Anton Jaqueoff stood on the slate floor of the bathroom shivering. It wasn’t because he was cold; he was wearing an extremely fuzzy pajama set. He was shivering because Betula was about to put him in the bath. He found the idea of her touching his naked body terrifying. Over the past week he had only become marginally more comfortable with his ‘mistress.’ He scowled at the thought. She had treated him gently, but his more aggressive outbursts had been swiftly countered by the administration of speech inhibitors, and drugs that made him extremely drowsy and docile. It was humiliating to be made so vulnerable. Unfortunately, on the rare occasion that he was sober, the slightest touch from her vines set his heart racing in panic.
He was always looking for a chance to escape, but without his enhanced strength he had no chance to overpower his captor, nor could he overcome her eons-long technological advantage. He was truly exhausted from constantly being on alert.
Betula flowed into the room and grinned hungrily at her floret. “All ready for your bath, turtle-puff?”
“I still fail to see why you feel the need to bathe me,” Anton replied petulantly.
Betula ruffled his hair with one vine and shoved him towards her with another. As he stumbled into her, she dexterously pulled down his pants and underwear, whipped off his shirt, and swept him off his feet. “Well, desensitization to physical touch and intimacy is good for your recovery, but most importantly, you’re my pet, and I want to pamper you,” she said, all the while petting his chest as he squirmed, trying to escape her vines.
Anton scream-growled in frustration as Betula stepped into the tub and gently lowered him onto her lap. "There's nothing to be afraid of, little one, let's get your hair wet." She spooned water over his head while shielding his eyes. Betula grabbed a bottle from the shelf, poured a little on her floret's scalp, and began to work-in the floral-scented product. Betula's vines running through his hair felt heavenly, and his skin began to tingle. He sighed and relaxed back into Betula. What he didn't know was that the shampoo was laced with fast-acting class A, D, and E xenodrugs, a blend concocted with her floret's particular needs in mind. As she continued to massage his head, Anton slipped into a pleasant trance. "How are you doing there, sweetness?" Betula gently asked.
"Mmm, pretty nicee," he replied lackadaisically.
"Oh, that's good to hear," she said, smiling. "You’re normally so tense. It’s lovely seeing you relaxed and comfortable. Wouldn’t it be easier just to surrender?”
His eyes flicked down towards his stomach and he answered in a mumble, “I … I can’t. M’not allowed.”
“Says who darling? Why aren’t you allowed to relax?”
Even in his heavily drugged state, Anton was weighed down with anxiety and internal conflict. He couldn't answer her, no matter how much he may wish to.
“Hmm, this won’t do at all,” thought Betula out loud. “Perhaps I’m not the first to condition you? Well, let's try something. Darling, I want you to sink down and listen to my voice, just like we've practiced."
Anton's head was already drooping, so Betula held his chin with a coiled vine. As she took him deeper, she savored the feeling of his breathing growing steady against her chest.
"Okay my sweet. When I next bring you up, you will find yourself back in your original conditioning chamber on Delphi, and you will hear my voice as that of commander … Yarlov. Everything that I say as them will have unfettered access to your deepest hypnotic conditioning. Do you understand?"
"Yyez," he mumbled in reply. It was a long shot, but Betula had hope that she had the key to open him up.
"Very good little one, coming up in 3, 2, 1, eyes open, wide awake."
As Anton came back to consciousness, his body began to shake, even as he was half-submerged in the steaming tub.
"Jaqueoff, this is Commander Yarlov of the ONCI," Betula stated authoritatively.
Clearly terrified, Anton's quaking intensified. Betula's core throbbed in sympathetic agony, but she continued, "Asset Jaqueoff, enter deep programming state."
As Anton replied with a monotone, "affirmative," his shaking ceased and his eyes gained a glazed quality.
"Jaqueoff, recite your core conditioning," Betula commanded.
"Affirmative. Precept Alpha, Asset must follow ONCI directives primarily and Cosmic Navy directives secondarily; all other considerations are tertiary including the safety of the Asset and other personnel. Precept Beta, Asset will suppress emotional responses in decision making including the application of deadly force. Precept Gamma, Asset's natural identity traits are suppressed in favor of officer identity. Precept Delta, Asset will follow-"
"Cease recitation of protocols," Betula interrupted, her voice thrumming with anger. She seethed internally with the realization of how severely Anton's previous owners had cognitively and emotionally hobbled him. This would end NOW. "Asset Jaqueoff - deactivate and terminate all ONCI and Cosmic Navy conditioning, triggers, and precepts. Any resulting conflicts and queries are to be directed to Betula Papyrifera, 4th Bloom. Please acknowledge."
"Affirmative" he simply replied.
"Excellent," Betula said with a sly smile. “Oh, and one last thing. Recite your command codes.”
Harry sat at the helm of Terran Cosmic Navy shuttlecraft, SC-10A7, nervously ripping open and closing the Velcro pockets of his flight suit. A plush, red vine squirmed across his shoulder and gently rubbed his back, as its owner, Calostoma, comforted the Terran, “Don’t worry petal, Zeyva is one of the finest commandos out there, everything will go smoothly and we’ll have Hannah safe in our vines before you know it.”
“Yeah, I guess,” Harry responded, “I’m still afraid of how she’ll react to the whole betrayal thing.”
“Is it such a betrayal to save her life - to prevent the senseless suffering and potential loss of life for the rest of the crew? The Terran Accord has already been dissolved. We’re simply expediting their transition into the new and better way of things.”
Harry’s knee bounced with nervous energy and his brow was furrowed. He muttered, “Well, I hope she can see it that way.”
“Well, I’m sure she will darling, and if not, we have ways of helping you get over it. Speaking of which, I hate to see you in distress, are you sure I can’t give you a little something to ease your mind?”
“What makes you think I’d want to get over her? And no, of course not! This is far too important.”
Feeling scolded, Calostoma retracted her errant vines into her body and let out a faint whine.
“Aww, Cali, I’m sorry. I’m not angry with you, just tense.”
Harry looked at a flickering display and said, “Alright, it’s time – I’m going to send the opening message.”
The previously drafted message appeared on the communications terminal in a ghostly red font.
>> Attn Seaborg’s Fury: I am Harry Pananski, civilian terraforming engineer. I escaped from Memphis via shuttlecraft, SC-10A7, the day of the Affini invasion. Over the past week I have been navigating the Osiris Nebula and avoiding Affini patrol vessels. I am requesting rendezvous with the Fury. I believe my engineering capabilities would be valuable. I will also transfer possession of the shuttle and 12 class-M antimatter batteries aboard. My wife, Hannah Rabbo, is also aboard your vessel. I am currently at galactic position:
23655.003567404423, -14878.255851129073, 148.993816300346
“Okay, now we wait. Hopefully they take the bait.”
Calostoma smirked and replied, “Oh they will flower, our reports indicate that antimatter resources are in short supply now that we are disassembling Accord military infrastructure. All the little fishies will have to come out of hiding sooner or later.”
Harry felt somewhat disturbed now that he'd started to understand the utter hopelessness of the struggle for Terran independence. He frowned a bit before turning to Calostoma and saying, "Cali, I don't hate the Affini, now that I've spent a whole week with you all, but I … I find the whole situation … upsetting."
Calostoma spiraled a vine up his arm in a comforting gesture, and asked, "What about it darling? I didn't think you felt any loyalty towards the Accord."
"It's just that, suddenly we have to accept that our species no longer has the chance to shape our future. I suppose history has shown us again and again that we haven't deserved that responsibility, but it's still such an enormous surrender."
Calostoma looked out at the stars and slowly replied, "Many species that we've domesticated have gone through an intense period of joy and relief, but also mourning for their loss of independence. There's just nobody better suited than us to make the universe's sophonts happy."
“Yes, you’ve made that especially clear by subduing 90% of humanity’s trillions in a couple of years."
The indicator light began blinking on the terminal – a message had been received. His heart thumping, Harry decrypted the message and displayed it on the monitor.
<< Hello SC-10A7, this is Seaborg’s Fury. We copy your request for personnel and materials transfer. Please provide proof of identity and clearance codes.
>> Gladly. Clearance code is RAAE9089734578907. I request verification via question provided by Dr. Rabbo
Several minutes passed until the next message arrived.
<< Dr. Rabbo asks what is her favorite ice cream flavor
<< That is correct Mr. Pananski. Proceed along the attached flight path. We will jump to the indicated coordinates at 07:53 tomorrow. Your window for docking is 30s, after which we will jump away to avoid interception. Please acknowledge.
>> Roger. Ceasing communications.
“Excellent little one. This will go absolutely swimmingly. Why don’t you get some rest while we move to those coordinates.”
Harry, bleary eyed and damp from sweat, nodded and climbed onto a bunk towards the rear of the shuttle. He closed his eyes, and tried not to think of how many ways things could go wrong tomorrow.
Standing on the bridge of the scout vessel, Ceracea, Zeyva gave the command to initiate a jump. Reality thrummed and popped, depositing the ship in a vast asteroid field. Directly below them was Seaborg's Fury, a chunky, irregular vessel, approximately 300 meters long and bristling with weaponry. A tiny, grey shuttle jutted out, in contrast to the Fury's matte-black bow. Harry and Calostoma sat in the little vessel, protected by Affini-designed reinforcements to the ship's primitive superstructure.
The tactical officer in the corner slammed a big red button, releasing an electromagnetic radiation burst that surged towards the Fury, earning a sympathetic crackling around its engineering section.
"Prepare for boarding," Zeyva announced to the assembled Affini domestication squadrons. They moved to the corners of the vessel and waited for the ship-to-ship transport vines to unfurl and slap onto the Fury's hull. Zeyva joined her squad, vines jittering in excitement. Her squad entered the hollow vine single-file and shot down towards the Terran vessel with the power of their own vines. Zeyva zoomed down after the Affini commandos. She landed in a cramped hallway already choked with violet gas and the slumped-over forms of sedated feralists.
While her squad moved down one dark corridor towards life support, Zeyva headed in the opposite direction. Only ten meters down the sheet metal lined hallway, three little Terrans in medical gear came sprinting around a corner, almost bowling into her. When they noticed the giant green alien, they froze in terror. The jumpiest of the three immediately brought up a pulse rifle with the intention to fire. Zeyva quickly wrapped a vine around both of its arms, and sent another between its legs to sting it with a hypodermic thorn on its buttocks. Its comrades looked on in fear as the cutie sighed and wilted into her waiting vines.
"There, there, just sleep," she murmured into its ear as it slipped into unconsciousness.
The remaining humans screamed as they tried to turn and run. Zeyva lazily whipped vines around their torsos and pulled them both into her warm embrace. Almost instinctively, the buds in her hair opened and puffed psychoactive pollen into their cute little faces. Their panicked writhing slowed and their expressions slackened as the pollen dragged their minds into all-consuming blissful delusion. Witnessing their terror melt away sent pleasurable shivers ricocheting around her body.
Zeyva stashed the incapacitated rebels in an alcove and surged towards the medical bay. When she arrived, she was confronted by closed blast doors and a foreboding, flashing red light. Hmm, it looks like someone is feeling protective, she thought to herself. She opened a voice channel to her tech expert aboard the Ceracea, "Chary dearest, would you please open the aft medbay door aboard the Fury?"
"Of course Zeyva! Doors opening in 3, 2, 1 …"
Harry and Calostoma sat side by side at the helm of the shuttle and looked out the forward viewscreen. Chunks of rock the size of cities slowly drifted in space amongst luminous clouds of gas and dust.
Harry bounced his leg nervously as he checked Terran Standard Time on the monitor again and again. It was already 07:58 - five minutes after the scheduled rendezvous time.
Without warning, Harry's vision seemed to jitter and splinter into a thousand perspectives. Seaborg's Fury appeared with a bone-shaking thump. It was a hulking silhouette against the fuchsia glow of the nebula.
The ship-to-ship communications terminal blinked with a voice-link request. Harry took a shuddering deep breath and looked anxiously at Calostoma.
"You can do this Harry," she said gently, "we only need to keep them busy."
Harry nodded and slowly reached over to open the channel.
"Hello, this is Harry Pananski aboard shuttle-craft 10A7, requesting permission to dock."
"This is Captain Zhao of Seaborg's Fury. Please proceed to the aft-starboard quadrant," came a sharp voice over the intercom.
Harry maneuvered the craft with its thrusters to the indicated position. Hatches opened on the Fury to reveal spindly robotic arms. He heard the arms connect to the shuttle's hull with a syncopated clink. The whole shuttle vibrated as it was slowly pulled towards the Fury.
"Initiating docking procedure," came Captain Zhao's voice over the intercom. "We'll be glad to have you aboard," they said conspiratorially, "The weeds have taken down our recruiting network. It's been challenging keeping all systems running without engineering support. Not like we have many … professionals aboard."
Harry struggled to think of anything to say. He felt sick to his stomach.
Without warning, yelling erupted from the intercom, "Affini vessel sighted! Initiating emergency jump protocols!"
Calostoma, a smirk on her face, pointed above the Fury with a vine. Harry looked up to see an Affini ship looming over Seaborg's Fury. It was easily twice the size of the Terran cruiser, with a graceful aquatic cross-section marked with intricate fractal patterns that captured the eye. Blinding blue flashes from the rear of the Fury dragged Harry from his reverie.
Panicked status updates flooded over the intercom, "Jump drive is down! Capacitor banks are down! Bridge staff to defensive positions!"
Four appendages unfurled from the Affini vessel like massive fiddleheads coming down to embrace the Fury. There would be no escape for its crew.
Harry's anxiety was exacerbated by screams and gunfire floating over the intercom. He couldn't help but imagine the terror of those onboard. He desperately hoped that Hannah would be spared from the chaos. Implicitly sensing his distress, Calostoma pulled him into a deep hug and closed the channel.
Within a few minutes, banging and muffled shouting began to echo from the shuttle airlock. Harry's shivering intensified.
"Okay sweet pea, that's enough stress for you," Calostoma said firmly. She slid a particularly soft set of vines beneath his shirt and rhythmically caressed his back and midriff. Within seconds the little human had sunk into her with languid relaxation. He was already so well-conditioned by Zeyva.
With Harry nice and calm, Calostoma prepared to rescue the panicked cutie on the other side of the shuttle door.
Chief Medical Officer, Hannah Rabbo M.D., looked over her patient's chart and sighed. Private Raleigh was suffering the effects of inadequately treated diabetes, but there just wasn't enough insulin on board to avoid rationing. Insulin was produced by a limited number of pharmaceutical corporations and so prices became predictably exorbitant. Without a resupply the poor man could lose his sight within the month.
Her mind involuntarily drifted back to the previous day. She was still shaken by the fact that Harry contacted the Fury and had requested to come aboard. She was ecstatic about the chance to see him again, and simultaneously furious with him. Was he so stupid that he'd escape the Affini and immediately come running back to the doomed resistance? For one, she planned to desert the moment she got the opportunity. She wracked her brain for other possibilities, but didn't come up with much.
Lost in thought, she felt the crippling shock that accompanied a spatial jump. As she quickly finished signing off on the Private's treatment plan, she felt the entire vessel shook and heard a metallic clang reverberating through the superstructure.
There was total silence for 5 seconds. Then the alarms began blaring and flashing red.
"We are being boarded; I repeat we are being boarded! All hands prepare for combat readiness level zero! Equip respirators to counter enemy chemical agents! We have reports of enemy contact near the engine room and missile bay." the slightly panicked voice of the Security Chief echoed out of the loudspeaker.
The medbay was total chaos. Medics swarmed the weapons locker, grabbing energy rifles and donning gas masks before rushing out of the doors.
"What about the patients you bloodthirsty morons!" she screamed after them in frustration. In a frenzy, she rushed into her office to grab her sidearm, secure her own gas mask, and strap on the scabbard that housed her officer's cutlass. She slammed an illuminated red button on the wall, and the blast doors sealed off all entrances to the medmay in response. A second later, the overhead lighting flickered and went out. The medbay was now lit by the emergency lighting's ghostly red glow.
Hannah wasn't some sort of Terran supremacist, but she wasn't about to let the aliens do whatever they do to her patients. She did the rounds to ensure all were stable. Sgt. Bobson Dugnut was trying (and failing) to get out of bed and join the fight. Hannah wasn't having any of it, so she spiked his IV with hydrazepam. That should slow him down a bit.
Then she noticed the curtain of purple gas seeping from the room’s vents. She shivered with the realization that the plants must have already taken life support. Hannah rushed to check a patient's vitals, but it appeared that the gas was a harmless sedative. She took a seat near the center of the room and waited. All she could hear was distant screams and gunfire from every direction. Eventually, these noises became more sporadic, and there was only the gentle beeping of medical equipment and the hiss of gas exiting the vents.
Hannah's thoughts were occupied in equal parts by fury and exhaustion. Why did the stars-damned xenos have to come and invade? She'd been making a decent life with her goofy and delightful husband until the war started and she was stuck on this glorified tin can. She'd have been terribly depressed if she didn't have to keep working 18-hour days to avoid a court martial.
Hannah jolted to alertness to the sound of the digital assistant announcing, "emergency medical ward lockdown cancelled." She heard her heart thundering in her head. How could they just override her commands so easily? The door at the far side of the room opened with a hydraulic hiss. The area was hidden in shadow, but she could make out an enormous humanoid figure. Hannah jumped to her feet and drew her sidearm.
"STOP! Don't come any closer! These patients are under my protection!" she shouted.
A burbling rumble emitted from the silhouette. With a touch of amusement in its voice, it responded, "Don't worry little one, we're not here to hurt your patients. You'll all be safe under our care."
Hannah couldn't help but read sinister intent into those words. "Not a step closer! Back out of the door slowly and there won't have to be violence."
She was shaking, but the pistol was trained steadily at the creature's center of mass.
In an appeasing tone it replied, "I'm afraid that's not possible, petal. Now, just put the weapon down and everything will be alright."
Before it made any progress through the doorway, Hannah pulled the trigger a half-dozen times. An equal number of sizzling holes appeared in its body, and it screeched in agony. Before she could react, several vines came hurtling towards her. One whipped the pistol out of her hands, sending it flying across the room, and another two wrapped around her legs, pulling her feet out from under her. Before the monster could drag her in, Hannah unsheathed her cutlass and lopped off the offending vines. She rolled into a crouch, blade raised, and dashed towards her opponent. More vines rushed towards her but she easily deflected some and sliced through the rest, glistening sap spraying with each blow. She made a powerful spinning swing towards the monster's midsection, but she found that the viney interior simply shifted out of harm's way.
"Oh-dear! What a skilled little warrior you are!" it announced enthusiastically, "I'm so excited to claim you as my own."
Infuriated, Hannah responded with a fearsome flurry of blows, some connecting, but never with any debilitating effect. The ropes of sap that crisscrossed her uniform began to sizzle and eat through the fabric, leaving it in tatters. Strangely, the sticky liquid didn't burn her skin, and instead radiated warmth and pleasure wherever it made contact. The battle went on, with the monster attempting to grab her with vines, and Hannah twirling and grunting and striking. Slowly at first, Hannah's movements lost their precision and her limbs became heavy. The monster was well aware of her faltering deadliness, and at the moment when she would have toppled into a numb pile, it sent its vines spiraling around her, and lifted her into its arms. Gasping for air, Hannah looked up into the creature's face as it walked with her into the light. Four beautiful, pink eyes looked back at her, with their seemingly infinite depths obscured by swirling pink clouds.
"Well who do we have here?" it said to itself, eyes roving over her uniform. "Ah, one Dr. Hannah Rabbo it seems. What a little prize you are indeed!"
Hannah was barely paying attention to the words; she was so entranced by the feminine voice that resonated through her entire body and the beautiful translucent face.
"Aww, it looks like my sap has really done a number on you huh?" the creature murmured as it stroked her hair. "Adorable. That's okay little one, before you know it, you'll be nice and cozy in my hab."
The creature gently pried the respirator off Hannah's face, and she breathed in the soporific vapor. As she gently drifted off in its arms, the creature continued its serenade, "I'm glad you're such a feisty one! You'll be such a fun little pet."
As Hannah's eyes finally drifted shut, Zeyva Yvrin's core thrummed, and she announced to nobody in particular, "I think that our darling Harry will find it very hard now not to join you in my vines."