Interlude E: The Moment
Naked tubes of hostile light flickered on the ceiling, casting long shadows at chaotic angles. Each emitted a soft tap as it dimmed, producing a discordant chorus that was impossible to distinguish from a footstep in the distance or the opening of a door.
The pirate queen held her gun in one tight hand, finger on the trigger. Trigger discipline didn’t count for much when the difference between life and death could be a heartbeat or less. The weapon buzzed with energy. Felicia liked to think the weapon’s dull vibration meant it was as excited to fire as she was.
Force was the only thing that mattered in this world. Kill or be killed.
The flickering above illuminated a shape, rushing past a half-open bulkhead door. Felicia aimed and fired. The electric crack of a high-intensity laser snapped through the air, burning a line of ionised oxygen right to her target… which had been nothing but a poster on the wall of the corridor beyond. Felicia didn’t get a chance to catch what it was for before the flames had eaten it up.
Her gun sang with a high-pitched wail as the ceramic ultracapacitors recharged. Even the best handheld weapons Terra could produce still had their drawbacks, and the downside of a handheld laser that could burn through the hull of a starship was a slow firing rate.
Felicia missed her cannon. Gone now, of course. Lost in the first moments of her first encounter with the plants-from-hell. If she couldn’t make do with a hand-blaster and a sharp knife then she wouldn’t have made a very good pirate queen, though, would she?
She crept forward. The soft soles of her suit helped avoid telltale footfalls. It had bought her an edge on a hundred occasions. Damn near anything would surrender if you pointed a big enough gun at its back.
As she left the room, she slammed her fist into the controls by the side of the door, closing it off. She’d made sure that room was empty. A half-power shot into the control panel made sure it stayed that way.
Nobody hunted Felicia. She was the predator around here.
Out in the corridor, the lights at least weren’t flickering. Every other bulb was fucked, casting the whole place into a dim half-light. That would have been a disadvantage were it not for the infra-red overlay on Felicia’s visor. She grinned, spotting a pattern of warm spots. Footsteps. On the walls, to be sure, but even the most careful prey couldn’t help but leave a trail in its waste heat. Felicia thumbed the intensity of her gun up to maximum. She may only get one shot.
She moved forward at a half crouch, gun held close to her chest, but ready to fire at the slightest hint of a target. The footsteps led into another room. Much like the first, it was a large hexagon, filled with oversized furniture and a thousand places to hide.
Felicia stepped inside and closed the door behind her. She wasn’t scared of this thing.
Something snapped out from the shadows. There was no time to shoot, so Felicia hit the ground in a roll. The floor panels shook as whatever had attacked her slammed into them. There was a dent. Felicia raised her gun, eyes flickering from side to side, searching for something.
There. A heat signature, hiding behind an overly large divider. Felicia grinned, aimed, and fired. Like a flimsy bit of metal and plastic was going to stop her gun. The creature beyond howled, screaming an animal scream that harmonised with the excited squeal of recharging capacitors. It came barreling out, face twisted in pain and fury.
Plant-from-hell, meet Pirate Queen.
Felicia dodged left. She felt the rush of air from a barely avoided strike and heard the crash of plantlife stronger than steel breaking the ground beside her. A roll back to the other side gave her a more comfortable margin on the next blow, but the monster seemed to sense its time was growing short and simply came at her in a bull rush. Felicia grunted as its mass slammed her into the room’s metal wall. She struggled, but powerful vines curled around her, gripping her limbs and her body in a vice. A hand closed around her neck and squeezed. Even through her reinforced suit, it cut off her air in an instant.
The fucker rose, keeping her pressed against the wall in its inescapable grip. Felicia felt every bolt digging into her back, and heard the high-pitched squeal of metal on metal as her suit was ground down against the surface.
The beast brought a false human face up to Felicia’s and hissed, baring dozens of barbed teeth. Her visor misted up, casting the whole world into hazy fog. Environmental warnings blared as the toxin filters failed one after another.
“Little Terran.” It spoke in forced, halting words, pushing out each through razor teeth. The grip on Felicia’s neck grew tight. She could feel the sharp points of a dozen claws struggling to break through the reinforced weave of her suit. She could feel her body threatening to fail. “So proud, and yet what are you? Just my prey, all the same.”
Felicia had fought for too damn long and too damn hard to let things end like this. She ramped the movement assistance from her suit up to its maximum and tried to fight her way free of the vines, but more were wrapping around her every moment and she was squeezed so tight she thought she might break.
The beast’s other hand came up to her visor. It didn’t bother finding a weak spot, it just grabbed hold and started to squeeze. Cracks began to spread across its surface. The display began to glitch. “Any last words? If you beg, perhaps I’ll let you live as my pet,” it growled. The last word was spat with such aggression that a fleck of what could have been saliva flew through the air and stuck against Felicia’s shoulder, where it began to sizzle.
The hand at Felicia’s neck loosened. Not much, but enough for her to whisper. Enough for her to beg. Felicia forced down a breath of air. Her cracked visor was damaged enough that she could taste the creature’s foul breath on her tongue. Feel the way that even that was enough to leave her weak, to fill her with a heat she assumed only the monster that had her in its grip could fill.
“Please…” she whispered, barely loud enough to hear. Her voice wavered. She could barely get enough air through to make the sound at all. The plant grinned a vicious grin and leaned in. It towered over her, face so close it filled her vision. Breath so hot Felicia could feel it against her skin, burrowing into her mind. “Please… look down,” she whispered, now it was close enough to hear.
It glanced down to see that the pirate’s struggles, while useless at getting her free, had been enough to get the dangerous end of her pistol pointing in the right direction. Felicia pulled the trigger.
The room was cast into monochrome. What the gun illuminated was a brilliant violet, so bright it hurt to see. Felicia’s visor would usually filter it out, but that was done for. All else was black. The human eye simply couldn’t see in high enough contrast to make anything else out.
Felicia hit the cold metal floor, knees buckling. She drew in deep, ragged breaths, trying to restart her failing lungs. The beast had been thrown halfway across the room. It writhed, vines smoking, with an uneven, burning hole cut from one side to the other. Felicia forced herself up to shaking feet. Without the targeting aid on her visor she couldn’t be certain of scoring a direct hit, but she was pretty good when she eyeballed it.
Her enemy whirled around, spitting a whole mouthful of saliva at her. Felicia dodged it by inches, needing to dive behind the wreckage of the divider to make it in time. It splashed against the far wall and filled the room with the acrid scent of dissolving metal. By the time she’d gotten back to her feet and trained her weapon on where her prey had been, it was gone.
She swore. No infrared. She put a half-power shot into the door controls, making sure it couldn’t escape her, and kept her back to the wall while the gun recharged. One of the legs on her suit wasn’t pulling its weight any more. Her movement was sluggish. Even hurt, the creature’s wasn’t.
“You’re weak,” it hissed. The noise bounced around the room, making it impossible to find the source. “Just a toy for your betters.”
Felicia gritted her teeth. She’d never met a better she hadn’t put a bullet in. That had a way of pulling people down to her level.
She moved through the space, keeping her gun trained on her best guess for the beast’s position. It must be in the ceiling, she realised! She brought up her gun to the tiles and squeezed the trigger, and—
A vine struck out, too fast to track in the dim lighting. Felicia’s gun went flying. The monster descended, abandoning its mockery of the human form to come at her with vines and thorns. Felicia brought up her knife to meet the latter and slice through the former.
For long seconds, they were trapped in a fatal dance. Felicia was surrounded by death, holding it off with only skill and adrenaline. The first would never fail her. The second she was burning through at an alarming rate.
“Yes, I like you.” The creature spoke in a slow growl, humid breath spilling over Felicia. It hit like a blow and Felicia flinched. A vine managed to strike her on the face, tearing off the last of her helmet. She barely got her knife in the way of a thorn that would have blinded her if it had struck. “I’m going to break you. You call yourself a queen?”
It formed a hand and brought it up to reach for her. Felicia met it with her knife, but it didn’t matter. It simply grabbed the blade and snapped it free, throwing it to one side. A moment later it had Felicia pinned against the floor, face mere inches above hers. The dripping saliva splashed against her skin, and she screamed, feeling it sear her flesh with agonising pleasure.
“I am your Queen now. Your short, sad life is over.” It grabbed her neck once again and squeezed, so tight that Felicia was seeing stars in moments. “You’ll wake up as nothing but my property,” it promised, lowering its fangs to Felicia’s throat. Just before it bit down, it hissed one last threat. “And you’ll spend the rest of your life adoring me.”
Fat fucking chance. Felicia’s numb fingers had found the handle of her gun and brought it up to the foul beast’s head.
She pulled the trigger.
The gun gave a kick like it had fired, but the energy had simply fizzled halfway through. Impossible.
The beast’s gaze went dark. If it had been terrifying before, now it was—
It released Felicia’s neck, and snapped its fingers. Her eyes went wide as two years of history came rushing back in a second. The inertia of her mental state crashed into a wall as all her allegiances flipped in an instant. Felicia lay, breathing hard, groaning as her aching body refused to obey. After a moment she felt the calming sensation of her xenodrug regime flooding her system, and the pain started to drop away. She forced herself to sit.
“Mistress?” she asked, through stiff tongue in a bone-dry mouth. Had something gone wrong? Her affini raised a finger, already fishing her communicator out from somewhere within her body. Felicia noted with a smile that one side of it was badly scorched.
“One moment, pet.” Felicia fell silent while Rosacaea scrolled through a short list and tapped a name. The call went through a moment later.
“What the rotten dirt, Diadelphous? I had the Firebreak suppressed here for a good reason; who overrode that? I want them down here right now to explain to my darling floret why we don’t get to finish our scene today.”
Felicia couldn’t hear the response. It sounded apologetic, but her captain’s body language quickly shifted as she got her explanation. “Oh. Okay, I— Yeah, apology accepted. I’ll relay it. I’ll be there in—” The voice on the other end interrupted, and Rosacaea winced— “That’s very rude and completely true. I’ll be along as soon as I can.”
She cut the call and threw the pad over to Felicia, who caught it out of the air and slipped it into the one pocket she had which still worked. “Something up?”
Rosa nodded, struggling to her false feet. She let out a soft whimper as shredded vines slipped against each other. Felicia stepped up to offer her something to rest against, and her Mistress gratefully accepted. They limped out of the wrecked section of ship together. Now that Felicia had her memories back, she knew the code to the exit, and tapped it in in short order.
They re-entered polite society, getting more than a few looks. A half-broken affini starship captain getting practically carried by a human who, while bruised, was possibly the one more capable of walking between them, was an unusual sight. They preferred to take the whole day for something like this, where Rosa would be fine by morning. Enough transplantation could cover over a few hits from any weapon they felt comfortable using. Felicia would simply have to spend the next morning at the ship veterinarian.
“Signal came through,” explained Captain Hautere. “Our runaways phoned home. One affini, one human, an unknown number of unidentified extra life forms, all on a planet with a breathable atmosphere. Just about within a few hours travel.”
Felicia nodded, feeling a tension that had been building for some time finally start to drop. “Got a plan?”
Rosa growled, baring a mouthful of fangs that dripped with her acid. “My plan had been to break your spirit all over again, little pet. Give me a few minutes to start thinking with my head, not my injectors.”
The pirate ‘queen’ snorted. They were heading over to their hab unit, which was as close as they could get to the Heavy Recreation Zone for good reason. “Want some advice?”
One of Rosacaea’s vines found Felicia’s neck and gave it a sharp squeeze. “If I wanted your advice, toy, I’d have you beg me to provide it.”
Rosa laughed, letting her vine go slack. “Dirt, I’d been looking forward to today. Yes, I’d love your advice, pet, please.”
Even after all this time, a word, or a look, could leave Felicia with weak knees and a floundering will. She stammered, cheeks burning, for a few moments while she tried to get her broken mind thinking again. Nobody else had ever been able to do this to her. She sure as hell hadn’t ever been a submissive before she’d met Miss. Hautere.
“Uh. Um. Planet. Air.” Felicia shook her head, looking up at her owner with a pleading expression. A moment later she felt sharp clarity flooding her system. “Thank you, Mistress. As I was saying,” she said, with a grin, “If we don’t know how many people we need to rescue—”
Rosaceae interjected. “One. Just Thatch Aquae.”
Felicia rolled her eyes. “If we don’t know how many living creatures we’ll need to rescue, we probably shouldn’t just send a shuttle. This ship can handle atmosphere.”
“Pet, if I ask people to prepare for microgravity there’ll be chaos.”
Felicia hurried forward a few steps to tap her wrist against the scanner on their hab unit door. It slid open and both of them hurried inside. Usually, this was Rosa taking care of Felicia’s injuries, but given that they’d been interrupted halfway through Felicia had still had the upper hand. It usually went like that even with all of her enhancements turned off. Felicia was sharper, but she hadn’t the stamina.
Thankfully, they had a healthy supply of new growths to transplant in to replace the damaged pieces. So long as one of them was strong enough to drag the other back home, everything was fine. On the occasions where one wasn’t, it was a little embarrassing for both of them when their allotted time ran out and they had to be carried home by somebody else.
They spent a few minutes cutting out the ruined material and putting something fresh in its place. The colours didn’t quite match up. Felicia would have to live with her bruises for a few days, so it was only fair that her owner did too.
When they were done Rosa collapsed backwards onto their oversized sofa with a long groan. “Okay, yeah, I can’t come up with a better plan. Make the call, then be a good girl and come over here so I can at least pretend to break you.”
“Yes, Mistress!” Felicia chirped, pulling out their half-broken datapad. She tapped one of the favourited contacts, gave a brief explanation, and then—
Some intelligent life, the darling Affini themselves counted, believed that the vast machine of the Affini Compact ran on a great latticework of language. Hundreds of thousands of related tongues carefully curated to be at least somewhat mutually understandable to both the plants themselves and the creatures for which they cared, hanging from the iron backbone of the core Affini script that joined the known universe under a single culture.
They were all incorrect. While the languages were useful, and together all-but-ensured that any two wards would have at least one common tongue, no matter how far apart they lived, most of the real work wasn’t run on something so vague as language.
The true shared culture of the Affini Compact, according to Wing Vidalii, clerk, was the paperwork.
She glared up at the blessed papers that reached from floor to ceiling and then back again with mounting despair, and then back down at the slate in her hands. It glowed with pastel colour. An automatically generated transcript of a conversation had mere moments before.
“Microgravity?!” she flashed, catching the other clerk’s attention. Montsechia Vidalli, fellow clerk, and the most important living being alive (according to Wing), wandered over, flashing back a request for clarification. “They reached the captain, and it seems we’re going to have to go into a gravity well.”
Montsechia didn’t make a noise, but the fluttering of dark grey around her chest spoke volumes. She, too, spent a moment considering the papers. “Ah.”
“Yes. May I put in the shipwide alert for you, Miss?” Wing’s words were shadowed with a soft amaranth of (respect/adoration/obedience) that pulled a smile from her affini’s glittering leaves. She got a nod, and skipped over to her desk, where she quickly penned a note and then fed it to the ship’s systems. The message should go out to everyone in just a few—
Glochi Opun, Twentieth Bloom, smiled, with a song in his heart and a scalpel in one vine. The sophont on his operating table was one of the new rescues from that human ship that had caused all the kerfuffle. They were still a little unruly, and so unfortunately needed to be sedated, but basic screening had flagged up a few persistent medical issues that seemed to have been plaguing the poor thing.
With a fast-paced beat blaring out over the room’s audio system, Glochi brought the cutting edge of the scalpel down, dancing in time to the music, making little cuts and incisions to the same tempo. According to the records, Terran doctors had said this one was unlikely to ever walk again. Usually, permission would be asked before undergoing surgery, but the human’s records showed a series of ever-more experimental ‘cures’ being tried right up until the pacification of Terra, at which point record keeping became scarce.
The human would wake feeling like it was at its prime. If they didn’t willingly go with their new caretaker after that? Well, either way, Glochi would get to see the smile. He was patient.
The operation didn’t take long. It wasn’t complicated simply because it was beyond human doctors. Even the simplest fixes seemed to be beyond them.
The music paused as he set down his scalpel and reached for the terminal set into one wall. A few taps called for the human’s assigned caretaker to come pick them up, and while Glochi was there he glanced at his inbox.
Glochi had work to do, it seemed. A new, unknown species? He’d owned almost two dozen different sophonts in his time and each had been wonderful and unique. After millennia, however, the novelty of the universe was starting to wear thin. Still. He liked to see the little things smile. Maybe this new species would bring with it their own unique joys.
However, preparing a surgery room for microgravity was no easy task. He tapped an entry on the screen, and—
“Left! Left!!” Xe Prunus shouted, slamming the joystick to one side. It glared over at Avium, who was utterly dead weight when it came to this game. “No, my left, you dolt! We’re going to—”
They crashed into an asteroid. Xe fell to the side. “We were so close. Argh. We’re meant to be streaming this later, Ave, the prunes are gonna laugh at us so much.”
Avium started to respond, but quickly got distracted by a message flashing up on the datapad that they shared. Xe had lost its. Somehow. They were meant to be tracked, but apparently this one had slipped the net. Xe hurried over and hooked its chin over xer shoulder, peering at the message.
“I think we’re going to have to cancel, Xe, we’re needed! Captain wants to jump us into a gravity well.” Avium clapped xer hands. “Come on, I have so much theory I need to teach you before you understand how impressive I am.”
Avium was trash at video games. Incredibly cute otherwise, however, and Xe couldn’t help but get pulled in xer wake. At least, until Ave pulled out a chalkboard and—
Hyaline Panthium, Second Bloom, felt a little short of breath. With shaking hands, she stroked down the side of one of the towering piles of paper. She’d been called in to help secure the magic. The two clerks seemed a little shy, and had barely said a word to anyone, though they did keep flashing. It seemed like it would be distracting, but maybe they needed something to keep them occupied in what was otherwise a wholly black and white room.
She attached a strap to the floor, and another to the ceiling, and then hit the button on one side. The device expanded outwards, forming a tight protective column around the papers that would keep them in place while they didn’t have gravity to hold them in place.
Hyaline was just excited to be this close to… here! The room! The wonders that must occur here. It was the efforts of the ritual-keepers that kept society moving.
Oh, she could just—
Ined Incertae looked out from their seat in the rearmost section of the good ship Elettarium, watching the twin arcs turn. The larger of the two, the Major Habitable Arc, swung clockwise, fast enough to grant its inhabitants a gravity that was only a little higher than the average species wanted. The Minor Habitable Arc swung in the opposite direction, slow enough to grant a little below average desired gravity. Between them, the Elettarium could support 85% of the species in this galaxy in their comfortable ranges.
Ined reached out and flicked a switch. Now nobody would be comfortable, save the affini. The arcs kept turning, but each rotation slowed a little more than the last, until finally both settled pointing in the same direction. It was discomforting to see their beloved ship so static, but necessary.
It couldn’t make use of true gravity if it was spinning. Ined flicked another switch, to—
Prickle Saprot glanced over at the hyperspacial engineering chief, who was busy explaining to xer floret enough of the mechanics behind what they were doing that it could be impressed. In xer defense, though, that was why most of them had gotten into hyperspacial engineering.
Prickle turned to her own floret and lifted them up to sit at the navigation control station, then pointed at the big green flashing button that said “Jump!!!”. The station was set to human/floret translations for this exact purpose. Prickle nodded.
The button was pushed.
The ship jumped.