The first time that Jake had ever constructed a wall in his mind, he was six.
His mother was on her way to some big party — a gala, most likely. She wasn’t even wearing her dress uniform, but all made up in sparkling finery and a beautiful dress. In that moment, he said the stupidest thing a boy in his situation could have possibly said. “Mama, I hope I’m half as pretty as you when I grow up!”
What happened after that was mostly a blur. His mother and father spoke together in hushed tones for a while. His mother left for her big party, and his father pulled him aside for a big, long talk. The details didn’t really matter anyway. The important part was the lessons imparted to him that day.
The Lunas were a family dedicated to intelligence, strength, and perfection. And the Lunas did not alter themselves — they used their natural talents and improved on them through intense training. Meddling with inherent design was for the degenerates. He could only be one thing, and that was Jacob Luna.
He didn’t put up the wall right away. He tried for a few weeks to simply eject the thought, put it in the trash, burn it away. When it proved too difficult to kill, he opted to partition instead. He pushed it into a distant corner and boxed it in with big powerful walls. And so it was effectively the same thing.
It was a strategy he returned to constantly.
When he was fourteen, he found some days harder than others. All he wanted was to lay around in bed all day and not do anything. This resulted in another Conversation where it was impressed upon him the importance of Doing Things. If you weren’t doing homework, then you should be doing chores. If all the chores were done, someone needed to look after the younger siblings. If you needed something to do with your time, it was always smart to get in some exercise, or read some military history. You didn’t rest until it was bedtime. You took your solid six hours, and then did it all again the next day.
So whatever that impulse had been that made him kind of sad and kind of lethargic was partitioned as well into its own little box.
When he wondered aloud as a cadet about whether Rinan were really being treated properly, his commanding officer at the time had swiftly reminded him about terran supremacy. Sympathy went into a box.
Show a pirate mercy? Nobody could leave until the criminal was put down. Hide that pacifism away.
Over the years, he had sectioned off more and more of himself until the only thing that remained was Jacob Luna, Lance-Corporal of Strike Team Eclipse, efficient machine of conquest and destruction. He had been segmented into oblivion.
And that was what made the affini so terrifying on a subconscious level. All the obvious threats aside, it was the knowledge that deep, deep down they had the means to wipe away each and every one of his carefully constructed walls. He might not have always liked Jacob Luna, Lance-Corporal of Strike Team Eclipse, efficient machine of conquest and destruction. But at least it was a straightforward and easy role to inhabit. Opening everything up meant reliving all the terror and pain he’d forced himself to never examine or accept.
And since accepting that as part of his fear meant recognizing the things he’d hidden away, he could not even accept this new anxiety for what it really was. Hence this insistence that Sera was simply… wrong. Paranoia about drugs was allowed. Discomfort with her appearance was completely understandable. All he had to do was never, ever acknowledge what actually made him nervous.
Once Camilis had taken Ophelia away, Jake climbed his way back up onto the couch. This time he nestled himself into the nook in the corner. It was a comfortable spot and it gave him a good view of the room.
That wasn’t quite enough to save him, though, as Serafa began shuffling a little closer. Not only that, but she did so by breaking down her physical form into what he assumed was closer to her true composition — a pile of shifting vines — only to swiftly reform once she was closer. “So! One-on-one time. What does that entail?”
He went scrambling desperately through his brain for anything that he might say or suggest, but it was just as he had said before. Being around Serafa was distracting in a way that was difficult to nail down. Worse, he had zero concept of self beyond what he could do, what good he was to the Terran Accord and humanity as a whole. Which meant he could only latch onto the one thing he had offered up to Ophelia. “Are you… familiar with terran jazz?”
She lit up, sitting taller now. “No! Is it food?”
In spite of himself, he began to laugh softly. “No, it’s… H-Hang on.” It took a moment to get down from the couch, and he desperately wished that they had some more appropriately-sized furniture out here in the lounge. They would probably have to pull some strings and— No wait. No they didn’t. The affini just did things. He just had to ask. No favors, no payment. Stars, this was baffling.
He went into his room and grabbed a battered old music player. It had seen nearly as much action as he had.
Back in his spot on the couch, Jake held aloft the little box. He pressed a few buttons on the display screen, and soon some gentle piano and alto saxophone filled the room.
Sera cooed softly, her bright white eyes going wide with wonder.
For a while the two of them just sat together, listening together to this music that had been one of his final, unsegmented traits. The band began vamping, and the singer broke out in wild scatting. A tremor ran through Sera’s whole form, vines wriggling and nearly breaking the illusion of her bipedal form again. “That! What is that!”
“Hm? The singer is improvising. He knows the beat and the chord progression so well that he breaks from the traditional pattern to create something wholly different.” He found himself getting a bit breathless as he was given space to expound on the topic without someone rolling their eyes or sighing in boredom. He waited for the song to finish before looking toward her with a grin. “Here, let me show you.” Jake scrolled through the display and set the next track playing. “This was a recording from a different show. Same song, same band, but when he reaches the vamp…” He scrolled along the track to the right segment and let it roll.
Sera gasped, the multicolored flecks in her eyes swirling with delight. “It’s—! It’s different, but it fits just the same! How does he do that!”
For just a moment, he felt as though he understood the affini. She was so enamored by something that was so normal to him. It was… cute? “Do you all not have this kind of thing?”
“We have music, certainly. I’ve known quite a few talented affini performers. But none of them have ever made anything quite like this.” She got another one of those wriggling tremors. “Ice! I wish I knew how to explain it…”
“Well. I’m not a musician. But I know that it’s all basically just science and math.” He shrugged and moved on to an entirely different song. “Vibrations create sounds. We tune them until those sounds are like… enjoyable numbers. Chords create number sets that are subdivided in pleasing patterns. When a performer improvises with their voice or instrument, they know how to generate a series of numbers on the fly that will also fit pleasingly into that predetermined set. Sometimes, they even choose notes — numbers — that aren’t pleasing, in order to create momentary discomfort in order to make the next combination that much more enjoyable.”
It wasn’t until he had finished this explanation that he became aware of a leafy hand gently petting him on the head. For the first time since meeting, Sera had been able to do this without making him flinch. “A bit elementary, but I see your point. Still, this right here! This is precisely why I love my work. Each culture we interact with has such incredible potential boiled into themselves—”
“Baked, not boiled,” he corrected.
She once again went through the process of retrieving her pad to make a note before continuing. “Often, you do things that we are incapable of — whether due to biology or societal norms.”
Jake nodded and smiled. “This genre in particular has a prominent role in terran history. It comes from one of our many… many periods of awful oppression.”
“You seem to have quite a lot of those,” Sera said softly.
She was right, and something deep within the hidden walls of his mind, a cluster of thoughts rumbled in angry agreement. “Still, jazz is also a testament to the beautiful things we can create even when everything is at its darkest.”
Sera chittered excitedly. “Beautiful. Oh, I can’t wait to learn more!”
“You should ask Ophelia about improvisational acting some time. That will blow your mind.”
“Blow my mind?”
“Impress you thoroughly.” The definition was rough, but it would hopefully be good enough. At least until she inevitably failed in using the phrase correctly and she said ‘suck your brain’. That was Future Jake’s problem.
This was progress. This felt good. He had gained ground against his stupid awkwardness, and found something that he could share in common with Sera. It wasn’t much in the grand scheme of things. But it was nice to know that maybe they still had a chance to create a successful appearance of connection.
Whether it was because she was so enthralled by the music, or because she understood that Jake was not one for intense conversation, Sera mostly stayed quiet while the two of them listened to more music for the next hour or so. This silent cameraderie was enough to help Jake feel more friendly with his affini scene partner, and he actually made an attempt to continue the conversation. “So… Things like this, they fall into your particular focus, right? Entertainment?”
Sera gave one of her tremors of happiness, somehow managing to make it harmonize with the music still playing in the background. “It’s the part I find the most interesting, but I’m not limited by it. For example, I’m sure you’re aware, terran sociology was also heavily influenced by their vast respect and adoration for the military. Hence why a soldier such as yourself could be considered a celebrity, of sorts!”
Some of that tension that Jake had managed to shrug off started to return. They were doing so well, talking about music. It was pleasant and innocuous and enjoyable. But the juxtaposition here made him instantly aware of the truth. He did not enjoy being Terran Navy, he got very little actual joy from being the golden boy.
Within the corridors of his mind, he started bumping into those carefully constructed walls. Don’t think about how much the military had taken from him. Don’t think about how many sins they committed. Don’t think about how hard it was to be happy. Don’t think don’t think don’t think—
“Jake? Are you alright?”
He snapped back to the moment and split his focus between Sera and the music. He needed to stay in this conversation, and the music would keep him centered and away from those walls. “I’m sorry. Can we maybe not talk about that for now?”
The vines of her face shifted a bit into a look approaching sympathy and she gave a small nod of understanding. “Of course, little one. I think we’ve made fabulous progress tonight! Now, however, it’s time for bed. You’ll need your energy for the next few days, I’m sure of it.”
That sounded wise. Jake was definitely feeling tired, and he needed some time to himself to decompress. He picked up his music player and made his way down from the couch. “Er… hm. One more thing?”
Sera stood up and looked down at him with a curious smile. “Yes, sweetie?”
“In the interest of a… baseline… Perhaps we should… hug?”
In the blink of an eye, Sera wrapped her arms around him and gave Jake a firm squeeze. Based on her behavior thus far, he got the impression that her normal MO was a much warmer embrace, one so emphatic that she would lift you up off the ground with sheer enthusiasm. So the fact that she was hugging him firmly but respectfully meant a great deal. It was warm and comfortable, and he legitimately hoped that some day he wouldn’t feel so damned awkward about physical affection. “Mn! Oh that’s wonderful! Good job, Jake!”
There was a burning in his face as he pulled away and started shuffling toward the door of his room. “Right, thank you. I’ll see you tomorrow, Sera.” He waved to her like he was a bashful child as he slipped inside to hide away.
As Jake undressed and climbed into his own absurdly comfortable bed, he couldn’t help but think about that moment where he shut the conversation back down. What the hell was wrong with him? How had he spent so many years in a military family, with almost a decade of service himself, and not have any interest in talking about it? Sera had been right, the Terran Navy was steeped in its own culture, behaviors, practices, rituals, and more. And now it was gone. And some part of him felt… relief. But then he instantly felt guilty for that sense of freedom. And then he felt like an idiot for not being able to do the necessary inventory to figure out where all these feelings came from.
What the hell was wrong with him?
“Come on, move your butts!”
Sera let out a high pitched tremolo. “You have such curious phrases. What does posterior locomotion have to do with this?”
Ophelia gave a dramatic eye-roll. “It just means we should get going. We’ve been cooped up for days, I wanna do stuff!”
The signs were minimal. It wasn’t obvious, not unless you were an affini. The lingering scent of xenodrugs still clung to the girl. Sera glanced over at Cam. Once she had fitted a simple collar around Ophelia’s neck, she attached a slim vine to the ring and finally noticed Sera staring at her. In their native language, she smugly asked, “is everything alright?”
She replied likewise. “You drugged her the other night? You’re incorrigible.”
“She asked for it. I would be a monster to deny her.” On cue, Cam reached down to give Ophelia a gentle pat on the head, causing the girl to wriggle. “As if we have never given xenodrugs to sophonts before. There is nothing shameful in it. We had fun together. That is all that matters.”
“If only I had your confidence.”
“I actually had some thoughts on the matter—”
Jake cleared his throat softly and gestured to his own collar. “If you’re all done whispering secrets, Ophelia was right. It would be nice to pound a little pavement.”
“Right!” Sera switched back to terran as she slipped a vine into his collar. “Gesturing our backsides and all that.”
“Close enough,” Ophie said with a light giggle.
The quartet wasn’t quite brave enough to go wandering in an independent sophont neighborhood yet. That required ‘acting’. But their hab was on the edge of an affini neighborhood that seemed a bit more reasonable to visit as a kind of test. Most affini were in on the propaganda campaign, and any florets they might have with them couldn’t be bothered with the subtle difference.
This would allow their terrans to see what normal life looked like now that they were part of the Affini Compact. It would give shape to their own performances. And, some tiny part of Sera hoped, convince one or both of them to consider proper domestication some day in the future. But that was mostly starry-eyed idealism. The only thing that mattered for now was this silly little experiment, to help convince the other terrans out there among the stars that the affini really did have their best interests at heart.
Outside their hab, the signs of affini dominance were already visible everywhere. Good buildings were kept to maintain a sense of familiarity, reinforced with all manner of affini biotechnology. The terrible ones were cleared of poor terrans — who were immediately housed properly — and destroyed to make room for safe, clean habs.
The affini neighborhood was mainly composed of the traditional hexagonal construction that was used almost ubiquitously across affini culture.
Up above, light smog still plagued the air, but it was already far less harsh than it had been just a few months before. A few months more and the air would be as pure as anyone had known for centuries, perhaps millennia. Of course this was done purely because it was the right thing to do. But it also acted as another form of propaganda. If they proved their capacity to make the terran homeworld truly livable again, the affini’s reputation would continue to improve substantially.
All around them, fellow affini were traveling with their own florets on leashes, in their arms, up on their shoulders, and other various configurations. Some were fussing over their pets, others were lightly doting on them while working and chatting. Restaurants and cafes were buzzing with activity, and there were more than a few crews working on construction and moving people into their new habs.
Sera had already been spending enough time around terrans that she had picked up a few of their habits. You couldn’t exactly say that she sighed, but she did draw air in through her form in a manner that indicated pleasure and satisfaction. This place was beautiful. The planet and its people were becoming better, stronger, happier.
Everywhere they went, they received friendly waves — from other affini at least. All the florets were generally too absorbed to notice anything. It was absolutely darling. Sera waved back to all of them excitedly.
Being surrounded on all sides by this familiar energy, she reached down without thinking to give Jake a gentle pat on the head. Their work the previous night had worn off somewhat and he was back to flinching. That was disappointing. She really felt as though they’d been making progress. Frost, he was so adorable, she just wanted to draw him into her arms again, and squeeze him until all his little secrets fell out. But she could barely even touch him without eliciting a mild negative reaction.
They had a lot of work left.
“Hot damn, this is a good cup of coffee!” Ophelia banged her hand on the solid table, causing Jake and Cam to jump slightly. “That compiler is cool, but this is the real deal. What does a mug of joe like this run for in affini bucks?”
Cam reached down and brushed her hair soothingly. “I told you, little one, we’re post-scarcity.”
“I don’t know what that meeaaans…” she said, boldly asserting her ignorance before taking another long sip.
“No money.” Jake quickly summed up the concept in as few words as possible. He was so good at that!
“Right, but like… What does that meeaaan?” Sera was having trouble telling if the girl was being dramatic, or if she was still a touch drugged. Perhaps both. Cam could be very wily. Maybe she’d dosed her coffee?
“Tell me, Ophelia. Would you still have gone into acting if it didn’t pay enough money?” Cam kept right on brushing the girl’s hair. Ophelia looked up into her eyes, panting ever so slightly, her expression going momentarily vacant with each brush.
It took a few seconds, but Sera suddenly realized what was happening.
Frost, how did I not see it sooner? She doesn’t have to drug her. I mean, she did it anyway, clearly. Because Cam’s idea of fun is digging into the every corner of a sophont’s mind, and then composing the perfect mix of medication for whatever little scheme she’s plotting. But no. This is… pure compatibility. Biorhythmic harmony. That fortunate horse.
Ophie gave a snort. “It didn’t pay enough money, not at first. It was just debt, debt, debt for ages. And yeah, I kept going because I knew I might make it big some day. I guess that’s the universal terran experience — dreaming of the day you finally break out of your little capitalist prison. But I stuck with it, because I was good at it, and because there’s no thrill quite like nailing a role. It’s not even like I got famous because I’m the best around. I just got lucky.” She drank from her cup thoughtfully for a moment, staring off into space. “Guess we’ve all gotten lucky now. So it worked out!”
Cam just uttered one of her low rumbles of delight. “A bit of a wandering answer, but I think you found the point. When you’re freed from the shackles of that oppressive system, you can do whatever you wish!” She motioned for the floret who was operating the small cafe, a dainty little waif of a terran in a flowing dress and a rose in her hair. “Come here a moment, little one.”
“Yes Miss?” She came over with a bright smile.
“My darling little Ophie here was just saying how amazing her coffee is. She wants to know if there’s anything she can do to repay you.”
The girl perked up, firmly shaking her head. “Not necessary, Miss! Just knowing I’ve made her morning has made my morning!”
“That will be all, sweetie. I don’t want to keep you.”
The floret skipped away, humming contentedly to herself.
Poor Ophelia was looking a bit flustered having the two talk over her like that. It was a common reaction for florets (and sophonts of a particular disposition).
Sera glanced over at Jake, who seemed to be much more in his own mind, barely even present. Once again those gears were turning. Only now, they were grinding. Something was wrong. She looked down at him and resisted the urge to dote on him too much. Not while he was still adjusting.
Slow and steady wins the war, Sera.
“Is everything alright?”
He suddenly snapped back to the present, and momentarily flashed a false smile before it disappeared. He couldn’t even maintain the impression of ‘alright’-ness. “I was a soldier. My job, my… entire life is obsolete now. There’s no going back for me.”
It took effort to hold back her initial response. He should have been thrilled! No more danger, no more killing, no more orders from faceless monsters. But Sera studied him and saw the very real distress in his face and body language. This realization was hurting him, and she didn’t know how to fix it. Her next question would have been to ask what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. But it had been a struggle just to get him to talk about music that he enjoyed. And asking about the military culture caused him to shut down. How was a man guided from birth to be a soldier supposed to just move on from all of that?
Ever the sweetheart, Ophelia just set down her mug and reached out, taking Jake’s hands in her own. She held them firmly and looked into his eyes without saying anything for a moment. Her smile was beautiful in that moment, and it looked to be doing wonders for his nerves. “Hey. You know what the good news is? There’s zero pressure. No countdown or deadline. You can figure it out on your own time. You could open a gym or a bar, or help other soldiers with all their PTSD and shit. In the meantime, there’s free room and board, free clothes, free… everything!” She gestured to her coffee and beamed.
Her kindness did seem to be helping, but he hadn’t eased nearly as much as the rest of them would have liked. Sera desperately wished she knew how to help him. What Jake really needed at the moment was a therapist, someone who knew about terran psychology—
She looked across the table at Cam. Sera switched back to affini language to keep this conversation private. “Wait. You said earlier, you have thoughts…?”
Her companion just rumbled with delight. “It took you long enough to ask. Though not as long as I expected. Yes, look at the poor boy. He has filters in every corner of his little mind. We cannot help him, we cannot connect to him, and we may never get a convincing performance for those cameras. I do not think it would be wise to give him the same treatment as Ophelia. But there are ways to remove those filters for a while — just enough to see him for what he really is.”
“I don’t know… I get the impression he’s dubious about xenodrugs.”
Ophie finished her coffee and looked over at Jake with an amused smirk. “Do you think this is gonna keep happening? Them talking over us?”
Jake shrugged. “Not so different from my life before. You get used to it.”
That defeated cynicism was enough to tell Sera that something needed to change. It wasn’t right that a culture could be so twisted that it would leave poor little terrans as husks, not to mention all the lingering scars across their galaxy. Sera and Cam were seeing only a small part of it. Leaving Jake in this state any longer than necessary was the real cruelty. He deserved to shine!
She held Cam’s pink eyes for a moment. “We’re all in this together. Help him. Help me. Please.”
She received only a subtle nod in return, which was just so purely Camilis. Calm and quiet, but firm, unyielding. She carefully released her hold on Ophelia’s collar, moving her vine across to take the ring on Jake’s instead. Sera moved in tandem to switch her own grasp to Ophie’s collar in turn. “Jacob, dear, I think there’s something you might like to see. Why don’t you and I go for a walk?”
“Oh. Uh. Sure.” He quickly drained the last of his own coffee before rising from his seat. “I suppose we’ll all meet back up later?”
“But of course!” Sera chimed pleasantly. “It wouldn’t do to be separated from my darling little flauxret for too long. Do be gentle with him, Cam!”
“Gentle—?” Jake wondered aloud as Cam led him away.
“She is being ridiculous, as is usually the case with that woman. Ignore her.”
She fired back with a dramatic little pout until the two of them were out of sight, then looked back toward Ophelia, still pouting. After a few seconds, she lost her hold on the expression and broke out in more high, piping laughter.
Ophie joined in, giggling loudly. “So. Just you and me then, Sera. Whatever shall we do with ourselves?”
There was a tone to her question, not unlike Serafa’s own fluttering vocal imitations. Something high and teasing. She matched it as she leaned in close, which caused the poor girl to flush slightly. She brushed the leafy backside of her hand across Ophie’s cheek, delighting in the ability to actually do that again, and the eager reaction she got from it. She may not have shared the same resonance with the terran that Cam did, but obviously she liked physical affection quite a bit. Perhaps she was just sensitive. It would explain why her friend was so eager to try drugging her. Frost, she was thinking about doing it too! “Did you have fun last night?”
Her blush grew darker and she nodded automatically.
“Well then, why don’t we go for a walk too, and you can tell me all about it.”
Oh goodness. This was so much fun. She’d really missed this. But that mostly made her think more about poor Jake. Ophelia promised to be a great deal of fun, and yet her own flauxret was the one her mind kept returning to. Still, there would be time to absolutely demolish his very sense of self and twist him around some day in the future. In the meantime, why shouldn’t she enjoy teasing her friend’s precious little terran?