“Captain! We've got something on long-range, it's got to be them!”
That got everyone's attention. Well, everyone of the three other bodies on the under-crewed bridge.
Ensign Larne wasn't one for high emotion, not normally anyway. Her captain, however, seated only meters away within the expansive bridge, felt the extra tension in her voice, the slightly squeezed sound of her syllables as they were formed past months upon months of building tension, watching her screens every shift to find out if today was the day everything would finally be over. When the weeds would finally sniff them out.
“What do we have?” The captain turned from his own command display, feeling the slight drag on his motions as the last round of stimulants wore off. Supplies were getting low after so long without resupply, and the shifts needed to keep their faltering vessel (and crew) operational were growing longer, sometimes blurring together until he could hardly remember his sleep periods. When HAD he last slept? He wasn't sure, maybe thirty hou-
He blinked, realising that his thoughts had begun to wander and his sensor operative was staring blankly at him. She had the same tired, stretched-out look that most of his crew now wore, her uniform probably only slightly more shabby than his own, worn threadbare at the elbows from constantly sitting upon that chair.
At least he hadn't put on any weight, the captain considered silently, the rationing of synth cubes had begun early, but every month now the supply got lower, and the ad-hoc growing tanks they'd set up in the maintenance bays could only feed so many mouths with that tastless-but-nutritious gunk. If anything the bridge crew were all beginning to look gaunt from the combination of tiredness and a lack of caloric intak-
Dammit! He'd wandered again and now the marine at the door was staring too. He really did need to lay off the stimms even on the long watches.
“Apologies, ensign. Report.”
Seemingly mollified by his acknowledgement, Larne turned back to her screen. “We got a sensor event a few minutes ago of a jump flare, but... not like one we've seen previously. And no power readings afterwards, just a blip and then nothing, not even an engine flare.” She turned back to her screen while giving her report, frowning at the display.
“Is it one of ours?” The captain tapped a few controls on his own screen, showing him a mirror of the officer's display as she showed him the sensor reading.
“No, the Cornucopia came back from a supply run over a week ago, she was the only ship outside the system. They followed protocol the whole way back.”
“The Cornucopia. Did she bring back anything worthwhile?”
“A little food, sir, but not much. They said the weeds, the Affini, they pretty much left them alone but they didn't want to take any chances of being discovered so kept crew interaction to a minimum.”
“Any losses to the enemy?”
“Two, sir. The Cornucopia's engineer, and their primary jump tech. They didn't report back before cast-off, so we can only assume...”
Why was this the first he was hearing of the Cornucopia, and the defections, and why is it always the jump techs? Are the plants just drawn to people that make a career out of breaking physics over their knee?
The captain almost voiced that thought aloud to himself, but decided at the last moment to keep it to himself. No need to spread baseless theories among the crew. He likely had been informed and the report was still waiting with sixteen-dozen other reports waiting to be read in his mailbox. Someone always ran, every port their one jump-capable supply tender landed at. On one level he couldn't blame them, but on another he despaired at how some of his crew had given up their own self-determination simply for full bellies. It certainly wasn't for money since the Compact had apparently abolished the very concept of cash, and capitalism to boot!
“Alright.” He eventually sighed, shifting in his seat a little just for something to do. “Send out a scouting flight while the weather's good.”
It was another hour of relative quiet on the bridge as they waited for the carrier's scouting flight to report back, though calling it a 'scouting flight' was a little overblown. The two Boxer-class patrol boats were about all their mothership had left that still flew and had functional weaponry, the rest having been mothballed or used to spare. Ugly, misshapen, with underpowered engines and with a flight profile that the pilots considered akin to a swimming brick, the ship's only actual redeeming feature was their heavy armour and resilient hull design, making them relatively durable for their size.
Of course, durability had been given a whole new meaning with the arrival of the Compact, and those damned Affini ships were almost impossible to crack!
In short, they were terrible scouts. But they were all that the Adamantine had remaining to put to void.
The Adamantine herself was not much better to look at from the view of those scouting pilots as they left the near-empty hangar bay and were launched into the black. The Inexorable-class assault carrier was decades overdue for retirement even before the Affini had come along. Tired and neglected.
She hung in space like a forgotten creature of the deep oceans on some primitive world, a 1.5km behemoth with tens of square kilometres of hull plating lit by scattered and failing running-lights. Her skin was pocked by decades of micro-meteor impacts that were never within the TCN's budget to repair, even the thirty-meter-high registry code and name written down the side of the spinal hangar and launch bay had been marred by her long service. This was including one particularly lucky long-range railgun shot by a pirate frigate some decades before that had somehow impacted right beside the name, as if to make an explanation point of how rigidly unbreakable her hide was.
Again, until the Affini had arrived. The venerable old beast might as well be made of tissue paper next to what little weaponry the Cosmic Navy had seen deployed during the so-called 'Terran Pacification Project!'
To the rear of the massive beast her United Consolodated Amalgamated Affiliate Group (Or UCAAG for short) -built engines were quiescent for the moment, the fusion-driven cones black and cold, as they had been for now several years since easing the old beast into a polar orbit around the pitted iron ball they orbited.
She was never meant to operate without resupply for this long. Really, though, she was never meant to operate at all in a modern conflict zone. Outdated, outmatched by her peers, she was the perfect place to send those officers and crew too troublesome or unruly for the corporate admiralty to bear on a ship of any actual importance, but skilled and competent enough, or politically connected enough, to not simply drum them out of the service in shame or walk them out of an airlock when nobody was looking. She was in effect a barge of the damned, now one of the last holdouts of free Terra despite most of the crew having less-than-warm feelings towards the former Accord as it was, and despite the other so-called 'feralists' likely having no clue she was even there!
The system was not exactly a paradise for colonisation, it scored so low on cost/benefit/extraction scale that it didn't even merit a name, just an alphanumeric designation on the navigational charts around a hundred and fifty light years to the galactic 'inward' towards the galactic core, and 'up' relative to the galactic plane of Sol, well within the bubble that counted as part of (now former) Accord space.
What made it special, however, was the mass that anchored the system in place: The Magnetar, a spinning neutron star left over from the most violent of star-deaths possibly millions of years ago, known for outputting colossal levels of energy and radiation. Hidden in the shadow of the solid core from what was once probably a gas giant, the Adamantine was hidden and prying eyes by the rage of the star that washed all around them, and only someone who knew exactly where the planetoid was could even hope to plot a jump into that (relatively) small window of safety, lest they find themselves risking a storm of solar ejecta. The star was not constantly violent, but the outbursts were only just barely predictable, and far harder to read jumping blind into the system than when one was getting live updates from probes in orbit.
This is what had kept them safe and hidden from the Affini for five glacial years as the Accord was steadily folded up and dismantled around the, becoming yet another protectorate for the hegemonic Affini Compact. Stars-damned weeds!
The captain was roused from his quiet musings on the situation beyond the hull by an update from the sensor operator. At some point while he was lost in thought several other bridge officers had come on-shift, replacing the others, but Jessica Lane had remained at her post, drumming fingers on her console while she waited, her other hand pressing an earpiece a little closer to the cup of her ear. “Sir the scout flight reports ship-wreckage.” Her fingers stopped drumming and she gasped softly. “It's them!”
There wasn't much need to elaborate, and the tension on the bridge ramped up several notches at once, the captain could have sworn he heard the marine on duty unclipping his side-arm, as if the mere mention of the plants might cause one to spring out of the vents and drug them all to hell.
“Tell them to fall back!” His order was sharper than he'd intended, but he could not afford to lose those patrol boats!
“Wait, sir-” The haggard young woman held up a hand to her ear. “Patrol reports the enemy ship is inactive, she's dead in the water. And the tonnage is... shuttle-sized? That can't be right...”
“Playing dead?” This felt like a trap... The Affini didn't go around in personal transports wiping out fleets, the arrogant weeds dropped out of jump-space in stars-damned battleships that dwarfed whole colonies with their mass! What in the hells was going on?
“She's taken heavy damage to the outer hull, scouts report some of the interior is open to space. No sign of any bodies in the exposed sections. It looks like she miss-jumped and had a rough re-entry, maybe a gravity wave from a CME?” Lane reported, scratching at her cheek for a moment in thought and then wincing as if stung, the captain noticing her disgusted expression as she felt her own slight stubble. Nobody was keeping on top of personal grooming anymore, not with supplies so low, but for the ensign that clearly became a far more distracting and mentally troublesome issue, and he made sure to avoid consciously noting, lest the young woman be further put-off.
The risks were high, but the rewards were even more tempting: enemy intel, food supplies, maybe even one of those legendary atomic compilers the propaganda broadcasts had mentioned so easily. In the end, he had to put his concerns aside and deal with the practicals in front of him.
“Possibly... Tell the patrol to send over boarders. Full armour.” Not that any Cosmic Marine had ever stood a chance against an Affini in a fight, he might as well be ordering them over there in their bedclothes if it was a trap!
It was another long, quiet stretch of glacial minutes as the captain put in his own earpiece, listening to the comms of the boarding team and their CO back on the carrier as they steadily, methodically swept the small Affini shuttle for anything of use.
“This is spooky.” One marine piped up
“Yeah... I know the grav's off but the layout's all screwy. I mean, there's a pool in the b-”
“Cut the chatter and focus!” A third, more authoritative voice broke in, this one more familiar to the captain as it belonged to the person running the show only a few decks beneath him.
“Sir! Sorry sir! It's just-” The immediately-contrite soldier attempted to explain himself but was cut off by his superior.
“I know, corporal. Weird weed shit. Eyes on the prize, if we find one of those compilers the engineers might finally be able to make you a boyfriend.” The commander's tone softened the chastisement just a little, and broke the spell with that sharp jab.
This last comment led to a cascade of snorting laughter over the channel, but it also seemed to alleviate some of the tension and refocus the marines on-task.
And then it all went to hell.
The captain pressed his hand harder to his ear and leaned forward in his chair as the channel devolved into confused voices talking over one another. There were few other sounds except for the whine and thump of weapons discharge that the solid frames of their suits transmitted through to the mic, the vacuum of space stealing all other noise away.
It wasn't his place, but he dearly wanted to demand someone explain what the hells was going on over there!
“Report! Gillespie! Report now marine!”
“I! Shit! Sir! One of those... those fucking weeds just came outta nowhere! But... f-holy stars. We got 'em! I... I think Franks got her arm broke but we put a suit seal on. I... holy shit... holy shit”
The male voice that must have been Gillespie seemed torn between terror and elation, and for a long moment he simply breathed heavily. “S-sirs? I think we got one.”
“Got one what, marine?”
“A prisoner, sir.”
Early on in the war, back when it had looked like there might actually be a snowball's chance on sol of actually fighting off the Affini, the captain had commissioned this room, a prison fitting for a monster. It had taken precious resources to build, but there had always been a chance they might just be able to interrogate one of the creatures, to gain some vital intel on their implacable foe.
They simply called it 'The Cage'
It was large, because Affini were large, with walls of transparent metal and electrified alloys that allowed no exchange of gasses between the ship's atmosphere and those within the cage. The whole assembly was surrounded by a charged Faraday-cage to keep any electronic signals from going in or out, and cameras watched the interior from every angle, several of them crewed by individual guards, each one with their hands prepared at all times to press the button that would blow out a section of the outer hull and magnetically eject the entire module into space.
There was no furniture inside, the space almost antiseptic in how blank and featureless it was, focussing the occupant's vision outwards, to the antechamber where the captain now stood.
The outer airlock of The Cage opened even as he stood there, showing the view to the interior of the patrol boat as the marines hauled through what looked like a mass of plant matter, a disorganised pile out-massing both armoured figures as they used a sled to drag it in, tipping the whole thing over onto the floor before swiftly retreating, neither one turning their backs on the creature until the airlock was sealed and The Cage began to hum as the walls became energised with enough voltage to hopefully make even a walking tree hesitate about touching them.
He stood, and he waited He knew he should sleep, or at least pretend to sleep, at least lay down in his cot and stare at the bulkheads... No, he'd be unable to rest anyway, not until he'd finally had a chance to speak to one of the foe that had brought down humanity's yearning to define their own fate, and made them thank the bastards for it.
Uncountable minutes later the mass began to stir, first with a few twitching vines, and then as a whole the Affini began to knit itself back together into something resembling a coherent whole. It built outwards from the torso area, though even looking hard the captain could not spot the 'core' he'd heard spoken of in intelligence briefings, it seemed to be masked somehow from all the various camera feeds as those vines began forming limbs, a head, plates of bark and leaf and viney sinew becoming an artfully intricate faux human face, but it was taking forever, as if the stunned Affini needed time to get over the discombobulation... Or was it simply so arrogant that it was showing off?!
The answer came moments later as the faux-face's eyes opened, the swirling violet orbs lit from behind as the Affini pulled up to their full, imposing height, and stared down at the captain with an indulgent expression helping to quirk their mouth into a slight smirk that somehow seemed to reach those dangerous orbs above.
“Well...” It purred in a voice like a star given speech, seemingly having taken stock of its surroundings. “This is interesting!”