“Don’t you think it’s weird that they’re keeping us together like this?”
Red glanced towards her first officer, draped dramatically over one of the many cushions dotting the surface of the disconcertingly large room. Taken in the abstract, she would have assumed it was some kind of gymnasium or sporting arena, but there seemed to be no sign of such a use. Only a wide variety of soft furnishings for any style of sitting, lounging, lying, or sleeping anybody could want. The trimmings didn’t distract from the truth. This was a prison cell. Comforts be damned, the door still wouldn’t open.
Lightweight electric motors mounted around the sides of Red’s neck softly whirred, shaking her head. “Lack of space to keep us, maybe?”
The officer, Blue, shrugged. Their legs stuck up into the air, wiggling with abandon. “Naw, this thing is like, a hundred kilometers long or something. No way they wouldn’t be able to find anywhere to separate us.” They shrugged. “I guess at least we’re not having to fight our way out just yet.” They were the sole survivor of some military genetics experiment, a supersoldier strong enough to punch through steel but without a violent bone in their body. After a decade of therapy they’d learned how to smile and never stopped.
Pink glanced up from her position crawling near the far corner of the room, having pried free one of the wall panels in an attempt to hack open the door. Their mech tech was somewhat of a prodigy, not that anyone would be able to tell her that without her falling apart from weight of expectation. Still, as crew went she may not have been dependable, but she made up for it by being spectacular.
“Mmmh mhh mph!” she started, failing to speak around a wrench held tight twixt teeth. Blue reached over and took it, earning a short smile warm enough it could have melted a warship’s hull.
There were a few reasons they kept Pink around, admittedly. That they all found her adorable was on the list.
“Hundo sev’een, actually! Just like New Canberra, yeh!” Pink grinned. “Ain’t nobody getting an apartment this big in Newca, though, chyeh? Plants be blinders.” She opened her mouth and accepted the wrench’s return before diving back into a tangled mess that looked much like a cross between a hedge and a switchboard.
“Maybe the greens solved overpopulation?” Blue suggested, wiping a bit of Pink’s saliva off of her fingers onto the girl’s jumpsuit. It wasn’t like she wasn’t always covered in a thin layer of oil. Half her crew thought she bathed in it, but Red knew the truth: she just didn’t bathe.
“Maybe the fucking greens just grind us all up for fertiliser and that’s why they don’t care!” exclaimed the lone figure standing at the edge of the room, staring out one of the wide windows into the space beyond, pensive in his contemplation.
How somebody could be lone in a room filled with other people was a question for the philosophers. That was Grey for you. Hard to believe the man had ever managed to get himself out of bed in the morning for fear of the cold, never mind make an actual personal connection with anybody. How the man had ended up on the baddest rebel crew around was an unfathomable mystery to everyone who’d never seen him at work in his clinic. He made Red’s hands seem shaken as soon as somebody’s life was in his hands.
“They’re not going to grind us up for fertiliser, G.” Red rolled her eyes. That particular rumour was obviously ridiculous.
“And how do you know that?” he replied, jabbing his finger at the window. Their room overlooked some kind of expansive public square filled with kind of everything. Including people, of course. Humans and Affini and Rinans and that was where Red stopped being able to identify them. For some reason, the Affini hadn’t disabled any of her body’s non-standard functionality when they’d been captured, and so she got to zoom in on one of the alien aliens.
It looked like a jellyfish driving around in a medium sized aquarium, moving along in a group that included two Affini and a human all seeming to pay rapt attention to the regular shifts of glowing light across its… upper bit? Red didn’t know the words exactly. It was already weird enough that there was a single jellyfish driving a fishtank out there, but her visor claimed it was some unknown species.
Her visual analysis suite was proprietary tech and, as such, would routinely refuse to explain any of its decisions. It was usually correct, but sometimes it got things very wrong, so it was dangerous to rely on it uncritically. That went for everything, though. Red hadn’t survived the first five years of the Terran/Affini war without getting developing a solid gut feel for when something wasn’t right.
This one just looked like a regular old jellyfish to Red, though admittedly the only time she’d actually seen a jellyfish had been in one of Linden’s animated movies. Some period drama about how the creatures that had once lived in Terra’s oceans would have embraced capitalist greed had they been smart enough for the enlightened selfishness that was humanity’s nature.
“Look, Grey,” Red started. “The one that hailed us said they didn’t do that.”
“And you just believed them?!”
Red blinked, reaching up to scratch the top of her head. A series of major and minor motors sqealed as she did, puppeting every piece of her primarily paralysed flesh. They definitely sounded like they needed oiling. “I mean… yeah?” she replied, glancing from side to side. “It seems pretty obviously correct. Look, there’s dozens of humans out there and none of them are fertiliser.”
“Yeah okay I was gonna say actually,” Blue interjected, pushing themselves up to a sitting position in one smooth motion. The eyes of everybody in the room lingered on them for a few seconds afterwards. The way they moved was nothing short of beautiful. “I’d kind of expected us to go down fighting.”
“She— The alien said fighting was pointless,” Red complained. It wasn’t like their little gunship could have taken a vessel like this. They did hit and run! They snuck in, caused trouble, and slipped out before anybody was sure what was going on. They didn’t do head on assaults.
“And you just believed her?” Blue replied, incredulous. “Alien megaship appears out of nowhere, hails us, and we’re docking two minutes later? Girl, if I didn’t know you better I’d think you’d sold us out.”
Pink yelped, jumping back from the hedge as something she’d done started a small fire. Blue rolled her eyes, leaned over, and blew it out. Pink stumbled under the pressure wave. The fire didn’t rekindle. After a moment, Pink blinked, turned, and shook her head. “Ain’t no way! Cap’n’d never sell us out. Comms relay wouldn’t’ve forwarded the message. Ah hacked it well good.”
“That is… the first I am hearing about that,” Red admitted.
“Well yah. Wouldn’t be good at catchin’ traitors if y’all knew ’bout it. Wiggle is, none of y’h couldda dunnit.” She paused, pulled a face, then added: “Cept me, chyeh. Don’t think I did, though.” Pink glanced down at her oil-stained hands, then grunted. “Yeh, nae. Ain’tn’t me.”
“Regardless!” Red interrupted, gesturing aggressively outwards with both hands. “We couldn’t have fought. Surrender was our best option.”
“Could’ve run?” Blue suggested.
“That wouldn’t have worked either.”
“Because… the alien said so?” Grey offered.
“No!” Red snapped. “Not because the alien said so. I’m not just gonna believe anything a species we are at war with says! Information warfare is the foundation of modern combat, I’m not a fucking idiot.”
“We totes couldda run,” Pink said. “Drive cool, mags hot, vecs lined. One hit and zip.”
“We couldn’t have run!” Red slammed her fist into the room’s wall, then winced. She’d probably have to pay for the damages. She usually did. Fuck, what was it Blue had said? Go to her happy place?
…Fuck, now she just wanted to throttle Blue too. Not that it’d even work. Red’s body was like, eighty percent recycled mining drone, but even she wasn’t strong enough to pierce Blue’s calm.
“Oh, captain, again?” Grey complained, hurrying over to take a look at Red’s hand, which… oh, that’s a broken bone, huh. Red sagged, then held her hand out to the side so their med tech could put everything back into order. At least she wouldn’t need to feel that either.
“We couldn’t,” Red spoke more slowly, trying to calm herself, “have run.” Admittedly, the alien had told her that, but it wasn’t like it had been wrong. It’d made a lot of sense to surrender in the moment. There’d been tactical considerations. Valid and reasonable reasons.
“A’ight, a’ight,” Pink surrendered, hands up. “Ganna need a plan, tha.”
“Do it like the Baiera job?” Blue suggested. “We get in, cause enough trouble we’re at the bottom of their todo list, and then slip out before they get around to us. This is far from the worst scrape we’ve been in.”
“Agreed.” Red gestured towards the door. “The Affini who showed us in said we might have to wait a few hours for our interrogator to get here, and it’s been a few hours, though. You figured out the door yet, P?”
“Bovvas with the door, laerve.”
Pink stuck her little finger into the hedge and pulled. Their cell door jumped half an inch to the side. Not much, but enough to get some leverage. Red and Blue both jumped into action, the former taking the top half of the door while the latter took the bottom. Between them, they inched it open over long seconds, one grunting with the strain and the other with all her cooling fans whirring. By the time there was finally room to slip through, Blue was breathless and Red was—
Well, that’s where the codename came from. She stepped back and closed her eyes, then sent a signal to her hardware to vent the boiling coolant and replace it with fresh reserves. The red-hot glow of her actuators began to simmer down. “Right. Let’s go, team.”
“Escape route?” Blue asked, meeting Red in a dead sprint out through the fairly crowded public square. Between them, they could probably have taken one affini, maybe even two, but it was never something worth risking if you had another choice.
“Get back to the ship, rig the PDCs to hit anything that moves, jump out in the chaos?” Red’s metal boots crashed against the floor panels, then industrial hydraulics slammed her legs straight, forcing her along in a run that had her leaning so far forward she was almost horizontal.
Pink shook her head, somehow keeping pace with the superhumans at full speed. Grey wouldn’t be that far behind, but he was certainly the slowest of the lot. “Too much mass; snap both hulls,” she complained, speaking between deep breaths. “Won’t get straight mags. Gotta get clearance.”
“Think you could get the bay doors open?”
“Why aye!” Pink complained. “Askin’ if I cannae crack a dock, Red? Ain’ch faith!”
“Then that’s the plan. Ship, chaos, doors open, fly out, and jump. Simples.”
“Plants’ll try to stop us,” Blue warned.
“It’s never worked for them before, B. Let’s show ’em why.”
The four slammed their way around corners and past groups. Affini were painfully predictable. Head straight for one and it’d catch you, but head for a human and they’d prioritise getting them out of the way. By the time they were ready to deal with Red and her crew, they were long gone. They held a dead sprint right up until the very moment a voice from behind called “Stop!”
Red threw her motors into full reverse and slammed on the regenerative brakes. She couldn’t quite bring herself to a halt in one footstep—a three tonne mech had a lot of inertia—but she managed it in two, albeit sinking down to one knee to more effectively ground her momentum. The panel beneath her shattered, but seemed to heal itself up over the course of a few silent seconds.
She looked up. Blue and Pink were a several steps ahead, looking back in confusion, all limbs tense. They wanted to keep moving, for some reason. Red gave a quick shake of her head.
“And where are we off to, hmn?” The same voice as before. The same one that had been on the radio, or at least Red thought and her visor agreed. It was one of the plants. Her signals analysis suite categorised the voice as “warm; kind; trustworthy”, but that was as proprietary as everything else and equally unwilling to explain why.
Red herself would classify it a little differently. It was like a song sung just for her. Soft music floating on a summer breeze. Private, intimate laughter from a loved one. A smile from somebody cared for so deeply that it was felt, not seen.
Red pushed herself back up to her feet. “We don’t have to explain anything to you, weed,” she shot back, reaching out to the side. They may not be able to run, but fighting was always a good second option. These idiot plants hadn’t even taken any of their equipment, and if this one thought it could take a rebel ship’s bruiser then it had another think coming.
The magnetic latches on Red’s leg snapped open, blowing the casing clear and letting the shock staff within launch itself into her waiting hand. Folks always assumed she actually had two legs down there. Dangerous assumption. She twirled the staff between her hands, with the sharp end leaving trails of ozone where the electrified edge had sliced through chemical bonds.
The plant smiled, raising her hands in a calming motion and fixing her gaze on Red. A strange scent wafted over from her, something so sweet it left Red’s mouth watering. The affini’s eyes glowed, barely perceptible over the bright artificial lights far above.
“Oh, dear, that looks like a dangerous toy.” A very dangerous toy, in Red’s estimation. “I’m only here to talk. There’s no need for that. I’m not even a very tough Affini. Why don’t you give that over here for the moment. I can keep it safe for you. I promise I’ll give it back if you ask nicely.”
It was very dangerous to carry. Given that they were only talking there wasn’t really any need for Red to actually carry it herself. If things did devolve into a brawl then she’d just ask for it back first and they’d continue where they left off. Red shrugged, clicked the weapon off, flipped it around in her hand, and held out the safe end towards the waiting affini.
“There’s a good girl.” It took the end in one hand while reaching out to pat Red’s head with the other. The girl wrinkled her nose, pushing the second hand away, and glared up at the alien.
“Yo R, what the fuck are you doing?” Blue interjected.
Red was grateful for the distraction. She waved her crew over. “She’s only here to talk. Don’t worry, if this goes south we can still fight our way out. We can take one Affini, and she doesn’t look like a tough one.”
“Mmhm,” the affini purred, holding the weapon up for her inspection for a few long moments before figuring out how to disengage the telescoping so it could be safely stowed away somewhere inside her body. “Don’t worry about a thing, you four. Come, it’s very rude of us to stand in the middle of the corridor like this. There’s a cafe nearby that I’m rather fond of. Red, dear, won’t you run ahead and get us a table?”
The creature gestured over to one of the businesses lining the walls, only about fifty feet away. Red nodded and began jogging over towards it.
“Oh! No running, dear,” the affini called after her. Red slowed to a relatively glacial walking pace, ignoring the complaints of her crew. There was a reason why she was the one who was in charge around here. They often failed to see the bigger picture, and it was Red’s gut feel for danger that’d gotten them out of the stickiest situations. She could sense anything wrong from a lightyear away.
Regardless, they weren’t going to be escaping anywhere if they were rude, so this tiny moment of politeness would pay off either way.
As Red approached the cafe, she scanned the outer seating, looking for somebody to ask. There was an Affini at the front desk, but she’d rather not get any closer to a plant than she had to. After a moment of searching she found a human assistant busy cleaning up after a group that had just left.
“Uh, hey, I need a table,” Red shot towards the attendant. They wore little but a loose fitting, flowing floral dress and a distant smile. A collar, too. Red wrinkled her nose. The thought of anybody willingly wearing something like that made her skin crawl, but she couldn’t save everybody at once. Part of being an effective captain meant making the hard choices and deciding who they couldn’t help just yet.
The attendant blinked, looking over towards Red as if surprised. It took a few moments just for them to figure out how to look up at Red’s face. Admittedly she was eight feet tall. It wasn’t that unusual a reaction.
“Uhm… for one, miss?” She asked, glancing around and spotting no others.
“Five.” Red gestured behind her at the group slowly making their way over. “That’s me, that fucking weed back there, and my three friends. One’s almost as big as me, one’s half the size, one’s… about your size.”
“Oh, uh, sure. Inside or outside?” The attendant seemed a little offput by somebody not being infinitely deferent towards one of the Affini, but there were certain advantages that came with having the strength to rip one in half.
“Is inside quiet?” Red asked. They were here to have a conversation, after all.
The attendant glanced to the side. Red followed her gaze and spotted a room filled with dozens, about a fifty fifty split on humans and aliens. Most of the humans looked disgustingly high, crawling around between the laps of their oppressors. “It is not,” the attendant confirmed.
“Then let’s stay outside.”
“Great!” She gestured to one of the tables and Red made her way over, sitting in the indicated seat. The strangest part of finally being inside one of the Affini engines of war was that the tables actually felt like the right size for her. Weird. The attendant waved over to the others. “Ma’am? Your table is waiting here for you. I’ve put your pet in one of the Affini seats because she’s… very large.”
“I’m not her pet!” Red snapped, slamming her metal gauntlet down against the table. Surprisingly, it held. Unsurprisingly, the splint on her little finger did not. She swore quietly.
“She is not my pet,” the affini confirmed, before glancing over at Red. “However, you are being impolite, dear. Calm yourself and apologise to the nice floret.”
Red closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Happy place. After a few moments she nodded over to the weed, who rewarded her with an encouraging smile. She looked over to the attendant. “Sorry, I have anger management issues. That isn’t your fault and I shouldn’t have taken it out on you. I’ll do better.”
The affini patted Red on the head, hand lingering for a few long moments while the captain let her eyes fall closed. She took a deep breath. If the alien’s scent had been powerful from several meters away, now it was all-encompassing. Red let out a little moan as she breathed out, freeing her to take another deep breath.
“I can’t believe we’re doing this,” Blue complained, needing a few seconds just to figure out how to climb up onto her seat. As they discovered, there was a small ladder around the front, which necessitated ducking under the table and then figuring out how to shuffle around on the seat.
“Cap’n’s got a plan,” Pink confirmed, giving Red a quick bump as she scrambled up onto a seat in entirely the wrong way. The captain blinked, suddenly snapped back to attention by the unexpected input. Huh? What had she missed?
“We’re all going to be fertiliser,” Grey prophecised. “Watch as this is a fuckin’ Human Cafe or something, and we’re the meal.”
The affini rolled her eyes, sitting herself down on the seat next to Red, neatly dividing the crew into two pairs to each side of her. “You are not the meal, dear. Speaking of, however, what would you all like?”
Red seethed. They were here to talk, they didn’t have time to stop for a meal. “We’re not hung—”
“You’ve all spent several hours inside that waiting room, and so you at least need a snack. Red, dear, wouldn’t you like a sandwich?” The alien took the captain’s hand in one of its own and started gently replacing her splint with a stronger one.
“I’d like a sandwich,” Red admitted, begrudgingly. Her stomach was rumbling. What harm could a snack do, anyway?
“We don’t have any meats here, but you’re going vegetarian anyway, aren’t you, dear?”
“Right.” Red had been planning to for years, but where did anyone get the time to do the things they wanted to do in this economy? At least this would be a good opportunity to try something new.
The alien turned her attention to the others. One at a time, she decided their meals for them without really giving them a chance to so much as contribute to the discussion. Something about it was setting off that finely honed gut feel of Red’s, and as the alien was telling Grey about his pasta, Red decided to intervene.
“Yo, bush,” she interjected, reaching up to tug on its leaves with a hand that could crush almost anything. “Don’t you think you’re being rude now? Why did I get to decide what I’m eating and they don’t?”
The plant smiled an ineffable smile. Literally, that was what Red’s visor announced it as. Red felt a shiver go down her spine as she found herself the center of attention once again. “Well, you are the one in charge here, hmn? They do as you say?”
“Of course. I’m the captain.”
“So, they’re used to following orders. You, free willed thing that you are, have the agency here.” It spoke with a beautiful musicality, voice rising and falling across the sentence in a way that could almost have distracted from the words themselves, if Red hadn’t been so focussed.
She nodded to herself. What the alien said made a lot of sense. It wasn’t like the crew got a choice what they ate aboard ship, really. It was Red who signed off the ingredients and she who approved the mess. “Okay, true, but I tell them what to do. Not you.”
The affini reached over with a casual hand and gripped Red’s chin between a forefinger and thumb, tilting it up only slightly so that she could be smiled down at. The manouver made a lot of sense, Red thought. She was used to people struggling to look her in the eye, and this alien was even taller than she was. Maybe Red should speed the process up by just showing people just where to look too.
“Of course you do, dear,” the affini confirmed. “I wouldn’t dream of usurping your authority here. You tell them what to do, not me. I have no power over them.” She smiled a little wider. With their faces this close, Red could feel every breath the alien took rolling over her face, bringing with them a fresh intensity of aroma. Her eyes flickered closed for a moment as she breathed deep, lips slightly parting.
The affini chuckled. “Eyes on me, Red.”
Red forced her eyes open, looking up into the creature’s gentle eyes. They looked like pocked metal, dozens of tiny indents all reflecting the light in dozens of different ways. As their natural glow rose and fell, the glittering almost seemed to form patterns, drawing Red’s attention deeper and deeper. Eyes on her.
“A good captain delegates, yes? A good captain gets others to do things for her. A good captain ensures that they are free to focus on more important matters. Yes?”
Red tried to nod, but her head was held in place. Instead, she confirmed verbally. “Yes, that’s correct, I—”
“Yes, that’s correct, Ma’am,” the plant corrected, stressing the last word.
“Yes, that’s correct, Ma’am,” Red repeated. “I don’t know how to do what Pink does with the engines, but I need it to happen. My crew are…” She paused, looking for a metaphor. She found one waiting for her in her own hands. “My crew are like my body. There’s a lot I couldn’t do on my own, but with the right tools I can be as capable as anybody. Same with my crew. They extend my capabilities.”
The affini chuckled, gently rubbing circles into Red’s chin as she listened. “Very good, dear. You are a responsive one, hmn? You would make a good pet.”
Red would make a good pet. There was little doubting that. She was good at just about everything. It followed that she would be good at that too. “Thank you, Ma’am,” she replied, lazily smiling upwards, still unable to nod.
“What the fuck,” Grey tried to interject, but Red shot such a withering glance at him that he cut himself off mid sentence. The affini was speaking.
They tapped Red’s chin, drawing her focus back up to those big, beautiful eyes. “You delegating some of your decisions to me is hardly undermining your authority, is it?”
“I… suppose not, no, Ma’am,” Red admitted. “Delegation is the heart of leadership, so in a sense it’s expanding my authority.” She pulled a face. “But! You aren’t on my crew, so I can’t.”
The plant pulled a pained smile, nodding. “Ah! What a shame. I suppose the only person who can make these decisions is you, then. Should Grey’s pasta have a sauce?” the affini asked, with a patient smile.
Decisions were trivial. Red had been deciding things all her life. Usually it was much higher stakes than this, but there weren’t exactly any wrong answers when it came to pasta sauce. She opened her mouth to respond, but before she could, she was interrupted.
“Take your time, dear. I know how you struggle with all these difficult, difficult decisions. All these little choices that just seem to weigh you down. Things you just can’t seem to decide by yourself. Ah, but my apologies, you were about to say something, dear?”
Red ran through the mental checklists she used to try to supplement her own failing executing function, trying to weigh up the pros and cons of the decision. Sauce was generally considered a good thing, she thought. Pasta was a little plain without it, but by the same token it also tended to be the most opinionated part of the meal. They were in a new place here, with no idea how the sauce would be made, or what would be inside it. It ran the risk of ruining the meal, and then that responsibility would fall on Red.
Just like every choice she had ever made beforehand, it ran the risk of going badly, and then it would be Red’s problem to fix. Red’s weight to carry.
Perhaps it was safer to go without the sauce. Well, no, team dynamics were complicated. If everybody had a great time but Grey then it could start to build resentment. A little thing like pasta sauce could be the beginning of the end, and all starting at the moment where they needed their team cohesion the most.
They were one of the last few operating cells of the Rebellion. As far as Red knew they could literally be the last. Communications hadn’t been easy for a long time, and they hadn’t even heard news of any other successful raids in months. It was not unfair to suggest that the outcome of this decision could doom humanity.
Red opened her mouth to speak, finding it dry. “I, um. Yes? No wait, sorry, no! Shit, that isn’t right, I— Uh—”
The affini raised a finger to her lips to cut her off. “Shhh, dear. It’s so hard. It’s so difficult to make this choice. Every answer seems like it would be the end of the world.”
“The end of the world,” Red whispered back. She still couldn’t nod. “Yes, Ma’am. But… I’m the captain. I have to do this.”
“Of course you do, dear. This is your responsibility. Yet, this is clearly so difficult for you. Just like you could not fix an engine, you cannot do this. Perhaps you could find somebody to delegate to?”
Red grunted. “I don’t know who. It isn’t easy to find fresh crew any more, the Affini are everywhere.”
The affini rolled her eyes. “I am not currently serving aboard any Terran vessels. Make me an offer.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” Red chirped. “We can offer room and board, three decent meals a day, and every Friday we all get to put five songs into the ship playlist and hear each other’s music tastes. Um, we also get paid, but probably you won’t see any of that money until the banks start existing again.”
“Hmmn.” The plant considered it. “I don’t know, I’m very comfortable here. Being a rebel sounds like a lot of work.”
“Yes, Ma’am! But we’re fighting for the liberation of our people— or, well, Humanity, anyway. We can’t give up now, and we can’t do it without you. You could be responsible for saving humanity!”
The affini raised an eyebrow and pulled a disinterested face.
“I, um. What— What do you want?”
“The captain’s quarters and deeds to the ship.”
“Of course, Ma’am. I can sleep—”
“At the foot of the bed, yes. Don’t worry yourself about the details. I shall need one of your code names.”
“Green!” Pink announced, with a grin, while the other two crew members looked on in horror.
“Yo, we are not hiring a fucking weed, R,” Blue protested, appalled. “What the fuck are you doing?”
Red glanced up at Green, who smiled a little wider. She showed a little teeth, even. Wooden and sharp. Almost predatory. “Yes, we are,” she purred, giving Red a quick scratch under the chin. “Confirm that for me, captain.”
“Yes, we are,” Red parrotted, looking over at her first officer. “Look, I know it seems a little extreme, but we need the support. We’re struggling out there. We’re a solid team but we can’t take on a whole space empire by ourselves. We need somebody to pick up some of the slack.”
“This is insane,” Grey whispered. “Where’s your spine, Red?”
“Uh, mostly still back on Io, I think.”
“It’s a metaphor! What are you thinking?”
Red glanced up at her affini, delegating the answer. “She was thinking that I will make a spectacular addition to the crew. My skills will be invaluable in your fight against the Affini Compact. Now, Red, dear, won’t you be a good little captain for me and run along to deliver our order? You know just what to say, don’t you?”
“Yes, Ma’am!” Red announced, smiling up at Green for another few seconds until finally she was released and, with a quick pat on the butt, sent on her way. She wanted to run, but, well, no running.
The other affini at the front desk smiled and waved her over. Red pointedly ignored it. She wasn’t in the business of dealing with the enemy here. She could feign politeness, but she’d never forget what these monsters had done to her species. She went looking for the attendant from before instead, and didn’t take long to find her happily wiping down one of the tables.
“Oh!” she gasped, jumping in surprise. A normal response to seeing an eight foot tall mining mech walking up to you, Red supposed. Again, the girl seemed to have some trouble finding Red’s face, so Red helped. It was such a reasonable solution to the problem that was actually quite surprising she hadn’t started doing it before. With the girl’s chin firmly grasped between two fingers, Red lifted, smiling down in as disarming a manner as she could.
For some reason, the attendant’s cheeks flushed a bright pink. Her mouth opened, but the noises that came out didn’t seem to be words.
“I would like to place an order,” Red confirmed.
“I um I— Yes miss,” the attendant squeaked. “Whatever you wish, miss.”
Perfect. Red rattled off exactly what she’d been told, word for word, intonation for intonation, following the subtle songwork of her affini. The attendant nodded rapidly the moment she was freed and scurried off, leaving Red to return to the table.
As she drew near, her affini held up a finger, asking Red to wait while she and the rest of the crew finished their conversation. It seemed quite energetic, even heated, but Green would tag her in if she needed support. In the meantime, Red decided she may as well look around and try to build a bit of situational awareness. If they needed to break out in a hurry, it would pay to be aware of what was going on.
The wide open parks of their surroundings were surprisingly magestic. Sweeping arches met towering oaks among the flowerbeds, with tastefully arranged paths criss-crossing through the square. Everybody seemed very calm, even the humans. Especially the humans. Most of them walked along with their attention fixed entirely on the aliens beside them, who more often than not were holding either a hand or a leash. “Pet” seemed to be a fairly literal term around here.
This was happening everywhere. All across Terran space this same basic scene played out trillions upon trillions of times. Maybe being made into fertiliser would have been a more noble end for Humanity. As Red watched, her breathing grew heavier and heavier. This was a humiliation on scales hitherto unimaginable. Things could not end like this. Red would fight until her dying breath before she gave these aliens one fucking inch.
Red was going to burn this place to the fucking grou—
Green snapped her fingers, pulling Red’s attention. “My captain? Sit.” She was pointing to a spot just beside her own seat. Red hurried over and sank to her knees at the specified position, conveniently placing her head in the perfect spot for Green to rest her hand upon it.
Gentle fingers dug into her hair, gently scratching at her scalp, soothing away all that anger in a matter of moments. Green’s hand slipped down to cup over the girl’s nose and mouth, and suddenly all she could breath was Her scent. “Yes, see, captain? This is your happy place. Whenever you feel anger, or fear, or sadness, just imagine yourself right here, by the side of my chair, knowing you’re doing such an important job being captain. Breathe deep for me.”
Red again could not nod, not with a hand keeping her head in place. “Yes, Ma’am,” she replied, voice a little dreamy as she sank into her happy place. No room for anger, or fear, or sadness. She breathed deep for Her.
“There are so many things wrong in the universe, aren’t there? Breathe out.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” Red confirmed, as she exhaled. The universe was full of horrors and she was the only one who could stop them.
“Too many things for one little captain to worry herself over. Breathe in.”
“Yes Ma’am,” Red admitted, before breathing in deep. It was all too much for her. She couldn’t fight the whole universe.
“When you start thinking about things that are wrong, it upsets you. What does my good captain do when she’s upset?”
“I go to my happy place, Ma’am.” Right here, by her Affini’s side.
“Such a good girl you are. Did you follow my instructions?”
“Yes, Ma’am!” Red beamed, sitting up a little straighter as she internalised the praise. She was such a good girl. Her Affini had entrusted her with a very important job and she’d carried it out perfectly. Red may not have been able to fix all the problems in the universe, but she could do all the things She told her to do, and that was even more important.
The Affini giggled, ruffling Red’s hair. “Very good, captain.” She glanced around at the others, who seemed to be engaged in the same activity as Red was: quietly staring up at their Affini with quiet, distant smiles on their faces. “As for the rest of you, I trust we are now all in agreement, hmn? It is very important to follow the captain’s instructions.”
“Yes Ma’am, cap’n knows best,” Blue acquiesced.
“Yah’m, ain’t naeone I trust more!”
“Yes, well, she has yet to steer us wrong, exactly, Ma’am, has she?”
Green chuckled, grip growing painfully tight in Red’s hair for just a moment. “Frost and flame but you things are easy, aren’t you?” she purred. “Humanity’s last stand, we think, you four. All mine now, yes?”
“Yes, Ma’am!” the four replied, all dancing to one song.
“Affini Carrier Yimaia, this is Captain Red from the the Rebel Heavy Scout Xenocrasher requesting permission to undock and an egress path.”
Red had to admit that their new escape plan was a daring one, even by her standards. It would have been terrifying if any of this was her responsibility. Thankfully, Miss Green was sitting just to her side—in the captain’s seat, of course—looping a lock of Red’s hair around one of Her fingers. Red sighed happily, leaning into her Affini’s thigh.
“Uh,” the radio hissed for a moment as Yimaia flight control paused. “Can you say again, ‘Xenocrasher’?”
Red glanced up at her Affini and got a nod. Even the slightest movement set the bells on her new rebel collar jingling, ensuring that any nearby Affini would know to run in fear. They’d been an effective rebel unit before, but with Her help they were going to be unstoppable.
Permission to speak granted, Red repeated herself. “Rebel Heavy Scout Xenocrasher requesting permission to undock and an egress path, pretty please?”
“I am… not sure I can grant that, Xenocrasher. Let me just check with the, uh… Rebel liason teams.”
Miss Green tapped her Red on the head, demanding attention which was immediately given. “I suppose Xenocrasher isn’t a very polite name, my captain. Wouldn’t it be better if I, or rather, you were in charge of, say, this?” She tapped the screen on the chair of her arm. Red knew the UI well, of course. It was the one she had previously used to command the ship. She’d delegated that to Miss Green, of course, along with almost everything else. She was still in charge, obviously, she just let her Affini take care of the things that were difficult for her, like food, water, decisions, and thinking.
It would be absurd for an Affini to be in charge of Humanity’s last stand, after all. Miss Green was completely subordinate.
“Yes Ma’am!” Red turned back to the microphone. “Sorry about that, flight control. This is the Affini Personal Shuttle Oblivious Last Stand in docking bay six-seven-two requesting permission to depart.”
“You should see the relevant paperwork under new registrations. I have some new toys to play with,” added Miss Green.
“Ah, Aloysia! About time you found another set of florets! I’ll put the flight paths in now. Have a lovely trip, Oblivious Captain Red.”