Interlude A: The Pirate Queen
Felicia Hautere, Fourth Floret, leaned closer to her affini’s side. She didn’t usually want to draw attention while Rosaceae was working, but the floor also wasn’t usually shaking beneath her feet. Her mistress curled a protective vine over her shoulders almost subconciously, holding her close, but resting the end on her shoulder to softly press Felicia down to her knees.
Rosaceae Hautere, Sixth Bloom, had one of the hardest jobs aboard the Elettarium, Felicia thought. She was the captain, at least at the moment. The last election had chosen her, and though the outside world would never know how uncertain her affini had been after hearing the news, Felicia was far too invested at this point to allow her caretaker to be anything but magnificent.
At a slight gesture from the plant, Felicia felt her thoughts start to return, the hazy curtain of mindlessness quickly retreating. It was a disorienting process, being suddenly pulled from being almost no more than an animal, acting on instinct, to suddenly being a person again. She blinked a few times, then looked up, soft and lazy smile sharpening into something more devious.
The bridge crew hung in nervous tension. They’d just landed back in real-space, it seemed, with a human battleship clear in their sights. The metallic tentacles of their cargo chutes were already reaching out, ready to strike.
Rosaceae had been around for almost a millenium and a half, but she’d been captain of a starship for only two short years. Felicia technically had seniority here, and all the sharpness her mind had ever possessed. More, even, with a delicate web of biotechnology laced through her body regulating everything from her hormonal balance to her mood. Delicate plantlife twisted around her bones, making her more than she had ever been. Stronger, faster, quicker on the draw. More accurate with a knife or a gun. Fast enough to evade Rosa’s vines and smart enough to make that count.
She rose to her feet, raising a hand to gently rest against her affini’s cheek. Though the creature was sitting, she still had a few inches on Felicia, but that hardly mattered, and the look in her soft blue eyes was beautiful enough that Felicia risked being seen to tilt her caretaker’s head towards herself, two fingers beneath her chin.
“You’ve got this, Rosa,” she whispered, planting a kiss on their forehead. She carefully tilted the Affini’s head back towards the rest of the bridge, letting a finger linger for just a moment too long. Felicia had been a terror, once. Twenty years spent flying freighters, ten as the queen of a pirate armada. Her name had been spoken in hushed tones or not at all. When she’d eventually tried to hijack a small Affini cargo vessel, Rosaceae had been aboard, and had brought her in.
It shouldn’t have surprised her that Rosaceae had wanted to keep her little Thorn sharp. Three decades of learning how human ships were run was valuable, and despite her own thorny exterior, Miss Rosa was a softie to the core. She’d let herself get shot five times rather than hurt Felicia in the disarming. Her domestication had been… unusual, to say the least. Felicia smiled happily, reliving the memory and leaning in closer.
The bridge of the Elettarium hung from the bottom of the ship, about half way along the vessel’s magnificent length. It gave them a spectacular view of its current occupation. Tremendous metallic tentacles jutted out of the large, flower-like structure on the bow, spearing the human vessel six different ways. All around the bridge were dotted Affini and their pets, watching smaller panels or chattering away as the various teams made their way in to rescue everyone inside.
Humans hadn’t always been allowed on the bridge, of course, but Felicia had practically been born to be on the command deck of a starship and Rosaceae’s domestication hadn’t softened her. The opposite. Some people kept dangerous pets, ones that demanded respect and careful treatment.
Pet and handler both looked up with a frown at the same time, as a klaxon went off and an emergency broadcast echoed through the room.
“Elettarium, emergency channel! Dirt and roots, can we still smother this engine? The human set it to overload, looks like this room didn’t get hit by the gas. Looks like we’ve got thirty seconds before spacetime gets shredded, can you do something about that?”
Felicia could feel the tension in her owner’s core as she listened, and for a moment afterwards it seemed like she was freezing up. The one Affini vessel lost to date had been caused by something very similar, and they were meant to be taking steps to avert it happening again. That was why Rosaceae had been picked, after all. She was an actress, a mistress of drama and tension, and so far had been extremely successful at storytelling. Her stage was the infinite cosmos, her actor a multi-kilometer vessel with thousands of occupants, and her audience the misguided human rebellion. All she had to do was keep them feeling like they had a chance, so there weren’t any more of these self-destructive attacks.
Rosa was an artist, and like many artists, she was no stranger to trauma herself. Just as Felicia had been saved, she liked to think that she’d saved Rosa in turn. Her caretaker’s comforting vines curled around Felicia’s central nervous system, but Felicia had left her own permanent marks in exchange. Neither of them were as good without the other. Felicia subtly nudged her captain’s side.
“Elettarium here,” Rosaceae called, spurred into action, motioning for the science officer to stop playing with her human’s hair and do something, while playing with her own human’s hair in a flagrant display of hypocricy. “Smothering in progress. We may still have a bumpy ride, apparently, recommend evacuation!”
“Negative, the human’s running, they won’t survive this. I’ll try to get us into a pod, please be ready to pick us up,” the voice called. Who was that? They were a little hard to understand, even if Felicia’s affini was generally excellent—at least the dialect they used around here, anyway. It was an unusual accent, but she recognised it. Rosaceae surely knew who it was, she was fantastic with voices. One of the perks of being an actress, Felicia supposed.
A tense fifteen seconds went by and every moment they didn’t get a check-in made the tension grow yet thicker. Felicia was supposed to be here to support and comfort, but even she found herself holding her breath.
Felicia felt a tearing in the back of her mind as reality broke. They crossed the border of the known, the event horizon of logic, where sense was best left be. Half-reflected stars met unending void, objective untruth meeting wild conjecture as the world she knew cracked and they all fell through, down, down, down into fragmented dimensions, their ship merely a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy and the elegant malevolence of pan-dimensional irrelevance and—
Felicia closed her eyes, and whimpered, suddenly remembering why the games she and her Mistress played were games and games alone. She had flown chemical rockets encased in steel and glass. Rosaceae and the rest of the crew broke reality over their knee and forced their will onto the world. It was impossible to tell what was happening outside, and the bridge was a whirlwind of action, every pet staying politely out of the way. It was a daunting sight, when a room full of Affini actually managed to all focus at once on something that wasn’t cute.
The space outside stablised over long moments, but the human ship was gone, the great metallic tentacles were gone; familiar stars were gone. The voice from before came back to her, finally with a name. The cute newcomer who kept poking around the engineering department looking for something to do, the one who hadn’t found a companion yet. Thatch something? She’d been lovely when Felicia had had occasion to talk. She hoped that the alien was okay. Felicia’s head found Rosaceae’s lap, arms squeezing around a leg, and the captain looked down and began to stroke, for both their comforts.
Felicia was the lucky one, here, finally freed from the burden of command. Being in charge wasn’t a luxury, it was a curse, and she, for one, was very happy to only play pretend.
“Report,” Rosacaea demanded, all playfulness gone from her voice. A chilling comfort. Scary, but safe. When all was chaos, the games were discarded, and Felicia got a brief reminder of why it was okay that she got to pretend at importance, still. Rosa set the stage, and Felicia was but her actress, pretending at still holding her former ferocity while it was useful and gladly abandoning it when she could.
“All but one got back in safely,” spoke one of the crew, reading off of a panel, “Thatch Aquae, First Bloom still missing, as well as one human unaccounted for. Scanners aren’t locating them, they aren’t here. The hypermetric rupture must have knocked them elsewhere.”
Rosacaea sighed, nodding. “We’ll be out here a while, then. Inform the ship that we’re going to be taking an extended break from the front and send a messenger back to fleet command, we can’t leave until we’ve found them. Somebody tell me how to search for two creatures somewhere in this galaxy, please? Answers on a postbox?”
Felicia giggled. Sometimes she thought her owner got human phrases wrong just to torment her. Why else would she say them in affini? All she got for her bratting, though, was a gentle stroke and the comforting sensation of her thoughts sinking away, stealing the intelligent sparkle in her eyes and the deviousness in her grin, the speed of her limbs and the fire in her eyes, and leaving her simple and happy. She’d stay this way forever if she could, but Miss Rosa could make use of her wit and edge, sometimes, and so she was glad to keep it.
Rosa had seen right through her futile attempts at independence. It wasn’t what she’d ever wanted, and the last eighteen months in her Mistress’s care had been the happiest of her life.