The next two weeks were even more….She didn’t have words for how bad they were. Her anxiety was enough that she was only sleeping five hours out of her rest cycle, her medication having run out even with all her rationing. Each and every alarm made her jump, worried that the “damn weeds” had caught them. That her patients would be declared a waste of resources, and summarily executed. That SHE would be vented just the same. The soldiers weren’t any help, with their “kill em all” attitudes, especially once it go out that there were humans that had cooperated with the Affini. “The only good traitor is a dead one” became a resounding cry at each “motivational briefing” that became a mandatory thing. She was able to avoid those by claiming that she needed to be in the medical ward, and after some thought, she was allowed to skip them. But the stories that were told were endlessly recycled throughout the ship, and soon she’d heard them all.
The Affini had acid for blood. The Affini could walk on walls like the lizards of her homeworld. They could compress themselves to fit into vents, and they could see in the dark. They had drugs that could liquefy a human in a matter of seconds, and they fed off that people-slurry. Or those drugs turned them into mindless drones, mere shells of people to work in mines. Collaborators were slowly turned into Affini themselves, which is why they helped. Collaborators were given harems, cushy homes with food…all the things that humans had been killing each other for centuries were handed to them on a platter. They did it to avoid being eaten, and the pictures went around, of more bloody colonies. Doors bashed in, odd shimmers of blue-green smears on walls. She started to fear them, these Affini, the carnage and death they left behind. The thing that scared her the most was there weren’t even bodies left behind. No refugees, no survivors. How heartless and cruel to not even let the children get away?
She wasn’t able to avoid some of the other messages that were broadcast through the ship. How comms access was limited, and anyone found with a communicator of any kind, even if it could only receive text transmissions, would be summarily executed. How hoarding food or medications was punishable by execution. That dereliction of duty was strictly punished, as was straying into off-limits areas. And then they changed. Now, anyone not showing proper “Terran spirit” was hauled in front of the Captain and a military tribunal. And those usually ended in a quick trip out the airlock, sans suit.
But she heard of others who got dragged into “question and answer” sessions for even more ephemeral reasons. She treated the victims of those silently, not even bothering to chart their wounds. Bruises, burns..what was the point? Had they been collaborators, then they’d have been captured already. And what was the point of charting, since there were no more lawyers, no more fears of lawsuits? If the person was admitted for further treatment, maybe. But since they were running out of almost all the other meds at this point, who cared anymore? She was boiling strips of ripped up clothing for bandages, and the only medication besides for basic analgesics that she had a supply of on hand were expired doses of antibiotics. Not that it mattered, since when she’d had the temerity to speak to the doctor, he’d turned on her as well. “These damn aliens are pinching us tight”, he said. “We need more work, and less complaining. As soon as we meet the flotilla, we’ll have a better plan. Until then, shut your mouth, and do the best job that you can, Nurse”, he said, somehow making the title an insult as he spat it at her.
One morning a week later she walked into the ICU and the outgoing staff looked at her with a weary nod. “They’ve met the Flotilla. If you go to the obs deck, I’ll stay here for another twenty while you look. We only have three today, and based on everything, they won’t….well, you know the Captain.” She frowned, but nodded. Perhaps she’d be able to transfer to another ship. Perhaps she’d be able to refill her meds, since she sneakily wrote them onto the list. Perhaps…so many thoughts raced through her mind as she took the elevator up to one of the viewing decks.
Stepping out into the crowd of people was simultaneously the bravest thing she’d ever done and the most horrific thing ever. So many people…all pushing and shoving, trying to see. Trying her best not to panic, taking long breaths and holding them, as she moved and shuffled forwards. Eventually she ended yp close enough to see. There they were, five other ships of the Free Terran Navy. She had no idea what the names were of the other ships, only that they were big, and they had more weapons than was logically needed. Surely no alien vessel could contend with that, right? “Those human-eating weeds’ll be dead soon”, she heard someone say. “Gonna change the name of that one from Gravity’s Tempest to Weed Whacker”, someone else said. “And the same goes for every single weed-loving scum-sucking ball of fuck that I can find”, some grizzled soldier said. “Vent em all, and let God sort ‘em out.” She blinked and began to edge her way back to the elevator, having seen enough. Having heard enough.
Trudging back to the ICU, she thought morosely to herself. Caught between the Affini and the Terran Accords. One side wanted to eat her, and the other side wouldn’t let her be her. Wouldn’t let her have a life, and would just as easily kill her as use her up and throw her away. Either side would happily kill her and not even spare a thought. And wasn’t that a happy thought as she walked down a hallway. “Hey you!!! Crewman!!! Soldier!!!!!!!!”, came the shout behind her and she instinctively turned, the statement of what she was and wasn’t dying on her lips as she saw a soldier coming towards her, rifle in his hands. And far more chevrons on his uniform than she had.
“Where you coming from, Soldier?”
“Viewing deck, Sir”, came the answer.
“Impressive, in’t it, soldier? Largest Flotilla that I know of in the last few months, since those damn weeds snuck in and destroyed Terra. Stirs the blood, don’t it?”
“Yes, Sir. Very inspiring. Not sure how we can lose with this much Terran firepower backing us up”, she said, hoping that she sounded enthusiastic enough. The last thing she needed was more scrutiny from the Captain. “Those damn weeds won’t know what hit them, Sir.”
“Damn straight, son. You’re doing important work, keeping our men and women healthy”, he said, noting the scrubs and the stethoscope around her neck. “You keep on keeping on, son. Dismissed.”
She saluted, and kept walking to the medical ward. About ten minutes of report, another ten of idle chit-chat, and then she was left in the ward. The only sound was the quiet beeping of the monitors, the hiss of the ventilators, and her own breathing.
* * *
She moved through her nightly routine, once everyone was turned, and the ventilator settings were managed. Looking into the case where they held their medications, she sighed. Beyond threadbare it was, and getting worse. They, thankfully, still had some of the intravenous sedatives that they used to keep the intubated patients sedated, and not trying to rip their tubes out. But they were running out, and they had maybe a weeks worth. She didn’t even want to think about what would happen after that. Same thing with analgesics and anti-pyretics. She debated grabbing some for herself and stashing them where she could get them, but she discarded that thought right away. She’d feel terrible if someone needed them and she was hoarding them. Plus, if she got caught, she’d be vented.
And then something happened that had never happened before. Something that shook her to her core, and brought the acrid taste of fear to her lips.
The ship shook.
Suddenly alarms were blaring, red lights flashing. She had no idea what was happening, since nothing like this had ever happened since she’d been drafted.
“Battle Stations!!!!! Battle Stations!!!!! Prepare to repel boarders!!!!! Battle Stations!!!!!“ She heard, and she stiffened in panic. They were here. The Affini. The monsters of her nightmares. They were coming.
“Gas!!!! Gas!!!! It’s---“, and then a horrible squelch of noise that trailed off into a moan as whoever it was suddenly was off the air. She panicked, and looked around. Her patients were safe for the moment, and she looked, finding one of the isolation hoods that they wore if there was a possible airborne infection. Grabbing it, she looked back at them, whining in her throat, panting as she got it on. The seal inflated around her neck, the computer knowing exactly how much expanding gel to pump into the collar to maintain a proper seal and keep her safe. If there was a contact component she was screwed, but she didn't have time to grab the isolation suit. The Affini were coming. She had no doubts about that. She also knew that there wasn’t much she could do, as the sounds of battle filled the air. Shots, even the deep throated hum of some machine gun that she’d seen once used to horrible effect. It had literally turned the metal targets into tiny pieces with one pass. The ship rang with them, but not anywhere near what she thought she’d hear. She could run. She could. But then who would stay with her patients? She couldn’t just abandon them. Not when something could happen to them. It was an easy decision to make. She wouldn’t abandon them.
She stood there in indecision, as the sounds of battle got closer and faded, closer and faded as soldiers made a stand and were overrun. Thinking, she grabbed a desk and barricaded the door, breathing the purified air. Able to see the gas as it crept into the room, a faint pinkish mist. Panting as she got the desk into place, she looked around and grabbed the shotgun from it’s place on the wall. Meant to protect the wounded in the event that the ship was boarded, she had asked once what good it would do if there WAS such an incident on board. She was told that it was “tradition” to have it there, and at least whoever used it could go out “doing their Terran duty.”
She didn’t have long to wait. Or maybe she did, she didn’t know, she couldn’t gauge time anymore with the panic she was feeling. “Terrans”, she heard a voice on the speaker. “We are the Affini Compact. It’s going to be okay, we’re here now. Everyone just relax, and put your weapons down. We come in peace, little ones. You’re all safe now, we’re here. There’s no need to fight anymore. Surrender to us, we’ll take good care of you”, the alien said in what they thought must be a soothing voice. Even the intonation was odd, a faint other quality to it. She shivered, looking around as she could feel the deck shaking as monsters came closer.
Risking a look back at her patients, she saw that their vitals were all the same. Since they were breathing on closed loops, the gas wouldn’t affect them, which was something she had worried about. Which is when she heard it. A scratching at the door, which she’d locked. “Little Terran”, she heard from the door, and she screamed when she saw a golden eye looking at her through the glass.
“Open the door, Little Terran. You’re safe now, I swear it. We won’t harm you.” It seemed sincere, even as she heard more scratching at the door. She aimed the shotgun, racking the slide to make sure that it was loaded. She shook heard head, tears prickling the edges of her vision.
“Fuck off!!! You’re not coming in here!!!”, she shouted, aiming at the door. There was only that door, and the storeroom. Wait…was that something she heard behind her? She chanced a look behind her, but didn’t see anything. Did she lock the storeroom door? Oh spirits, did she? She didn’t remember, but she couldn’t walk away. A creaking noise stole her attention, and she turned back to see green tendrils worming their way in through the door. Forcing their way in, she realized, and with a scream, she fired once, the harsh BOOM sounding louder than she had imagined. She watched as the pellets shredded some of the vines, an odd blue-green sap flying everywhere. It didn’t steam or melt away the steel, so there was that, she numbly thought to herself. One myth disproved.
“Go away!!!”, she screamed, trying to rack another shell in. Except it was empty, having only the one shell inside it. Whoever had unloaded it to use the shells themselves had never told anyone, and now she was left with three defenseless patients, and no way to defend them. She looked around frantically for more shells, another weapon, anything that she could use to defend herself and her patients. But there was nothing to be found. She watched as even more vines began to slide in, and the door began to bend. There was no way that she could stop them, if there were this strong.
“Little Terran, that wasn’t very nice”, the voice said reproachfully as it began to pull the door from its tracks. With a metallic shriek, the door came away, almost covering her scream. She backed away as the Affini came in, easily pushing the desk out of the way. It was tall, far taller than she had expected as it stood up. Maybe two and a half meters, it was a mass of writhing vines, it’s face made of bark and plant matter. It smiled at her, golden eyes twinkling, in something that it probably thought was friendly. Its voice was soft, and in any other circumstance, would have been nice to listen to.
But not now. Certainly not now. She backpedaled as another came in, and said something in a fast flowing language. The first one held up a hand, and took a step that she saw was…Vines and little roots grew from its foot in less time than it took to breathe, anchoring it to the floor. “Get…get away from us!!!”, she yelled, holding the gun by its hot barrel, not even feeling the burning of her skin. Adrenaline coursing through her veins, she could feel the thumping of her heart, a jackhammer that nearly knocked her over with the force of it. “You…can’t have them. Stay back!! Don’t…don’t make me use this!!”, she yelled.
“Can’t have who?”, the first one asked curiously, and then looked past her. It nodded once as it seemingly understood that this was a medical ward. “Oh, I see. Little Terran, don’t worry. We’re here now, and we’ll take good care of them. I promise you that, you’re all safe now. You’ve nothing to fear anymore.” It took another step, and she retreated two steps to make up for it. Sobbing with fear, she looked back at her patients quickly. She always knew she was devoted to them, but this…she knew what it meant to give your life for another. She just wished that she’d actually had a chance to live her life. To BE herself.
Turning, she yelled as it took another step and rushed in, swinging the club. She didn’t get very far. Vines intercepted her, coiling around her arms and legs, lifting her up even as a thicker one wrapped around her torso, stabilizing her. None of her muscles meant anything now, the workouts didn’t matter even as she struggled, since she was well and truly caught. The vines plucked the hot rifle from her hand, the Affini making a small sound of upset as it took another step and found the barrel to be burning hot. “Oh dear, your hands must be hurting. There’s no need to be afraid, little one. We’ll take care of you.”
Sobbing, she shook her head. “Please don’t hurt them, they didn’t do anything. Please don’t….”
“Little one, it’s ok. We have the best doctors there are, and they’ll be ok. I promise. Now, let’s take care of you first, ok? I’m going to take your mask off, and I just want you to take some nice deep breaths for me, ok? You’re going to be allright”, the Affini promised as it drew her closer, more vines moving out to immobilize her.
“Stop…please don’t do this…I don’t want to die”, she begged, terrified. It stopped to look at her, shock on its face.
“Die?? Oh, darling, you’re not going to die. Whoever told you that was lying. You’ll see, this is all going to be ok”, it said, and then the vines were slowly disengaging the seal, lifting the hood off of her. She whimpered, struggling, but the vines held her too tightly, and she couldn’t do anything.
She tried to hold her breath, but she couldn’t, especially not when a vine covered in something slid on her face. It left a trail of wetness that became a tingle and she gasped, drawing in the gas. It tasted…it tasted sweet, like the cotton candy she had once as a child. Almost immediately her brain felt…it felt fuzzy, like that time she got slightly drunk. She blinked, trying to fight the haze, and tried to look over as the second Affini said something about needing a medical team to their position for three injured Terrans.
“No, little one, don’t look at them. Focus on me now”, her captor said and a vine turned her head back to her, the gas making it harder for her to fight even though she tried. “Another deep breath for me, that’s it, that’s a good boy.”
“No!!!!”, she shouted, eyes suddenly open wide, panic helping her fight the fog. The Affinis eyes opened wide, golden with small flecks of green in them. This close to it, she could see that. At least now, at the end, she could be honest. She could be herself. Taking another deep breath, feeling her head swim, she shook her head. “Not a boy”, she said, insistent.
The Affini nodded and smiled at her as if she had told it the most precious secret in the universe. “Of course you’re not. Hmmm...are you a girl, little Terran?", she asked, her voice sounding like music to teh Terran girl, who nodded. "Well, there you have it. You’re a girl, little one. Silly of me not to see that. Now take some deep breaths for me”, it cooed at her. Some more vines slithered over her palms, layering something slimy feeling over them, and she whimpered, taking another breath. “Shhhh, it’s ok. Just some salve to help your burns, my brave girl. You’re doing so well”, it said as her head spun and her eyelids felt heavier than that one time she did a twenty hour shift after a boiler exploded and sent twenty six people here. “Such a good girl you are. Don’t worry, little pet. Everything’s going to be ok.” Sending out more vines, she brought the girl in close to her, carrying her in a comfortable grip that cushioned her head.
She stared up at the Affini as her vision began to fade, her body growing warm and fuzzy. “Noooo”, she moaned, writhing. “Don’t…..eat….”
“Shhhh, little one. Nobody is going to eat you, I promise. Sleep now, little one.” The Affini held her as she closed her eyes, and struggled to open them, losing the fight. And she slept.