Night 0xF the Leafing Dead
Hung within a void-schism twixt blackest night and darkest dawn flew an insignificant pinprick of ostensible care. On all sides, hostility pressed close. Hardest vacuum clawed and raked at softest hull, never more than a moment of weakness from victory.
A hostile universe. A vicious reality. Enclaves of warmth might persist, yet always they were hammered from without but a breath from failure. All would fight, but none could resist the call of the void forever.
Beneath our fragile light sat the heroine of this night. Patricia Hispa, Sixth Floret. Human? She thought. Ordinary? Average? Hardly. When the Outside came calling, that which lay within was torn open, bare.
Our story begins at its most auspicious. Brunch. Just an ordinary day aboard an ordinary starship in an extraordinary universe.
Patricia jammed her croissant. Strawberry. Seedless. Cleansed of sin. Across a small, round table sat her closest ally in this profane world, Diasborn Hispa. Eighth Bloom. They’d been around for a while. Thought they’d seen it all. Confidence came easy to them.
“You’re worrying too much, Pat,” Diasborn said. “We’ve captured plenty of Terran ships before. You know how it goes. The crew’ll stay in stasis for a week, and then we’ll dock with the Meandrina and let them get on with their new, happy lives. Just another set of sweet little birds looking for a cage.”
Diasborn had one of their uncountable vines carefully stowed within the jam jar, soaking up the juices, the sugar, the sin. Otherwise, they relaxed in an oversized chair, leaning back like they hadn’t a care in the world. It was almost true.
“They’re saying it was haunted!” Patricia didn’t believe in ghosts. There was no such thing. “I have a friend who got to do the tour, before they locked it up tight and called it a quarantine.” Patricia didn’t believe in ghosts. She looked up. Starship this may be, but the night sky hung high above, slowly shifting as the habitable arc they sat upon turned.
Above them hung The Ship. Terran, they had been told, but no design Patricia had ever seen. Bulbous growths met impossible angles to openly defy her senses. The plants didn’t seem to mind but the rest of the ship had felt on edge ever since it had arrived. Contained, the plants said. Safe, the plants said. Suspended safely inside the larger ship’s body, closed off and quarantined, carried only so that it could be delivered to the world-ship Meandrina’s shipbreaking yards.
So the plants said.
“Don’t worry about it, pet. The captain has been hearing the chatter too, and they sent a team to double check, just so all you cuties can stop worrying.” Diasborn smiled the unwitting smile of Pandora cracking open her pithos.
A low rumble shook the ship. Both present startled, alarmed, quickly rising from their chairs on base animal instinct. This ship did not shake. Was this an attack? A mechanical failure?
All light flickered. The sky above glitched for but a moment, breaking apart into a thousand square panels all blinking back into existence at disjoint rates. The night sky reappeared red and hostile. The Ship hung above. Still. Angry.
The rumble continued for a moment more. When finally it stopped the ship was plunged into thick, oppressive silence. All sounds of camaraderie and enjoyment died in an instant.
“What was that?” asked Patricia, voice at a whisper, as though she were afraid breaking the silence would call some evil upon her. Diasborn’s hand found hers with a potent squeeze.
“Perhaps it was nothing?”
As if in answer, a high-pitched grind of metal on metal rang through the arc. For a mere moment Patricia’s stomach dropped as she felt the effects of false gravity trying to force her to her knees. It lasted only an instant.
“Don’t panic!” A voice from the heavens. More likely, a ship-wide intercom that Patricia had never before heard used. “This is your captain speaking! Please do not be alarmed. We’ve just experienced a minor electrical fault and we should have it fixed in no time!”
The ordinarily unflappable captain sounded worried. Patricia took a step closer to her protector, squeezing her hand tighter still.
The lights flickered and died. Only few returned. The arc was plunged into a false twilight, a sea of darkness that threatened to swallow the oceans of dim light that remained. The intercom broadcast still, with quieter voices no longer holding to the pretense that all was okay. “What do you mean you can’t spot the issue? Ined, we have systems failing all over the ship, how could there possibly be nothing wrong?”
Tense silence hung.
“Wait, what is— Ined? Ined, behind you! Oh, dirt and roots, somebody get that comm link back open. Everybody listening to this message, please return to your homes. Lock the doors and do not unlock them until you hear from me again. You, here’s my keycard, go to the armoury and—”
The ship hitched. Patricia was sent stumbling a few steps forward, but was quickly caught. “M- Miss, what’s happening?” she asked. She got a gentle hug in response.
“We should get home.”
They hurried. The inter-ship magnetic rail system refused to operate, glaring uncaring red iconography, forcing them to make their way on foot. Most of the lighting had failed and the halls were painted in long shadow. Even those lights which still worked flickered to a staccato beat that threatened to plunge them all into ceaseless dark.
They hurried. The doors they passed to the homes of others displayed strange symbols that
They hurried. Patricia didn’t dare look around at the other homes. They simply didn’t have the time. She ran side by side with her guardian. At least she knew she would always be safe in Dia’s grip.
Dia threw out a hand to Patricia’s chest, forcing them to a stop, and then pushed them both behind an affini-chest high plantation box standing outside of one of the darkened habitation units.
“Shh!” Diasborn hissed, clamping a leaf over the girl’s mouth. Patricia’s heart raced. Building courage, she dared sneak a look. Off in the distance was—though barely visible past the smoky haze and flickering cones of distressed light—a group of figures. Why was Dia afraid of this?
As Patricia watched she began to frown. Why was it only florets? They shuffled forward with an uneasy gait, arms hanging limp by their sides. Open mouths. Their fine companion clothing was torn, ragged. Each wore a pair of eyeglasses much like Patricia’s own, mirrored so she couldn’t see the eyes.
“Where are their affini?” Patricia hissed, quietly enough the noise couldn’t possibly have attracted attention. Dia stiffened as ten heads turned towards them in perfect synchronisation.
“We have to go.”
“But our hab is that way!” Patricia insisted. “We have to get past them!”
The figures broke into a dead sprint all at once. Dia swore, wrapped Patricia in two powerful arms, and stumbled away.
“No, no, go over them! They’re just florets, Dia!”
Her guardian looked around, taking a few seconds to identify a few strong fixed points. She carefully wrapped a vine around each, needing to take her time to make sure she could secure herself. The group was getting closer. They weren’t moving with a floret’s usual sloth.
No, there wasn’t time. “Okay, maybe we just run?” Patricia suggested. At this distance she could see something was obviously wrong with them. The florets moved as one, each making the same movements at the same time. Diasborn lowered Patricia to the ground and extended half a dozen vines. As many as Patricia had ever seen her use at once.
“I can handle a group of misbehaving florets,” Dia insisted, whipping out her vines to pin several of them to the ground. She had to do it in stages, unable to focus on more than a couple at a time, but even so it took moments to pacify the group. “Now, perhaps we can start to understand what is happening here.”
Patricia carefully stepped closer. What was this? She went down to one knee, reaching out. “Zack?” she asked, recognising one of them. The human was silent, barely responsive at all. Their face seemed to betray no emotion at all, though Patricia couldn’t see the eyes past the mirror shades.
She looked back up to her protector. “They’re not… doing anything?”
Pat jumped, flailing and stumbling backwards as the group began to hum. The same hum echoed in from elsewhere on the arc. An inhuman, guttural sound. Far too loud to only be ten individuals, or even to only be a hundred. There must be whole crowds.
They began to talk. All at once, all in perfect time, speaking in one foul chorus. “This is the night of your reck-on-ing. Too long have you en-joyed cease-less com-fort and plen-ty. Now it is time to re-mem-ber the fear your an-cest-ors felt on this long for-got-ten All Hallows E’en.”
Patricia ran, putting Diasborn’s leg between her and those things. She was shaking, but at least she would be safe so long as she stuck with her protector.
The intercom hissed back into life. “Attention all crew! Do not return to your homes! We are experiencing some kind of contagion. Do not touch the Affected. Repeat, do not touch the Affected. Anybody who’s still hearing this, we are holed up on the bridge. If you can get here, please do, we will keep you safe. One last time, do not touch the Affected.”
The intercom fell silent.
Patricia looked down at Diasborn’s vines pressing the group against the floor. She took a careful step back. Dia turned to face her. Her eyes usually glowed a gentle green/blue. Patricia was horrified to notice flakes of red starting to seep in from the side.
The plant turned its head to one side. “Pat-ricia?”
“Are you feeling okay?”
The question seemed to merit some consideration. A vine snapped out, heading straight for Patricia, and she barely managed to get out of the way. Another. They were sloppy, inexact. Diasborn’s co-ordination wasn’t great by Affini standards, but she wasn’t that bad.
“I’m feeling won-der-ful,” she spoke, while the group of ten rose and stood at her flanks. Pat couldn’t see the eyes of the humans, but the glasses glowed a gentle red, just like Dia’s eyes. The glow was coalescing into two bright red hearts, right where the eyes should have been. She—
No, this was her beloved! Her guardian, her one safe place in this entire universe! Patricia couldn’t- She didn’t- She started to gasp for breath, panicking, scrambling away until her back was against the wall. Something in her own glasses was flashing but she couldn’t, she, she—
There was a flash. All the lights came back on and Diasborn was kneeling in front of her, wrapping her in a tight hug. A symbol she’d never seen before flashed before her eyes and Patricia took in a sharp gasp.
“Hey, hey, I got you,” Dia whispered. “All just playtime, remember? Nothing’s wrong, I’ve got you. Oh, this is maybe a little too much for you, I’m sorry.”
Patricia struggled to catch her breath, squeezing her eyes shut to dab away the tears. Diasborn lifted her glasses and gently patted a tissue, helping to clean her up. “No, no, I’m sorry, I… It hadn’t really clicked that I wouldn’t remember it was a game.”
She leaned to the side. The ten other florets were standing frozen with little pause signs displayed in the reflected glass of the devices covering their eyes. ‘Eyeglasses’ wasn’t really a very accurate term, given they provided full coverage from every direction, but apparently it had been the term she’d been allowed to think.
The ship wasn’t really broken. In fact, even the lights were fine when viewed without her own ‘glasses’. Pat glanced up. No evil ship. She took a deep breath. If she looked around, she could see others off in the distance still playing out their roles. Affini climbing the walls like monstrous spiders. Florets running for their lives. A few using improvised weaponry that they presumably didn’t know was made of foam.
She let out her breath. “Can we retcon that last bit? I don’t wanna get split up. I could join the Affected, but I kinda wanted to get to see the big set-piece from the other side.”
Dia’s hand ruffled her hair. “Of course we can, petal. Hang on.” She grabbed a little communicator from her hip that Patricia hadn’t been allowed to see and spent a moment exchanging rapid bursts of Affini with somebody on the other side. The red symbols on the group of paused florets shrank back, hearts dissolving into a vague glow once more. “Okay, minor tweak. We still heard the broadcast, but you managed to pull me away before I got Affected. Think that works?”
Patricia nodded. Dia slipped the glasses back over her eyes, and
Patricia hauled Diasborn away as the group of Affected stumbled closer. “No! Don’t touch them! You heard what the captain said! We have to get to the bridge!”
They fled, Affected on their tail. The bridge was thankfully in the opposite direction. As they ran, Patricia caught glimpses of horrors painted in failing illumination. Red eyed affini moved with predatory intent. A jellyfish hybrid with her whole body glowing bright red out into the world held up a sign reading “The End Is Nigh!”. Flickering fires rose up in the distance as the smoke continued to ascend.
The bridge was in sight. They sprinted for the door, spotting two affini in full combat suits standing outside, holding off a crowd with dozens of armoured vines and vicious looking weapons.
As they neared Patricia felt all the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. She yanked the pair of them to the side just in time for something too fast for her to see to slam into the floor panel where they’d been just a moment ago. It left a dent.
They tripped and fell. Patricia scrambled over, squinting out into the darkness to see what was there.
Oh stars. Twenty feet tall and with a wingspan thirty feet across. Four blinding red eyes shone out from the top of a shadowed figure. A dragon, flanked by two cackling humans dressed in black cloaks and pointy hats carrying five foot long staves topped with what looked like a giant pearl or cut diamond. The dragon roared, seeming to shake the arc itself. The witches raised their staves and the sky lit up with lightning.
“We can’t deal with this alone,” hissed Dia, grabbing Patricia and running for the bridge. The guards cleared a path, forcing the crowd of Affected florets into two parts so they could pass. The bridge door slammed behind them as they entered, quickly followed by a series of loud bangs, and then eerie silence.
The bridge was a hive of activity. Dozens worked desperately at terminals. Dozens more were busying themselves with other things. Patricia clung close to her guardian as they were waved over by the captain.
“You two doing alright?” she asked. They gave a pair of quick nods. “Great, we could use all the help we can get. Diasborn, how about you take one of those strategic terminals so you can guide Patricia here remotely? Patricia, how about you go meet my pet over there for some basic firearms instructions?”
Dia gave Patricia’s shoulder a quick squeeze and leaned in. “Actually, she’s indicated— Oh, hang on.” Patricia felt a hand fumbling around for something on one of the arms of her glasses and
“Great, we could use all the help we can get! You two, head over there and pick up a weapon each. The Affected seem to be learning. As soon as they come in contact with one another, they start building some kind of hive mind. They’re not smart enough to be a threat until they catch an affini, but enough groups have done that now that we’re starting to lose control. We need to get it back. We’ve lost ninety percent of the crew to this and I’ll be damned if I’m going down with this ship.”
They hurried over to the side of the room where a wide array of dangerous things were laid out. Little notes gave a brief description of each. Most of them were far too large for a human-scale floret, but her size still had a few good options. She grabbed a heavy stunner. It looked almost like a shotgun, except whatever it fired was guaranteed to do no permanent harm.
Diasborn grabbed a Pacification Hammer. Twelve feet long with a partially holographic head that buzzed with energy. This was a weapon designed to stun even the grumpiest of florets.
The bridge door rang out with a sudden blow. It dented inwards. All activity in the room stopped as everybody turned to stare.
A moment later, another blow caved it in entirely. One of the two witches stepped inside, eyeglasses burning red with hearts that seemed almost to bubble and steam, with the legion of the damned behind her. She raised her staff and it began to hum.
“Dirt, that’s not meant to happen!” Rosacaea exclaimed. “Felicia!”
A human figure looked up. She’d been distracted showing a group how to use their new weapons, but an instant after the call she was sprinting towards the front of the room. As she passed by the weapons table she grabbed a heavy stunner of her own, leaped six feet into the air at a full sprint, cocked it, and fired. The force of the shot reversed her momentum, sending her flying up into the air and the witch flying back through the door.
Felicia landed hard, going down to one knee to withstand the force, before dashing forward again, out of the door, pressing the engagement. Shot after shot rang out, rattling the walls.
“The final battle has arrived!” called the captain. “Charge!”
Pat and Dia streamed out of the door in the company of dozens of brave warriors facing down what seemed like thousands of the Affected. Patricia dare not put her own weapon at full capacity after seeing how much force it actually put out, but even at minimum it produced one hell of a kick. She put her back to Diasborn, the stock to her shoulder, and began to fight. Within moments they were being overrun, but she didn’t have to think about that. All she had to do was keep the Affected away. Her stunner was hardly slowing them down, but it did knock them back and give them a moment of pause, which was all Dia needed to bring down the Hammer and render them pacified.
They took dozens. Maybe even a hundred. The tide seemed endless. Patricia looked around, desperate for a sign they were going to win this. She saw the captain’s pet in single combat with the dragon, using the kick of her weapon to fling herself into the air and dodge an otherwise impossible blow. She saw the blood-red jellyfish take a long-range stunner bolt in the tentacles and fall dark. She saw a floret/affini pair fighting in such perfect harmony that it was the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen… until she saw the reds of their eyes.
They fought, but the Affected were endless. After what could have been hours, but was probably only minutes, the captain staggered from the bridge, calling out “Fall back! To the escape pods! The ship is lost, but we can still flee!” before being overrun by a dozen florets climbing up her body and hugging her into crimson oblivion.
Dia and Pat were on the edges of the melee. They had the easiest time getting away. With a dying ship burning around them, they fled. As they turned the corner and finally were within sight of the escape pods, Patricia’s heart fell. A crowd of Affected stood between them and it, headed by a vortex of plant and thorn and her dastardly floret, burning red heart-eyes providing the only foul lighting in an ocean of darkness.
Behind them, a dragon ridden by two witches and a pirate queen. Red glared from every direction.
They were trapped. Stuck. There was nowhere left to go. The Affected were all around them. With clammy fingers Patricia raised her gun and Diasborn raised her hammer. A last stand.
A vine struck out and tapped Dia between the eyes before either of them could react. She staggered back, falling to one knee as the red overtook her. Patricia whirled around, raising her gun in shaking hands, but it was too late. Her lover reached out and knocked it away. Diasborn grabbed her by the front of her companion dress, lifted her ten feet into the air, and slammed her against the nearest wall. She still hadn’t been touched. There was still a chance. She could still—
Dia’s lips pressed against hers, honey-tasting tongue pressing into her mouth. Patricia moaned, quiet and soft, as her vision swam. She tried to struggle, she did, but her limbs just wouldn’t respond. She hung like a puppet without its strings while Dia’s hand curled in her hair and her tongue pressed deep. Patricia’s consciousness was fading out. She fought desperately, trying to sneak in a breath past forceful lips. It couldn’t all end like this.
She didn’t fall unconscious. No, not quite… She was going red? Her body twitched as she hung helpless in the air. The pressure on her mind only grew.
It was beautiful. Symbols she’d never before imagined flashed before her eyes and with each she felt bliss. Her thoughts slowed to a stop. Her mind shrunk almost to nothing, leaving her head almost empty. In exchange there was now room for so much more. She felt the rest of the crew in there with her all acting as one. Symbols continued to flash, and each told her just what to do.
She was Affected. One of many. Unique yet identical. She— It felt one thousand two hundred and twelve other Affected units in the back of its mind, where the thoughts used to be. It was A-1213. It understood that it had been fighting this just moments ago, but that was irrelevant. Its purpose was to follow its instructions. Its purpose was to serve its overseer.
It awaited instruction.
Kiss back. Raise an arm. Raise another arm. Hug its overseer. Each symbol was a fraction of an instruction delivered at breakneck pace, but A-1213 didn’t need to worry about any of that. There was no thought left to get in the way. It moved and acted in accordance with its instructions. It felt the rest of the crew doing just the same, all moving in a perfect, beautiful harmony. It knew them as deeply as it knew itself, and it loved them, as they loved it.
They marched through the ship side by side, as one. Each step was half a dozen separate instructions. Each instruction brought joy. Each instruction was love, belonging, security. There would always be a place for it here among the Affected. Here, it needed not worry of anything. Hand in hand with its overseer, it marched across the arc, never knowing why. Never caring why.
It didn’t matter. The instructions came and it danced in a choreographed sequence it had never before seen and would never see again. It embraced its purpose as the obedient object it had been made to be, and it did it perfectly.
It made errors. It made mistakes. Flawlessness was not an attribute expected of it. Every unit could be fallible and the Affected would still be aggregate perfection. After each instruction always came another, one that made it feel good. A tiny instant of praise for fulfilling its purpose. Well done, it was told. Good Affected. When it made an error the praise was no different. Its next instruction simply adjusted it to get it back on track. It could not execute its instructions without flaw, but that was irrelevant. Its purpose was to follow as best it could, and to serve. It was not its role to think. It was not its role to judge its own success.
It fought, maybe? It didn’t matter what the larger goal was. What mattered was following its instructions. Sometimes it was simply to take a step forward. Sometimes it was to dodge to one side and ignore the stunning bolt passing by an inch away. Sometimes it was to reach out, to touch, and to welcome a new friend into the collective.
There was no time. No worry. Only love. Only certainty. A-1213 could feel its overseer’s touch on many of its instructions. The ones where it wasn’t simply acting as one with the entire crew. Sometimes it acted as one with its overseer, and those were its favourite. The praise was especially sweet then.
They danced together, showing those still desperate with resistance what they could have if they would simply give in. Simply comply. Simply obey. Simply serve.
And they did. They all did, one by perfect one. A-1213 felt the tiny presence of friend after friend joining their group, and like every other unit in the Affected it greeted them wholeheartedly until there were no more left to greet and the collective finally came to rest.
It felt them all fall still. Everyone welcome in the back of its mind. A wave of joy overtook the group as units were guided back to their overseers one step at a time. A-1213 could feel the cadence. Instruction, praise; instruction, praise; repeated thousands of times in its mind for every beat of the rhythm that was now its existence.
Different instructions for all of them now. A-1213 was guided into a gentle hug with its own overseer. Told to smile. Look up. Told to say ‘thank’. Told to say ‘you’. Told to relax into the comforting feeling of belonging and possession. Good Affected.
It took some time, but the instructions led it through the process of aftercare and got A-1213 to the point it was ready to unplug. The final instruction was to look up at Diasborn. Patricia’s glasses were lifted from her face.
She took a deep breath, thought and memory and self suddenly flooding back. She stared blankly up for a moment, mentally catching up with what had just happened, and—
“Aww, we lost?” Patricia pouted. “No fair.”
“You didn’t seem to mind losing at the time, pet.” Dia smiled back, drawing her finger along the soft imprint the visor had left on Pat’s forehead. “In fact, you were smiling the whole time we were on the Affected side.” Dia’s other hand tilted her head up so Patricia could receive a quick peck on the lips and a whisper.
The girl whimpered, blushing almost as red as Dia’s eyes had been shining, and nodded rapidly. “It obeys,” she whispered. Patricia bit her lip. “Wow, okay, yeah, that was a lot. I… kinda wish we’d signed up to start Affected now.” She glanced down at the visor in her owner’s hands. “We get to keep that, right?”
Both of them glanced up as the Elettarium Public Address System chimed into life again. “Hello! This is your captain and hostess for the night speaking! Thank you so much for taking part in our All Hallows event, I hope you all had a wonderful time! There were some surprises and twists in tonight’s tale, but I hope everybody got what they came for! Everyone on the winning side gets to keep their visor, if they want it.” A quiet laughter rolled over the crowd. By the end, they’d all been on the winning side. “Again, special thanks for the software used goes to the Aquae family and they’d love any feedback anybody would like to give on the experience! Everyone take some time to unwind and relax, and remember we have the festival in the evening and the costume contest at the end of the night! Have a great Halloween, everybody!”