Chapter 2: A Penny on the Rails
Harry sat with a single lamp illuminating his desk in the deserted office. His heart was pounding as he typed out his opening message to the Affini. He had spent the last week working long hours finalizing the orbital array upgrade and his nights were occupied developing a strategy to send and receive messages without detection by the Memphis authorities. The solution was convoluted but secure. The messages would be relayed from the Memphis surface to the Affini via the orbital array to avoid detection. In this way, they could be hidden in the surface to satellite data streams and then directionally transmitted by the array, away from the planet. While the transmissions were light-speed limited, he reasoned that he could reach the deep-space probes that likely transmitted Affini propaganda across former Terran space. He was sick to his stomach with worry, but driven by a sense of purpose that he had never felt before.
>> Hello, my name is Harry Pananski. I am a terraforming scientist on planet Memphis in the Osiris Nebula. Authorities have rejected the treaty and I cannot leave. As of several weeks ago, my wife, Hannah Rabbo, M.D., was stationed as Chief Medical Officer aboard the Terran Cosmic Navy Heavy Cruiser, Seaborg’s Fury. Please – I will do anything to make sure that she is safe. Target your return message to this location at spectral frequency code 11 93 48 22 13 03.
Harry began the process of covering his tracks and locking down the terminal when the orbital array log indicated that a message had been received. His thoughts raced as he churned through possible responses in his head.
We are sorry, but your wife died in battle.
Dr. Pananski. We will recover your wife, but in return you will be domesticated. You can both look forward to a satisfying life producing human fluids for sale (at a steep markup we must add) on the Affini fluids exchange.
Stupid Hu-Man, you have made a fatal mistake. You have revealed your position. All your base are belong to us!
This last thought paradoxically tickled him. Before he had the chance to change his mind, he decrypted the Affini message.
<< Hello little one!!! I am Zeyva Yvryn, Seventh Bloom. You poor things, separated and all alone :’( :’( :’( Unfortunately, Seaborg’s Furry decided to hoof it! Don’t worry though! We have our best analysts on the case and we’ll capture them before you know it :) :) :) Also, we know all about the Memphis installation and operation Naptime is well underway }:) }:) }:) But how are you faring, blossom? I want you to be okay until we arrive.
Harry stared at the terminal in disbelief. Was this a joke? Had humanity been brought to its knees by alien camp counselors? Despite his earlier catastrophizing, he was devastated that Hannah was still in harm’s way. At least Zeyva seemed confident.
>> Well, I miss My Wife, and they have us working hard here. I don’t think I’m in any immediate danger though.
<< I understand, cutie. Message me if anything changes. Just hold tight and stay safe!!!
Harry tried not to think too hard about what he had done and gathered his things. He couldn’t help but be a little excited. It seemed like his life was about to get interesting.
The next morning, Harry was back at his desk, coordinating modifications to the orbital array, when Colonel Jaqueoff strolled into his cubicle.
“Pananski. Have the upgrades been completed?”
“Almost. The firmware updates will be pushed by 4pm local.”
“Good. Your next task is to develop a software interface to the targeting system and hand it off to Planetary Intelligence.”
“… Sir, the orbital array is only suitable for stationary targets. I’m afraid it won’t be of much use against spacecr-” “PANANSKI - what makes you think I give a shit? Make sure the interface is ready in three days’ time.”
As the colonel walked out of the cubicle, Harry was left with a rising sense of panic. There was only one use PI could have for orbital targeting control. They wanted the capability to blast the uranic mineral deposits. The surface would be vaporized by the planetary fission cascade, and the gamma ray burst would curdle the DNA of any lifeform unfortunate enough to be in planet’s vicinity.
Perhaps they were trying to keep the planet hostage as negotiation leverage with the Affini. A proverbial gun to their collective temple. Even worse, they might just lure the Affini here to kill them in a pointless suicide attack. Either thought was troubling to say the least.
>> Hello Zeyva, I have an unfortunately urgent message for you. I believe that the planetary authorities intend to use our satellite laser array to turn Memphis into a massive atomic device for the purpose of hostage taking or worse. What should I do? I cannot delay the development much longer.
Zeyva’s response came almost immediately.
<< Oh Petal, are you sure?? That’s awful!! Those naughty ferals and their foolish schemes! You must be so terribly upset. I don’t know what we could ask of you! I couldn’t live with myself if you came to harm :( :( :(
>> It’s scary but I have to do something – I can’t die here. Also, why do you call me petal?
<< Because you are delightful and precious and soft of course!! But little one, I am concerned about your emotional responses. I will make sure you get the help you need soon! Can you think of a way to disable the mechanism without it failing auto-testing procedures?
>> Oh, I see.
>> There might be a way.
>> I will investigate.
<< You’re so brave, Harry!!! :’) :’) :’) We’ll prepare on our side too, just in case. I believe in you!
“So what’s the rub?” Xavier asked, “the way that you’re bouncing your leg tells me we aren’t here just to hobnob.”
The two were hunched over a table with their synth-starch brews and a small bowl of extra-crispy nutrient crisps. Xavier was sporting an 18th century sea-captain’s overcoat and platinum-resin hoop earrings. It was unclear where they had obtained such accessories during wartime. A conversation for another evening.
“Remember how Jaqueoff asked me to double the laser yield on the orbital array?”
“Yes, classic Jaqueoff move.”
“This morning he asked me to develop an interface for the spooks. They want full targeting control.”
“Well, stars tickle my taint! Do the creeps want to blow this place up?”
“Yeah, it looks like they want to hold us all hostage or something,” remarked Harry dejectedly, “can I trust you with a secret?”
“Anything,” Xavier replied with uncharacteristic seriousness.
“I’m in contact with the Affini – they already know about Memphis and they’re on their way.”
“What the FUCK, Harry?” Xavier exclaimed in a forceful whisper.
“Look, I’m starting to think the Affini aren’t evil, they’re probably a bunch of nerds not savvy enough to put together decent propaganda. I’ve been trying to assume the best about people, and I suppose that should include terrifying plant monsters. Plus, I’ll take the chance of the Affini being evil if it gets me away from the psychopaths trying to turn Memphis into a planet-sized atomic device.”
“Eh, anything’s possible, and I see your point about betting against OUR assholes.”
“Exactly. So, here’s the thing – we need to disable the orbital array, but they can’t know that anything’s wrong. We could drop the shutters when the lasers are activated above a certain power threshold; the satellites would pop like that salmon roe they put in synth-sushi. It hurts to do something like this to my babies, but I don’t think we have a choice. I can deal with the software interface; can you modify the failsafe logic?”
“I told you it was a bad idea to name them,” Xavier remarked sardonically, “but I’m in, you lovable plant-fucker.”
Harry plopped down on his rickety cot and flicked on the infotainment display. He had begun to watch Sophonts’ Balm in the evenings before bed. He found Miss Valeria’s voice so calming that he hadn’t even needed to use a SomnoDerm patch the previous evening.
Miss Valeria was reclining on a red velvet chaise lounge, dwarfing the young man leaning against her with his head on her knee. The chamber was ornate, featuring a black and white parquet floor, tall marble columns holding up a vaulted ceiling, and a grand Palladian window looking out onto the sky dominated by a gas giant and its many moons. The space was lit by warm candle light, and was verdant with an incredible variety of riotous alien blooms.
The man had olive skin, a full head of curly black hair, and a short-cropped beard. He was wearing a flowing white garment and his head was crowned with a laurel wreath. Most notable, however, were the golden mesh choker fit snuggly around his neck, and the contentment in his eyes.
Miss Valeria seemed to look directly at Harry through the camera lens, and began to speak.
“Hello, my darlings, welcome back to Sophonts’ Balm. Today we have a very special guest joining us, and a very special program planned. I would like to introduce one of my favorite beings, my third floret, Rocco. Say hello, Rocco!”
The floret exuberantly waved to the camera with a smile.
“Rocco and I are going to invite you all into a beautiful moment. I’m going to pamper you as if you are my floret, and give you all the love you so dearly deserve. You’ll feel as though you are cuddling with me and Rocco, through the ancient art of ASMR.”
Harry didn’t know how to feel about this. He had never been comfortable in intimate moments with other men, let alone some alien invader. The casual nature of this interaction crashed into his unquestioned expectations about he should relate to other men.
With that, dozens of vines lazily billowed out from the Affini, swirling around Rocco, and gently lifted him onto Valeria’s chest. Then, in a dizzying acrobatic display, the camera zoomed out and upwards, before spinning down to rest on a view of the huge Affini and the human comfortably curled up on her.
“Now, little ones, I want you to breathe in and out with me, nice and slow.”
Valeria spoke softly, her mossy chest rising and falling. The infosplainment center projected her voice to envelop Harry, and the air moving through her foliage filled the background like distantly crashing waves. She began to pet Rocco, her massive hand smoothly running from the top of his head down to the small of his back. The nearly sub-audible caresses were transmitted as shimmers that pleasurably radiated from Harry’s core to his extremities.
“That’s it darlings. You’re safe here with me, resting next to my precious Rocco. Just listen to my voice and let it soothe you. My warm hands on his skin are on your skin, and his adorable smile is on your face. All that matters is being in this moment with us. You don’t have to try or think or worry. I’ll take care of you. Cuddle with us. Let your weary eyes close at their own pace.”
Strangely, as Rocco’s eyes slowly shut, Harry felt wave after wave of comfortable weariness surging through him, lowering his eyelids bit by bit.
“That’s right petals. You can still feel our warmth and my petting. Now why don’t you imagine one of the happiest moments from your past, it can be anything. Try to remember who you were with, where you were. What is the weather like? Is it warm or cold? Does it smell nice? What are you feeling?”
Harry’s joy-starved mind latched onto this instruction, the Affini’s words fading into the background. He immediately conjured a summer evening five years ago. Harry and Hannah had decided to take an evening stroll in their New New York neighborhood after an afternoon storm had cleared the smog. Fading light conspired with a gentle drizzle to paint the streets a pinkish-orange hue. Even straggly weeds and disheveled storefronts acquired a romantic mystique. They explored the streets holding hands, chatting and joking about nothing in particular.
Passing a familiar façade, Hannah gave him eyes that could only mean one thing.
“Oh, dearest darling, we have dessert at home”
“But, but, I want ice cream! ICE CREAAAAAM,” she shrieked. She was putting on that petulant front that Harry found irresistible.
Adopting a patronizing affect he replied, “my precious honey bunches of oats, ice cream is for good girls that ask nicely.”
“But I don wanna be good girl.” Her eyebrows arched devilishly and her mouth contracted into a puckered grin as she began to circle him and viciously poke at his vulnerable spots.
“ICE CREAM, ICE CREAM, ICE CREAM,” she chanted, as she assaulted him from all sides.
“Okay, okay, you dreadful gremlin! We’ll get ice cream. But if you’re going to be a bad girl, I’m going to have to treat you like one when we get home.”
She clasped her hands together and cackled, before seeming to think better of it, turning her knees in and innocently fluttering her eyes.
Minutes later they were strolling again, Hannah lapping up her towering treat.
Almost imperceptibly, the light began to change. The sky darkened, and the world seemed to slowly de-saturate. They hunched close together as they heard faint slithering from an empty storefront ahead. Holding hands, they broke into a run, winding through side streets and alleys, eventually coming to a stop panting in an unfamiliar part of town.
Harry looked around, trying to get his bearings. Suddenly, there was a muffled shout as Hannah’s hand was ripped away from his. He turned around to see a massive dark shape leaping onto a nearby building, vines whipping past in its wake.
“HANNAH!” he screamed hoarsely. He frantically sprinted down the adjacent alley, trying to get to the other side of the building. He tripped on something, and was sent tumbling uncontrollably until he skidded to a stop on the pavement. Splayed on the ground, his body was invaded by pins and needles as the sweet stench of over-ripe fruit filled his nose. Dozens of vines coiled around him and lifted him feet first into the air, bringing him close to the monumental face of Miss Valeria. Her beautifully leafy visage was fixed in a strange smile, eye-sockets empty. They stayed that way for a moment, Harry’s eyes wide with terror. Then, her mouth opened as if hinged, revealing row after row of teeth, sharp as hypodermic needles. Darkness and searing pain consumed him as he was lowered into Valeria’s terrible maw.
Harry awoke viciously constricted by his blanket, soaking wet and heart pounding. The apartment lights were out, and the infosplainment center had long turned itself off.
Harry arrived at work on time and sat down at this cubicle. It had been a rough couple of days. Harry’s sabotage was simple, but Xavier’s task was more difficult than expected. That said, Xavier was the best, his work should be complete by today’s handoff to Planetary Intelligence.
He booted up the communications terminal and sent a quick update to his Affini handler,
>>> Hi Zeyva! Xavier and I are on track to finish the “modifications” in the next couple of hours.
<<< Harry! Harry! Harry! This is sooo exciting. Let me know when it’s done. We are on standby here for operation Naptime. I can’t wait to meet you in person :D :D :D
>>> Wait, you’re coming here?
<<< Yes, you silly bud!!! I’m head of the Tactical Domestication Envoy!!! See you soon ;) ;) ;)
Harry was flabbergasted. He didn’t think that he would meet Zeyva already, and he was feeling overwhelmed. Was he on the path to becoming a pet? Also, were they flirting with him?
He didn’t have long to ponder as he heard some commotion from the other end of the room. He quickly killed the terminal with Zeyva and stood up to take a look. A pair of men in shiny, black, military-police uniforms had a flamboyantly dressed figure by the elbows and were marching them towards the transelevators.
“Xavier!” Harry quietly exclaimed.
“I’d worry more about yourself, Mr. Pananski,” came an icy voice behind him.
Harry felt gloved hands land heavily on his shoulders and arms, and was swiveled around to face Colonel Jaqueoff.
“We have just a few questions for you. I’m sure it won’t take long,” Jaqueoff said with a smirk.
Harry felt his heart pumping in his ears and vaguely noticed that he was hyperventilating. He felt familiar tingles in his arms and legs as his vision began to tunnel. The word, shit, echoed in his mind as the world winked out.