Chapter One: Daphne

“You look like a hungry Valorni,” Annie laughed, watching as I went through my serving of noodles and thinly-sliced cuts of Luurizi meat.

“No,” I protested with a mouthful, frowning as I eyed the tiny portion on her plate. “You’re the one who’s barely eating. Are you on a diet or something?”

“No, I just eat like a regular human being.”

“It’s not my fault the food is so damn good in here,” I continued, barely stopping to breath as I devoured whatever was left on my plate. I exhaled deeply then, leaning back against my seat and feeling completely satisfied.

Biher’s was a small restaurant located right between the main government building and Nyheim’s hospital, where I’d had met Annie.

The restaurant was conveniently located between our two places of work, and we were both fans of the food there. Sure, food shortages sometimes wreaked havoc with the menu, but the place’s atmosphere made up for that. Both aliens and humans ate here, no animosity between the two groups, and it felt like the perfect hiding spot from the growing tensions in the city.

“So, what’s new?” I asked Annie, checking the holoscreen on the wall. I still had time before I had to be back at work, which meant I could pepper her with questions. There weren’t any major surgeries planned for the afternoon, so I wouldn’t be needed in the operating rooms. 

“Same old,” she smiled, fending off my question for the hundredth time. Luckily for me, she never grew tired of my non-stop questions. Curiosity was part of my DNA, after all, and Annie accepted that quirk of mine easily.

Of course, that just made me even more relentless in my pursuit of answers.

“Rocks, rocks, and then some more rocks. A thrilling day in a geologist’s life.”

“Oh, come on, Annie,” I protested. “You gotta give me more than that. You’re working under the mayor and General Rouhr. You must be working on something more interesting than just rocks. You could be analyzing the materials from the Xathi site, or you could be working on some geological samples that came on the Vengeance.”

“It’s nothing like that,” she laughed, but I just kept pestering her with even more questions. That was my defining trait: whenever I started with the questions, I would never stop.

While it annoyed my parents to no end when I was growing up, it also ensured I had been curious enough to pursue a career in the neurosciences. Still, while work at the hospital was interesting—I helped out on surgeries while still conducting my research on the side—it wasn’t enough for me. I always needed to know more about the world around me…and, after the aliens’ arrival on the planet, that hunger for more had only grown exponentially.

“Alright, alright,” she surrendered, holding both hands up. “I’m working on something you’d love, but I really can’t say much.”

“Is it a confidential project?”

“You know it.”

“Crap. No clues?”

“Nope,” she smiled. “The only thing I can say is that it’s something so weird I’m pretty sure you’d love it.”

I paused at that, going through all the possible scenarios in my mind. There were a lot of areas where Annie’s work could make a difference, but since she was working under the general, it had to be something of relevance to the government.

And it if wasn’t connected to the Xathi or to something that had come from outside the planet…then it could only mean Annie was working on something that was happening right now, on this planet.

“You’re working on the vines, aren’t you?” I exclaimed, a wave of excitement running through me. The vines were probably one of the most interesting subjects a scientist could be studying right now, no doubt about that.

Too bad I was sitting on the sidelines, completely clueless to what was going on.

“How did you know?” she started, frowning as she realized I had seen through her. “I’m not supposed to talk about this with anyone, you know?”

“My lips are sealed,” I said, pretending I was locking them up with an imaginary key I immediately flung off. “Just tell me what’s the angle on this. Are you testing it for measurable signs of intelligence? Or even sentience? What kind of biometric readings are you using?”

“Look, I don’t know much,” she finally relented, a more serious expression on her face. “And even if I did, it’s not like I’d be able to tell you. The only thing I might say is that the higher-ups call that…thing…the Puppet Master.”

“The Puppet Master?”

“Lower your voice,” she hissed, leaning forward and scanning the room with her eyes. No one seemed particularly concerned with our conversation, but I still mouthed an apology. “I don’t wanna get in trouble. Everyone’s already freaking out with how little they know, and the last thing they want is everyone in the city freaking out, too.”

“Is there any reason for people to freak out?”

“Hello? Remember the way the vines tore the city apart? Or how we were trapped inside that dome? If that isn’t enough for people to freak out about this Puppet Master, then I don’t know what to tell you.”

“Point taken,” I nodded, a thousand thoughts already taking over my mind. Annie wasn’t giving me much, but it was all so fascinating. “It’s just that…well, there weren’t that many casualties, were there? And the buildings that got destroyed, I somehow doubt they were targeted at random.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” she asked, forehead creased.

“Well, the industrial precinct was the place with the most destroyed buildings. Do you think that’s a coincidence? Because to me it looks like it happened deliberately. This thing, whatever it is, isn’t just some dumb plant. There’s real intelligence behind it.”

Of course, I didn’t have any proof to back what I was saying, but my gut was telling me that I was right. And, more often than not, my instincts had a tendency to be correct.

“That’s…interesting,” she hesitated over her words. “I hadn’t considered that there could be a real pattern, although I agree with you that this thing has some kind of intelligence. Not that it matters much…there’s little to no funding to conduct an investigation. And, to make matters worse, we’re short-staffed. Everyone’s just so damn busy trying to prevent more incidents, or at least ensuring we’re ready for them.”

“That’s not enough,” I said. “Prevention doesn’t work without understanding. If we don’t know what we’re dealing with, how can we be prepared?”

“And you’re asking me?” Annie smirked, rolling her eyes at me. “I don’t have a general’s insignia on my jacket, do I? Besides, I get their reasoning. Their priority is to ensure everyone’s safety.”

She continued to talk, defending her point of view, the general’s point of view, whomever was working on this problem.

But I was no longer really processing anything she was saying.

Even though I gave her the occasional nod, my mind was already working at a thousand miles an hour, trying to see this Puppet Master situation from all angles.

There were so many tests I could conduct, if given the chance.

Would any of my equipment work on the vines? What if I could get closer in, find the main plant? It was a plant, right?

If there was any intelligence, any real pattern, the vines were probably just an extension of this Puppet Master. And if that was the case, there had to be a nerve center of sorts. If I were to conduct any tests, I would have to find out its location.

Of course, that was impossible. My shoulders sank.

I wasn’t invited to any of the government groups tackling the situation, and the government wasn’t exactly sharing what they knew with the civilians. All I had were hypotheses and conjectures. And, if it weren’t for Annie, I wouldn’t even have that.

“Why the hell is this being kept a secret?” I said out loud, voicing my own thoughts. Annie just stopped whatever it was she was saying, her eyes wide with surprise, and then a frown took over her face.

“You weren’t listening to me, were you?” she accused, and all I could do was shrug sheepishly.

“Sorry,” I apologized, but I couldn’t stop myself from hitting her with a follow-up question. “But, seriously, why doesn’t the government share what they know? Maybe not to the civilians, but there are a lot of scientists in the city that could help.”

“The timing just isn’t that great,” Annie sighed. “With all the anti-alien sentiment going around, the general probably feels it’s better not to stir the pot. I mean, how easy would it be for the anti-alien groups to say this Puppet Master is the aliens’ fault?”

“True,” I agreed.

“One step at a time, I guess,” she shrugged. “The general has already set up the public inquiry office, so that’s something.”

“The inquiry office…” I repeated, remembering something I had seen on the holonews a few days ago. “The project spearheaded by that woman, what was here name, Stacy something?”

“Stasia. Stasia Cole. She used to work here, can you believe it? She proposed it as a way to bridge the communication gap between the aliens and the humans. I’m not sure if it’ll work, though. People are stubborn, and the anti-alien propaganda is strong.”

“People will see the light,” I said, choosing to believe most people would see through the propaganda.

“Well, some people are actually going to the office,” she shrugged, “although I guess most of them just go there to complain.”

“Maybe someone should go there to ask questions instead of complaints,” I mused, an idea already brewing inside my head.

Annie just pursed her lips, her forehead creasing with concern.

“Don’t do anything stupid, Daphne.”

“Me?” I laughed. “Never!”

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