Aboard the terran rebel ship Cyllenean Dream, Kazia Stafford anxiously paces the barracks. She glances around at her fellow marines. Many of the 24 are like her, obviously unsuited for this position. They’d been pressed into service too. The last few trained soldiers were a different story. Heads straight forward, arms loosely at their sides, a determined look on their faces.
She’s only here for the same reason the other pressed civilians are — every freed terran is expected to help free more. It’s the only way they have a chance, or so command says. She shakes her head, reflecting on just how she’s managed to get herself into this mess.
She had been a low level bureaucrat aboard a station somewhere at the edge of Terran space three and a half years ago. When the Terran Government refused the Affini Compact’s demand for immediate & total surrender, her station was one of the first to fall to an affini armada. She only managed to get a single shot off her barely-functional slugthrower before some soldier sedated her.
She had been informed later, by her then-new ‘owner’, that she probably would’ve been let go if she hadn’t tried to fight back. Typical xeno lies. She was sure they were planning to pacify the entire station regardless of what she did.
The reports she heard later of survivors being relocated to nearby planets, free & clear, were obvious propaganda. What conquering force would simply allow their subjects a ‘normal’ life, Certainly, the Terran Consolidation War decades earlier had shown that the loser of any interstellar conflict will surely suffer harshly.
For 4 hellish days she’d been tortured by the affini she was assigned to. She had insisted that it was ‘training’ and ‘for her own good’. Such bullshit. In what world does drugging a prisoner of war & telling them they’re a beloved pet not constitute torture!
Apparently the Compact hadn’t been expecting a major counterattack after having so thoroughly flattened the 21st terran garrison fleet. The 5th rapid response, 20th & 22nd garrison, and 3rd battle fleets had responded in force, and managed to catch several unguarded shuttles, including the one Kazia had been being transported onboard. Within days, those four fleets had been all but obliterated too.
She had been rescued by the Cyllenean Dream off of the 5th rapid response fleet. She could still remember that look that her ‘owner’ had on her face as she’d escaped. If she didn’t know better she’d have thought it was despair, worry, and shame. Of course, like any proud terran, she knew that the affini, like any xeno, were heartless and inferior.
Of course. That hadn’t stopped them from winning, she reminds herself. Estimates put over 2/3rds of the rebel fleets as MIA. And less than half of the Cosmic Navy had refused armistice in the first place. It’s only a matter of time till they’re all — she pushes the thought aside. Shipboard comms have just announced that the docking procedure has begun; she needs to focus on now, not get caught up in her past again.
“This is Helm Control: We have achieved dock with the affini command ship.”
Kazia shivered. It was one thing to raid small affini scout ships, or rescue humans who were still on-planet, but raiding the Helianthus was on altogether a different scale. It was beyond risky, but the terran intelligence remnant stationed on the Cyllenean Dream was confident that they had spoofed the right codes to appear as a transport of terran pet volunteers.
“Affirmative Helm Control. Marines, prepare for mission start.”
It’s their only option left. They don’t have enough fuel to get anywhere else — terran jump drives burn through the exotic matter required to fold space at an inordinate pace. They’d already been hiding on some asteroid for weeks, and were starting to run low on other necessary supplies.
As per the Human Domestication Treaty, affini ships are obligated to assist terran ships in distress. Accidentally running low on fuel would surely count as distress, at least to the starsdamned weeds.
So far everything has gone to plan. The armada of warships escorting the Helianthus had accepted their access codes, and the colossal — easily over 50 kilometers long — command ship had quickly approved their docking request. Now she and her fellow marines were waiting near the airlock, pretending to be a small group of volunteers.
All they had to do was pretend they were all just so excited about being pets. As if it was something to look forward to. And for only 45 minutes, too! Maybe more, if the refueling isn’t quick! Just, stay near the airlock, keep your bag with you, and don’t let the affini catch on. Easy.
She fretfully clicks her tongue. It’s still their only option. The only other refueling facility within range had gone dark just over a week ago, after days of panicked transmissions. She curses their misfortune.
Kazia practices her best smile, clutching tightly at the canvas duffle bag, which contained her combat suit’s helmet, safely covered in sensor damping fabrics. It felt uneasy, wearing affini pet clothes again. Even if she does have most of a combat suit on underneath.
Feedback briefly arcs through her commlink. She winces. “This is C&C, mission start in 15 seconds. Remember folks, we’re playing the good volunteer here, no weapons or augments till the shooting starts. 5. 4, 3…”
She runs through the plan one last time in her head. Just stall. Ask questions. The affini would eagerly answer any and all questions about their ‘impending’ domestication. Just keep them busy. Easy.
She tries to convince herself that this will go routinely, just like when they raided that terran protectorate supply depot. Just act natural. Easy.
As the airlock on their ship creaks open, she considers how unfit she is for this position. Her, a glorified bureaucrat, dressed in a combat suit & hiding weaponry. What could go wrong?
A few seconds later, the airlock on the affini vessel slides elegantly, effortlessly open, barely making a sound. This is it. All she has to do is pretend she’s an enthusiastic volunteer. Just completely pretend she doesn’t despise every starsdamned plant in this place. Easy. She braces herself, and walks forward.
It had been a trap. A starsdamned trap. Maybe someone set them up, the affini had infiltrators everywhere. Maybe they just hadn’t been clever enough. It hardly matters now. As soon as the marines had left the docking bay, the doors had slid shut behind them, and sedative gas was pumped into the room. Miraculously, she had managed to be one of the few to get her helmet on before falling unconscious.
As she fled, she had seen one of her fellow marines choking on the gas, clawing at the not-feet of some grinning affini, begging to be forgiven. How pathetic. It’s altogether too easy to imagine herself in their place.
From what little she’d heard in panicked bursts of transmission from the Cyllenean Dream, the ship hadn’t fared much better. Grappling vines had bound it to the Helianthus, and affini soldiers had rushed inside. Soon, the transmissions ceased.
And now here she was, running through corridors, trying desperately to find an escape shuttle. Only 2 of the 23 other marines were with her. The others had been lost to the gas or the affini security personnel chasing them already. They round a corner, and the marine infront of her holds out a hand, signaling them to stop.
Another hand signal. Weapons free. This was it, She could see an affini’s shadow creeping down the hallway.
“Put your weapons down, terrans. We wouldn’t want you to hurt yourselves. Our guarantee of care extends even to rebels~”. Suddenly, vines everywhere. Her companions open fire, and several of the vines burst apart, covering the wall in cyan & blue sap.
Just as quickly, the vines are gone, but so are her two teammates, hauled off into vents, down corridors. Distantly, she can hear their screams and shouts turn into whimpers and moans before they fade into silence.
She breathes heavily, staring at her rifle. The charge counter reads full, unfired. She sees an open door and makes a run for it. It can’t be a coincidence that this door is open, but she needs to run.
She’s panicked, hyperventilating, and above all, scared. She knows if she doesn’t get to a shuttle she’s already doomed. And she also knows there’s no chance she makes it to a shuttle. The affini are too clever and too powerful to be tricked like this. What on terra had command been thinking‽
She can feel the knot in her stomach getting more severe by the second. She doesn’t want to be a pet again! 4 days of that was more than enough, thank you. There’s got to be a way out. There’s always a way out!
Ducking around corners, through corridors, panting heavily, eyes wild. She finds herself in a large, empty antechamber. A virtual sky screen displays space above her. It flickers, and the view switches to the Cyllenean Dream, wrapped tightly in vines. She gasps, and on panicked instinct swings her rifle around her, finger heavy on the trigger. At that moment the lights in the room flash brightly, then shut off entirely.
Before she’s had a chance to engage the night vision on her helmet, she feels the rifle knocked out of her hands, followed by her feet out from under her. She screams in terror as she hurtles face first towards the unseen ground.
A violent crack fills her ears as the not-glass of her helmet’s visor fractures on impact. Dim lights flicker on, an intense amber. Kazia groans, picking herself up off of the floor as quickly as she can. She can see several vines snaking back into the shadows as she raises her head.
The affini who the vines belong to steps into just enough of the flickering light to have her face visible, sneering. “Did you really think that you could fool us here, terran? On the Helianthus?” Kazia sputters, her mounting dread obvious to even the most unobservant.
“I am Nikhila Alne, 4th Bloom.” She raises an arm, clenching her fingers into a fist possessively. “Poor thing, all alone. I am sure you will make a lovely pet.” Will make a pet. No room for ambiguity. It’s as inevitable as the rest of this war. A war that Terra lost 6 months ago. The affini whips a vine against the floor near the marine as if for emphasis, a loud crack echoing through the cavernous space, splintering her concentration like so many dry branches.
The human scrambles, drawing the slugthrower hostered on her leg. She aims straight at the affini, hands shaking. She pulls the trigger. She pulls the trigger. She tries to pull the trigger.
She doesn’t pull the trigger. All she can think about is what happened 3 and a half years ago aboard that station. The affini starts to stride leisurely towards her, into the light. Her aim is wild, even with both hands holding the gun.
Sensing an opportunity, Nikhila theatrically lowers her arms, uncurling her fingers. “What’s wrong, Terran? Afraid of injuring yourself? Me? I can assure you, a weapon like that can’t meaningfully harm me.” Kazia understands that she’s taunting her. That she should keep her cool. She doesn’t.
She grunts in frustration, shaking the gun, willing herself to just pull the damn trigger. But she can’t. That’s how this all started.
She was alone in her office when the affini attacked. Gasses through the air vents & main power failures heralded their arrival. She had been lucky enough to have had an oxygen mask in her office. She thought she was lucky to have had a slugthrower too. Maybe it would’ve been better to just have breathed in the gas & fallen asleep.
Nikhila is practically on top of her now, grinning widely, vines swaying in a vicious mockery of vulnerability.
She had barricaded herself in the office and crouched in the corner, holding the gun out just like she was now. Within half an hour, the sounds of distant gunfire had all but vanished. The haze from the gas was thicker, too, then. She practically didn’t see the affini soldier coming.
She had pointed the slugthrower at the affini, her hands trembling. She had never even held a gun before. And with such a sweet voice, the xeno had said “Why don’t you put that silly thing down, ok sweetie? We don’t have to fight.”. It was at that moment that panic overtook her, and she pulled the trigger. It blasted a hole straight through one of the affini’s vines, and they howled in pain. Briefly.
Laughing, Nikhila circles around the shivering human, pose frozen in fear & remembered trauma. “Do you need help, terran? Rest assured, you will get it very soon~” No response. Perplexed, she waves a hand in front of Kazia’s face.
Kazia is still in the office, now splattered with cyan & blue sap. The affini turned to look at her, the sap in their severed vine quickly coagulating. They had such a venom in their eyes, Kazia had lowered the gun, pushing herself further against the wall. “I… Please! I didn’t mean to,,, I —”
“Don’t worry terran, I’ll be gentle.” The affini descended on her like a tornado of vines & thorns & leaves & needles. She couldn’t watch, and shut her eyes so tightly, the next thing she knew, she was on a bed aboard an affini shuttle, staring at her new owner.
Kazia blinks. She realizes suddenly where she is. The danger she’s in. She screams in terror, swinging the gun around to face Nikhila, now to her side.
Nikhila catches the gun in her hand, wrenching it out of the human’s grip in a slow, deliberate motion. The girl makes only a token struggle. The gun vanishes into Nikhila’s leaves.
Numerous vines erupt from the affini, pinning her to the floor, face down, immobile. The affini’s eyes are a brilliant scarlet. “Well, how anticlimactic. I suppose it was foolish of me to think a pet species would even know how to use a weapon.” Kazia squirms, gasping with the frightened tone of cornered prey.
“Your compatriots have all been captured already, terran. What we should do with you…” In a broad movement, the human is torn off the floor, vines holding her directly in front of the affini, stuck in a near t-pose. Kazia knows that the affini can see through the shattered not-glass of the visor, can hear her breathing: ragged, panicked, afraid.
“P-please! Don’t do this! I can’t go back!” The human girl writhes in Nikhila’s grasp, not achieving anything other than further tiring herself out.
Nikhila’s vines deftly undo the clasps holding the human’s helmet to the rest of her suit, pulling it off and tossing it to the side. “...’Go back’?” She retrieves a small tablet from beneath her swarming vines, and waves it around the human. It beeps several times in confirmation.
Bright golden flecks appear in her crimson eyes, and a cunning grin spreads across her face. “Oh, I see… Well, I suppose we know exactly what to do with you now~”.
“Stars! Roots below and leaves above!”. Kazia could barely make out the distant shouting. The affini that had captured her, Nickhella? Neekija? She couldn’t quite remember. That affini had dosed her with something strong, anyway.
What had she been thinking? Right, how she’s irrevocably absolutely entirely fucked. No ship, no crew. Just a future full of drugged ‘bliss’ ahead of her. She whimpers and hears the affini carrying her mumble something. At least she can’t panic at the moment. A brief relief before she falls back into hell, she supposes.
She’s slung over Nekhela?’s shoulder? Coiled vines? Hard to tell with eyes this blurry and senses this dull. She can dimly feel movement still, until she can’t. Hazily, she sees a wall? Door? Slide open in front of them, revealing another affini, standing silhouetted in front of the dark room.
“Mistress? Is everything ok?” So there’s a terran in the room too. Her pet? Probably. Why else would a terran be calling a weed ‘Mistress’. Well, at least she won’t be alone, she thinks. If she’s lucky, this one will be willing to help them both escape. If she’s unlucky? Well, that’s harder to think about right now.
The other affini turns back into the darkness of the room, vines shifting eerily, wooden not-bones creaking. “I’m sorry for waking you, Elvira.” A vine snakes into the darkness, followed by a quiet moan from the terran. “I promise everything will be fine.” A moan. Well, that’s not a great omen.
The two aliens intertwine a handful of their vines, and speak to each other in their own tongue. Kazia can’t understand of course, but if she had to guess, they were both tense, uncertain, excited?
After having talked for a few minutes, the affini carrying the human displays her tablet to the other, and she appears to sign something after quickly skimming it. She can’t tell what’s on it, of course, but she could’ve sworn she saw her first name somewhere.
In one strong motion, Nikilia? Lifts Kazia off of her shoulder, and passes her to the other affini. Her eyes glint with crimson & gold flecks atop a soft cyan glow as she stares down at her new possession. The human squirms in the affini’s cradling arms, as much as she can anyway. The affini quietly scoffs.
She blinks, and finds herself somewhere in the darkness, loosely held aloft. She feels like the way she’s being held is familiar somehow? Does she know this affini? Unlikely. Probably just an artifact of her drug addled mind. With several quick clicks, she feels wrist & ankle cuffs, as well as a collar, snapped onto her.
She remembers what it was like when she was first captured. Waking up in a hab unit with her arms and legs tied to a bed. So pathetic. How could she have let herself fall into this again. She should’ve… Should’ve… something. Probably escaped.
Yeah that sounds right. Easy, too. Just break out of the cuffs — a sharp, icy cold feeling against her wrist — the ones that just drugged her with stars know what. Break out of the room, and… what? Steal a shuttle? She’d be caught immediately by the armada around the uh, big ship, helian-something. There must be a way out. There’s always a way out. Except when there isn’t, of course.
Kazia feels herself laid gently onto the end of a bed, and barely manages to hear the affini talking to her pet before drifting into unconsciousness. “Elvira, darling, meet your connivent. Kazia Nele, First Floret.”