The end of all things, salvage, and schlooooop.
In the beginning, before everything, there was nothing. This was generally agreed upon as a universal good, but, depending on who you ask, some divine being or the cosmos at large decided to muck it all up. The “no” was quickly dropped as many a thing began to propagate across the endless expanse. Cosmic dust compressed into planets, planets crashed into each other resulting in a few meteors deciding to leave home, everything became much more round as time went on, galaxies were created, a few gas bags decided it was their duty to illuminate others, and so it went. Or it all popped into being because some great and unknowable deity got bored and decided it was time to decorate. Pick your poison.
Time also decided to get in there to really gum up the works, but Time largely matters only to the individual in how much they have, and how much they have left. Events happened and continued to happen for hundreds, millions, billions, and trillions of years. The problem was, at some point, it all stopped. That’s entropy; everything has an expiration date. Even the universe itself.
The empty expanse of space was known, to many, as the Starless Sea. A grandiose name, but not one that was inaccurate. If you had to describe a sky without stars, you might as well say it like it is. Most, however, agreed that “starless sky”, being a statement of fact, lacked a sort of panache, even more so when there was no atmosphere to divide sky from space when all that was left were space stations and ships and, if you were lucky, a passing asteroid. As such, it was generally decided upon that the veil of ink that stretched in all directions should be described as a sea. It was a concept so foreign to every living thing left in the galaxy that it added a layer of mystery that couldn’t be denied. It was all that was left, the remnants of a dead universe and those that persisted beyond the reach of Time.
And so it was, in the Starless Sea, that a speck of space dust floated by. What that speck would become and the adventures it would go on was a tale all of its own, but the detritus of the universe cared no more or less for that speck than it did the wreckage of a space-faring ship that had been torn asunder some time ago, adrift at some forsaken quadrant. Some pieces of it had broken off, some cargo had been ejected, but inertia largely ensured that the rest of it stayed intact. Whatever chance encounter that had reduced it from a mighty ship to a mighty load of scrap, it was clear that the adorably named – if not questionably and perhaps unwisely named – S.S. Huffandpuffachoo had never stood a chance.
Rummaging through the remains of the abandoned craft were two bipedal creatures, each outlined by a sliver of light that highlighlighted their individual shapes thanks to a small, sleek spacecraft that emitted a soft light. If you looked at it one way, it was shaped a bit like an F-14 Tomcat. If you turned your head sightly and squinted, it looked like a turtle. The light on the front fell across two figures at the other end of the ship. The first of the two figures, standing to the right, took a step back from a pile of what appeared to be humanoid bodies before cupping their left elbow in their right hand, placing hand (or a rough approximation for a hand) to chin. Both elbow and hand were verdant green, seemingly made of tightly coiled vines that were practically smooth to the touch. Each vine reached out from a rolled-up sleeve and formed into the arm-like appendages. Some of the vines flexed slightly as the hand moved.
“No luck here. You found anything yet, Cyn?” It was an unusual tongue, made much more unusual by the speaker’s lack of tongue all together. Thankfully, Translation Units – affectionately called “tea-ell-yous” by many and “tluhs” by many more – were able to replicate the noise and language that came from one being and have it make sense to another, right down to non-verbal indicators and even subtle body movements.TLUs even made their best attempt to replicate the approximate sound of a voice as a sort of make-good between different cultures and species. In this case, the voice that spoke was akin to the gentle growth of a tiny sapling as it took its first steps towards becoming a mighty Redwood.
All the technology in the galaxy, however, can’t make up for a pair that can’t communicate. This was made clear by the tone of the response. It was simple frustration, and it evoked the feeling of a Brooklyn accent, due to being a thick Brooklyn accent. There wasn’t anyone left in the universe that could identify it as one, though, considering Brooklyn, New York, the United States, the Earth, and the Milky Way hadn’t existed for thousands upon thousands of years.
“How many times have I asked you not to call me that?” Came a terse response as a piece of scrap metal went flying, or more accurately, floating, down the hall. A vaguely mechanical noise was joined by clanging as more debris was shifted out of the way, banging into what was left of the floors and ceiling before deciding it would be best if they left and exiting via a massive tear in the ship. “My name. Is Cynter.” As their weight shifted back from the pile, more light outlined Cynter’s shoulder. It was far too large for the rest of their body, and, in fact, the entire arm looked like it was a few sizes too big, like they had simply had to purchase the last one at the shop with a sigh of resignation and a declaration of “okay, fine, this one”. The suit they wore was wrapped tightly around the joint, clearly putting in its best effort in a bad situation just like the wearer, while the arm itself could be kindly described as a mish-mash of chrome and wood. It was a sort of homunculus of machinery, wooden gears and odd wires that, to any casual observer, shouldn’t work the way it did. It clicked and whirred softly even when perfectly still. Coincidentally, expert observers would be stumped by how it worked, as well.
“Cyn is more efficient!” chirped the sapling’s voice as though the conversation was over. “What would you think if I started calling you Rafl?” snapped back Cynter. It was a hard, unnatural L, one that was hewn in half with either a very sharp or very noisy blade. “Efficient!” responded the gentle growth once more, the voice sprouting a few leaves to soak up its own sunny tone. The voice’s owner now stepped into the light with what could pass for a grin across what passed as a face. The voice’s owner was wearing a jumpsuit. Emblazoned across its chest on the left side was a tidy little rectangle, white with red borders against a dark blue. “Rafflesia” was embroidered across the little patch in red letters to match.
The outfit itself belonged to a plant-like creature, generally humanoid in appearance, but with two key differences. The first was that Rafflesia had no mouth. In the best of circumstances this would make speaking difficult, so how TLUs could process language from a plant-like lifeform that did not speak was still a mystery that nobody could – or particularly wanted to – solve. The second key difference was that Rafflesia’s jumpsuit that went from heel to neck, unzipped an inch or two from the top for comfort. It was widely agreed upon that living things needed a light source and atmosphere to survive. Somehow, Rafflesia needed neither. She reached up to adjust a mushroom-like cap that could be taken as a trucker’s hat from a distance. It wasn’t clear if it was part of Rafflesia’s body or if it was an accessory, but it made a pleasant little squish all the same. It made Cynter wince slightly as the sound was translated through the tluh.
“W-hat?” was all Cynter could muster, taking a step out of their own pile. It was hard to tell behind the thick, reflective mask, but the figure inside appeared to be human or at least have a human head. The rim of glasses could be seen, as well, catching some glare from the soft light source. Meanwhile, the mechanical arm was holding some sort of creature so vile that to describe it would cause the average person to faint, and, as such, will not be described here to avoid injury (and lawsuits). Whatever the thing was, it dropped to the ground and, disobeying all known and perhaps unknown laws of physics, rolled off with a squelching sound that is not normally associated with anything living, dead, or in between. All Cynter got as a response was two black voids that were… probably… eyes staring back at her. There was a slight tilt to the side from Rafflesia’s head as she spoke. “Rafflesia thinks Cyn would be more efficient! Does she have to spell it out for you?” From the tone, it was clear that this was not a condescending question, and that the gentle growth of a tiny sapling was, in fact, asking politely if the word “efficient” needed to be spelled out.
Cynter thought, for a brief moment, on how tluhs could so perfectly translate the individual letters across different races and cultures. They then started to think about how a plant might understand efficiency, but then remembered the time they woke up 18 hours later curled up in a ball in the kitchen back at the base. The thought was dropped almost immediately. A non-mechanical hand waved theatrically as though to dispel both thoughts and question alike. “Let’s just get back to work.” Cynter turned back around to start sorting through their pile again, while a sound like softly cracking branches and crinkling leaves emanated out from behind them before becoming a sound a bit like “schlooooop” combined with metal scratching and creaking. You could really hear the O’s. It was, in a word, horrifying. Cynter already knew what was coming next, and braced for the voice again.
“Lookie, lookie! Rafflesia has an arm like yours now!” The gentle growth of a tiny sapling had turned into the excited rustling of leaves in the wind from a young tree. Moments before, the plant had what had passed for a human right arm. Maybe slightly rough in some places with the odd leaf-like bit or a vine sticking out, but with five fingers, all in the right places. Now, vines and greenery swirled around the arm of an old Guardroid MKIII, bringing the metal and machinery back to life as though it was a completely natural part of Rafflesia’s body. Plant life intertwined with metal and wires at the joint, ending in cold machinery at the tips. Each finger moved as Rafflesia tested the arm out, much to Cynter’s indifference. This was not a new experience, and after the fifth or sixth time the abject horror was placed in a box in the corner of the mind and taped over with subtle frustration. Within moments, the Guardroid MKIII arm had turned into a proprietary Guardroid MKIII DrillArm™, aimed at the pile of metal and scrap and with a very excited plant ready to put it to good use.
“Hey-hey, HEY! No destroying things! We’re here to recover a N-47 ‘Bertha’ Class 4 Synthetic Power Core, remember? If we destroy one, it’s coming out of your paycheck!” If it were possible to regret words before they were said, Cynter had done it and somehow said it anyways, feeling a chill throughout their entire body. As the drill whirred down, they braced for the question:
“What’s a paycheck?”
A memory clicked into place. Plants needed a scant few things to survive, and money was not one of them. One might think that plants would trade leaves for goods and services in a plant society out there, and one would be dead wrong to apply human nature to other creatures. Besides, nobody had a use for money anymore. Stored value was worthless. However, generations of what had come before, etched into genetic code, bubble up from within. How could you explain something that hadn’t existed for decades? Centuries? Millenium? … Trillenium? Whatever Rafflesia was, she had no context for any of it – and frankly, neither did Cynter. While the TLU didn’t have anything to translate, the message of Cynter’s slumped shoulders and dark expression carried through. For a moment, there was silence outside of the soft whir of mechanical appendages. Somehow, nothing could make one feel more alone than being alone with someone else.
“Found one,” said the sound of a flower blooming after a few minutes of silence. “Great condition, too! Rafflesia thinks you should take it. It was Cynter’s suggestion to come here,” the voice added helpfully. There was no real benefit to who claimed to find a part; it was simply obtaining what you set out to find to begin with that earned everyone the prize of another round of survival. Raiding abandoned ships to keep the lights on was a lonely experience, and everyone needed a companion. There were only so many ships out there, and survival was finite. There were also the logistical reasons, of course – to some, losing personnel and losing a piece of equipment were two different marks on the same spreadsheet – but, in truth, everyone tends to suffer in total isolation. An introvert still needs to see their own kind every now and then, or something close enough to it, and a flower rarely grows all on its own. Cynter pulled their shoulders back and raised their head.
The sound of petals jostled in the breeze came through the TLU. “Home?”
A weak smile carried over the TLU. “Yeah. Let’s head home, Rafflesia.” The N-47 ‘Bertha’ Class 4 Synthetic Power Core glowed softly as the pair carried it away towards their ship. Cynter musted that, in this moment, Rafflesia was right.
It really did look like a turtle.
[Editor’s Note: This was originally published on August 27th, 2021 under the name “Plant Based”. The name has been changed to “EAT THE MOON” as of July 24th, 2023.]
[Editor’s Note 2: Additional adjustments were made on November 10th, 2023 to fix some errors.]