For the next few hours, Serena remained curled in a little ball, eyes closed, wishing she could somehow will away the crushing reality around her. She had cried til she ran out of tears, then cried some more. Eventually, her brain slowly managed to turn itself back over into something of a productive mindset. She had a harsh reality to face: Kenzie had been taken by the affini, and she was likely to be next. For a while, she tried to understand why her two captors had simply left her alone instead of attempting to pry information from her. She tried to understand why she hadn’t already been shackled, collared and pumped full of mind melting xenodrugs. Eventually, Serena decided that sort of thought process wasn’t going to get her anywhere, and she started to consider her options. That, at the very least, didn’t take long, on account of her not really having any.
The best thing she could come up with was, if she wanted to do something about her situation, she needed to understand it more. She needed to find some kind of leverage and fast. Whatever Hesperia and Ilex’s reasons for leaving her alone were, she would serve herself far more by using it to search for any advantage she could muster than by using it to simply feel sorry for herself and for Kenzie. Call it stubbornness, call it delusion, but Serena had to believe there was something she could do. Her first advantage, she figured, was small and simple enough: the affini had undone her bonds. To some, that might be discouraging—the affini clearly view her was so insignificant of a threat that even restraining her was unnecessary—to Serena, that just meant they underestimated her.
What Serena really needed, was to figure out their angle. Maybe then she could come up with a plan. Clearly, Hesperia and Ilex saw it important to keep Serena alive and relatively appeased, so they must have had it in their heads that she knew something useful. The question became, then, why tell her Kenzie had been made into a floret? To scare her into compliance? That seemed unlikely, the affini seemed too smart to think that would actually work. Making Serena think she had nothing to lose gave them no leverage. Could it be that they truly thought they could convince Serena that being a floret was a good thing? Admittedly, that would open up a whole world of options for the pair. It was actually quite brilliant, convince a prisoner her worst possible outcome is actually a good thing, and suddenly you’ve turned a stick into a carrot. All of that, of course, was based on the presupposition that it would work.
Humming thoughtfully, Serena stood from the bed, and swept her cell with her gaze. There was a small panel next to the door, if she could pry that open, maybe she could escape? But then what? One step at a time, perhaps. It wouldn’t hurt to at least see whether prying and rewiring the panel was even an option. Stiffly, Serena walked across the room, examining the door, it’s panel, and the room for any indication of how to proceed when, to her shock, as soon as Serena drew close to the door, it simply slid right open. Baffled, Serena stopped short as realization dawned on her. Was this room not her cell? Just a single room in a very large, multi room cell? For fuck’s sake, the affini truly did want to convince her they were on her side. She almost laughed, then strolled through the door to find herself in a sprawling living room connected to a slightly vintage looking Terran-style kitchen. They had even outfitted it with one of those homey looking ovens that all the wealthy Terrans used before the war. Apparently they had really gone overboard on trying to ‘make her feel at home,’ or whatever Hesperia and Ilex would say.
Half-expecting some sort of trap, or an affini to spring out from the vents or drug-filled gas to start seeping in through the walls, Serena began to explore her surroundings. All in all, it was… fine, really. The place was devoid of anything sharp, no knives, not even a lighter—why a home like this would actually need a lighter wasn’t something Serena bothered considering—but it was comfortable. Or, rather, it would have been comfortable if she wasn’t a prisoner on an affini ship. She continued to search the place, then searched some more, then continued for good measure until she couldn’t help but ignore the burning question of ‘what are you even looking for?’ Truthfully, she didn’t have an answer. Something that would let her win. Some oversight, some perfect piece of information or eureka discovery that would give her the leverage to force the affini to play by her rules.
But the more she thought about it, the more she realized that, even if she did find some crucial bit of something to grant her a proper bargaining chip, it wouldn’t matter. Serena was a nobody, a mid-ranking rebellion officer. She didn’t know any important rebellion secrets. The only reason she’d even become a captain was because the rebellion was desperate and Serena owned her own ship—had owned her own ship, Petrichor was likely long gone by now. How much grief could she really expect to cause the affini before they decided she just wasn’t worth the trouble? And then Kenzie would be truly alone. The tears were coming back again, the uncertainty, the understanding that no matter what Serena did, she and Kenzie were fucked.
Feeling utterly hopeless, Serena dragged herself to the sofa in the home’s living room, and collapsed forward in a fit of sobs. In that state, telling time wasn’t exactly something Serena was particularly good at. Her mind was mostly focused on indulging her worst impulses to spiral further and further. But, eventually, a sound at the outer door to her cell roused her. Serena didn’t bother reacting. Then there was another sound, and another. A few muffled voices spoke; the door opened. For a moment, Serena entertained the idea of just playing the despondent prisoner, remained unresponsive, hope that if she ignored the problem it would go away. Perhaps at this point she was merely bored and curious, perhaps she just wanted to get it over with instead of linger in limbo, but Serena sat up, and followed the noise.
“You’re multiplying,” she commented bitterly.
“A new friend,” Hesperia explained.
“She wants to meet with you, has a good reason, too.”
“We’ll be leaving you alone with her.”
“We’ve briefed her on your situation.”
“Please do give what she has to say a listen; we think you’ll be interested.” Almost as quickly as they entered, Hesperia and Ilex whirled together in a flurry of entwining vines, and evacuated the room, shutting the door behind them.
If nothing else, Serena had to admit, their seemingly deliberate strangeness was a tad bit disarming. It almost would have been amusing, if not for the circumstances. There were, however, more pressing matters to attend to, namely this new affini standing in her cell.
Putting the two out of her mind, Serena shifted her focus to the newcomer, who honestly looked just as surprised and perplexed by Hesperia and Ilex’s rather swift and dramatic exit as Serena felt. She was, well... she was an affini. Admittedly, Serena wasn’t an expert on how affini looked. But she seemed pretty normal, normal for an eleven foot plant person, that was. The main thing Serena could distinguish about her appearances were the hundreds of bulbous flowers colored a dark indigo arranged all over the affini’s body. Strangely, all the flowers were closed, making them appear almost like decorative string lights, minus the light. Beyond that, she looked… nice? Specifically, she appeared nice in the sense that every affini Serena had interacted with so far did their best to play at warmth and kindness. She was clutching something in her hands, a small bag made of tightly wound plant matter, which she supported from the bottom. She also seemed to be at a loss for words as she stood frozen in place, staring silently at Serena.
“Is that supposed to be another present?” The sound of Serena’s voice seemed to shock the affini out of her stillness. Perhaps the extra venom she’d laced her tone with acted as a nice boost. Hopefully it had, the fact that Serena was still unable to stop crying likely did her no favors in the realm of intimidation.
“It’s a sign of good will.” Whoever she was, she sounded almost as shaken and nervous as Serena felt.
Rolling her eyes, Serena nodded toward the coffee table in front of her sofa. “Show me your bribe.”
Was this affini afraid of her? Serena wondered. The way she flinched at the disdain in Serena’s voice, the hesitance in her every word and movement, it was all quite the contrast from Hesperia and Ilex. Nevertheless, she did seem to work up the courage to approach, albeit slowly, like Serena was some sort of cornered animal. Honestly, that wasn’t an inaccurate description of how Serena felt. Kneeling down to reach the—from her perspective—incredibly short coffee table, the affini gently set the bag down with a surprisingly loud thunk. As though disarming a bomb, the affini delicately and deliberately opened the top of the bag and, without warning, the smell hit. Food, admittedly this was unsurprising, given the candy tactic from earlier, but that candy didn’t come with an overpowering, mouth watering smell. Serena couldn’t help but wonder when she last smelled something that delicious. Before the war, that was for certain. The aroma was familiar too, meaty, spicy, though Serena couldn’t place it exactly.
Before she had the chance to speculate further, the affini wordlessly reached into the bag, looking nervously at Serena the entire time, and withdrew an entire black stone bowl of all things. She set it down in front of Serena, and recognition, followed by delight, then closely followed by nervous fear all cycled through her mind in rapid succession. Trembling, Serena exhaled a long, shaky breath, then looked from the bowl to the affini. “What the fuck?” She whimpered. “Who told you?”
Again, Serena’s hostility seemed to have quite the uncharacteristically withering effect on her new company. A strange little show of expressions played across the affini’s face. Admittedly, Serena was no expert on affini psychology or expression, but if human body and facial language were any indication, the way the xeno shrunk back and averted her gaze in a pouting grimace suggested disappointment, apprehension, shame, perhaps even a touch of guilt? This was all the more affirmed by the affini making a deliberate show of straightening herself out, smoothing her ruffled leaves, and taking a seat on the floor across from Serena in a display that almost seemed as though the xeno was trying to center herself, calm herself down.. After a few moments of silence, the affini seemed to have gathered up her courage. She looked Serena in the eye, and spoke. “It’s bibimbap, right? There are some pickled radishes and kimchi in the bag as well.”
“Answer the question, plant,” Serena half growled, half sobbed.
This time, the xenos resolve seemed unshaken. Without missing a beat, she continued. “It’s your favorite food. You had it on your first date with Kenzie, she had japchae noodles.”
“I know what the fuck it is!” Serena couldn’t remember the last time she’d properly screamed at someone. Perhaps it was all the crying, but Serena just couldn’t roar the way she was used to. Her breath was coming fast now, was she hyperventilating? “Tell me. Who? Told you.” Each word was a struggle to force out between gasping breaths.
Seeing the state Serena was in, the affini took on a much more outwardly worried posture. She made a move to stand, leaning forward, but as she did, Serena scrambled backward away from her. “Don’t come any closer,” Serena hissed, forcing herself to control her breathing. If nothing else, the affini listened, sitting back down, but still eyeing her with concern.
When it seemed clear that Serena was, at the very least, not on the verge of a full-blown panic attack, the affini opened and closed her mouth a few times. A quiet, croaking noise of uncertainty followed an unintelligible stammer, eventually, she seemed to give up, and reached a hand into her vines, withdrawing a small tablet—small for an affini, at least. Wordlessly, the affini held it to her face, and tapped its screen a few times, before setting it on the coffee table, and pushing it toward Serena.
Frustrated, and more than a little worried about what the plant wanted to show her, Serena reached toward the tablet, before hesitating a moment as her darker thoughts took hold, informing Serena of all the different awful things she might see. Again, Serena felt driven by little more than feelings of inevitability. With a trembling hand, she reached out to take the tablet, brought it toward herself, and glanced at the screen.
A picture, a very nice looking, high resolution picture at that. It featured two familiar faces, though, one was far more familiar than the other. On the right side of the frame, was the same affini who currently sat across from Serena. She was lying on the grass with a bright smile on her face as she held the tablet up for the picture. Left of her, and a little bit doward, was the heartstopping sight of Kenzie, nestled within the affinis arms and nuzzling into the crook of her neck. She wore a bright smile, and the same pair of shades she always wore out.
Stunned, Serena glanced up from the tablet, meeting the xeno’s gaze. Just as the makings of a response began to form on Serena’s lips, an unseen vine gently tapped the tablet’s screen, causing Serena to jump, as well as with a new photo to appear. In this one, Kenzie sat with her back against a tree, her bare feet were dangling off a short ledge into a shallow stream below. Her eyes were cast toward her lap, with a content smile on her face. She was gazing at the affini, whose head rested in Kenzie’s lap, eyes closed, appearing to peacefully nap in the sun.
Another tap, this time it was video. Kenzie sat in a comfortable looking chair with her back turned, humming a happy tune as she tinkered with an antique looking radio. From behind the camera, the affini’s voice called out, gloating about how she had told Kenzie that song was an earworm, leading to a surprised and delighted Kenzie to jump, turn around, break into a fit of giggles, and admit the affini was right, it had been stuck in her head all day. The video ended with Kenzie gleefully throwing herself toward the camera as vines swept out to catch her. More taps, more photos, always Kenzie and the affini, always happy.
Was this real? Was Kenzie truly as happy as these photos suggested? A brief kernel of light bloomed the abyss she’d found herself navigating. For a moment, Serena really, truly, wanted to believe. But she couldn’t, not this easily. She needed more. If Kenzie really was okay, why not allow Serena to meet her? Could she just… ask? maybe. She needed to understand. Hands trembling, Serena slowly set down the tablet, looking from the screen to the xeno across from her. “What is this?” She rasped.
“My name is Mirabilis Luz, Seventh Bloom. Or just Mira,” she trailed off for a moment, before getting back to the point. “Kenzie is my floret. I thought if you saw how happy she was—”
“Let me see her,” Serena snapped. “In person.”
Mirabilis stiffened, her leaves standing on end as her vines slowly retraced. “I… can’t right now. She’s recovering from surgery.” Just as she finished, a sudden look of regret bloomed on the weed’s face. One could practically track the moment Mirabilis realized she’d fucked up and accidentally said too much down to the millisecond. Serena wanted to feel triumphant, the way she’d gotten the plant to make that admission. The way Mirabilis knew she’d accidentally revealed the awful truth. For obvious reasons, she couldn’t feel much of anything besides despair given the news.
“What have you done to her?” She wailed, casting the tablet away from her and collapsing against the sofa in a fit of uncontrollable tears. It was all a lie, another affini trick. Doctored images, rendered video, who knew what these monsters were capable of. Worst still, they’d clearly milked Kenzie for information about Serena so they could tug on her heartstrings with her favorite food and pretty words. And surgery, fucking surgery, what kind horrors had the put Kenzie through. Serena couldn’t bear the thought. From the corner of her eye, she watched Mirabilis stand, stammering and taking a half step toward Serena.
“Little one I promise she's okay, we didn't hurt her we just—”
“Get out!” she screamed with all her breath, “get the fuck away from her. Get the fuck away from me.”
Spent, Serena curled up on the couch and wept. Over the sound of her sobbing, she heard Mirabilis stammer a half baked attempt at an excuse, but seemed to realize that ship had already sailed. The affini grew quiet. A moment later Serena heard the sound of footsteps leaving the room, along with the door to outside opening and closing, though it barely registered. She didn’t have the time to consider in more detail why Mirabilis had left. Restless sleep soon took her.
She awoke to an empty room, a dry mouth, and a voracious hunger. There was also the depression. Across from her, the Bibimbap sat, now cold. Serena’s stomach growled at the sight and smell. For a moment, she considered whether it might be drugged, then realized she didn’t care. The worst part was, it tasted delicious.
Slumped against a wall in the kitchen, half-sitting, half-laying on the floor, Serena nursed a glass of water, and tried not to think about anything at all. It wasn’t working. Her mind couldn’t help but wander back to that ever-burning question: why? Why do all this? Why keep her in a cozy little cell? Why play good cop, good cop, good cop with her? Why not drug her? Or tortured her? If they wanted information from her so badly, surely they could have had it by now. Unless their drugs weren’t as potent as they wanted her to believe. More and more it seemed like they were gambling everything on convincing Serena the affini were actually quite benevolent. That had to have been the point of Mirabilis’ little dinner and a show routine, right? Maybe now she’d fucked that one up so royally the affini would finally take their polite little masks off. That would be refreshing, honestly. That way she could just get it all over with instead of stewing in this pain.
One last time, Serena tried to find something, anything, she could use for leverage. To what end, she wasn’t certain anymore. Even if she could somehow rescue Kenzie, wouldn’t it be too late? She had to try, she supposed, but how? The one thing Serena was certain of, was that the affini wanted her alive and talking. Perhaps they even needed her. What Serena could possibly tell them was beyond her. But it was something. If she could somehow convince the affini she was putting herself in danger, without them realizing she was only doing it to scare them into making a deal, then maybe she could bluff her way into something.
The problem, of course, was how to do that. For one, Serena had already searched the place for anything sharp and come up empty. For two, she needed something both credible enough, and dangerous enough that they wouldn’t just let her try, and send her to their medical wing if she succeeded. As her eyes trailed around the room, part of Serena idly wondered whether she was just doing this to distract herself, but decided the answer to that question didn’t matter.
Absolutely devoid of ideas, her eyes fell on that vintage Terran oven, and Serena remembered an old story Kenzie liked to tell. Apparently for a while, back before she or Kenzie were even born, an older version of ovens like that one was really popular in Martian homes. That’s actually where they’d been invented, too, Mars. Off planet they were pretty much unheard of. Anyway, they developed a nasty habit of exploding, something about a pressure-based heating system and a bad reaction if the ovens' built-in cooling tanks leaked. They were pretty big explosions, too. Naturally, the manufacturer eventually got around to making safer ovens—after a few dozen or so homes went up in fireballs.
Serena stood and crossed the room, then thoughtfully traced her hand along the oven. The new ones had pretty sophisticated failsafes to make that sort of thing basically impossible, so they wound up exploding in popularity instead. It was the perfect combination of retro aesthetic, with all the safety and effectiveness of cutting edge tech. Plus, Mars-Chic was in vogue. By the 2540s pretty much every new home in the Terran accord came with one, which was probably why this affini ship also had one.
Regardless, that wasn’t the point; the point was Kenzie’s story. Even if the new models were popular everywhere else, no matter how much they were assured the new models were safe, Martians wanted nothing to do with the things—not that Serena could blame them. Ironically, expensive new homes on Mars pretty much always came with them pre-installed, much to the chagrin of wealthy Martians. Which is where Kenzie, genius little rascal that she was, saw dollar signs. She’d spent half her teens, and the early bits of her twenties, working as a handywoman slash con artist, searching out wealthy Martians, convincing them that their actually very safe ovens were primed to blow any day, and charging top dollar to stick her head inside with a screwdriver and say ‘hmm’ for twenty minutes. When the unrest on Mars started to boil over, insurgents even started rigging up the scrapped older models as improvised bombs, making people even more terrified. Sometimes Kenzie would even hire a crew to break in and fake-tamper with the explosion-proof new ovens to make her story, and her pay, extra credible.
‘The best way to persuade them,’ she used say, ‘was never to make them believe the danger was real, but to convince them that you believed the danger was real. Once you did that, the rest was always easy.’ That story had always put a smile on Serena’s face, especially the way Kenzie told it, waving her hands wildly and slurring her words after a few too many beers, blowing her hair out of her eyes whenever she got a little too erratic and her bangs fell forward. Serena very, very much wanted to see her Kenzie again. And couldn’t help but wonder: how up to date on obscure Martian appliance history was the average affini?
Returning to the bedroom, Serena plucked the tablet which had been left for her off its desk, and was relieved to find she could actually connect to the net with it. She took a second to consider whether she was actually going to do this. If any affini took the time to research her bluff, they’d probably realize there wasn’t any real danger, and then who knew what those weed bastards would do? Then she thought about Kenzie, out there alone and scared, and realized that yes, of course she was going to do this. Her plan was shaky at best, but Serena was good at improvising. And, as she made a cursory search for articles about Martian insurgents turning pressure ovens into makeshift bombs, she repeated Kenzie’s words to herself. “The best way to persuade them isn’t to make them believe the danger is real, but to make them believe you think the danger is real. Once you accomplish that, the rest is always easy.”