of aliens besides, all sharing the role of docile subservience. Giant bees and weird, colorful jellyfish, smaller…ah, figured they’d have Rinans as well, they always were a simple sort…
But they all carried along without a care in the world, letting themselves be fed, carried, touched.
All about as genuine as Terran billboards that hid the slums, to be sure. Trissa snaked her hand down to squeeze Kallie’s arm. Escape had to happen at all costs, there was definitely something sinister.
“Not gonna fool me,” Kallie muttered quietly. “I fell for one of those crazy resort world offers exactly once.” There had been no travel to idyllic planets, but she did end up homeless when they used the information she’d unwittingly fed them.
Syringa led them into the streets. Pet humans gave the afauxni wary, wide eyed stares, or they paid no attention at all, too blissed out to consider anything but the vines fondling and petting them.
Kallie gave her ‘fellow’ plants weak waves with her fake appendages, and they always waved back, with the most curious looks on the faces of those that had faces.
“Here we are,” Syringa hummed, gesturing towards a well-lit facade with foreign symbols adorning the perfectly clear windows. “This is where we’ll get you all registered and set up with a place to rest your vines.”
“If w-we could just borrow a shuttle we’d be out of your hai…I mean we wouldn’t need to bother you anymore,” Trissa said.
“We’re more than happy to have cuties…a cutie like you aboard,” Syringa practically sang. They entered an area with, interestingly enough, a human behind the desk. There was a long line of alien text scrolling across a ribbon-like projection overhead, the Terran word “registration” the only identifiable one among them. Though Kallie was pretty sure she could recognize Rinan text as well.
Dandelion Fluff approached the desk.
“Can I…” the receptionist paused to laugh into her hand, attempting to hide it. “Can I help you, newcomer?”
"Your mistress should have told you it’s impolite to laugh at peoples’ appearances, Kelly,” Syringa chastised.
“Yeah,” another English-speaking affini added, as they sidled up behind the desk. “You shouldn’t…” the looked at Dandelion. “Hmmm.” Syringa made some small gesture in their counterpart, a specimen with a shower of bluebells for hair. The latter nodded. “Ah, yes, my floret must have been a little startled by a new face.” Kelly turned and gave her apparent mistress a glance of disbelief. She started to protest, but was silenced by a vine that slid over her mouth and a pat on the head.
“Care to introduce yourself?” Syringa said, turning to the disguised terrans.
“I’m…” Trissa placed her hand on her hips, which both made the concealing cloak flare out on either side and made her wobble until she haphazardly grabbed at Kallie’s shoulders. “Ah! Anyway, I’m Dandelion Bloom!”
Kallie jerked her head against one of Trissa’s legs, hard.
“Oh fuck…I’m Dandelion Fluff! First Bloom!” Trissa nudged Kallie on the arm, leading the ladder to send a fake vine forward, partially climbing the desk. Without missing a beat, the bluebell affini took it and gave it a friendly shake.
“Muscari Raceme, Seventh Bloom,” she offered. Shit, how many blooms could one of these things have? “And this is my lovely floret, Kelly Raceme.” Kelly reasserted a wary look. “Do you have any florets of your own, Dandelion?”
“Florets…mmmm…noooot yet!” Trissa replied. Was…that what they called their slaves?
“There’s a lovely selection from the little fishie we just captured,” Muscari said, winking at them.
“Oh, she knows,” Syringa replied. “Why, you may find it hard to believe, but Dandelion here was a captive on that ship!”
Was…it that hard to believe?
“Ah,” Muscari replied, giving a sympathetic nod. She’d done something to Kelly that seemed to have checked her out of the conversation, making her loll her head back and giggle. “That must’ve been hard. You must be quite hungry!”
“Um…yes! Gotta get my…nutrients.”
Muscari covered the ears of her ‘floret’. “I’m sure a crispy and well-done terran sounds wonderful, right about now.”
“I knew it,” Kallie murmured.
“Uh!” Trissa said. “Uh! Uhm! Yeah! I could go for…emmm…that!”
“Why, I can hear your stomach growling,” Muscari said, looking delighted. Syringa shot something back in their language, something angry-sounding. Muscari chuckled and continued. “Once we get you your hab you’ll be able to prepare yourself any meal you desire, of course. If a tasty human doesn’t strike your fancy, we have the cuisine of thousands of species freely accessible to you.”
“Wha-what does it cost?” Trissa let slip.
Syringa and Muscari both laughed, while Trissa shrunk down on herself somewhat, the disguise crumpling slightly.
“That was a wonderful joke, Dandelion,” Muscari said, still smiling. “I can tell I’m going to like you.”
“Ah, isn’t she just lovely?” Syringa agreed. “Like I said, we’re happy to have you aboard.”
“G-glad to be here…”
“Now,” Muscari said. A vine retrieved a rather monumental stack of papers. “Just fill these out, please, and you’ll be…free to do as you wish, on the ship.”
Kallie tried unsuccessfully to get the papers in her vines, until Syringa pressed the two tubes together and balanced the stack on top. Smiling, she directed Dandelion fluff over to another room with a very high up table.
Affini sized, Kallie realized.
Syringa stood in the doorway as they got situated. “Come and get me if you need any help, cutie!” With that, she exited, with the door closing behind her.
Trissa spoke first, flipping the voice changer off. “Ohmygod finally,” she sighed, leaning forward to rest her arms on the table.
“That was so goddamn terrifying,” Kallie said, shuddering.
“But you know…” Trissa said, giggling to herself.
“Oh Kall, we’ve got ‘em so damn fooled! They fell for everything hook, line, and sinker!”
“I guess you’re right,” Kallie chuckled. “How did they beat the Accord, exactly?”
Neither of them said anything for a short while. The evidence was there.
“Rich enough from all the slaves to afford these big-ass ships, I guess,” Trissa sighed. “How in the hell…there was a battleship in that hangar, Kallie!”
“I know, I saw it. This must be, like, their flagship or something.”
“Hey…” Trissa said, getting another idea.
“We’ve infiltrated these dumb plants, pretty easily. What if we could, like, sabotage the ship, somehow? Or we could commandeer it and deliver it straight to the rebel fleet!”
“Oh yeah! And then we’ll be the heroes that saved humanity and ended the war!” Kallie said excitedly. “And then I’ll definitely be able to afford bottom surgery!”
“Oooh, they’ll pay us so well, we’ll have a big ol’ house, with, like, servants, and stuff…first though, we’ve gotta fill out these…oh no.” Trissa finally looked at the stack of papers on the table.
“Oh no what?”
Trissa reached an arm through a flap and picked up the top of the pile. “It’s all in their language ‘n shit!” she lamented.
“Stars dammit…well, what kinda stuff do you usually put on house rental forms or whatever?”
“Fuck if I know!” Trissa despaired. “The company provided all that shit where I came from. A nice room with only ten other people, and it only cost half of my wage!”
“Okay, well, let’s think this through,” Kallie said. “They wanna know some things, right? Like, that we’re not in debt.”
“But I’m in a ton o’ debt!”
“That’s why we lie, Triss. Y’know, that thing we’ve been doing?”
“Oh yeah, of course. Alright, this shouldn’t be too hard.” On the first blank provided, Trissa wrote “no debt!!!”. Except that was probably where she was supposed to put her name, so she crossed that out. Instead, she wrote, “Dandelion Bloom, First Fl”…
No, that wasn’t right either. She’d already made that mistake one terrifying time…
“Dandelion Fluff, First Bloom,” she finally wrote. Then came the next line, where she indicated a lack of debt.
“Alrighty! First page done,” Trissa proudly declared, as she put it to the side.
“How many are left?”
Trissa spent some time leafing through pages. “Um, 48!”
“Fuck, how many ways can we tell them we’re debt free?”
“There’s probably some other stuff they wanna know too, Kall. Like how old we…I mean, how old Dandelion is, or what school she went to.”
“Do affini have schools? Can we just say we haven’t gone yet?”
“They’re not gonna house us if we’re unemployable!”
“Shit, yeah. Can you even be homeless on a spaceship? Oh god, what if they vent us?”
“It’s okay, we can just make stuff up. Like, uh…Sunflower University. Do you think there’s a place called that?”
“Dammit, you’re right. Agh, what are we gonna dooooo…”
“Maybe we come back to schooling. How old is Sunflower?”
“Um. Yeah,” Kallie replied sheepishly.
“How long is a bloom…” Trissa mused.
“Well, the younger we say she is, the less stuff they’ll expect us to know.”
“Ah. So we’re…ten earth years old!”
“Nononono,” Kallie retorted, “that won’t work. They’ll ask where our parents are. Do affini have parents? Um, maybe they won’t ask that.”
“But if affini have schools, they’ll try to stick us in one.”
“Shit, that might not be a bad thing! Could learn how to blend in like that.”
“Nuh uh. I am not going back to school,” Trissa shot back, emphatically shaking her head.
“But we might need to, Triss!”
“We just need a ship, okay? Unless you wanna win the war and be heroes. We can do that too, I guess.”
“This is…pretty overwhelming, huh…”
“I just want stuff to make sense,” Triss said, putting her head in her hands.
“Look, maybe we forget the saving the day stuff for now. Once we get back out into space, we’ll have the entire damn galaxy to hide in, right?”
Both girls stiffened up upon hearing a knock on the door. Triss quickly stuffed her arm back inside.
The combined being that was Dandelion Fluff stumbled and whirled around as Syringa entered the room, parts of her whirling faster than others.
“Is the paperwork going well?” she asked, looking down at them with a smile.
“We’re—“ Triss flipped the voice changer back on. “We’re, uh, plugging right along! I mean, we’re filling…out…the, uh, papers. Going through it, yeah.”
Trissa made a short squeal as Syringa wormed a pair of vines around her and picked up the stack of papers.
“Let’s see here…” Syringa purred, as she looked at the top one. “Ah yes, your name, of course, and you’re…” she frowned at the next word, and her eyes darkened. “…debt…free. And then…masters’ degree, it says here, quite impressive! And your age is ‘young adult’.”
The two girls remained frozen on the spot as she appraised Trissa’s work.
Eventually, Shringa readied to speak, a smile on her face. “Well well, it all looks good!”
“Um…ah! That’s great!” Trissa nearly shouted.
“It’s splendid, Dandelion! Do you want to know what’s even better?”
Syringa’s eyes gleamed in that weird metallic way affini eyes seemed to. “We’re roommates!”