Interlude H: Pancakes
The staccato twang of the Greshul Corporation Q18 Snap Rifle never left Captain Jeffery Beromt of the Sixth Terran Cosmic Navy Forward Fleet’s head. Waking, sleeping, eating, exercising, it didn’t matter. It was always there, stuck in his head.
It all began with the rising hum of a capacitor bank set into the weapon’s stock, three inches away from the ear. Dense battery cells formed the main power source but they couldn’t discharge quickly enough to be an effective weapon, so they instead fed straight into a capacitor array which then ran the weapon itself. As they charged, the coil whine rose, never quite leaving the spectrum of human hearing.
After the hum reached an ear-piercing scream the weapon was ready to discharge. It couldn’t simply fire, however, as without calibration the beam would be diffuse. There were three rapid clicks as thermal seals along the weapon’s casing slammed shut. High intensity lasers produced tremendous heat which needed rapid airflow to cool. Unfortunately, the delicate array of lenses and mirrors that shaped the blast needed to be very precisely positioned, and even slight disturbances from rushing air would risk losing efficiency in the beam-formers.
After the clicks came the whir. Some of the most advanced silicon the Terran Accord had ever produced orchestrated the firing sequence itself. First, the laser assembly engaged once on a vanishingly low power, low coherency mode for no reason other than detecting how long it took the beam to bounce back. A little mathematics turned that into a range, and then the lenses and mirrors dialled in to precisely target that range. Finally all that energy dancing across the capacitors was unleashed into the beam for one single nanosecond long shot.
Hence the name.
The default mode performed bursts of three shots every time the trigger was pulled. It dropped so much energy into a target that cheap armour would crack and flesh would boil. This kind of weaponry was too uncivilised for the core worlds, but out on the edges the rules began to blur.
The sounds never truly left Jeffery’s thoughts. Maybe after long enough without, they might have fallen silent, but combat was a fact of life.
“Hold the fucking line!” he yelled, gesturing at the men under his command. They hid in a makeshift trench, occasionally rising to take pot-shots at the opposing side. Terra liked to pretend that their ‘Terran Accord’ was a thing. One unified government for all of humanity; their little utopian vision of harmony.
Of course, every golden chalice for those snowflakes in civilised space was bought with the blood and sweat of those living on the frontiers. This planet was a mining world, colonised only for the raw aluminium cradled within. Those with power demanded their toys, and so those without crawled beneath the ground to tear metal ore from its home so it could be shipped to a forge world and then beyond. Every step on its journey back to Terra alloyed the metals with the lives of the desperate and the damned.
Those at the top got choices. Everyone else just had to hope they didn’t offend. Say what they had to. Be what they’d been assigned. People like Jeffery didn’t get a choice. They got a gun and a name.
Today’s name was the UWR: The Uraxes Worker’s Resistance.
Dumb fuckers thought they were being underpaid for the job. They were right, but this wasn’t the way to handle it. If they’d just accept that entry-level jobs like this always sucked and went and got a real job then Jeffery wouldn’t even be here, but no. They’d dug out the history books and decided to start a union.
Didn’t they know that unions had been responsible for over a billion deaths? Unions didn’t work. Jeffery leaned out from behind his cover and dropped a few megajoules of heat into their defensive line, blowing a chunk out of the barricade.
Unions never worked.
“I know, I know. If you want my opinion they should be giving you another damned medal, but it isn’t my call. The board made their decision. Anybody else in your place would just be cut loose, understand? Dismissed.”
Jeffery seethed, but you couldn’t shoot politics. “Sir, yes, sir!” Jeffery snapped up a salute and turned to go. Twelve years of service and this was what he got. The hero of the Rinan Defence War taken off of the front lines by some stars damned bureaucrats.
The Uraxes VII incident had been a disaster. Unionisation attempts always were. They’d known that going in. Once that kind of ideological rot got deep enough there was no saving somebody. A fresh batch of workers was getting shipped in from some slum world, but the loss of the prior set’s institutional knowledge was gonna have a cost and that cost had to come from somewhere. The investors wanted heads rolling, and the investors got what they paid for. Jeffery wasn’t fired, exactly, but he’d been placed under indefinite investigation.
He’d done everything right but it still meant months without pay. Months with half their identity torn away. No military medical coverage. No barracks. No mess hall. Stars bless the Terran Accord, right?
Snap. Snap. Snap.
“Another,” Jeff snapped, shivering hand clutching an empty glass. He wasn’t sure what he was drinking. It didn’t matter. It was alcoholic. That was what mattered.
He wasn’t gonna make it to the end of his ‘investigation’, was he? Barely a month had gone by and he was spinning out. His trigger finger itched. Military life had its flaws but a strong chain of command and clear orders made it possible to exist, and there was nowhere else to get that.
He needed a mission. Some fate of the galaxy stuff. How was anybody meant to figure out what to do with themselves when the stakes were this low? Out here in civilian life, he had to figure out what to be all by himself. All that had ever achieved was leading him down a spiral of doubt, uncertainty, and self-loathing. He’d never asked to be this, but the Terran accord needed the manly men who could do the hard things. What choice did he have? It wasn’t like there was any alternative.
His communicator buzzed. He pulled it out to find a priority mail sent on a secure path.
He was being recalled to active duty. There was to be war. Fucking finally. Nothing shook things up like a good war. Investigations could be called off, rules could be bent, credits would be found. Somebody would make a plan and he could follow it. Do the hard things that had to be done. Get medals. Soldiers got taken care of.
He was redeployed the next morning. Gunnery position aboard one of the new Catastrophe-class ships. It wasn’t glamourous, but it’d do. The war was against some new bunch of aliens. They’d crushed the Rinans pretty good, so how hard could another bunch of xenos be?
If there was ever a time for strength, then that time was now.
Terra had fallen. The aliens—the affini—had cut through their defences like they hadn’t even been there. They’d barely even slowed down as the Terran Cosmic Navy’s best had thrown themselves to their doom. Now the captain of his ship was telling them it was over. It was time to surrender. The affini would take care of all of them and make sure they all got what they needed. Everyone would work together to build a better Terran Protectorate, but nobody would be asked for more than they could give.
And what did that sound like?
It was just another union.
Jeff knew how to deal with unions.
The fate of the galaxy had been in his hands before. This was Captain Jeffery Beromt’s time to shine. No matter how bad the odds got, a strong Terran leader with a capable crew would save the day.
Things weren’t lost yet. The xenos had made a fatal mistake. They’d gone for Terra first. Conquered the weakest of them, while giving the strong Terrans out on the edges time to plan and prepare.
Jeff held a steaming snap rifle in his hands and stared out towards the stars. “We aren’t giving up here,” he declared. His back was to the crew, but they knew better than to cross him. “It’s time to teach the xeno scum what fighting the best of humanity is really like.”
If there was ever a time for heroes, then that time was now.
The mess hall was hot. Danger to life kind of hot. The steam of boiled-off coolant no longer permeated the air because humidity was now so high it could no longer vaporise. Everything was running at redline, the crew included.
“Hey, come on, can we just forget about the money for a second?” One of the non-military crew had reached the front of the food queue and tried to scan their badge, but the machine had returned a red beep. No credits.
“Sorry, man. Supply and demand, y’know.” The mess officer held firm. “Everyone else can afford it.”
“I need to get medication, too,” the civilian seemed close to begging. Which one was this? One of the engineering lot, Jeff thought. One of the comp techs? No, they tended to have cleaner hands. Must be one of the mech techs.
“Look, I- We’re all in this together, yeah? If I don’t do my job right, all of us die. If I’m too hungry to dial in a fucking jump right then we might never be seen again. Can I just… this once, can we forget the money?”
Yeah, definitely one of the civvie mech techs. Nobody else was that naïve. Jump engineer? Yeah, Jeff remembered him. If this kind of rhetoric spread then they may as well hand themselves over to the xenos now. Jeff rolled his eyes and butted in. “You want to get something for nothing, go talk to the weeds. We need everyone to pull their weight around here, no freeloaders.”
The tech whirled around and jabbed a finger towards him. “I am pulling my stars-damned weight! I just need medicine too and the doctor keeps raising their prices and-” They took a sharp breath as they finally realised who they were talking to. “Ah, shit. Sir!” They snapped into a salute.
“Get out of the queue, recruit. Come back when you can pay.”
“I… yes Sir.”
Jeff shook his head. The fight ahead needed stronger men than this. He needed more than just a crew: he needed a team.
The Indomitable was just about the best humanity had to offer. One main gun that could crack an asteroid in half; dozens of point-defence turrets that could defend it from almost any threat. A top of the line military drive core and enough hydroponics bays to barely need resupplying. It was the perfect ship for the saviour of the galaxy.
Over months they kept just ahead of the affini war fleets. From the Alderamin system came Alexis Jaxx, the best hacker the Accord had ever known. Jeffery and they had been diametrically opposed foes in a dozen encounters, but a common threat had a way of uniting people.
Draco A 2 held a colony entirely unremarkable, except that the scientist there, Doctor Anastasia Teresi, was the best genetic engineer this side of Apollyon’s Light. If anybody could build weapons to defuse an alien threat, it would be her. The colony was halfway conquered by the twigs when the Indomitable arrived, but there was no limit to what a capable crew of driven Terrans could achieve: they rescued the girl.
The shattered remnants of the Rebel Intelligence network reported that trying to breech what was left of the fortress world of Brypso 3 was a suicide mission, but the plan wouldn’t work without a good bruiser and there was nobody rougher in a fight than Eli Matar. If anyone could take an affini in a fistfight, it’d be him.
From Nekkar 3, they picked up a gunsmith. From Scheat 7 came the sneakiest spy Jeff knew of—though he had to admit, that was the one category he couldn’t be sure he’d gotten the best of the best.
In the lead, Jeffery Beromt. They’d called him mad before, but when the fate of the galaxy was at stake it took the best of the best to do what had to be done.
“Stop fucking around, Jack,” Jeff begged. The drive engineer was still a civilian, and the man had no idea how the real world worked. Didn’t they get it? This had stopped being about doing things properly a long time ago. Obviously a drive engineer was going to treat a spaceship like it was some kind of delicate cathedral, as if scratching the paint offended their delicate sensibilities, but that was because he didn’t get it. Not viscerally, like Jeff did.
This was war. The tech spewed some technobabble that Jeff neither understood nor cared about understanding. “I know what happens if those fucking xenos find us, recruit!” Jeff had seen the pictures. He’d seen video footage. He’d seen what happened in the aftermath. He’d heard the snap of laser weaponry played back over tinny speakers and watched bits of plantlife litter a battlefield and it hadn’t stopped them. They took a shot and they just kept coming. They waded through laser fire, shedding their skin and nothing more. If even one of those things got on board everything would be over. He’d spent hours searching the videos for some sign of a weakness.
Their luck had turned. Their raids had stopped going off without a hitch, and the last three infiltration teams just hadn’t come back. This ship was the best Terra had to offer all collected in one place and how could it not be enough?
“We are jumping in one hour, and if you can’t make that happen, then you won’t be coming with us! Do you understand?” Please understand. It was a stupid threat. Fear and anger mixed and boiled over. Didn’t they understand? The Terran Cosmic Navy had had thousands of ships. Tens of thousands. It was all gone. They, and a quickly vanishing set of other lone ships, were the last hope for saving humanity.
And if they failed? What would happen to them then? The future under the Affini Compact? Just imagine a vine petting a human face—for ever.
There had to be some way out of this. The civilian barked an acceptance and Jeff left, stomping out of the room until they got out of sight enough to collapse against the wall.
Snap. Snap snap snap snap snap. They slammed a fist into the bulkhead. Nothing they were doing was working. They couldn’t beat the alien ships. The message had come in a week ago, the last transmission from one of their few remaining allies before it all went dark. The Ochre Skies. Fellow Catastrophe class with a damn good crew. Not up to the Indomitable’s standard, but damn good. Managed to pull off an ambush against a small high-priority target and landed a hit with the main gun. It hadn’t done shit.
How were they meant to captain a vessel when it was this hopeless? Why were his fellow Terrans so fucking weak?
The proximity klaxon sounded a split second before the whole ship rocked. Jeff was knocked from his seat down onto the floor. The bridge had been thrown into chaos.
“Xeno ship sighted!” cried the communications officer. “We’re being boarded!”
The time had come, then. The time Jeff had been training for since the day of his birth. Every snap, every twang, every shot taken, it had all been for this moment where they finally turned things around. He grabbed his snap rifle and dialled the power up to maximum.
He hit the broadcast button for the shipwide comms. If ever there was a time for a motivational speech, then that time was now.
The status light stayed defiantly off. Comms were dead.
Hell, he’d just have to deliver the message in person, then.
He’d been dreaming of this moment for months now. It was the story of his life in a microcosm. All around him, people too weak to do what had to be done. People too scared to do the right thing. This was his life. Doing the hard things so others could reap the benefits.
Terran weakness had come back to bite them, but the bloody twigs had made their last mistake. They thought humanity weak simply because all they had faced were the weaklings.
Well, let them come face to face with one good man with a gun.
Jeff charged down the corridor towards where the creatures were swarming in. Saw one. Raised his rifle.
He beheld a moment frozen in time while his finger squeezed the trigger. An ethereal web of flower and foliage danced before his eyes. It noticed him, looking up with what could have seemed like curiosity, were it not painted on the false face of an enemy combatant. Glimmering eyes shone in stark emergency lighting. These things looked so different on tape. There, they were dead, alien, with inhuman movements. He’d spent hours, or days, pouring over what footage he could, searching for weaknesses, hoping for the chance to finally take one down.
Now he was here. Face to face. It looked so alive. The movements were strange and savage; almost haunting, yet beautiful. It was a creature from myth, like a biblical angel; one of the fae; or a siren singing its song. To hurt this would be like shooting a unicorn.
He did the hard things that nobody else would do. That was who Captain Jeffery Beromt was. If there was ever a time for action…
Hum. Click, click, click. Whirr. Snap.
…then that time was now.
The corridor burned, lit by the sharp lance of Terran engineering. The beast flinched. They could be hurt. They could be killed. All it took was some courage and grit. Jeff mashed the trigger again, painting the monster with flash after flash of molten fire. It reached out towards him, as if to beg, as if to plead for its pathetic life. He sneered: it would be but the first to fall before him like wheat before a scythe.
“The will of Terra will never break!” Jeff screamed while the stench of burning foliage filled the corridor. Scraps of pollen and plantlife burst from the wounds, staining the dull metal walls with streaks of bright colour.
The creature, faltering under the weight of Terran might, stumbled forward. Jeff shifted his stance, shifted his aim, and planted a shot right between the eyes. Take that, you alien scum. He stepped forward, planting his boot against its chest to push the monster down to the ground so he could shower annihilation down upon it. Sprays of boiling sap splashed against his face, but he wouldn’t stop until the beast was slain.
If there was ever a time for death, then that time was—
It put a hand to the end of his gun and firmly pushed it to one side, away from either of them.
“Hey there! You’re a feisty one, ain’t’cha?” it asked, between bursts of laughter. “That tickles!” Its dopey grin was marred with black burns and charred leaves. With its other hand, it reached up to brush the broken plantlife free. Like a kind of biological reactive armour, he had destroyed the outer layer without being able to touch what lay beneath. “What’s your name, pancake?”
Jeff tried to pull the gun free of its grip, but after a moment it simply yanked it away and snapped it in two. Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck. It wasn’t meant to go like this. He was strong! He had to be strong! The alternatives were unacceptable! Yet, the beast suddenly seemed so much bigger than before. It sat up and even that left it towering over him. Guns were the great equaliser, but what could he do if even that didn’t work?
Rule one of talking to the enemy, drilled into them so they could do it even while the rest of their mind was panicking. Name. Pancake? Was the beast trying to offend him, or…?
“C- Captain Jeffery Beromt, Sixth Fleet, Indomitable! S-S-Serial number two-five-one-eight, uh, no, six-three-nine!” His voice wavered. Without a gun, what was he? He grabbed for the knife on his belt, but trembling fingers faltered and dropped it. A vine snapped out to grab it in mid air, quickly taking it out of his reach.
Fuck. Fuck! He had… he had an old backup pistol! He quickly went down to one knee, grabbing for the weapon in his boot. It was an old slug thrower. Barely even a weapon, but so long as he had something he could still be effective. He pulled it out and pointed it up at the plant, only to find he had the grip wrong. He was holding it by the body, with the barrel pointed away from either of them.
The beast’s maw sharpened. Another vine stole this gun away too. “Good waffle. See, isn’t it so much better to do as you’re told? You military types know that, right? Chain of command?” One glowing eye winked out for but a moment. “It’s okay, pancake. You’re safe now. We’re here. Now, be a good little Terran and breathe deep for me, hmn?”
Jeff felt a burst of anger. How dare it talk to him like that? Didn’t it know who he was? He was the hero of Nyrina! The anger flared in his chest and he took a deep breath so he could yell, and… the air tasted purple, and all his anger seemed to tumble away.
He faltered, ending up on both knees. The beast curled around him as he fell, picking him up and holding him to its chest. “Shhh. Hey, quiet now. You feisty ones make the most delightful pets, but you’ve proved yourself by now. You’ve done enough. You can relax. Let us take care of the rest.”
It leaned in close, to whisper. “Or don’t. Some of us like a struggle. We’ll find you a good home, that’s a promise.” It opened its jagged mouth and breathed out a cloud of something sweet-scented that left Jeff tingling just to touch it. “Now, sleep for me, syrup.”
For all he fought, he lasted no longer than anybody else.
This wasn’t how Jeff had expected capture by the Affini Compact to go. He’d woken up in some kind of pod to the smiling face of a black and white plant holding a clipboard and pen.
“Name?” it asked.
Name. “Jeff.” It felt bitter in his mouth. Jeff had been a warrior. A fighter. Somebody who’d been willing to do terrible things because they had to be done. It hadn’t gotten him anywhere in the end. Jeff had been the good man with a gun, and now he was neither. He didn’t deserve the name.
He’d lulled himself to sleep each night with the honest belief that the atrocities committed by his hand had been necessary, but he hadn’t saved the galaxy. They hadn’t made a difference in the end. How was he meant to live with himself now?
The plant glanced at its clipboard, spent a few moments searching through the papers clipped to it, and then scratched her joke of a nose. “I don’t have a Jeff on here. Is there another name you go by? Of course, I will refer to you by anything you would like, if you have a preference?”
The xeno raised an eyebrow. “Hmn. I’ll just add you to the ‘to be identified’ column, then.” It clicked a button and the pod slid shut again.
Wait. Wait, that was it? Where was it going? The last one had been much more insistent! Jeff reached out… but the air was going all purple again and he couldn’t help but slip unconscious in the cold, dead embrace of the pod.
They were nice, actually.
The affini. At least these ones. Soft, gentle, with nothing but smiles and patience. Jeff could spend five minutes yelling at one with every swear he knew and it didn’t seem to ruffle them in the slightest. He could try to attack them and they’d just let him. He had no weapons and hard fists striking soft plantlife didn’t seem to hurt either of them. They just let him wear himself out.
No matter what he did, they’d still just go about the process of making sure he was fed, watered, and cleaned. So far he hadn’t been brave enough to really challenge them on their threats of doing those things for him if he refused to comply.
They were endlessly patient. They seemed to have no end to their ability to calmly, quietly talk. To gently explain why his beliefs were misconceptions. To forgive him his crimes without reservation.
He hated it. It made him angry. They would forgive him for what he had done? He couldn’t forgive him for what he’d done. He wanted to hurt them and they treated his inability to do so as if it meant the pain wasn’t chewing him up inside. Like forgiveness wasn’t something that had to be earned.
It was so easy to justify horrors in the moment. He’d do it again, given half a chance.
He’d given his whole life to the Terran Accord and it had all been for nothing. Therefore, all the evils he had committed had been for nothing. They hadn’t changed a thing in the end. The fucking plants had come along regardless. They said it wasn’t his fault. He told them to go to hell.
Now here he was. It couldn’t have been more than a couple days since his capture, but already he’d had half a dozen of the damn things talking to him. They were all nice in a way that made his blood boil.
Except for that first one, back on the ship.
One of the crew was missing. It had taken a while to get a head count. They were mostly being kept apart, but the xenos were letting them see each other as proof that everybody was okay.
But they’d counted and somebody wasn’t here. Jack Sahas, one of the mech techs. The twigs had given them some obvious lies, but a little bit of rioting had forced their hand. The whole crew was unified against them, and collectively they had some bargaining power here.
The low rumble of nervous conversation spread through the room as the twenty foot tall main doors slid open. A familiar affini entered. The black and white one. It cleared its throat to catch everyone’s attention. The once-good-man seethed. Half the crew were looking towards it with barely disguised adoration. Even from his own team, Anastasia and Eli were simply smitten. Even of those who still fought he could only see a few truly angry faces. He didn’t know what had happened while they’d been apart, but they’d barely even fought. It had all ended so quickly.
“Hello, my pretties! Be good Terrans and listen up.”
There was a wave across the room as Terrans perked up one after another. The soldier tightened his fists hard enough that it hurt. Why was nobody fighting? They had to win this thing. They had to. He didn’t know what else to do.
“So, I pulled a few strings and the, ah, missing crewmate is willing to come tell you everything is okay. Please be gentle.” It glanced backwards and nodded, then stepped aside.
An unfamiliar xeno walked in. It practically slithered across the floor, eschewing even the aesthetic of humanity in favour of pulling itself an inch in the air in a tangle of a dozen tentacles. Greens, blacks, purples, and reds all mixed together to create a nightmare from beyond with bright glowing eyes and a savagery in its movements that couldn’t help but put the room on edge. Those closest to the front took a step back, filling the air with their murmurs.
The monochrome one was scary, but it felt humanlike in a way that was relatable enough. This one wasn’t even trying to calm their nerves.
Simply by its entrance, an invisible line had been cut through the room’s centre. On one side, aliens. On the other, all but one of the crew of the Indomitable. Between them lay a no man’s land. A gulf between tried and tested Terran traditions and the twisted alien perspective that had conquered them all.
The mere presence of these things recontextualised everything. No longer were they peers mingling in some kind of recreational area, no. They were being categorised and titrated. Judged. Sorted. The aliens wanted to see which of them could be bought. They’d soon find that the good captain had no price.
The silence was so stark that he could have sworn all would hear his breath, but even such a silence was still a false vacuum. It broke mere moments later when met by something more alien still that plunged them into a much, much deeper silence.
There was a noise like the cry of an animal. The room collectively glanced down, tearing their attention from the newcomer. Nobody had noticed the smaller creature hiding behind its legs. That would have required being able to look away, and if these aliens were good at anything it was being the centre of attention.
The smaller creature received a little push from the affini and stumbled out into plain view. It too seemed almost to dance with its motions, giving barely more weight to the pretence of humanity than the affini did.
Nobody said anything. Nobody had anything to say. How could they?
It looked like a woman, crawling on her hands and knees at the xeno’s side. Around her neck rested a thick collar. Her eyes glanced around at human faces with a subtle lethargy. The only sound in the room was the jingling of its nametag swinging with every soft sway, but such a sound sound only made the silences between sharper.
This was no Terran. They had brought a pet.
She could hardly be said to be wearing clothes. She was covered only by a dense coating of dark leaves more reminiscent of fur than a uniform. It hid entirely her torso and stretched all the way down to each wrist and ankle. A hood rested around her head, with two pointed triangular leaves facing up to the ceiling, looking almost like ears or horns. The only skin visible was on her hands and face.
The face looked human at least, but it was like they were intentionally trying to distract from that. Was this a threat? Obey, or we will do to you what we have done to this?
“Um,” it spoke, glancing up to the affini it crawled beside. The plant nodded, then pulled the vine that hooked into the loop on its collar up, bringing the thing to a kneeling position before quietly murmuring something towards it. “Hello, everyone,” it said, with a smile that was almost human. It felt uncomfortable to look upon, as if it were the impression of an artist who had only ever heard smiles described by the blind. “It’s nice to see you again.”
It spoke in a soft voice that felt almost like it was singing or reciting poetry. It couldn’t have been more obviously practiced if it had the script in front of it. Maybe it did, through some abuse of alien technology. It looked at them, but it didn’t really seem to see them. Its eyes seemed out of focus. Perhaps it was reading from a script only it could see.
It seemed to move either with practiced, inhuman precision or with a subtle sloppiness. Never anything between. When it had crawled it had done so with otherworldly grace, yet now when it looked around the room it seemed only partially present, as if half of its attention were elsewhere.
They had demanded the lost member of their crew, but the aliens had brought to them preternature.
A murmur spread across the room. Somebody spoke up: “What is this?” At least Eli was still on his side.
The creature smiled. Tilted its head. The hood only partially followed the movement. It swayed softly from side to side. “I’m kitty?” it asked. “Uh, I did the jump engineering on the Undomitable.”
No. What the fuck? No.
Did the plants think they were all fools? That they could eat one of the crew and then parade this before them? Nobody was willing to call it out. Nobody would do the hard thing. Well, fine. It always fell to him, didn’t it? Surrounded by fucking weaklings who couldn’t do what needed to be done. Stars, but his life would have been so much easier if there was any other way than this.
He stood tall. “Bullshit,” he called, glaring at the monochromatic plant. The one he’d talked to before. “Did you not even take a photograph before you ate him? Is this the best you could find? Or… make? Or is this a test, to see how obvious a lie you can spin and force us to believe it?”
The two affini glanced at one another for a moment. One seemed to almost shrug at the other. In return, a roll of the eyes.
The affini they knew spoke up. “I can guarantee you that this is the very same katie who was aboard your little ship. I am sure she could answer any questions you have if you need proof.”
katie. She. He gritted his teeth. “His name was Jack!”
The new affini bristled. Jagged thorns slipped from beneath its deceptive coat of calm leaf. In a moment, it went from emotionless and detached to a beast of sharp angles and threatening tentacles. What were the chances it could reach across a room with those? “Her name is Katie, and you shall not upset her. She is here as a favour and you will respect that.”
For a moment, the warrior felt forced respect bubbling up in his mind. He recognised that tone of voice. Words for somebody who was about to cross a line. He balled his fists. How dare that creature appropriate such confidence for this sham?
“I’m okay,” the girl spoke, taking a moment to smile up at the alien she knelt next to. She reached up a hand to gently pull one of the sharp vines down and the rest all followed with it. The affini returned to emotionless detachment. The pet returned her attention to the crowd. What the fuck was this? “I might be a little different to how you remember me.” Understatement, but at least it was acknowledging it. “See, I’m actually transgender, and though many of you knew me as, um.” It bit its lip and glanced up to its handler.
The alien looked down, face charged with indifference. The creature at its heel smiled a little wider anyway, as if it somehow found positivity in the dispassion. “Your old name is not relevant to your life, kitty, just let them know who you are now.”
“Yes, Miss Aquae!” It chirped with all the enthusiasm of a newborn puppy discovering an open field for the first time. Was this meant to calm them? To be told that this unrecognisable thing had been one of them? Even while quiet it was in constant motion. Swaying back and forth, or wiggling its hands or its shoulders. Endless movement all set to some unheard, alien beat. The mood in the room was separating. Where before the strong and the weak at least mingled, now the Terran side of the room was splitting into distinct layers. The cowards stood apart from those still willing to fight. The stronger group was by far the smaller.
“So, I’m kitty now.” It smiled, bouncing on its heels like it was actually happy to be here. “Or, I guess I always was, but people know it now.” It shrugged. “And so do all of you. I think I’d told some of you, but… well, everything was hard back then, and Miss Aquae makes it so much easier to know what to think.”
A third layer was emerging. There were the fools who were so eager to surrender they’d accept this mockery. There were those who disbelieved but were so afraid that they were unwilling to fight. Then, finally, as true now as it ever was, the layer of one standing tall above all: those who could meet force with force. It didn’t matter that the urge had brought him nothing but pain and regret. He had no choice. The captain spoke. “This is absurd. You aren’t even getting the names straight, never mind right.”
The barely-human wreck kneeling before them all giggled. The laughter and her movements felt off somehow, like they lacked true spontaneity. The timing was ever so slightly off, as if she’d waited a moment longer to laugh than a normal human would have. “Well yeah, I’m super gay.”
It was laughing at him.
Was this what it had all come to?
All the fighting, all the hardship, all the war. Just to be laughed at by some degenerate?
No, he should have better than this! He deserved better than this! He didn’t have a choice about what he was, and he wouldn’t give anybody else a choice about whether to respect him for it!
“That isn’t what I mean,” he roared, loud enough that the creature actually stopped laughing and shuffled back. The affini put a vine around its shoulder to calm it. As alien flesh touch its body they could all see the way its eyes rolled up into the back of its skull as it was overtaken by bliss. They claimed that that thing used to be a rebel, but there was no bravery left in those eyes. Jack hadn’t been their best, but he’d been one of them. One of the last brave fighters humanity had left. That he could have been reduced to this was unbelievable. “Who am I? If you’re really who you claim, you’ll know who I am.”
“Jack? Jim? Jeff! You shouted at me a bunch, I think.”
“I’m the captain!” he insisted, only to receive another giggle.
“Don’t be silly. Rosa is the captain.” It smiled with a dumb ignorance, like it had no thoughts that went more than surface deep.
The stars-damned Captain of the Indomitable slammed his fist against the desk. “I am the captain, and you are still under my chain of command! I don’t know what that fucking weed has on you, but there’s no way any brave Terran on my crew would break for real!”
Its smile wavered, and the creature glanced at the floor. “’m not a Terran,” it insisted. Finally, it fell still. Was he getting through to it? C’mon, Jack, fight this thing!
“Not a Terran!” it hissed, suddenly darting forward. It moved like liquid. It strode forward on all fours, but to call it ‘crawling’ would be like saying a star fighter merely travelled. Every movement was precise and practiced and slick. It danced around the lower layers of Terran opposition and leaped onto the desk the captain stood behind. In only seconds, it had gone from sitting by its owner’s heel to inches from the captain’s face, whole body shaped to a sharp and dangerous point. Teeth bared.
“Not under your command; not him; not a Terran; not a human.” It was right. It spoke like one of the aliens: an accent that no human could have produced with words that got caught in the brain; a rhythm that sounded practiced while it spoke things that couldn’t have been scripted; and a soft certainty that no human had ever felt.
This was no Terran.
The captain looked over her to the other aliens in the room. “I don’t know what you’re trying, but this obviously isn’t our mech tech.” He gestured towards the animal on the desk. As his hand neared its head it snapped, almost biting one of his fingers. He yanked his hand away, taking an alarmed step back.
“Kitty! No teeth!” one of the plants snapped. The creature wilted. “I am sorry about this, ‘captain’; katie and I were somewhat at the fulcrum of a liminal period when we heard we were needed and she is not configured for this kind of meeting. Perhaps I can smooth things over.” It spoke another word that didn’t seem to mean anything and the creature hurried back to sit at the alien’s side again.
The beast lowered itself and placed something against the creature’s neck for a few moments, humming a strange alien song to itself while its toy twitched. After long moments, the creature blinked and glanced to the side, blushing profusely. It scurried behind the affini, where they could only hear it.
“Oh my stars, Thatch, you— In here? With them? I, um. Are we trying to calm them down or scare them?” It poked its head back out, coughed, and raised a hand to its head to pull down the hood on its clothing with an awkward laugh before speaking more loudly, over to the crowd. She raised a hand to wave and gave them an awkward grin. “Uh, hi, I’m Katie Aquae, Second Floret, and you used to know me as Jack Sahas. I joined up about two years back in Struve something something, but it’s not like any of us could really count the days, right? Kinda depressed, did all the jump engineering, terrible poker face? Yeah, don’t pretend you don’t remember me, Stewarts, you still owe me a synthcube.”
There were a few weak enough to laugh. The captain was merely horrified. The words felt closer to human but they were still spoken with an accent he had never before heard in a cadence that didn’t quite match how any human would really speak. The others were drawn into a conversational trap. The creature spoke more easily but it was still distinctly alien.
But it was their mech tech. Or something that had once been their mech tech. The similarities were undeniable. It knew too much.
It was one thing to imagine somebody so radically changed they were unrecognisable. Another to see them returned to a facet of their former self before his very eyes.
The beasts could change people. What use was there fighting this? If they could do this to Jac… to Katie, then could they do it to him, too? Steal away all that he was? Take that single-minded drive for action that had made him so effective?
Take away the things that made him him, but brought so much pain?
Take away the things that he hated about himself but had never been so brave as to confront alone?
Terra had never stood a chance, had it? The good man with a gun had done what he’d had to do because human nature never changed. Except here these invaders were, changing it. All the evils he’d committed were his doing. His responsibility. His crimes to atone for. He could never be forgiven for them, for he’d do it all again and worse in a heartbeat.
That was just who he was.
Something deep inside simply snapped, and the Terran felt all the anger draining away through whatever hole had just been punctured in his soul. He had to fight. It was simply in his nature. He had to do harm and damage and destroy all that was around him. He didn’t have a choice in that matter. He could never stop, no matter how much harm he did.
“Anyway,” Katie said, with a smile. “If anybody has any questions about our floral friends, I’d love to answer. They’re a great bunch and a lot less scary than they seem. On the whole.”
The crew had some questions.
“Does your weed dress you in the morning, barkhugger?”
“How does it feel to have betrayed humanity, root smoocher?”
“If we’d known we had a plantfucker with us we’d have spaced you months ago!”
Nobody was asking the question that wouldn’t leave the captain’s head.
The last strong Terran raised his hand.
The last strong Terran clutched their rifle, back against the wall. Klaxons blared all around in cacophonic emergency. A broadcast over some kind of communications system detailed the containment breach. The plants called for aid.
The Terran grinned, clicked the beam strength up to maximum, and darted out of cover. If they could get out of the medical area and make it back to the docking bay, they could reach a shuttle. That was their victory condition. They had a way to go yet. Dozens of the alien menace to fight their way through. As they darted down the corridor affini came for them like insects drawn to rotting fruit. Sharp angles met harsh lighting in a locked-down starship.
Terra’s mightiest defender planted their feet against the grates, raised their rifle, aimed, and fired. The kick was a little unusual, but it worked. Every time a blast hit one of the weeds, they were knocked back, sprawled against the ground where they lay unmoving and lifeless.
Shot after shot. Affini after affini. One shot, one kill. That was the rule. No alien could stop one good Terran with a gun. As they approached the medical wing’s exit, they found their nemesis.
The first affini they’d ever fought.
Now was as good a time for a rematch as any, they supposed. The snap of their rifle met the snap of vines reaching out towards them faster than the local speed of sound. For a few brief seconds they were locked in close combat. Terran technological might held off an organic barrage through grit, grease, and grim determination.
The Captain strode forward, making precision shots one after another until finally they were close enough to deliver the killing blow. One good hit on the plant’s core and their rematch would be over.
The plant fell, vanquished, and for a long moment there was naught but silence.
“Oh my stars,” the Captain breathed. “Did I actually do it?”
The fallen foe sat back up and grinned, nodding rapidly. “Oh, good girl, Pancake! You did so well!” It rose back up to its full height and shook out its technicolour leaf-coat, which had been stained by the dozens of paintballs that had left their marks. “You’re getting a treat tonight!”
Pancake bounced in place, happily wiggling from side to side with a wide grin on her face. “And we get to lower the handicap next time! I bet I’ll be able to take you one on one soon, Lady Maple!”
“We’ll see about that, sweetie.” Pancake’s affini laughed and picked up a half-spent paintball. She lobbed it back with a gentle throw, staining Pancake’s companion dress with a smear of paint. “For now, looks like you’ve gotten a little dirty, so let’s head home.”
Pancake grinned back. When she really thought about it, maybe the rebels had won after all. All it had taken was a little adjustment to their victory conditions. She ran into her affini’s waiting arms and hugged.
They’d saved her. Helped her to understand the evils she’d committed while she lacked the support she needed to thrive. Helped her forgive herself now that she had that support. It’d been a struggle, but some of them liked a struggle.
If there was ever a time to be happy, then that time was now.