————— Half an hour before the Charter Disaster —————
The control room of the Cotyledon department was practically buzzing with the number of Affini overseeing the operation. A shrub typed furiously against a control panel. A great oak nestled its restless floret back under its leafy cloak. A fern relayed orders into a data pad. The cacophany of noises drowned out even Verdalin's own thoughts as he plodded into the base of operations.
”Docking complete! Confirmed no broadcast detected, ship systems are under our control, we’re good for plan A.” the Affini enunciated each word with jubilant excitement, roses sprouting from her vines. She look up at Verdalin from her seat, looking for acknowledgement. Still lost in the sheer activity of the place, Verdalin did not realise that she had been talking to him. He had arrived just in time to catch the main event. Despite his objections to such a last minute move, he was still expected to play his part in the process.
“Sorry, I just got caught up in…” he paused, searching for the exact words “all of this.”
“You don’t know the half of it, I only transferred in last week myself!”
If the Cotyledon department has been transferring Affini in for at least a week then someone had known about this plan before Verdalin had been informed. He’d been around long enough to know when someone was keeping him out of the loop. Deception among Affini was rare, it didn’t usually serve everyones best interests to obscure information, but it would appear that Verdalin had been left out for a reason. Perhaps because his opposition to this plan may have risked the progress of the Cotyledon project. Perhaps because they hadn’t finalised the target until they informed Verdalin.
“Busy week?” he pried.
“Risk assessment after target rejection after fly-by. These Terran ships have a nasty habit of blasting right past their designated waypoints without a care in the world- it makes interception terribly difficult!”
It appeared at least that this Affini had nothing to hide. “I don’t think we’ve been properly introduced. Verdalin Oarlthrest, Thirteenth Bloom.”
“Oh I know who you are, I’ve been assigned to be your assistant for today. My name is Persithia Arlgar, Fourth Bloom.” she beamed with positivity, cracking even the hardened oak heart of the older Affini. “It’s a pleasure to properly meet you!”
“The pleasure is all mine, Persithia. Let’s get some sophonts educated, shall we?”
The two of them looked out across the room, huge monitors dwarfing every wall showing live feeds of the Cotyledon section of the ship. The landing area designed to imitate that of a Neptunian orbital port, a cafeteria area, hab units. The Cotyledon project for a given species usually didn’t have to go to such lengths. Individual capture was always preferred where possible. “Where possible…” Verdalin repeated the thought in his mind.
It had been only a matter of (Terran) hours since this idea was raised to Verdalin. Cotyledon projects usually aimed to take only sophants who would not be searched for, ideally ones in smaller groups. This posed a problem with Terrans.
Terrans can pack bond with anything, and they were constantly forming social connections. The more socially isolated Terrans didn't use space travel often, making them much harder to catch. The Terrans who did travel through space alone were usually engaged in interplantary business, so other Terrans would come looking if they failed to arrive at their destination.
No, the Affini couldn’t go snatching precious little Terrans one-by-one, not if they wanted to remain unknown for the time being. They would have to domesticate a whole group at once. It had been done before with other species to expedite the collection process, but with Terrans this would be no mean feat. Terrans will pack bond with anything given the opportunity, making it hard to isolate and abduct them. They’d done a few already, but the rate of acquisition and the time taken to domesticate Terrans both needed to be improved dramatically.
Despite these setbacks, there was a weakness that the Affini could exploit- money. The obsession with cost would prevent Terrans from investigating say... a budget charter that was "destroyed by an asteroid" in deep space on its way out of the solar system. No deep space communications to worry about, and any standard transmissions would arrive at the nearest listening post long after the Affini had revealed themselves.
For good measure they would actually destroy the ship with an asteroid, just not while it contained adorable little Terrans.
"The Terrans are exiting the ship!" the announcement rang out across the room, hushing the bustling folliage of the Affini. Every eye in the room was fixed to the live feed of the cafeteria. Every Affini eager to see fresh meat. A predatory aura permeated the room. “The count is in, 82 confirmed.”
“Say again? Do we count eight-two?” another Affini enquired.
”Confirmed, eight-two, one less than the ship’s broadcasted manifest.”
The manifest had been encrypted, but cracking Terran encryption was so easy that the Affini barely even noticed it. They had read every signal they could get their vines on. A warp drive could even be used to jump back “behind” radio waves, allowing every Terran broadcast from the first radio transmission made in the Terran year of 1895 up to current interstellar overnet packets to be viewed and recorded.
Much of what the Affini had learned of Terrans came from digesting this content. There was only so much information they could gather through tapping into the overnet system without being able to make their own requests, but the ability to go “back” and gather information from broadcasts centuries ago was essential to the Cotyledon programs early days.
“Maybe the Terrans messed up their counts?” another Affini chimed in hopefully. Losing a sophant this early on would result in a copious amount of paperwork, paperwork that the Affini would surely relish in, but paperwork nonetheless.
“Have a security team prepare to board, we need to search the ship ahead of schedule.” the first Terran ordered.
A voice cast itself out across the room, gripping the attention of every living organism in earshot: “No,” it commanded “I’ll do it myself.” Czarina, head of Cotyledon security, glanced down across the room.
“When the dirt did she get here?” Verdalin cursed under his breath, forgetting that Persithia was close enough to hear his surprise. She would surely note that the head of the previous Cotyledon project at least respected Czarina enough to be startled by her sudden appearance, not that anyone had to tell her about the head of security.
Verdalin wondered for a minute if he should volunteer to follow her, undoubtably she would already have backup en route- not that she needed any. Almost any Affini would be enough to capture multiple naughty sophonts, never mind just one wayward soul, and Czarina wasn’t just any Affini. She was the most terrifying being he had ever come across. Harsh and unyielding, although never unfair, it was no wonder she had been made the security lead for the project.
The duo watched her head for the bay doors. Persithia spoke “I almost pity the poor Terran that comes across her path…”
“They’ll be in for a shock. Hopefully they learn quickly that Czarina is a huge fan of making the disobedient ones… well, obedient.” Verdalin let his gaze drift off into the distance before catching himself. He had work to do. They all did.