Two weeks had passed since the Affini Compact had arrived on, and subsequently claimed Duri as their own. Tensions were high, rumors were circulating around the more pro-Terran corners of the net that the affini were starting to feel they’d bitten off more than they could chew… or photosynthesize or whatever. Irene wasn’t so sure she bought that. These were the people who had taken Terra in three years; the notion that a single colony, even one of the larger colonies, could pose much trouble to them was simply ridiculous. Within a day of their arrival, the resistant planetary government had been toppled and was in the process of being reformed as part of the compact. The affini had a foothold in every major city, Duri’s Planetary Defense fleet had been completely pacified, the ground forces had been routed and forced to either surrender or join the New Resistance—self-stylized champions of ‘Duri Freedom,’ because apparently Terra’s surrender meant ‘Free Terranism’ was a loser ideology and ‘Free Durianism’ had other stranger, and smellier connotations.
Still, things on Duri did seem to be a little off compared to reports Irene had read from other planets. Things definitely weren’t going as smoothly as she had come to expect the inevitable affini invasion to go. If the planet really was giving the Compact trouble, Irene suspected it was a simple matter of resources. Non-violently pacifying an entire planet couldn’t be an easy task, and, for some reason, the affini had only brought along one ship. Granted, it was quite the ship; Irene had done thorough, perhaps even obsessive research on the Affini Compact’s pacification of the Accord in her spare time—to stay up on current events and prepare for the inevitable, of course, and for no other reason at all. As such she knew that even among the Affini’s massive classes of ships, Sempervirens was quite large. Coming in at over quadruple the size of even the largest city on Duri, and that was only taking its length and width into consideration, the ship was ostensibly a floating country. Still, one ship, no matter how large, sounded like not enough resources to claim an entire planet. Initial reports and footage from Terra had shown dozens, perhaps hundreds of ships. Of course, Terra was certainly the more populous planet, but not hundreds of times more populous.
Why, exactly, that was the case was not something Irene could begin to speculate on. The Affini Compact was vast as it was advanced, and it’s people were enigmatic as they were fascinating. Perhaps they’d simply made a miscalculation; perhaps an emergency somewhere else had re-routed the other requisitioned ships; perhaps Sempervirens was actually enough but something aboard the ship had been giving the affini trouble. Any way she looked at it, it didn’t really matter; none of that changed the situation on the ground. And that was what mattered, because the only evidence Irene needed to point to which all but proved that the affini were running into some sort of issue, was the state that Duri was currently in compared to accounts from other colonies.
Monte Cruces, the third largest city on Duri and Irene’s home, had been effectively split in two. The affini districts comprised approximately two thirds of the city, stretching from Monte Cruces’ southwest corner to expand outward, forming an uneven border which slithered in a crude semi circle around the remaining third. The affini side of the city was a budding utopia, still recovering from the struggles and cruelty of capitalism and brutality, but a place where everyone’s needs were provided for, and those who struggled to cope even within post-scarcity could seek shelter under the protective vines of a benevolent alien. At least, that’s how the rumors went; the rumors coming out of the affini controlled districts, to be specific. The areas yet unintegrated into the compact, or the ‘unoccupied districts’ as so many of their denizens called them, had their own far worse rumor mill.
As far as Irene could tell, the rumors were the standard fare of anti-affini propaganda. They would capture humans and force them to work—which admittedly didn’t sound too distinct from things before the affini arrival either—they turned dissenters into mindless husks, their favorite food was some sort of smoothie made from human brain, eyeballs and bone-marrow. Of course, all the information she’d found coming out of affini conquered planets suggested otherwise. Admittedly though, that too was propaganda. Propaganda didn’t have to be a lie though, right? Irene had actually looked up the definition of propaganda before to check, then decided the dictionary may not be the best way to explain such a complicated and nuanced concept. Either way, she was torn.
One the one hand, the affini were interstellar conquerors—intergalactic conquerors if their propaganda was to be believed—that sort of foreign policy wasn’t necessarily the approach Irene approved of. On the other, if they really were only acting out of force because they wanted to save the Accord’s people from its brutal, uncaring policies, could she really blame them? Irene had a lot of time to ponder such questions, considering she had lost her job when her company ceased to exist. There wasn’t a lot to do in ‘unoccupied’ Monte Cruces; she couldn’t really go anywhere, the streets weren’t safe to linger in.
The only time Irene left her apartment was to get groceries from the nearby store, which had been both understocked and overpriced. Nobody was receiving new shipments of goods; the affini, of course, were offering free food and shelter to anyone who wanted it; they had even made attempts to deliver relief goods into the unoccupied districts. Unfortunately, the guerillas in the district had either destroyed the shipments, or horded them for themselves. Irene had considered going out into the affini districts to get food from them, but again, she wasn’t certain whether she could trust them. Stories of drugged food ran rampant on the ‘free’ net. It wasn’t that Irene believed them, it was that she didn’t want to risk gambling on her doubts.
Consequently, Irene spent most days lying around, rationing her dwindling food supplies, with little to do but fixate on all that unfolded around her. Over and over again, she would weigh the pros and cons of the Compact’s approaching takeover, wondering if she should do something about it. On the one hand, things had hardly been good before, and were even worse now. On the other, the affini’s true intentions were an enigma; she knew what they wanted her to believe, but had no way of knowing if it was true. Even if she were to do something other than passively wait for them to cross into her district, what would that be? Irene wasn’t a soldier; besides, she’d heard that captured rebels were forced to become their pets, which was… not something Irene wanted. Absolutely not.
Sure, the affini would have her believe all domestication meant was to be given a partner who would provide love and care for her—for whomever was domesticated. They wanted humanity to believe their pets were the most precious beings in the universe to them; that a pet’s owner most often filled the role of a sort of romantic partner mixed with loving caretaker and full-time dominant. And yes, fine, when it was described that way Irene could sort of, maybe see the appeal. She’d heard their drugs could leave someone in a state near permanent adoration and blissful submission, but just because she thought that sounded kind of hot didn’t mean she was naive. The whole thing was clearly just a ploy to convince humanity to lay down their arms and surrender. It was a perfectly crafted ploy, after all, who wouldn’t want a life like that? So clearly she couldn’t trust it. Even if those dumb, idealistic parts of her really wanted to believe.
Unfortunately, Irene was running out of time to deliberate over such things. The affini controlled more and more of the city each day, and her apartment was growing close to the border. The even more pressing matter, however, was food. All she’d been able to salvage from the nearby grocery store were nutritionless, bland, ration bars which left her both hungry and undernourished. After a week straight of eating them alone, Irene felt like garbage. Worst of all, she was nearly out. The previous night, Irene had suffered a bit of a breakdown when she’d heard several bursts of gunfire right outside her window. She’d spent about an hour cowering in her tiny apartment’s tinier closet, convinced any moment either some twenty foot tall plant, or jack booted thug would kick in her door. When Irene finally worked up the courage to crawl out and take care of her needs, she’d been so upset, exhausted and just fucking starving that she’d indulged herself on the majority of her remaining ration bars.
And so, the following day Irene found herself lying in bed, stomach already growling after her meager, even smaller than usual breakfast, wondering what the hell she was going to do. In a vain attempt to distract herself, Irene began to scroll through her tablet for local news. Typically, she liked to start with the pirate news-sites operated by the local resistance, then check the local affini reports. Mainly, this was because, while Irene couldn’t bring herself to not check both sides—for the sake of remaining as critical and unbiased a consumer as possible, obviously, and not to feed the ever escalating war inside her between her worst fears and most naive hopes—the affini news was always much more positive and ending on their particular spin let her pretend things were going to be okay. After hearing the gunfire last night, though, Irene wasn’t sure she wanted to check the resistance’s news; whatever had happened, she didn’t want to know.
She decided instead to skip right to the affini news sources. Ultimately the actual news pieces on the affini feeds was usually quite boring, which was ultimately what made it good news. Typically it was just the latest reports on how much additional territory in the city the affini had claimed, along with a request for anyone living outside the affini controlled parts of the city to please join them and be provided for. Most of the affini feeds weren’t really news at all, and instead public interest stories about little individual achievements, cultural events, or how particularly cute one floret or another was. It wasn’t boring, but it was hardly news that affected someone outside their districts. Perhaps they too were a ploy to attract people from the unoccupied parts of the city. One in particular, though, caught Irene’s eye, almost as though it were made for her specifically.
The story was simple and short, about a local restaurant opening up which served Terran comfort food. What really caught Irene’s attention was the cover image, a human—probably a pet given how she was dressed—looking absolutely delighted as the tastiest looking pizza Irene had ever seen was set in front of her. She ran her tongue across her teeth, desperately trying to find any lingering scraps of her breakfast as her mouth began to uncontrollably water in time with a sudden growl from her stomach. Unbidden, her mind wandered back to the countless promises of free food and shelter which the affini had promised so many times to any who were listening. What was the harm in visiting one of their districts and just asking?
She could take something small, a few days of groceries, only pre-packaged goods from brands she trusted, real food, though, not ration bars. If the affini weren’t lying, she would be able to walk right in, grab some groceries, and leave safely. If they were lying then, well, they were going to reach her part of the city eventually anyway. At the end of the day, it was better to be optimistic about the inevitable than pessimistic, Irene decided. This way, at least, she could maybe get in, get a glimpse of what the affini had to offer, and possibly get out without being taken; that would at least give her some inclination as to how truthful the propaganda was. Sighing, Irene got out of bed, and glanced down the hall. Was she really doing this? Her feet began to move on their own. Apparently so. She waded through her apartment, over the scattered mess on her floor which she’d been meaning to pick up for weeks now, and reached her front door. Irene took another slow breath, nodded to herself, put on a brave face, and tied her shoes.
It was still late morning, which meant things were relatively calm. Things really only got dangerous toward the nighttime; apparently the New Resistance had it in their minds that the affini were somehow slower or weaker at night since plants needed to photosynthesize. Irene didn’t want to be the one to point out to a bunch of jackbooted meatheads that the plants literally flew around in spaceships so they could probably do without. Either way, being out in the open could mean she’d be accosted by some asshole with a hardon for power who thought it was his business what random pedestrians were doing. Fortunately, it was a pretty straight shot to the current edge of affini occupied Monte Cruces, only about a kilometer to the south of her.
Doing her best to look as innocuous as possible, Irene pointed herself toward the border, and began to walk at a pace which could be considered leisurely, but not overly so, because the longer she spent out the longer she was at risk to run into some kind of trouble.
Despite her worries, however, Irene’s walk to the border was uneventful; at least, it had been uneventful right up until the end. She heard it before she saw it, the crowds, the chanting. There was a demonstration going on; her heart sank, of course there would be. As she drew closer, the crowd came into view, hundreds of humans, all crowding the main street at the edge of the affini occupied districts, all holding anti-affini signs and chanting slogans as hateful toward affini sympathizers as they were to affini. Would Irene be considered a sympathizer for simply going in and getting something to eat? Who was she kidding? Of course she would be. This crowd wasn’t normal people with normal objections and concerns about an alien species trying to take over; these were hardline ‘Duri Freedom’ supporters, the sort which would just as soon advocate for gunning down minorities in the street as they would defend themselves from ‘oppression.’
For a moment, she considered turning back, but what if that in and of itself looked suspicious, what kind of person would approach the affini occupied area, then turn back as soon as they saw protestors? A sympathizer, that was who. Hiding her face, Irene turned a corner onto another street running perpendicular to the one she’d been on. She speed walked a few blocks, just to put some distance between herself and the demonstrators, then turned back toward the affini controlled area. The border was a little farther south from this point, but no more than a couple blocks so. Irene could definitely still see demonstrators lined up there as well, but there were fewer, they were pressed up against some kind of transparent barrier, it almost looked like glass but it was so huge and fit the area perfectly, there was no way they’d just made a glass barrier to fit this exact intersection, right? Then again, Irene was at the point where she wasn’t sure she could put anything past them. On the other side of the barrier, a few affini stood watch over the crowd, appearing stern, but calm, towering over the protesters.
This was the first time Irene had seen them in person, they truly were breathtaking. Otherworldly to a fault, towering over those around them, beautifully decorated and delicately featured, each and every one of the affini she saw were ethereally pretty. One of them, who appeared to be a woman, locked eyes with Irene, seeming to notice the distant human staring at her. As though simply by looking at her, the affini woman could determine Irene’s reason for being there, she gave a little nod, then a friendly smile. Her eyes subtly nodded to her left, and Irene followed the gesture, only to see a small vine tapping the glass on the far end of the barrier, away from the protesters. The vine lightly tapped the barrier a couple times, then traced a rectangle, before swinging a little, as though indicating a door opening on a hinge. Irene locked eyes with her once more, the affini gave her a solemn nod, as though to say ‘be careful,’ and returned her gaze to the crowd.
Cautiously, Irene began to approach, walking slowly, and not giving the protesters too wide a berth so she wouldn’t look suspicious. Then, as she drew near, Irene began to subtly shift her trajectory toward the ‘door’ the affini woman had indicated. This wasn’t a trick right? There was no way; it had to be real, even if the affini were malevolent they’d taken great care to avoid seeing people hurt or killed. If they truly were evil, then all that went on behind closed doors. Irene tried not to think about what that implied given that she was literally about to go behind said closed doors, and instead quickened her pace toward the apparent meeting spot. She was maybe a mere thirty feet away when she heard someone cry from behind her, “hey! What the fuck are you doing bitch?”
With a sharp gasp, Irene’s heart hammered in her chest and she threw herself toward the door, sprinting at full tilt. More shouting came from behind her, along with a slurry of colorful expletives, though nobody seemed to advance on her, perhaps they were afraid of what the affini might do were they to stop being peaceful. Either way, Irene wasn’t keen on sticking around to find out. She was terrified of these people; she knew what they were capable of, and Irene didn’t want any of that suffering inflicted on her. Panting and shaking, she bolted toward the barrier, and, sure enough the glass seemed to part ways for her. Without stopping to think, she ran, eyes blurry crying and scared into affini territory. As she crossed the threshold her foot caught something, perhaps the curb of the sidewalk, and she hurled forward face first. Her heart lurched in her chest, but only for a moment.
The next thing Irene knew she’d been caught, then scooped up into someone’s arms. As she caught her breath, her whole body trembled, and slowly, Irene opened her eyes. The smiling face of the same affini woman who had directed her earlier came into view. Something about seeing that face up close was entirely different from afar. This woman was stunning, heart-stoppingly beautiful. Her smile was warm, her grip was snug, but soft and comfortable, her scent sweet and calming. And that was all before she spoke; the plant’s voice was something else entirely. Humming softly, she shushed Irene, then stroked her face with a stray vine. “It’s alright, little one; you’re safe now. The Affini Compact will take good care of you.”
Irene believed her.