Floating in darkness, comfortable. There was a pleasant voice and a stroke on his cheek. Hannah. He could smell her hair; rose, coconut, and a hint of the ocean. He could feel the heat of her body beside him. Her soft murmur strangely devolved into bored male voices. His brain began to reboot. There was a ringing in his ears, and he felt cold metal on his face. He was Harry Pananski, he was lying on the floor of the transelevator, and his hands were bound behind his back. Fuck. Shit. Ass.
His face was pressed into the metal grate as the box rapidly slowed its descent. The duration of the deceleration meant that they were moving fast, and therefore must be heading deep below Memphis’s surface. They finally stopped, and two guards grabbed Harry under his arms and hauled him up, walking him out of the transelevator.
“Wakey wakey, waffle-face” said the large, hairy man to his left. “Vinny, you think this poor shmuck is a plant-fucker?”
The skinny, angular man to his right guffawed, “I know ‘em when I see ‘em, Lee. By the look-a this guy, I bet he wacks-off to trussy on da regula’.”
“Uh, Vinnie, what’s trussy?”
“Fahget it!” Vinny snapped, and slammed Harry on the side with his armored forearm, perhaps as a distraction. The impact knocked out his breath, and left his ribs tingling and numb. He had never been hurt like this before – he was in shock. Harry coughed and tripped, but was dragged up again.
They threw him into a cell and Vinny kicked him in the crotch for good measure. “Good luck mista-shmuck.”
Agony spiked through his body. He involuntarily curled up as the pain consumed all thought.
After an undetermined duration, the throbbing pain began to recede, and his head cleared. He was so royally fucked. In the Terran Accord days, there was a modicum of due process, at least for a white, upper-class, cisgender, heterosexual, monogamous man. Unfortunately, his captors didn’t seem to be accountable to anybody. Jaqueoff must have been aware of their little jape, and he didn’t know what that meant for both of them. How could he have involved his friend in this? Did he think that he was some kind of secret agent? Of course, he had screwed this up, and the consequences were real. This wasn’t some dumb action movie where the good guy always wins.
Harry laid on his side and let his head rest on the floor. His ribs ached and breathing was painful. He could only hope that the Affini were on their way and that their power matched their confidence.
Hours later, boots echoed down the hall, and the metal door of Harry’s cell swung open with a shriek. Vinny and Lee entered, and bodily lifted him up by his stiff arms bound behind his back. They walked him down a corridor and into a what looked to be a surgical theater. The walls were white and sterile, and there were no windows. In the center sat a reclined chair, like in a dentist’s office, but it was crudely modified with straps for arms and legs. Realizing what this implied, Harry began to thrash and scream. His resistance didn’t last long, however, as Vinny knocked him upside the head with a gloved fist. Harry felt his teeth smash together, and his head ricochet off the chair. The world spun around him as Vinny and Lee locked him into the chair, and he felt his mouth fill with blood. Without a word they exited, leaving him to wait in stunned silence.
Not long after, Harry heard the clicking of dress shoes come down the hall and into the room. Refusing to look, he was unsurprised to hear a man clear his throat and address him.
“Mr. Pananski, it looks like you’ve found yourself in a spot of trouble. We have reason to believe that you are working against the aims of the Terran resistance. If you cooperate with us and tell us what we need to know, we might be inclined to be lenient with you. Otherwise, it will be difficult to avoid some unpleasantness.”
Harry could almost hear his smirk.
“What are you charging me with? I’ve given so much for this fucking war!” Talking hurt.
“Pananski, we don’t have the luxury of relying on the courts. Anyways, your guilt is a certainty. Your tracking information has shown that you’ve been fraternizing with a certain Xavier Valois, known dissident and Affini sympathizer.”
“What are you talking about!? Xavier has no more interest in the Affini than wearing practical headwear!” Harry responded with outrage.
“Shut up Pananski! Your obstruction will not be tolerated. I think we need to impress upon you the seriousness of your situation. I will be back tomorrow morning, and hopefully by then you will be more cooperative. Until that time, enjoy your evening.”
With that, the Colonel left the room, and Harry was left alone again.
A figure entered the room wheeling a small cart. They were dressed in medical scrubs, with a mask and tinted visor obscuring their face.
“Who are you, what’s going on?” Harry asked, failing to disguise the panic in his voice.
They didn’t respond; instead, they wiped a spot above Harry’s elbow and shakily inserted a needle into a vein.
“WAIT, HELP! WHAT DID YOU DO!?” Harry yelped in alarm.
The figure only turned and hurriedly walked out of the room.
Harry began to hyperventilate and pins and needles surged over his body. Thankfully, he was reclined and didn’t lose consciousness. Twice in one day would have been a record.
He noticed a periodic drip and turned his head to the sound. A thin tube led from the needle up to an IV bag filled with an amber fluid. After ten or so drips, Harry started feeling hot and a bit shaky, as if he had taken one too many caffeine pills during an all-nighter.
This was it, he thought; he was going to die. His life had been tolerable, given the circumstances. He’d grown up on a relatively well-off colony world near Alpha Centauri. His parents were well meaning, but they didn’t know how to make themselves happy, nevertheless him. The colony was safe and clean, but fundamentally boring. Every apartment complex looked the same, and the only establishments were mega-franchises. Most of his time was spent at home dreaming and creating sims. He’d feed the AI a trove of writing and drawing and it would build a fantasy world for him to explore. He coded giant spaceships, alien planets, and ancient ruins. Sometimes he’d write a storyline where he’d join a group of adventurers, or even get abducted by aliens and have to escape (or sometimes not). He spent more time in this head than with anyone in the real world. As a student he decided to study science because he thought that he could make the universe a better place, perhaps solve one of humanity’s numerous ecological nightmares.
It was in technical college that his world began to change. Harry wasn’t any more outgoing than before, but Xavier was one of those people that would eyeball an introvert and make them their friend. In Harry’s case, Xavier dragged him to and paraded him around an afterparty for a student adaptation of Octavia Bulter’s Dawn. Xavier must have seen some glimmer from Harry, because he relentlessly chipped past his defenses and discovered Harry’s passion, creativity, and humor. It was the first time Harry really felt seen. The second time was when he met Hannah. They were both members of a student group advocating for colonization practices with better energy, health, and environmental outcomes. The group didn’t really accomplish much, but this was mostly because their activities received suspiciously little media coverage. Harry thought Hannah was smart, hilarious, and totally gorgeous. Like, the kind of gorgeous where he’d find himself daydreaming about running his hands through her tight curls, and pondering what her lips felt like to kiss. They barely interacted – Harry always found a way to be at the other side of the room, but Xavier became aware of his little crush and judiciously applied peer pressure.
“Just talk to her about science or something.” he’d advised. “She’s a nerd too.”
“But what if she finds out how weird I am?” Harry retorted.
“Then the luckier she’ll be for it.”
He did manage to wrangle his body into sitting near her at a club dinner, and did his best to make conversation, despite his profuse perspiration. To his surprise, it went rather well. She engaged him in spirited discussion, and interspersed her arguments with puns. By the end, she had him laughing and acting silly to get a smile. After that, he couldn’t have gotten rid of her if he’d wanted. It wasn’t long until she’d asked him out, and not long after that he got to taste them lips for the first time. After school they moved together to Earth and idealistically strived towards bringing New New York back from the dead. Marriage was an antiquated practice, but they both liked the idea of making a lasting commitment to each other. To love each other and grow together no matter what the universe threw at them.
And the universe delivered. Hannah was thrust into a hospital system that cared only for profits, and Xavier was shuttled from one terraforming job to another, sacrificing environmental stability for speed. Their idealism was sucked dry by capitalism’s appetite for their creativity and energy. The war didn’t make things better. It wasn’t long before Hannah was conscripted and stuck on a Cosmic Navy heavy cruiser, and he was sent off to Memphis, the quadrant’s sphincter.
And now he was going to die. Terran civilization was shit, but he could have been happy living the rest of his life with Hannah by his side.
Sparks appeared in his peripheral vision, but when he tried to look, they disappeared.
This is odd.
He noticed faint whispers in the background, but when he focused on the noise it resolved into the sound of air rushing out of a nearby vent.
Despite the room’s bright lights, the doorway was in shadow. He heard footsteps and squeaky wheels coming down the hall. A diffuse shadow moved through the doorway and slowly into the room. The shadow dissolved, revealing a figure lying on a gurney, their head sickeningly twisted away from Harry.
They released a shuddering groan, and shakily turned their head. It was unmistakably Xavier, with their strong brows and inky lips, except instead of eyes, there were now only gory pits.
“We haven’t heard from Harry for over twelve hours,” Zeyva Yvryn, Seventh Bloom, remarked nervously in Affini.
She stood on the bridge of the science vessel, Sarracenia, and looked out over the massive command center. The back of the room sloped steeply downwards and featured dozens of recessed control stations. At every station was an Affini, surrounded by a globe of holographic images and text that illuminated the otherwise dim space with flashes of various hues. The front of the hall revealed a starry sky, a single massive window the only barrier between them and the cold vacuum of space.
“Yes, we shouldn’t wait any longer. We must save these daaarling sophonts,” Captain Orchis Latifolia, 32nd Bloom replied determinedly.
Zeyva turned to face Orchis. They towered over Zeya, nearly seven meters tall, even in their customary avian form. Their slender legs were formed from hard teal vines, terminating in vicious black thorns. Their body was tiled with dark, glossy leaves, and their wings formed by the petals of four massive asymmetrical flowers. Her graceful head was adorned by a curving beak ringed by six, shining crimson eyes. A Ciconiid, a small stork-like sophont with four wings and six eyes, rested nestled in their core.
“I’m afraid Orchis, what if Harry’s been hurt? Ferals are so capricious.”
“You’ve really taken a shine to the little one, haven’t you?” Orchis replied in a teasing tone, “don’t worry, we’ll take care of those nauuughty rebels.”
Zeyva’s leaves flattened to her body in a show of embarrassment. Noticing this, Orchis rustled in amusement. Their floret stirred and peered up at their owner with asynchronously blinking eyes.
“Oh, hello my darling Jabiru!”
Jabiru returned the greeting in the form of a warbling whistle, “awowowowaaaaiii! Iaw! Iaw! Iaw!”
“Our friend Zeyva is falling for a human she hasn’t even met!”
Jabiru made a complex series of jubilant chirps in response.
“Yes, she’s adorably love-sick! You have to sleep now little one, you may find the next several hours distressing.”
Orchis produced an amber sap from a vine and drizzled it into the Ciconiid’s open beak. Jabiru rustled their feathers in pleasure, and then settled back into their viny nest, their eyes closing one by one in a clockwise pattern.
“Zeyva, you can ready the Tactical Domestication Envoy, we jump in 15 minutes.”
Zeyva nodded with quiet determination.
Harry didn’t know where or when he was. His world was a tsunami of terrifying images, sounds, and sensations. One moment spiders were swarming all over his body and into his nose and mouth, and the next everyone he’d ever known was telling him that he was worthless in perfect unison. He was pummeled by emotions of fear, hopelessness, and crushing shame.
As if his body was fighting the drugs, he would occasionally come back to lucidity.
In one such moment, Harry heard Hannah’s voice next to his ear.
“Harry, the Affini saved me!”
He felt an enormous sense of relief.
“Oh, Hannah, you’re safe. We can be together again!”
There was a pause
“Harry, I was a rebel, an Affini took me as a pet.”
Harry was shaking.
“No! They can’t!”
“They make the rules honey. Anyways, I’m happy here, I hoped you’d be happy for me too. Razea is wonderful. He keeps me safe, takes care of me, and gives me unbelievable pleasure.”
Harry was a failure, he couldn’t keep Hannah safe, he couldn’t make her happy, and now she was gone.
“Doesn’t what we had matter? The promises we made?” he replied in desperation.
“That’s not important anymore. What we had can’t compare to the unconditional love and bliss that Razea provides. It’s not your fault. Good luck out there, Harry.”
It felt like the air had been sucked from his lungs, and every nerve and fiber buzzed with panic. He broke through the floor and plummeted into darkness. As he fell, thorny vines rent his skin, and the scent of rotting fruit invaded his nostrils. He hit the ground with a massive impact.
“All hands prepare for jump!”
The captain’s voice echoed over the loudspeakers.
Zeyva was at the helm of the lead dropship. Her five squads of Affini commandos were waiting in the rear. To their right was the Sarracenia. It was a beauty; a state-of-the-art science vessel with concentric habitation rings, the outermost of which had a circumference of 200km, and drive petals so long that they disappeared into the distance.
“T-minus five … four … three … two … one… and JUMP”
Tremendous energy thrummed though Zeyva’s every cell. For an infinitesimal moment, the symphony of the universe’s rhythms fell silent. When the hum returned, the Affini squadron held identical positions, but now one-hundred kilometers above the rocky crust of the planet the Terrans designated as Memphis.
Memphis was a dusty red with whisps of water vapor high in its thin atmosphere. It sat in the grandeur of the Osiris Nebula, thick with stelar dust, and was illuminated by a thousand nascent proto-stars.
It was only a second before Memphis began to twinkle as the planetary defense systems fired. Tactical displays illustrated the trajectory of a dozen atomic munitions and hundreds of individual railgun slugs. Terran weaponry was so quaint – it ranked in the lower third of military technology of species the Affini had previously domesticated. The atomics were quickly disarmed via targeted laser hacking, and the bus-sized metal slugs careened into deep space after being gently deflected by EM bursts. The barrage quickly turned to a trickle as the Terran automated defenses exhausted their munitions. A contingent of smaller vessels in the Affini squadron broke off to head towards the surface, while the remainder stayed in orbit to capture any feralist ships quick enough to attempt an escape.
There was still the matter of the hundreds of satellites threatening the planet, but Zeyva would deal with that threat presently.
The Affini dropship patched a call through to the feralist general’s personal datapad.
“Hello General, this is Zeyva Yvryn, Seventh Bloom, commander of the Affini Tactical Domestication Envoy. You are in violation of the Human Domestication Treaty. Please stand down and we will ensure a peaceable surrender process.”
The screen revealed an older man with a suspiciously full head of black hair fumbling with the datapad. He was red in the face and conspicuously sweating.
“You are sorely mistaken if you think that we would give in. In fact, I suggest that you surrender instead,” he said with a smirk.
“Oh? That’s strange. It doesn’t seem that your defenses are particularly threatening.”
“You see, Memphis is special; massive uranic mineral deposits litter the crust. At a press of this button, these will be vaporized and kick off a chain reaction. Conservatively, this will kill everything within 10000km. Everything not below 1000m of solid rock at least. I know how you weeds feel about casualties.”
“Naughty General indeed. You’re telling me that you’d murder everyone on your planet to save your little skin? How very generous of you.”
Zeyva knew that the Affini would trigger a massive electromagnetic pulse should the fusion reactors in the orbiting satellites reach full power. This would certainly knock out the satellites, but would also destroy nearly all infrastructure and communications on Memphis. This was an unacceptable risk to the little sophonts’ lives due to inadequate Terran safety standards, and was shown in previous Affini-Terran encounters to cause them considerable distress with tragic consequences. She dearly hoped that her Harry and his friend had managed to properly disable the orbital array.
“I DON’T NEED TO EXPLAIN MYSELF TO YOU! I WILL PREVENT THE CORRUPTION OF THIS BASTION OF HUMANITY!”
The furious man-child clumsily poked at his datapad before finding his mark.
Zeyva vibrated nervously as nothing happened. Then, like a firework, the hundreds of satellites that orbited Memphis simultaneously grew blindingly bright, and then faded into nothingness.
The general stared at the datapad in shock, while Zeyva fell into a pile of vines out of pure relief.
The little heroes did it! Now she had to hold up her end of the bargain.