Colonel Anton Jaqueoff came-to feeling strange. An unusual warmth smothered his cold reactivity. His mind was cloudy, even more so than his usual pre-amphetamine state. He certainly didn't feel capable or powerful, and that was a cause for fear. He was mostly upright, but not standing or sitting. He was … floating? That was also strange and unacceptable. His body felt entirely weightless, but small movements didn't send him drifting as in microgravity. In fact, he could slowly move his arms and legs a bit when he pushed, but when he relaxed his muscles, they would lazily return to their original “spread eagle” position. He appeared to be suspended in a small chamber that opened to a dark hallway. Disturbingly, his naked body was lit in a dim blue light, highlighting his bulging veins, muscles and tendons – his skin crisscrossed with faint scars, the results of a dozen surgeries. The barely illuminated walls had a smooth, pearlescent quality. At first, he couldn’t hear a thing, but eventually he noticed a warm hum in the background.
“Hello!” he yelled out. It sounded muffled.
For a minute he thought he wasn't heard, but then, a light turned on at the end of the hall, and a gargantuan figure in silhouette sauntered towards him. His heart was beating heavily; he would have been shaking in fear if not for his stability-enhancing bionics.
The alien finally reached the chamber and was illuminated by the faint blue glow. It was female presenting, with slender limbs formed from branches sheathed in silvery-white bark and complemented by paper-thin leaves with serrated edges. Its face was … beautiful. Its smooth silvery-green skin and luminous lilac eyes were framed by cascades of serrated leaves. Their lips and eyebrows fluoresced under the blue light.
"Oh, hi there my naughty little rebel! Welcome to the Sarracenia. I'm sure you have many questions, but I think an introduction is in order. My name is Betula Papyrifera, 4th Bloom, and I will be your loving owner."
The color drained from Jaqueoff’s face.
“Welcome to the rest of your life!” she said with an exaggeratedly saccharine smile.
Harry dodged boughs of unknown vegetation and scrambled over roots as he followed Xavier along a path through the tropical jungle. It was difficult going, but he felt invigorated. Never before had he experienced such fresh air and natural abundance. Flowers of hundreds of colors and shapes sprouted from branches, vines, moss, and every conceivable other surface. Birds and other non-sophont critters flitted from tree to tree, hundreds of feet above in the canopy. After a hearty climb, the two Terrans crested a ridge. They stood beside each other panting and beheld the otherworldly view. A forested valley, punctuated by rugged terrain, stretched out miles ahead, eventually disappearing into the fog. Thousands of feet above the forest floor was a lacy lattice of rock threaded with enormous vines. Beams of warm sunlight pierced through the gaps in the lattice, illuminating the water-laden air in an incredible crepuscular display.
“This is absolutely not what I expected to find on an alien spaceship,” Xavier remarked, staring out into the distance.
“Well, the Affini don’t seem to do anything in half measures,” Harry replied, still trying to catch his breath.
Xavier turned to him, flapping their yellow pleather crop-top to cool down. “Yes, including FLIRTING. I tell you, Calostoma will NOT give it a rest. The other day she ‘accidentally’ got flour all over me and then offered to take off my dirty clothes and use her vines to cover me up.”
“Zeyva is a little less forward I guess. She does take any chance she gets to lift me or pet me or ‘innocently’ brush against me though. Why are they so touchy? What do they get out of it?”
“They’d like to convince us they just see us as adorable little critters. And they ARE genuinely affectionate, but there’s got to be something more to it. It feels almost like a power-play. Like they get off by drawing us in, overwhelming us with those vines. I swear there’s something going on. I’d say it’s sexual if I didn’t know better.”
Harry shivered and said, “Yeah, the way it feels when they touch you. It’s not normal. The texture is all wrong, but it feels better than anything. But sexual? I don’t understand; I can’t square their wholesome aspirations with that kind of primal predatory intent.”
Xavier laughed and gave Harry a pointed look, “There’s a LOT you don’t understand. Some people can’t get their asteroids off unless they're dominating someone else. There’s nothing wrong with that as long as consent is in the picture. But speak of the deli, look who’s coming.”
Giving their wards some space, the translucently vined Zeyva and her plush friend Calostoma glided up the hill on writhing vines. Xavier hollered down at them, waving their arms wildly, before sprinting through the brush up along the ridge. Harry stared at the Affini pair aimlessly for a few seconds, before realizing Xavier was gone, and then turned to follow them.
“LET ME OUT!” Jaqueoff bellowed.
Betula began to speak, but was immediately interrupted as Jaqueoff continued, “LET ME OUT! LET ME OUT! I AM A COLONEL OF THE TERRAN RESISTANCE – I DESERVE TO BE TREATED WITH RESPECT!”
Well, this one is very rude, she thought with a pout. I will have to work on etiquette with him.
With a single thought, the noise suppression field increased in intensity, and Jaqueoff’s shouting was reduced to muffled background noise. She knew that the effect would be the same inside the cell. His shouting soon abated, and his face contorted from fury to confusion.
“Now listen here sugarbob,” Betula stated with a hint of irritation, “As your owner, I make the rules, I thought that should have been obvious. Furthermore, before you start demanding respect like an aggrieved little hero, let me remind you of the ‘respect’ you afforded your poor subordinates. Our records indicate that you employed physical and psychological torture on two civilians, Xavier Valois and Harry Pananski within the last several days.”
Jaqueoff’s face revealed his intense discomfort with Betula having access to this information.
“As my pet, do not assume you will be treated as my equal. You will be comfortable and content, but we may need to use certain … methods to get you to that point. As a first step we will disable your bionics, you have no need for them anymore. Most military domestication cases require considerable use of psychoactive medications to decrease aggression, and increase obedience and adoration. But don’t worry, you will find the effects quite pleasurable. Finally, you will receive a haustronic implant transplanted from my core. The procedure is irreversible, but at that point the idea of not having me inside of you will seem inconceivable. I think you’ll find it to be a spiffy little piece of mind control biotech.”
As she spoke, a segment of Betula’s consciousness that constantly monitored her tootsie-pie’s vitals and mental state activated. His anxiety levels had skyrocketed but his vitals had not changed. Most Terrans would be experiencing high heart rate and heavy breathing – something wasn’t right. Betula mentally triggered his cuffs to administer moderate xenodrug doses – a class E for anxiety, and a class D to loosen those tight little vocal cords and the misguided loyalties that bound them. Almost immediately his posture and the tension in his face slackened.
“Now, little one, tell me what’s on your mind,” she commanded with considerably more gentleness.
“Please … please cover me. I can’t be like this.”
“Oh, of course – this was just standard examination procedure for Terrans with tactical modifications,” Betula replied. With another thought the matter compilers in the chamber shrouded him in soft purple pajamas.
“Thank you. I … I regret how I handled the situation with Valois and Pananski. I lost control - I was trained to be better than that. But, then again, my orders were clear.”
“And those orders were?” she urged.
“N-no, no I can’t”
“Why not? There’s nobody left to cover for. I’m sure you realized the General is on track for domestication as well.”
“I’m not … allowed. It isn’t possible.”
Betula thought this very strange, but since she didn’t need his military intelligence, she decided not to push her wee honey log, for now at least.
“That’s alright petal, I’m more interested in how you feel about your impending domestication.”
“I’m furious and … terrified. You’ve confirmed my most pessimistic expectations. You’ll control my thoughts and fill me with drugs until I’m useless and pitiful. Nothing of me that has any worth will be left.”
The Terran was calm, but his despondency leaked through the xenodrug haze. Betula felt a twinge of sadness ricochet through her vines. She was right to set him straight, but what he needed now was reassurance most of all. She triggered a light class M variant to relax his muscles further and prevent him from harming himself.
As she reached in her vines to coil around the human’s floppy limbs and torso, she sought to reassure him, “Oh thistle-whistle, how can you be so right about the facts and so wrong about their implications? Even though you’ve committed some truly heinous acts, your worth to me will never be in doubt.”
Unable to resist, the Colonel simply moaned in surrender as Betula lifted him to her leafy bosom and carried him through the interrogation facility to his new home.
“So, I’m not sure if I should even ask, but what happened to you down on Memphis?” Harry nervously asked Xavier as they walked up the ridge.
“No, it’s cool. Pretty much the same thing as what happened to you. It was tight, but I obviously had enough time to complete those orbital array modifications. Not even twenty minutes later, that tight-ass, Jaqueoff, comes by with his goons and drags me down to a FUCKING DUNGEON. Why did we have dungeons, Harry? WHY? So, they beat the shit out of me, yada-yada, and then strap me onto a torture throne down in the medical wing. Jaqueoff asked me a bunch of off-base and frankly insulting questions, got frustrated, and had me injected with some spoiled psychedelics. It was a bad trip, but not the worst I’ve had. Next thing I know I’m being hustled into the bunker and getting rescued by those nerds.” He finished, pointing his thumb over his shoulder down the trail.
Harry was quiet for a minute. He was embarrassed and ashamed. Why had he crumpled while Xavier seemed to waltz through without any lasting impact. Why was he so weak?
Xavier noticed the silence and asked, “Are you alright?”
Harry replied, “Yeah, I guess; you’re just so strong. Jaqueoff gave you his worst and it just pinged off you like plasma on an ion shield.”
“Harry, I’m not inherently strong, I’ve just experienced worse. I’ve already put in the work to get to a place where I can trust myself. I could never have survived this universe as a non-binary person without processing my strengths and weaknesses, dreams and fears. That’s why I managed with those horrible psychedelics and deliriants. They couldn’t throw anything at me that I hadn’t already confronted. Plus, I got those GOOD drugs not even an hour later.” Harry knew Xavier wasn’t lecturing. He was sharing his hard-won experience. That didn’t make it easier to take, but he swallowed and forced himself to internalize it.
“Yeah, I’m not sure whether I’m lucky or not that I haven’t had to work on myself like that. How about those drugs though? Zeyva’s certainly been liberal with them.”
“RIGHT? Good job Affini, ten out of ten. Did you get that drug that gives you full-body euphoria when you get touched? Or those sedatives that make you feel like your brain is being cuddled? Fuck it’s good.”
Harry’s thoughts hitched. “Yeah, I won’t deny that it feels great in the moment. It just scares me. I never asked to be drugged. I’m used to feeling in control of my body, and they're so quick to take that away.”
“Yeah, I hear that,” Xavier responded. “It all hinges on whether you trust them to know what you need at any moment. I sure as Helsinki wouldn’t trust another human with that, so I’m not sure why I’d consider trusting some plant alien I’ve known for a week.”
Harry laughed, “Well, they’re clearly more capable than we are. And I don’t think I’m one to talk. I trusted Zeyva HARD. I had to trust that she’d protect us from those rebel shit-stains, and I still have to trust that she’s going to get Hannah.”
Xavier paused in thought, “Trust is a decision. When you put your trust in someone you have to accept the risks. Still, that they took down Memphis without any casualties is a big honking testimonial.”
"Yeah, I really hope so. I miss her so much. I can feel it in my chest. And now I'm afraid I'll never see her again. What if she pisses off the wrong person?"
Xavier put a hand on Harry's shoulder, "Well, we're doing everything possible to get to her. And she's a survivor."
As the pair trekked along, Harry began to detect a floral odor. It was something between lilac and fruit candies. If he was clearer headed he might have turned back, but as the scent grew stronger he felt compelled to drift towards its source.
Harry was jolted from his stupor by a sharp snap from ahead. He looked up to see that Xavier had broken through a tangle of fine tendrils that had blocked the path. It was some sort of trap - bulbous plants on the sides of the trail released a massive cloud of pink pollen. As he involuntarily sucked in a breath, his mind's fogginess became impenetrable. His whole body became warm and fuzzy, and everything in his field of view gained a spectral fringe.
That incredible scent must be coming from those plants
Harry fell to his hands and knees and crawled towards a particularly fragrant specimen. It was about waist high and slimy, with dewy little hairs coating its outside. The scent emanated from a drippy slit formed between pillowy mounds. As he tried to nuzzle his face towards the opening, he was poked in the cheek by a girthy and turgid protuberance. Irritated, he swatted it away and beheld his prize, his vision throbbing and spiraling around his object of desire. He tentatively ran his tongue along the slit, and was rewarded with warmth, slickness, and a sweet, musky flavor. Harry began to lustily to lick, suck, and bury his tongue in the slit. He vaguely noticed little hairs sticking to his skin, but he was too busy worshipping his prize.
Zeyva and Calostoma slithered along the path after their adorable wards. There was nothing like relaxing in one of the Sarracenia's hundreds of unique biomes. Zeyva admired the massive trees - the Sarracenia was constructed fairly recently, but five hundred years was more than enough for the old growth to come in quite nicely. This biome was modeled after the equatorial rainforests of Ericale. The ancestral affini symbiote bonded with species from across the core worlds, but Zeyva's origin species evolved in a place much like this.
The two friends reminisced about past domestication missions and compared notes on their adorable wards. While they could not agree on which was the cutest, they completely aligned on one thing - both wards would succumb eventually. Among the many strengths of the Affini, taming independent sophonts was chief among them.
Calostoma noticed the distinctive scent first. She turned to Zeyva, her face a mix of concern and amusement. "You don't think they've wandered across some Flora Fatales?"
Zeyva's leaves bristled in a wave down her back. Of course the Terrans would be safe, but extracting them might be a … messy business. Without saying a word, the two Affini surged up the path.
What they encountered was almost unbearably adorable. Harry was spralled across the path and was lazily worshiping a female-type plant organ. Xavier apparently inhaled a larger dose of the airborne sedative-hypnotic and was gently snoozing with his mouth around a male-type organ. Zeyva and Calostoma took a minute to admire the scene, and then got to work peeling them off the predatory shrubbery.
Harry woke up feeling content, well-rested, and slightly confused. He looked around the room and was faced with familiar greenery and a simulated dawn sky. He was in Zeyva's habitation unit. The last thing he remembered was crawling on his hands and knees … towards … a plant vagina? His cheeks turned red as he sat up and cradled his head in his hands.
Zeyva strode into the cozy bedroom with a barely disguised smirk on her face. "Feeling alright darling?"
Harry groaned and stretched his arms over his head, "I guess? What even happened?"
"Well, you encountered an Affini progenitor species. It attracted you and Xavier with its scent, and then released a pollen cloud that sedated you and made you extremely … amorous."
"Lovely," he replied with dry sarcasm.
"Actually yes!," Zeyva interjected enthusiastically. "You experienced the first stages of a mutualistic relationship! The Flora Fatale attracted you and would have provided you with sustenance and pleasure in return for spreading its genetic information. Its ability to chemically manipulate is powerful, and you would have happily spent the rest of your life wandering between colonies."
"You know, that actually makes a lot of sense in the context of the whole Affini …. ethos."
"Enough philosophy," Zeyva said with a chuckle. "Let's put some breakfast in you, I made a coldpizza, I heard it's a Terran delicacy."
Harry stared at Zeyva dumbfounded before deciding that questioning her sources was more trouble than it was worth, and followed her into the kitchen area.
It was truly a remarkable space. Harry had only begun to comprehend its organization and capabilities. In a practical sense, it has all of the necessary appliances; matter compiler, stasis unit, laser dicer, all in finely finished plant-tech. What truly rocked Harry's gourd was the thermo-temporal control unit (the-te for short). It brought matter to the desired temperature profile and accelerated natural aging processes such as baking, braising, boiling and even fermentation. Dry-aged steaks and miso could be made from scratch in minutes. Incidentally, Zeyva had used the the-te to authentically recreate coldpizza.
Harry clambered up a grown-wood stool to the kitchen table, dried herbs and aging cheeses looming overhead. Zeyva cut him a slice of the coldpizza and sat opposite, vines vibrating in anticipation of his reaction. It was actually pretty good, with a thin crust and tart, flavorful sauce. He gave her an a-ok sign with his unoccupied hand and continued chowing down. Zeyva practically hummed with pleasure at his reaction.
As Harry picked at crumbs, Zeyva's natural rhythm stilled. "Harry, do you still want to help retrieve Hannah? There's no shame if it would cause you too much distress."
Harry went steely-eyed, "No, if it would help get her home safely I have to."
Zeyva was simultaneously anxious and proud. "I see. Well, let's get you briefed. It's time."