The symphoriarch’s audience shifted in its composition as frequently as her performance itself. After all, few sophonts had more than a day or two to watch and listen uninterrupted, though most would wind up wishing they had weeks. She was inevitably the cause for an inordinate number of missed appointments and waylaid duties, not that anyone would dare to complain. In the last dappled sunlight of Zerizeri’s summer solstice the audience was finally joined by the very first of a new people within the compact, a lone terran, perched quietly at the amphitheater’s rear.
The symphoriarch’s vast undulating form bled from warm silver at its core to a stunning diversity of hues along her many vines, suspended by unknown means in the air above her stage. The hues blended and shifted in harmony with the warping geometries of her tendrils, an evolving chromatic mandelbulb of alien flora. Among the fractal sea of her corpus could be seen a swarm of unrecognizable instruments, breaching and falling beneath her waves again and again. The music she unleashed was entrancing, enlightening, and haunting in equal measure. Listening felt like the wandering static between dreams, weaving between tones effortlessly. A rotating cast of affini dancers–or at least that's what they seemed to be doing–ringed the stage with a whirl of plantlife choreographed in real time to their conductor's whims.
The primal dance bridged the music with a holographic display projected on all sides of her by unseen means, mirroring the evolving tone with a cascade of tangible imagery and intangible geometry that could not have been pre-recorded. The totality of the spectacle was an unending and timeless cosmic balad, inflicted upon the senses with insistent fervor by the ancient flora at its nucleus. Sophonts regularly pulled themselves away from the show swearing up and down that they could now smell and taste emotions, or at least those sophonts with comparable senses. If the affini had any conception of the old terran notion of a “gesamtkunstwerk”, the terran woman figured this must be one of theirs.
As a particularly melancholy climax of sound and color cooled into soft, steadily growing tones of rebirth, the woman became acutely aware that all around her alien lifeforms expressed cathartic sorrow and empathic unity in time with their captor’s song. Each of them was utterly consumed by the show before them, immersed in the exact depth she herself had hoped for. It was just as advertised, a transcendent, psychosocial communal experience laid bare for her and yet, as incessantly beautiful as it all was, the mental tension she’d carried into the theater refused to fully melt away.
She’d been drinking it in for what could’ve been an eternity and still it paled before the memories she’d come to drown, if even for a single merciful hour. Could they all tell? Did they have any inkling how pitifully she failed to float among the song like all the rest? How incapable she was of shedding her ghosts? Did they even know she was there? No. Probably not.
Her spiral was broken by a dissonant tone, clashing with the song so forcefully that she could see several nearby sophonts flinch. No, not a tone. A voice.
Not a voice. Voices. Crashing over another like brackish waves, barely more than whispers in inflection but impossible not to hear. "Excuse me?" The woman turned to confront whatever had addressed her.
She was not remotely prepared. Black vines, briars, and fronds twisted in a kaleidoscopic mass of fleeting symmetries over twice her height in all directions, betraying visual categorization. Every surface of the beast shimmered with the sickly iridescence of an oil slick save the flowers just barely violet enough not to be purely black themselves. Every shift of tendril against tendril begat rumbling and rustling that became wind that became whispers that became silence that became wind once more. From the top of the morass emerged a second collection of black flora, stretching and winding and splitting into three pillars each nearly the size of an average affini in their own right. The pillars unbound and rebound themselves a thousand thousand times in moments, sculpting themselves from within before emerging as three simulacra of terran torsos straddling the mass beneath. Each peered down at the woman with eyes of every color and no color, picking her apart in that obnoxiously certain way that affini loved to do.
The terran swallowed her surprise and spoke, "Mmh, big one aren't you? What was that you said about me?"
The subtle shifts of the affini's three masks read 'surprise', 'delight', and 'intrigue' respectively. They clearly hadn't expected the woman to be prepared to hold a conversation with them. The heads spoke in layers.
The anticipatory writhing of the trio was countered by staunch stillness in the terran. She was used to affini being presumptuous but this one was…something.
"Mmkay, so what are you psychic or something?"
The terran could feel the headache beckoning from her future, but there was little point running from it. When the more…eccentric affini decided to talk at you, tucking tail and running was never the right answer. Three sets of eyes watched her expectantly, they wanted more. She sighed her words into being, “So, was there a question in there that I missed or are you just in the business of making cryptic statements?”
A chuckle like the snapping of branches and the dropping of the pieces into frigid water danced between the three torsos.
The affini tendency to presume was bad enough when they weren’t correct. It was especially flustering when they were. She decided some token resistance was in order, “I never agreed I was thinking of someone else.”
The torsos wove amongst themselves as they spoke, occasionally swapping places entirely. The usual mesmerisms of affini biology were there but not quite right. The rhythm was too slow and faint, or…no, if she paid attention to different parts it was so quick, so dense, almost smothering, but then the focus would break and it…it felt like falling. Like the twist in the stomach upon waking. The more she tried to focus on it, the taller the affini seemed to loom over her. Shit, they were still staring at her. Shit, shit ANSWER.
“...Where I come from it’s hardly customary for one to demand personal truths from someone they’ve only just met.”
Another round of chuckling.
It was an oversimplification for certain. Hardly much of a game. But she wasn’t exactly busy and it wasn't as though she'd be in danger of anything more than a headache by playing. That wasn't the affini's style. The terran crossed her arms and spoke with as neutral a tone as she could muster. Just because the affini was on the unnerving side didn't mean she had to show it. “Games typically have win conditions.”
“Alright, em…basics I guess, d’you have a name?”
“Whoa whoa, hold up champ! First off, that’s a hell of an escalation. Second, you’re seriously not counting ‘do you have a name’ as ‘what is your name’? Are you for real?”
Unsettling, fastidious, and now whimsical, she thanked the dirt that this wasn’t her first interaction with an affini. Hell, she hoped this thing wasn’t anyone’s introduction to the affini. “Ugh yes, obviously words have meaning. I just didn’t expect your use and interpretation of them to be so specific.”
“I…it’s complicated. We have…cultural differences. It wouldn’t work, not the way she needs...” The woman trailed off, her gaze drifting along the sea of rapturous faces and face-adjacent structures in the alien congregation. She searched absently for the most foreign forms of life, as divorced from human or affini as she could find. Just a little mental exercise to pull her attention somewhere. To stop thinking about her, anything else–
Shit, drifting off again. She sighed and continued, “Alright, I’m gonna get it right this time. What is your name?”
The affini’s voices all carried a frigid edge that chilled the spine and a resonance that poured heat into the cheeks and chest. A peculiar choice among affini vocalization but nothing too outlandish for her. That was, until the questions came. Each inquiry magnified the thousand little edges and whispers, sent the beast’s brackish tide over her mental walls and transformed them into iron decrees, scraping passively into her skull. It needed no xenodrugs, no touch, no hypnotic triggers, the nameless twilight depths of what affini physiology was capable of clawed at her consciousness in ways she couldn’t hope to understand. Truth was only optional as long as the thing allowed it to be, there was no doubt. She struggled to keep her voice steady.
“I…I often have to move quickly and on short notice, for personal reasons. Just makes more sense not to have to coordinate with anyone else. Plus honestly, I just work better alone. No one to weigh down, no one weighing me down. Not like there’s anyone in my life who’d want to be on this little trip of mine…”
“Yeah, that’s the fucking truth alright? Some people just exist in a vague and shifty manner, doesn’t automatically make them liars.” She was getting too worked up. Affini either loved or hated it when she got worked up, and neither reaction was usually ideal. Focus on your breathing.
"Well, you've clearly tangled with some humans before, seeing as you speak at least three of our languages. I’d guess you were part of the pacification. You ever encounter the ship CNS Ozymandias?"
"I thought truth was the objective? Seems like evasive talk to me."
"Nothing important, just…there's this old terran navy myth from the campaign, like some real early on fog-of-war urban legend bullshit. There's this story about a single affini nightmare crawling through space unprotected and undetected to infiltrate a terran navy ship. Supposedly the affini subdues the entire ship, hundreds of crewmembers, without a single casualty or even minor trouble. The details are usually fuzzy but there’s always plenty of tendrils exploding down corridors and out of vents along with Z gas, real imaginative. Then the affini and crew just vanish, the ship is found a few days later completely empty and dead. Of course, whichever shaky private told you the story would conveniently forget to mention who they heard it from, and this mythical affini hardly seems like the sort to leave anyone behind to tell it unless it was on purpose. Anyone whose frontal lobe was intact would stop believing it within a month. But even the skeptics would wonder every so often, though they'd never admit it. They'd catch a look out a window on the way from a shift and for the briefest moment of a moment they'd swear on the stars they'd see something out there, crawling through the void like it was perfectly at home, peering back at them through the vac-glass. There'd never be anything of course. I always just figured they saw shit in the nebulae, they usually didn't get much sleep. I knew a cadette once who'd wake up every morning panicking about how we needed to 'check for crawlers'. He deserted three months into the campaign…anyway, the first version I heard was about the Ozymandias but I heard the same exact story about at least two others, beat for beat. Guess they could never pick one."
"Yeeeah…so, Thusi, you were clearly involved in the terran campaign. I'm curious why you're so far away from the protectorate so soon? I mean most affini I saw in accord space–former accord, sorry–most of them were intent on sticking around for a while."
"Yeah, um. Short for Methuselah. Thusi." Shiiiit, please please don’t be the one grumpy affini. I was just fucking around!
Oh thank the fucking stars. "Remember, question."
The compulsion to spill it all grew stronger with each asking, it was a strain to pick her own words, "Ah, em… we just ran into each other one day. I was a pilot, had to make an emergency landing. She…she helped me out. You know how it is."
All three torsos crept into and around her space, slowly enough that they briefly seemed to grow rather than approach. Three masks wore the smiles and eyes of unhurried predators, circling inevitably closer.
"I never said she was affini."
"And just what the fuck is that supposed to mean?"
She’d stopped hearing the beautiful music ages ago, supplanted entirely by the perpetual echo of the thing slowly taking up more and more of her vision. The static of her mind was drowning in an alien sea, buffeting upon rocks under curtain of night. It hadn’t drugged her had it? No, they had better manners than that. But not good enough to stop badgering her about shit she clearly didn’t wish to speak on. Her voice shook but she pushed it out anyway.
“No, I–whatever, it's fine. I'm no quitter. My turn then. What exactly do you mean by 'all of you speaks'?"
It was a statement, not a question, but it carried the same iron weight as the rest. The woman fought a twitch in her eye. Her fingers dug painfully into her palms.
“And? Every fucking sophont who isn’t an affini gets mistaken for a floret at some point, it’s not my fucking fault!”
Had they gotten closer again? Or bigger? They certainly felt bigger.
The affini trailed off to give the terran a merciful moment to prepare for the next asking. Her mouth was painfully dry, the backs of her eyes ached, every word they inflicted rang in her skull in tandem with her heartbeat. She wasn’t going to be prepared. Not anymore.
“I hate your questions.”
The compulsion weighed heavily on her tongue, "...Good. complicated. Good in a complicated way. Let’s leave it there, yeah?" The effort in keeping her answer short sent beads of sweat down her brow. “Anyway, my turn. Most affini I’ve met have some kind of occupation or passion, some… thing that they do. What about you? What’s your thing?”
The beast’s three voices spoke in tandem then, a roaring flood of ethereal music coalescing into a short string of syllables. It was not unlike other affini speech, she may even have been able to transpose it for terran use given some time and a written translation, but she had the distinct impression something would be lost in the attempt. Some words simply had their own time and place.
The terran had never heard an affini describe themselves in such a manner. The very idea of a warrior clashed with everything she knew of them, such a translation must have been…creative. The term ‘archaic’ had been said but… what was archaic to an affini? A question for later. She returned, “Sounds like a big deal!”
Another chuckle of snapping branches.
She flinched at the query’s pressing against her mental walls. "Wait, you just asked that, you can't… what do you want from me?"
Demanding. Shattering. High tide breaking against her bones, smothering, strangling, cloying. “I already told you, she–”
TRUTH. TRUTH, give it TRUTH. "Real fucking good, that's what you wanna hear right?! That she made me-"
"Like I'm STARVING, OK?! Like she… she fed something inside me that didn't know it was supposed to eat and now it's RAVENOUS all the time and I-I can't feed it! It takes all of my willpower to ignore it, I…. I don't know what to do, I can't HANDLE IT! And sh-she is the only th-thing that–I… I…"
"DON'T–" The walls fell. She curled into herself, clawing desperately at her own arms. Hot tears fell freely and silent sobs wracked her miniscule form. She had never felt smaller in all her years peering into the void. The walls needn’t have fallen at all, the beast’s frigid sea was well above her head now. "P-please. Don't s-say it…" The affini listened, and for a few long moments the two sat in their own small silence among the symphoriarch’s music. After the sobs had done their work and the fingers tired of squeezing, the terran’s awareness spread outward again. She could still feel the affini’s overpowering presence, the sea it had forced over her but…it wasn’t cold anymore. It was warm, gentle, still. She wiped her face and looked up to find the three torsos seemed smaller again. The predator was gone from their three sets of eyes, replaced with endearing patience.
The terran sniffled and basked in the warmth another moment. “F-fine. One more, that’s it.” She pondered for some time. She needed something good, something even modestly insightful. “You know, I've met plenty of affini in my travels. A couple reminded me of you in certain ways, some…unique eccentricities. But none quite the same. So I guess… if you would enlighten me, is there a functional difference between one affini who can become many and many affini becoming one?”
“Hmmm, I guess that’s good enough.” She wasn’t sure what she expected but it definitely wasn’t a straight answer.
"Em…sure, I guess." She wasn't really. The center torso leaned down to enter her space amicably, a serene calm blooming on its mask and in the slowing rhythms of its uncountable moving parts. It was infectious. The beast's song had settled, the sea was still and warm, all tension stolen away seemingly by their will alone.
It should've been creepy. It should've been too personal, too prying, an extension of her earlier interrogation, a broken promise. But it wasn't. It was a call to the happy edge of a memory. Gentle and warm like the sea. Just a little mental exercise for her, a treat. Once again, the affini knew exactly what it was doing, but this time the terran couldn't bring herself to care.
"Petrichor. Laced with ginger and citrus." The smile she wore while answering was her most honest in months.
With that the inky mass turned and began ambulating slowly toward one of many exits. The terran peeled her attention away from them and back to ever-opus to find it building to another climax. She recalled her secondary task and pulled her tablet from the pocket of her jacket, opening its recording function and centering the show in frame as much as possible. Her video captured the promised climax near perfectly and she sighed in satisfaction. Swapping to her messenger, she opened a chat to a very specific user ID and attached her recording.
She drank in a last few moments of the song before her inevitable departure. A shame she wouldn't be able to melt into it like the rest. It really was breathtaking. She dropped the tablet gingerly on the ground before her and turned toward the same exit as her new acquaintance, only to find that she was rapidly gaining on them. The warrior poet did not seem in a particular hurry to be anywhere. Maybe this was its vacation? Or maybe she'd just always walked inhumanly fast? Whatever the case she was closing on them quickly when the most obvious question crossed her mind, a glaring oversight in their previous 'game'. A cautious grin spread over the terran's face as she came close enough to be heard. It’s not as though a little daudling would get her in trouble this time, right?
"Hey Thusi! How old would you say you are?"
Three sets of pleased chromatic eyes were instantly upon her.
“Eh, why not? I’ve got some time to burn. You’re up!”
“Why not both?” Another of the affini’s now familiar crackling chuckles filled the air.