Chapter 1 - Uncanny Wakeup Call
Wherever she was, Serena was comfortable. Her head felt heavy, cloudy. As she blinked awake, her vision was hazy. Still, she was certainly comfortable. Whatever bed she lay in was far and away the nicest she’d felt since at least before the war. It wasn’t just the bed, either, the sheets were soft, the ever present distracting rumble of ship-board commotion was absent, there was actual, honest to goodness gravity. As nice as it all was, the more Serena realized the uncanny luxury she found herself in, the more she realized that said luxury was… well… uncanny. As though swimming through molasses, her mind strained to understand just what it all could possibly mean. The last thing she remembered was—Serena bolted upright. At least, she tried to bolt upright; unfortunately, as soon as she did, Serena discovered her arms were secured by cloth restraints.
A growl of impotent rage rumbled in her throat as she helplessly thrashed in place, more and more of her memories slowly bubbling from the surface. The jump drive depositing Petrichor back into ‘normal’ space just in time to witness the Tempest’s entanglement, her desperate and futile attempt to save the Tempest—really to save Kenzie, but to accomplish one was to accomplish the other—the final fate of her her own stolen ship, the impact, all of it began to slide back into place with agonizing clarity. With all that in mind, Serena realized there really were only two possible explanations for her state: she was either dead and had been wrong about the existence of an afterlife, or, far more likely, she had been captured by the affini. Truthfully, after everything she’d seen, Serena couldn’t say for certain which fate was more immutable.
Grimacing, she forced herself to calm down and think rationally. Thoughts like that weren’t helpful, they weren’t what would get her out of this. Serena was alive and felt more or less unharmed, which meant there was a chance that somewhere aboard this ship, Kenzie may also be alive and unharmed. Worrying over her failed first attempt wasn’t what Serena needed, what Serena needed, was to come up with a plan. Slowly and quietly as she could—just in case, she had no idea whether or not she was being observed—Serena sat as far up in bed as she could, and examined her surroundings. She was in a fairly well furnished room, it wasn’t exactly decorated, but it had more than the basic necessities. There was, of course, her bed, as well as a desk and chair, a recliner, a coffee table with a tablet, and a television.
If there were any cameras or microphones around, they were well hidden. But unless the little potted plant in the corner was somehow an affini in disguise—a possibility she couldn’t entirely rule out—Serena was alone. At the end of the room was a plain looking door, but from her spot on the bed Serena had no indication of what lay beyond it. From where she was laying, Serena couldn’t see any sign of any of her possessions. Even her simple pilot’s jumpsuit had been replaced by a soft, flowing garment purple that seemed part hospital-gown, part actual dress. This, of course, posed a problem. Admittedly, Serena should have expected no less than to have the small arsenal of weapons she’d taken with her confiscated, but without them, the question of what to do next became infinitely more uncertain.
Even if she somehow managed to escape her bindings, Serena was now unarmed and trapped inside a literal flying city which doubtless contained millions of deadly, ruthless affini soldiers, all armed with affini weapons. These were the same soldiers and weapons which had effortlessly brought the entire Terran Accord to heel. Which was systematically stamping out the remains of the rebellion. Serena was one woman. Good soldier or no, she was doomed. More importantly, Kenzie was doomed. Somewhere aboard the ship, her girlfriend was alone as those stars-forsaken shrubs put her through who knows what, and there was nothing Serena could do about that. So, in that moment, the fruit of all her planning came to bear, and Serena was left to stew in lonely desperation, helplessness, and fright. When the door to her holding room eventually slid open to reveal two towering affini, that was how they found Serena, crying in her bed over the fates of herself and of her love.
“Oh dear, she seems quite upset.” Serena was too wrapped in her own despair to bother looking up at the sound, but even preoccupied as she was, Serena could tell that whoever was crooning over her, they weren’t human. The voice just wasn’t quite right. It was pretty, clearly feminine, and easy to understand, but laced with this ethereal alienness, almost like if the creaking of a tree in the wind could speak.
A second voice spoke, equally unusual, and laced with just as much—clearly performative and deceptive—sympathy as the last. “Poor thing, probably has her head full of that awful rebel propaganda.”
The two continued to speak, rhythmically alternating their sentences as though they were somehow linked. “Such nasty little fish, the lot of them; at least the seas have been fruitful so far.“
“We’re truly fortunate, as is she.”
“Indeed, now that this little Terran is in our care, I’m sure she’ll understand soon enough; a change in perspective really works wonders.”
“Of course, it’s better for everyone this way.”
“Much better,” they agreed simultaneously.
At this point, Serena found herself desperately hoping that she was somehow dreaming, praying that if she tried hard enough, she could awaken still out on her supply mission aboard the Petrichor, or, better yet, someplace safe with Kenzie. Several moments of uncomfortable silence passed, broken only by quiet sobs; Serena could feel the xenos’ gazes upon her the whole time. But no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t wake up. Her mind raced as she scoured her brain for some idea, some scheme, anything at all that could get her out of this; then her efforts were interrupted by a soft rumbling sound which could only be described as affini approximation of a throat clear.
Feeling very much at the end of her rope, Serena shuddered, and slowly opened her eyes. Serena had always known the affini were tall; these two were either on the tall side even for affini, or Serena simply hadn’t mentally prepared herself for the reality of seeing an affini up close. And, to be clear, they were very close, far closer than she’d expected. They loomed over her, practically joined at the hip as they stared directly at her. Meeting Serena’s gaze, the taller of the two gave a soft smile.
“Hello, little flower,” she cooed.
“No need to cry, we’re not here to hurt you,” the other chimed. Fat chance, Serena thought to herself.
“This is Hesperia.” The taller one motioned to the shorter one.
“And this Ilex,” Hesperia purred, returning her counterpart’s gesture.
“Can you tell us your name, little one?”
“We couldn’t find any identification in your belongings.”
When Serena remained silent, the pair breathed a simultaneous huff, but seemed to decide against pressing the issue. “We understand you don’t want to be here.”
“So if you cooperate, we can have this done in two shakes of a frog’s tail.”
“We just have a few questions we’d like to ask you, dear,” Ilex sang.
As though they’d choreographed the whole thing ahead of time, both affini took a long step to either side of her bed in perfect synchronization, as Ilex produced a tablet, and Hesperia reached into her pocket, withdrawing what looked like a handful of brightly wrapped candies. With a little forish, Hesperia extended her hand, offering Serena the little brightly colored treats. “Would you like one?” She crooned.
For a moment, Serena’s gaze lingered on the shiny, colorful wrappings. It admittedly had been a long time since she’d had anything sweet besides her shitty synthetic chocolate rations which tasted almost entirely of butyric acid and chemical sweeteners. She wasn’t a fool, though. Not even bothering to acknowledge the offer, she looked up at Ilex, sniffled a little, and tried to put on a tough face despite it all. “So you’re interrogators, then?”
“Of sorts, nothing like your nasty little Terran interrogators though.”
“Such barbarism from such adorable little fish; no, we’re not at all like them.”
“We only have the nice way.” As she spoke, Hesperia deposited her candies on the bedside next to Serena.
For her part, Ilex flexed her forearm, revealing a needle pointed flower. “And the really, really nice way.”
At the sight of the needle, dripping with some unknown fluid, fear coursed through Serena’s veins; she had heard about the affini drugs. The rebel command had extensive reports detailing how the affini would break the minds of their captives with a smile on their faces, leaving mindless husks and eager slaves for whatever horrible forced labor the Affini Compact was surely built upon. Serena tried to be brave, she couldn’t. Bravery hadn’t gotten her anywhere so far. Instead, she begged. “Please don’t. I’m not loyal. The rebellion means nothing to me. We were deserters, or at least, we were going to be, I swear. I’ll tell you whatever you want just…” laying there, trembling and weeping under the affini’s gazes, Serena remembered why she was there to begin with, and found her bravery. “No, I won’t talk,” she said, somehow managing to find a firmness to her tone even between sobs. “Not without a deal.”
That, at least, seemed to get the plants’ attention. Their artificial faces twisted from a mask of deceitful warmth and understanding, to surprise and interest mixed with a healthy sampling of amusement. “Is that so?” Hesperia asked.
“We’re always happy to negotiate.”
“I think you’ll find that the affini compact can be very… accommodating to cooperative little fish like you.”
For the first time since she woke up, real genuine hope welled up inside Serena. Perhaps it was naive of her to believe this could work, but if the xenos truly had no intention of being amicable, why even consider a deal? “Just let my girlfriend and I leave free and unharmed,” Serena pleaded. The reality that this might be too much of a request was not lost on Serena, which really only left her with one option, as much as she hated it. She took a quiet, shuddering breath, then continued. “If you can’t do that, I’ll stay. But at least let her go.”
Her offer seemed to give the two affini pause, as they quickly shared an uncomfortable look. “Girlfriend?” Hesperia began.
“I see...” Ilex finished, trailing off as the affini once again exchanged glances.
“She is aboard this ship then?”
The xenos’ reaction to her request hadn’t exactly been encouraging, but Serena had to hold on to hope. “She was on Neptune’s Tempest. Her name is MacKenzie Powell.”
Another long pause followed. If Serena didn’t know any better, she’d suspect the two affini of being psychic and having an entire conversation behind those two sets of shining eyes. Actually, the more Serena thought about it, that sounded entirely plausible given everything else the affini seemed capable of accomplishing. After enough time had passed that Serena was starting to wonder if she was actually supposed to say something more, Ilex slowly turned her head to face Kenze, and sighed. “We will… see what we can do, little flower.”
With each passing moment, the light at the end of her tunnel seemed to shrink smaller and smaller, eclipsed by a growing understanding that no, Serena wasn’t getting what she wanted. In that moment, Serena wanted to just give up, to curl into a little ball and just beg them to get it over with and kill her. Fresh tears were streaming down her cheeks as she trembled, forcing herself to respond, for Kenzie. “Is there something wrong?”
For the first time since she’d first encountered the affni, Hesperia and Ilex looked downright uncomfortable. “There’s something you should know, dear,” Ilex began. “I imagine this might come as quite the surprise to you, but it’s been about ten days since Neptune’s Tempest was captured.”
With a start, Serena bolted upright, catching against her bonds, which Hesperia and Ilex mercifully took a moment to slacken, just a little. Sitting up properly, she looked disbelievingly between the two affini. There was simply no way that could be true, Serena was sure of it, she’d only just attacked the ship and wait—“how long was I unconscious?” Serena asked, her voice wavering.
“Not long, a little more than a day, and most of that was from our sedatives, not your injuries.” Ilex assured her. “You were hurt, but not terribly, and affini medical science is lightyear’s ahead of your adorable terran tech. You’ve healed up quite ni—”
“So how can—” Before Serena could finish, one of Hesperia’s vines suddenly shot up to gently cover her mouth.
“Please don’t interrupt, dear,” Ilex chided. Serena let out a muffled yell of anger, fear and confusion, but without use of her arms, there was little she could do. Well, actually, she could—
“I wouldn’t try to bite down, if that’s what you were thinking, little Terran,” Hesperia giggled. “Not unless you’d like the rest of our conversation to also serve as an introductory course on the wonderful effects of affini 'xenodrugs,' as you Terrans them. You’d enjoy it, I’m sure, but we wouldn’t get far with you blissed out of your mind and gasping at our every touch.”
Point effectively conveyed, Hesperia and Ilex watched in satisfaction as Serena flinched and sunk into her bed before nodding compliantly.
“Good girl.” As Hesperia withdrew her vine, she let it slowly drag across Serena’s cheek in a tender caress. Without warning, another vine appeared with a tissue, dotting Serena’s tears as she grimaced and bore the indignity. While Hesperia withdrew her vines, Serena watched as the two affini briefly made eye contact, Ilex giving her counterpart an incredulous, slightly annoyed look. Hesperia seemed to suddenly remember herself, and stiffened. “My apologies, little human. I sometimes get carried away, but this is not the time for that” She looked to Ilex. “As you were, darling.”
Ilex returned her piercing haze to Serena. “You’re curious as to how Neptune’s Tempest could have been captured over a week ago when your attack was only yesterday?” Nervously, Serena nodded. “Engine problems, dear. Very bad engine problems. You Terrans really love to cut corners, you know that? Someone did a bad job of keeping your reactor in good condition, when we first caught the ship in our net, it's reactor was a few bad days away from blowing a hole in space. Naturally the Compact wasn’t going to let a ship full of useful little secrets go to waste like that, so our engineers pushed it back out into space—just in case—and got to work fixing the reactor. You attacked just as your freshly repaired Neptune’s Tempest was being pulled back in.” The way Ilex was spoking, or rather, the way Hesperia hadn’t been, was far and away more unnerving than the affini pair’s typical affect. That playful, otherworldly energy had been sucked out, from the way Ilex spoke, she sounded rather grave, almost apologetic.
As the implications of all her captors’ had said took hold, Serena whimpered. She didn’t want to believe it. She couldn’t believe it. If what Ilex was saying were true, that would mean everything she’d done, all of it, had been for nothing. That would mean she’d risked everything for a ship full of affini engineers. That would mean… she shuddered. “So then... Kenzie?”
A twitch of movement caught Serena’s eye. Hesperia had apparently reached out with one of her vines again, only to catch herself and withdraw it. “We understand this news is likely rather frightening and upsetting for you, little human,” Hesperia murmured, her tone now carrying the same deflated tone as Ilex’s. “We can tell from the way you’ve acted that you don’t trust the Compact, or likely affini in general. But please believe us when we say we don’t want to hurt anyone. Please believe us when we say that wherever she is, your Kenzie is safe, and taken care of. In all likelihood she’s someone’s floret now. Take it from us, there is nothing affini delight in more than ensuring their florets are happy and provided for.”
Floret was a word Serena had heard before. She’d heard it in the affini propaganda broadcasts, she’d heard it on the rebel command channels, she’d heard it whispered from the hushed, fearful voices of paranoid crewmembers. A slave, they had turned her girlfriend into a slave. In their propaganda broadcasts, the affini called them pets and pretended they were beloved and pampered, but Serena wasn’t a fool, she could read between the lines. Serena sunk back into her bed. Her eyes gazed blankly toward the ceiling, looking past the room, past the ship into nothingness. Distantly, she heard Ilex, or maybe Hesperia say something; whatever it was, Serena couldn’t make it out. “Just do whatever you’re going to do.” Even her own voice sounded so far away. “Kill me, torture me, drug me, break my mind and turn me into one of them. Put me in one of your factories or sign me up to be experimented on. I don’t care. I won’t talk. Fuck the Accord, fuck the rebel command, but I won’t talk.”
Again, one of the xenos said something. The deafening static in Serena’s mind blocked it out. There was the sound of footsteps, the door to her prison slid open and closed. Distantly, she felt her restraints undo themselves and fall uselessly to the side of her bed. Serena didn’t move.