September 2564, Ottawa, Northeast American Bloc
Bernadette woke up from her bed the next morning for just long enough to set an alarm for their little get-together, before she'd realized what she'd done.
It wasn't that she was paranoid. She just... knew how this went from the other side. She'd be on the forum with her organization, or what was left of them, in the middle of vetting people to make sure they won't be agitators in the next protest (a universally-relatable experience, surely), because she knew that they couldn't afford a riot under the Affini occupation, before she realized that one of her friends hadn't been online for a week or two.
She'd brush it off, thinking: whatever, right? Anyone can take a break. Until she saw them again, wearing that kind of outfit and having that kind of scar at the back of their neck. She wanted to be supportive, because they were still her friend. At least they're happy, right? They signed up for it. Maybe. So, she would smile and nod along and hope that they'd want to talk about anything that they used to, and not about how fucking high they are all the time, or how much suckling at the teat of their alien overlords makes them cum.
She would keep a straight face and hope they didn't look at her with that perverse sympathy in their eyes, asking questions like 'Are you feeling okay? You look like you haven't gotten a lot to eat. Have you been sleeping alright?,' because if they did, she would have maybe a day to pack her shit and get a fake passport before the fucking plants started battering down her door to 'just have a talk, little one!'
Moreover, the Affini had a type. Bernadette fit their profile: trans and neurodiverse, and she wasn't awfully convinced when they insisted that they were subverting the minds of people for therapeutic reasons.
Paranoid? No. It's not like she thought they ate people, or whatever Rebellion propaganda liked to spew on the dark edges of the Overnet. Bernadette's aversion to the Affini was perfectly healthy and rational.
Was. Past tense.
Because she just asked one out.
As she laid in bed, she considered her options. Maybe she could just wait for the time to pass, leave Soma alone out in front of the museum, and try to ignore the gnawing guilt in the back of her brain from even thinking that. Maybe if she did do that, the Affini would come looking for her, and it wouldn't even matter. Maybe she could just find Soma's number on a registry somewhere, call her, and tell her that she couldn't make it today.
Maybe she should send an e-mail saying 'Farewell, comrades. By the time you finish reading this, I will have already turned into a plantfucker.' Maybe she'd be so utterly repulsive and unlikable as a person that not even an Affini would want to be around her. Maybe everything would be fine, and she was just worrying over nothing! Or maybe, everything turning out fine would just make things worse. Somehow.
She looked around her room for something to take her mind off things, turning to the television. That usually did the trick. Must be something on the news, and there was.
Ah, fuck. It was Daily Vox, that con shit. She didn't pay too much attention to the details of the 'news' hosts, and she wasn't great at internalizing those kinds of things even when she could care. All she made out is that there were two white news anchors in suits, one older and one younger, sitting around, talking very quickly and seriously, trying to convince you that they really know what they're talking about.
What could they be ranting about today? Maybe they were gonna complain about some mascot being too sexy, or not sexy enough, and how this is evidence of some conspiracy to emasculate the men of the nation and strangle free speech and corrupt the youth, and also they slipped on a banana peel that day and it had to be those people's fault and- Oh, they were talking about the Affini, now.
"Of course, no one wants to go back to the Accord-" The younger-looking news anchor said with the same tone Bernadette would imagine he'd have if he were saying 'I'm not racist, but-', "-but these aliens, they've broken apart families: children separated from their parents, husbands and wives torn apart, no respect for our values!"
"You have that exactly right, Lex." His companion added, "Now, we've had calls from people, saying that this 'treaty' with the aliens has been for the better. All of the people who get taken off to space, just a bunch of firebrands, disturbing the peace! Good riddance, they say! Is this the price we pay for peace? Be walking around the streets, our streets, with our heads down, afraid to speak up?"
"That is why we are putting our full support to the upcoming Free Earth March," said the younger co-host. "We want to make a statement. We wanna show that we will not take this lying down, and we will defend our traditional human values!"
Uh huh. Bernadette thought, What are those 'traditional human values', bud? As she flipped off the TV, part of her thought she should be grateful to have opposition to the Affini occupation across the spectrum of politics. Of course, 'unity' was an all-well-and-good sounding thing, until the battle was won and those newly in power staring sniffing around for 'counter-revolutionaries', and Bernadette's preferred political leanings tended to be a target.
She put those thoughts aside and turned her attention to her computer. As she booted it up and opened up her tabs, she found an alert; it was her organization again. Time for an update. She opened up the messenger window.
momanark1920: hey Bern have you heard?
bdet2537: hey andrea
bdet2537: no whats going on
momanark1920: Emma's talking about joining the Chainbreakers
"Fuck..." Bernadette muttered to herself. The Chainbreakers. Far left-leaning group from the Accord years. Most of the opposition groups to the Terran Accord disbanded -many voluntarily- after the Affini occupation. Some joined the Resistance, but that had its own complications. Many branches of the Terran Resistance were only loosely politically aligned with one another, often in conflict with each other. Some of them refused to communicate with other groups at all. That only made it easier for the Affini to isolate and pacify them.
momanark1920: I was hoping you'd know about that actually
momanark1920: You used to roll with them, right?
Bernadette swallowed. She had been a member, at one point, before the Accord government had been overthrown. She couldn't recall what she'd done there, though. That was worrying her, especially because the lapses in memory pretty closely coincided with the establishment of the Protectorate.
bdet2537: that was a long time ago
bdet2537: i thought theyd broke apart after the affini invasion
momanark1920: Emma's been following rumours that they've been underground
momanark1920: she got into a bit of a fight with some of the rest of us on the chat
momanark1920: doesn't think we're going anywhere
bdet2537: you think thatd work?
bdet2537: aliens got the city locked
momanark1920: people've been getting braver since they started pulling out of Earth
bdet2537: what abt u
momanark1920: still waiting to see how it goes
She clenched her hands. She wanted the aliens gone, right? She wanted humanity to be free. So why was she hesitating to respond?
She took a breath. Gotta assess this rationally. Riots were dicey. People could get hurt, but you couldn't always appeal to the better nature of your government. However, violent action was a whole lot less effective against a race of aliens who could take small-arms fire and subvert peoples minds without them even realizing it. She didn't rule out the idea, but she also hadn't seen it work. Yet.
bdet2537: fuck idk
momanark1920: yeah, I feel that
momanark1920: this could go south fast, and if it does, it's gonna set the cause back
bdet2537: yeah shits dicey
bdet2537: alright thanks 4 keeping me posted
bdet2537: talk to u l8r
momanark1920: uh huh l8r
Bernadette logged off the client and breathed, trying to take this all in. People were starting to believe that they had a chance against the Compact again, after however long it had been. Part of her wanted to believe that they did. The Chainbreakers were coming back, and that meant something, but what?
She knew what the Affini were capable of, with their drugs. She'd studied them fairly extensively. Class-B xenodrugs were able to erase portions of memories, even with quite exacting precision. That wasn't the way they usually did things, though; the Affini didn't just wipe peoples' minds and release them. They liked to make florets out of people that posed a threat.
What was it that Bernadette used to know, that they didn't want her to remember? More importantly, did she want to remember it? Pursuing that could lead her into being collared like anyone else. But if it was important enough for them to make sure that she couldn't remember...
It could be important enough for her to have to figure out.
"Gotten too fucking comfortable..." She muttered. It'd been easy to get used to the Protectorate, and she was far from the only one. It was easy. Peaceful. Stable. Anyone would take the mercies of the aliens over the Accord. Anyone old enough and had the sense left. But it was wrong. Too many people had been taken away by them.
So, why was she going out with one?
Her phone was right beside her. She typed a search into her computer; she could probably find her work place and call in, saying she had an 'appointment' to cancel. She found the site to their workplace easily -there weren't that many buildings with Affini in them in the city- and just as easily found not only the number to Soma's office, but the site even listed her home number. She opened and clenched her hands and tapped her fingernails against her desk as she stared at her phone, dividing her attention between screens. "Call." She told herself, "Just call. Just. Call." Her hand never touched the buttons.
Her brain wanted to focus on literally anything except for making the call. Was that her regular executive dysfunction working against her, or had the aliens already planted an insinuation into her mind that was slowly drawing her into their clutches from which she would never escape?
"Fuck it." She said between her teeth, putting the phone down. Fine. She'd call later. She had plenty of time, about... thirty minutes. Plenty of time to call in and cancel their outing. She was definitely going to do that.
She turned her attention to an old audio project on her computer. She hadn't finished very many tracks, and those she did hadn't gotten many hits yet. The rest were still languishing in the production queues. There was always that seductive logic: Anything you make can be perfect, if you never finish it. She tried to keep her practice as quiet as she could muster. It was early, after all. No need to wake anyone up. One time, one of her neighbours asked her why she didn't just call an Affini to have some sound-proofing installed into the walls.
Of course they'd do that, and free of charge, like everything else, save for some sort of insinuation as they wrapped things up and headed out the door. Something like, 'Say, my house would probably provide an even better environment for music recording. You should drop by to play some music there. For me. Forever.'
Bernadette, however, didn't want to feel like she owed them. Hell, she only moved out into one of the pre-fabricated Affini hab-blocks after they declared her old apartment, quote, 'shamefully inadequate for the keeping of any living thing, including the rats', unquote. They might actually have smoked out all of the rats and took them... somewhere. Bernadette couldn't recall ever hearing about the Affini testing products on animals.
Much as she enjoyed the sight of one of them giving her old landlord a piece of their mind, Bernadette was committed to as careful a balance of reluctance and avoiding breathing in black mold as possible. Besides, if she installed sound-proofing, she might invite a chick to her house one day that ended up being, like, a knife-murderer or something, and who would hear her screams, then? She snorted to herself, thinking: In the comfort of your hab, no one can hear you scream.
As the alarm hit, she started to pace around her bedroom, flapping her fingers together to calm the rising tension and try to keep focused. She threw item after item out of her closet, fretting over how she should dress for the occasion. It was just a chat over some coffee and donuts, right? She frowned to herself: Do Affini eat either of those things?
Should she dress casual? How casual? It's usually seen as poor form to dress in sweatpants to a date, not that much made sense about dress code any more. Hell, the Terran Accord had managed to embed itself into the culture so much that she didn't even realize some people were dating, because they were still going out in their uniforms ten years later, but that's no excuse to slack off. She didn't want to look... like what, to Soma? Would she even realize that it's inappropriate? Would she even care?
Should she wear one of her chokers? Would that give people around her the wrong idea? Maybe she could wear a dress. A nice, bright, cheery and colourful dress. No. Bernadette could never wear dresses in public. She was always self-conscious about how her shoulders looked, or how her fat might show around her waist area, and she couldn't wear anything with a low cut anywhere, because what if someone had seen a stray hair coming out of her back, or from her chest? Might as well dress up like a nun.
Besides, bright or colourful might make her look like one of the Affini 'pets', and she didn't want to look like she already belonged to her. Already? Ahem. Bernadette decided not to let her thoughts linger on that. Maybe she should wear a suit, the kind she'd wear when out on business. Something that covered up her body. Something professional. Sexy. Confident-looking. Wouldn't look like the kind of woman who was throwing herself at a piece of sapient cosmic shrubbery.
She put the subject of clothing aside for the moment and headed to the bathroom, checking herself in the mirror: Yup. That's her. That's the same Bernadette Marc, all five feet and eight inches of her. The same short eyebrows, the same shit-brown eyes, the same oval face, the same badly-done brown messy pixie cut, the same huge nose, the same cavern-creature-like skin-tone, the same stained teeth and the same fucking five-O'clock-shadow osti d'crist, was the biacalutamide doing anything?
She started with shaving off as much body hair as she could reach, which only took about a century. She shaved hair on her belly, her legs, her arms, her chest, her back, her hands, her fingers... It was an obsession, ugly and absurd. Can't a woman even have a little bit of hair on her fingers? She cursed her razor as patches of hair stubbornly clung to her face, before she moved on to her foundation, concealer, contouring...
It was ridiculous, really, Bernadette thought. Pathetic, even. The moment some woman, an alien, showed her any kind of interest, and she was already trying to court her? Soma probably had only humoured the human because she thought she might find it amusing.
After so much dithering and preparing, Bernadette finally decided on a sweater, a pair of light jeans, slacks, and some light and casual makeup that matched her skin tone. She spent a good minute fretting and kvetching throughout her apartment about how she couldn't find her wallet, before she remembered that food at the Affini stores were all free anyway and made her way out.