“I sometimes think it would have been better had my first encounter with humanity been a man, and not a woman of low station with no family to mourn her. Better for who, I cannot say.”
It is customary to begin one’s memoirs at birth. As I was not “born” in the gross mammalian sense, I shall begin instead at a more logical point in time. To wit:
I was borne to Earth on cosmic winds, falling through chance and the grace of the heavens to root in the soil of Notting Hill. There I grew rapidly to adult stature, devoured a lady’s maid who had the misfortune to come too close to my tendrils, and assumed her form. It was a discourteous way to introduce myself to the human species, but I must beg forgiveness: my kind are not precisely well-mannered when we first bud, and must be taught proper behavior before we can be trusted in polite society.
As servants are rarely found with skin the color of young watercress and hair the color of mature nettles, I presented quite a curiosity when I staggered through the doors of the house which previously employed the now-devoured lady’s maid. I was still in the process of absorbing her memories, and had discovered the directions to her place of employment without acquiring the context that would have allowed me to understand that returning there might be bad for my chances of continued survival. Indeed, I was not the only seed to fall to Earth that day. I was simply the only one fortunate enough to eat a lady’s maid whose mistress was sister to a man of science—Sir Arthur Blackwood, botanist in the service of Her Majesty, the Queen of England.
Where most men would have looked upon my vibrantly green face and seen a monster, Sir Blackwood saw a miracle in the making: something entirely new to present to Queen Alice, who was so very fond of novelty. Alice had been raised a princess, with no hope of the throne, only to find herself elevated and her engagement to the Grand Duke of Hesse cancelled after an ill-timed smallpox outbreak left her the heir to the British Empire. God save the Queen.
I was presented to Queen Alice on my third day of adult growth, after my mind had finished processing the linguistic and behavioral data harvested from the unfortunate lady’s maid. I was able to curtsey and offer a polite greeting to Her Majesty.
She was charmed, of course. Who wouldn’t be? I was a very well-mannered sapling, and have only grown into my graces as I bloomed and cultivated my better nature. Jill Lane—the lady’s maid I have spoken of—was a great help. She had in her an endless eagerness to please, and I often returned to her deep well of knowledge and propriety as I navigated the echelons of British society. But ah, I am getting ahead of myself.
How vividly I recall that first day in the Queen’s presence, me still unsteady on the bifurcated stems of my legs, Jill’s voice still reedy and uncertain in my mind. Queen Alice looked me up and down and then turned her attention to Sir Blackwood.
“Does your green girl have a name?” she asked.
“She came before us with nothing but her pretty face,” he said. “I have taken the liberty of calling her ‘Antheia,’ after the goddess of flowers and floral garlands.”
The Queen had smiled. That was all it took to seal my fate within the Empire—for you see, after that, I was a favorite of the Queen, and a novelty unlike any other. That made me the toast of every great house in Britain, opening endless doors, and the manners I borrowed from dear Jill opened still more, until some spoke, half-jesting, of my successful invasion of the nation. They called me their flowering princess, representative of some savage fairy race that dwelt beneath the hills of Ireland, and oh, how they laughed at the idea that I could represent their downfall.
How they laughed.
“It is important that we record the last days of the Planet Earth in their own languages, for these languages contain the concepts with which the meat-based life forms of that world were most familiar. They could no more express the delight of fresh sun falling upon their roots than an unbonded pod could explain the intricacies of a lady’s undergarments. By preserving the manners and culture of the planet in this way, we can better understand them and, should we ever encounter another such species, we can bring about an even swifter and more efficient conquest.”
It was a Thursday afternoon when the advance scouts broke through the upper reaches of Earth’s atmosphere, announcing their arrival with the usual chromatic displays in the thermosphere. The lights drew attention across the globe, stargazers and young romantics alike clustering in the fields as they strained to watch these strange and heretofore undocumented rainbows of the night. I was less interested in the phenomenon, naturally; I have always done better during the daylight hours, and the things I do in open fields are better not shared with those of delicate mammalian sensibilities. I was seated in the parlor at home, working on my needlepoint and snacking from a tray of cunning little sandwiches, when Sir Blackwood burst into the room, his hair mussed and his jacket askew.
“Antheia!” he cried. “Why are you here, and not out on the veranda with the guests? They’re asking about you.”
“I have no interest in watching the excited collision of atoms,” I said, tugging another loop of thread carefully through the muslin. A fine cabbage rose was taking form under my fingers—some of my best work, if I did say so myself. “The colors will be there with or without me to watch them, and besides, it was time for my tea. You do prefer that I continue to take my meals in private, do you not?”
Arthur blanched. It had taken the household some time to adjust to my predilection for eating only raw animal flesh and drinking only fresh blood. Sir Arthur’s sister, Julia, had adjusted rather faster than he had—she’d already known I was a beast, as evidenced by the fact that I had eaten her lady’s maid. Dear, sweet Arthur had devoted his life to the study of plants, and even the fact that I was not the first flesh-eater he had encountered had not prepared him for the notion that one day he might meet a flower who could smile and curtsey and request a hot bowl of pig’s blood for her supper.
“Yes, but the lights—”
“Are better left to those who can appreciate them.” I reached for a sandwich. The delightful smell of raw, fresh-sliced beef addressed my nose. “Really, I thought your sister had banned you from her stargazing party. Something about the noises coming from the basement?”
“I don’t understand why she gets so upset,” he said, dropping into the seat on the other side of my sewing table with a loud thump. He automatically reached for my plate of sandwiches, and looked offended when I smacked his hand with my needlepoint frame. Rubbing his fingers, he continued, “My steam-powered sun will make us richer than she can imagine.”
“You see, that is her trouble: She suffers from a shortage of imagination, and as such, cannot see where a loud, clanking clockwork machine could possibly improve her life.” I took a dainty nibble from my sandwich. “Remember, she forbade poor Jill to use any modern machinery in maintaining the house.”
Arthur blanched again. He enjoyed being reminded that I’d eaten Jill even less than he enjoyed being reminded of the rest of my diet. “Julia is a traditional soul, that’s all,” he mumbled.
“We live in an age of wonders,” I said. “The fact that she cannot embrace them is a shame. The fact that she can stand on her veranda marveling over a scientific curiosity while forbidding the pursuit of more concrete sciences is a sham. I will never understand how you can tolerate her willful interference with your business, Arthur.”
“She’ll wed eventually. One of her hulking suitors will make an honest woman of her, and she’ll have no more grounds to interfere.” Arthur looked wistfully at my sandwiches, but didn’t stretch out his hand again. “What do you think of these lights?”
“Natural atmospheric distortion, of no more interest than any of the other things one sees in the sky.” I nibbled my sandwich, swallowed, and added, “Excepting, of course, Her Majesty’s airship, which is a wonder and a blessing and is in no way an eyesore that blocks the sunlight from reaching my roses.”
Arthur laughed. “I swear your tongue gets sharper every year, Antheia.”
“What good is a rose that has no thorns?” I smiled, pleased when his cheeks reddened in reply. Blood-based circulatory systems are such traitorous things, betraying the emotions of their owners even as they struggle to keep them alive. “I presume you have some motive for asking these questions, apart from the pleasure of my company?”
“I was speaking with Lord Harrington of the Royal Astronomical Society about the lights,” said Arthur, carefully. “I thought he might have something interesting to offer on the topic, and in fact, he did. He said similar lights—similar in color and design, although less grandiose in scope—were seen in various locations around the world some six years ago.”
“Is that so?” I asked politely, before taking another nibble of my sandwich. The bread, made specially from bone meal and ground fish scales, was deliciously nourishing. I kept my eyes on Arthur, waiting for him to finish his explanation with the inevitable and begin the next phrase in our little dance.
I had been waiting for so long, and as ever, Arthur did not disappoint. “The lights were last seen on the night before you appeared,” he said. “Antheia, I have always assumed, in some vague way, that you were one of the fairy-folk of legend, escaped from beneath the hill and come to grace us with your presence. Fairy-folk have sometimes been said to be green of skin, you see. But now I come to wonder . . . did you come from beneath the Earth? Did you come from the Earth at all?”
I smiled dazzlingly, showing him my teeth in parody of the primate grimace that he and his sister wore so often, and to such good effect. Jill had taught me my manners properly, you see: No deportment coach could have been better than my own internal lady’s maid. “I never claimed a terrestrial origin, you know. I simply felt that such matters were better left behind us than discussed in polite company.”
“Antheia . . .” Arthur frowned, his brows furrowing together as he looked at me with such gravity as to make my breath catch in my chest. “These lights. Are they more of your people?”
“Oh, no,” I said blithely. He began to relax. “If this were merely more of my people, you would need only to lock up your lady’s maids and gentleman’s companions long enough to let them take their human forms from the less desirable levels of society—or at least from the parts of society where the people would be less dearly missed. This is the invasion.”
His mouth fell open. He stared at me, shocked into silence, as I set my sandwich aside, picked up my teacup, and took a dainty sip of its bloody contents. He continued to stare. I put the cup down, folded my hands in my lap, and offered him a tight-lipped smile.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I thought you knew.”
“As with so many worlds, Earth’s dominant life forms were mammalian: hot-blooded, quick to anger and to passion, and unwilling to pace their lives to the rhythm of the world around them. This allowed for some incredible leaps forward of technology and science, and we should work to retain these streaks of stubborn inventiveness and, dare I say, emotional engagement, within our own cultivars. They may serve useful, after all, even if they did not serve the human race with particular efficacy.”
Julia and her friends had watched disdainfully as Arthur bundled me out of the house and into the waiting steam-powered carriage below, as if the method of our conveyance somehow rendered us low-class and common. I spared a smile and a waggle of my fingers for Julia, who glared and turned her face away. Then I was in the carriage next to Arthur, and we were being carried into the night, with the rainbow blaze of ships piercing the atmosphere dancing in the sky above us.
“I have already sent a telegram to Lord Harrington, asking him to be prepared for us,” said Arthur, watching out the window as if he expected my brethren to be stalking the streets already. “He’ll want to know everything you can tell him about this ‘invasion.’ No detail is too small. We’re all going to need to do our part to beat these blighters back!”
“Well, what about the ray guns atop the palace and the Royal Observatory?” I asked. “Won’t they automatically take aim at anything larger than Her Majesty’s airship that enters England’s skies?”
“Yes, and we can take comfort in that, but—and please don’t take this as a criticism of your fair self, my dear, you have never been anything but a blessing to my house—they didn’t shoot you down, and that leads me to worry about the strength of our aerial defense net.” Arthur looked at me solemnly. “Are you positive that this is an invasion? Couldn’t it be a simple atmospheric disturbance?”
“I am not positive, as I have been on this planet and in this form for six years, and that does rather limit one’s communications with one’s fellows,” I said. “That aside, six years is roughly the time needed to travel here from the nearest habitable star, if said travel is undertaken in faster-than-light seed-ships.”
Arthur’s mouth fell open. “F-faster than light? But that’s beyond the reaches of modern science. Why, even Professor O’Malley’s moon-ship only traveled at a rate of seventeen thousand miles an hour. Light is—”
“Light is a far faster beast,” I said agreeably. “I am sorry. I thought you knew.”
It was a bald-faced lie, and not the first I had told him during our acquaintanceship. Lying is wrong, miss, said Jill’s small, stern voice.
Ah, but the lies are coming to an end, and sometimes things which are wrong are also comforting, I told her. Now hush, be still. I have a scientist to attend to.
“Faster-than-light travel would be a discovery great enough to put the British Empire ahead of the rest of the world forever,” said Arthur. “You must discuss this with Lord Harrington.”
“I will, if you bid me, but I am no engineer.” I refolded my hands in my lap. “I’ve never seen the drives, nor do I understand the physics behind them.”
Arthur frowned like he was seeing me for the first time. “So you remember yourself before you were—” He waved a hand, indicating my form in a most ungentlemanly manner. “This?”
“You mean, do I remember my existence before I consumed Julia’s lady’s maid?” I asked, baldly. If he was going to forsake manners for expediency, then I saw no reason not to do the same. “Yes, and no. My seed was coaxed from a cutting of a specific cultivated line. I have never been anything but what I am: I was a seed, and then I was a sprout, and then I was the Lady Antheia, who has very much enjoyed your hospitality over these past six years. The line from which I was grown, however, is a strain of diplomats and explorers. All the seeds that came to this world with me were of that same strain.” Had any of them managed to sprout, I would have had siblings all across the globe—but alas, more and more, I had come to believe that I alone had found welcoming soil.
“A . . . diplomat?” Arthur blinked at me as our carriage rattled to a stop, presumably in front of our destination. “But the first thing you did was eat my sister’s maid.”
“I am aware,” I said primly, gathering my skirts as I waited for the doors to slide open on their well-oiled tracks. “But I was sorry afterward, which is the very definition of diplomacy.”
Arthur didn’t have an answer to that.
“Being only a cultivar of our greatest diplomat, the honorable and merciful Rooted in Many Soils, I cannot possibly know what it is to have conquered more than one world. I have offered my genetic material back to the trunk which grew me, and my experiences will be preserved for future generations, as is only right and just. Still, I know enough of what my parent and original experienced during their own explorations to know that the conquest of Earth was entirely unique, and extremely common, all at the same time. But then, this is always the way when we encounter a sapient race: They are all different, and they are all sadly, tragically the same. Meat is not capable of much variance.”
Lord Harrington was a walking mountain of a man, tall and broad-chested, with a ruddy complexion that spoke of much blood pumping very close to the surface. He always made me hungry in a faintly embarrassing way; it’s rude to stare at a man and think of how much his blood would do to nourish your vines.
“Arthur,” he greeted, in his booming voice, before turning his attention on me. “And the Lady Antheia, who appears to be the woman of the hour, if what Arthur tells me is true. Do you know what’s causing the lights in the sky?”
He knew the answer: I could hear it in his tone. I politely inclined my head, not quite looking at him, and asked, “How long ago did your telescope begin picking out the ships in the auroras?”
“Perhaps half an hour; no more,” he said. “I never trusted you.”
“I know.” I raised my head. “I did not press the issue. It seemed more sporting to allow you your little rebellion, rather than charming it out of you. Sportsmanship is not a uniquely human trait, you know. Very little is unique about any world, although they all assume themselves to be.”
Lord Harrington’s lips peeled back from his teeth as he drew the gun from his belt and pointed it at the spot where my heart would have been, had I possessed such an inconvenient thing. “Lady Antheia, by my authority as a Peer of the Crown, I place you under arrest for treason to the British Empire.”
“Oh, lovely.” I clapped my hands. “That is fantastic news, because you see, as the diplomatic ambassador of the . . . well, there isn’t a term in English that’s quite right for what we are, because we’ve never encountered English before, and thus far I’m the only one who speaks it, so let us say, the Vegetable Empire? As the diplomatic ambassador of the Vegetable Empire, I refuse to be arrested, but I’m happy to be taken before your Queen, as it seems the invasion is about to properly begin.”
As if on a timer, the guns atop the observatory fired, their steam-fueled chambers expelling rays of hot light that seared across the sky. Several seed ships would be destroyed in this barrage; it was natural. They didn’t yet know to make themselves smaller, and would learn only through those losses. Those which survived the initial wave of gunfire would split into multiple vessels, and continue their implacable descent. I couldn’t mourn for the dead of this wave. They would only be seeds, after all, and of no more consequence than a promise, always intended to be broken.
The guns fired again. And so, in the din, did Lord Harrington. His aim was true: The ray gun hit me squarely in the chest, burning a hole in both my favorite bodice and the bright green skin below, until it was possible to look through me to the room beyond. Arthur cried out. I looked down, considering the wreckage of what had been my sternum.
“Oh, I do wish you hadn’t done that,” I sighed, my voice rendered weak and reedy by the damage to my lungs.
And then I lunged.
Lord Harrington had always treated me as a strange sort of pet, a harmless trinket to be either studied or ignored, depending on his mood. To learn that he had mistrusted my intentions all that time was almost a relief, as it meant that he was not quite as stupid as I had assumed. Still, like most men of science, he believed only in the evidence of his eyes, and what his eyes saw when he looked at me was a woman. Green of skin and hair, yes, but apart from that? In every other regard? I was the very flower of English womanhood, with my curves trained to the corset’s embrace and my skirts hanging full and demure down past my ankles. Why, had it not been for my face, and for the narrow band of skin between top of glove and bottom of sleeve, he could easily have forgotten my vegetable origins, as so many others had tried to do. Poor man. What he did not consider was that skirts can conceal more than legs.
He jerked backward as my hands found his throat, my thorn-sharp nails piercing the skin beneath his jaw and finding purchase there, the tiny barbs that lined them making it nigh-impossible to pull me free without killing him in the process. Lord Harrington pressed his gun against my stomach, firing again; much of my midsection joined my chest in nonexistence before I could wrap a vine around the ray gun’s muzzle and rip it from his hands, hurling it away. As I did that, the creeper vines and long, thick roots I normally kept concealed—as a proper British woman would, had she found herself burdened with such things—emerged from beneath my skirt and wrapped tight around him, binding him in place.
Arthur was shouting behind me. I knew that civility meant responding to him, or at least begging his pardon, but my injuries were too great; Lord Harrington might not have known my anatomy, but he had done a remarkably good job of reducing my overall mass. So I committed the unforgiveable sin of ignoring my friend and patron as I drove my roots into the body of his colleague, linking them into his circulatory system.
His blood tasted of fine wine and excellent breeding. Perhaps there was something to be said for the aristocracy after all.
It only took me a few moments to drain the life and fluids from Lord Harrington’s body. I leaned back, glancing down, and was pleased to see that new growth had covered the holes in my chest and stomach, replacing the gaping holes with smooth, if somewhat indecent, green skin. It was paler than the rest of me, but the patchwork effect that it created was not unpleasant, and would be mostly covered by my clothing under normal circumstances. I pulled my roots from the husk of Lord Harrington, unwinding my creeper vines until he remained upright solely thanks to the nails which remained wedged in his throat. I yanked them free, and he fell with a hollow rattle, like a dried-out old seed pod.
“Well. That was uncivil of him,” I said, smoothing my skirt with the heels of my hands as I pulled all the pieces of me back into their proper places. “Arthur, dear, I don’t suppose I might borrow your jacket? I am quite underdressed, thanks to the holes your friend saw fit to shoot into my clothing.”
“You killed him.” Arthur’s voice was as bloodless as his colleague. “Antheia . . . how could you?”
“The mechanisms of it were easy, and do not really require explanation,” I said, turning to face him. It was no real surprise to find that he had retrieved Lord Harrington’s ray gun, and was aiming it at me. His hands were shaking. There was no way he would pull the trigger. “As to why I would do so, well. He shot me. Twice. You cannot blame me for protecting myself against a man who was so clearly determined to end my life.”
“But you . . . but you . . .”
“Did nothing you were not already aware I had the potential to do, Arthur.” I took a step toward him, chin up, eyes fixed on his. “We met shortly after I devoured dear Jill. You remember? You knew I had this in me. If I am a monster, then you are the man who nurtured me, and saw to it that I had good soil in which to grow. I am your fault as much as anyone else’s.”
He whimpered. Just once, like a child.
He’s frightened, miss, said Jill.
He has reason to be. Now hush, I replied, and reached out to take the gun, gently, from Arthur’s hands. That was the moment when everything could have gone wrong: when the human race could have started truly fighting back, instead of simply lashing out against an enemy it did not understand. I was leaving myself vulnerable to attack—a foolish thing to do, more suited to a hot-blooded meat creature than to a diplomat of the Vegetable Empire, but ah. I did harbor some affection for the man. I might even have loved him, in my way, had my purpose on his world not been so antithetical to the very notion. So I left my throat unguarded, giving him the opportunity to deliver a killing blow.
He didn’t. Then the gun was in my hand, barrel still warm from the two shots Lord Harrington had delivered to my body, and Arthur’s eyes were beginning to overflow with salty tears. I reached out, quite improperly, and brushed them away with a sweep of my thumb. My skin drank the moisture eagerly.
“Come now, stop your crying,” I said. “It’s time we went to see the Queen.”
The great guns atop the Observatory shuddered and fired again, blasting more of my people out of the sky, and Arthur wept.
“It is not that the idea of invasion was incomprehensible to the humans: A simple visit to the breeding pens will expose the curious to dozens of pre-conquest humans who have no trouble accepting the reality of their situation. They were always prepared for the idea that an enemy might try their borders. No, the incomprehensibility came when they were defeated. The sun was said never to set on the British Empire. I am sure there are some who still cannot understand how they could have been so very wrong.”
London was in a panic. The streets were thronged with would-be defenders of the Crown, their ray guns and small sonic cannons clutched in sweaty hands and aimed toward the distant sky. Some of the buildings we passed were already aflame, no doubt ignited by falling debris. I schooled my expression into one of mild dismay as I gazed out the carriage windows on the spreading chaos. My people had not yet fired a single gun, nor killed a single head of state—Lord Harrington being far too close to common to count. All this was the humans’ own doing.
“You were always going to rip it all down by yourselves you know,” I said conversationally, glad that our carriage was a clever conveyance of steam and gears, and not a thing driven by a living human who might have understood the meaning of my words. “That’s what meat does, when it gets control of a world. It devours itself, and then it goes looking for something else to eat. We’re simply shortcutting the process.”
“I thought you were my friend.” Arthur’s voice was dull, lacking its usual fascination with the world. A pity. I hadn’t intended to break him. “I took you in. Supported you. Cared for you.”
“Yes, and believe me, your assistance in gaining the access I needed to higher society is appreciated.” I allowed one of my climber vines to uncurl from around my leg, extending it to brush against Arthur’s cheek. He might not recognize the affection in the gesture, but that was of no matter. My days of pretending to humanity were coming to a blessed end. “This will be much less painful, thanks to you.”
“I have betrayed my Queen and my country.”
“No, darling, no. Betrayal implies intent. You have simply allowed something dangerous to flourish in your garden. A weed among roses, although that’s a terribly common metaphor, don’t you think? More like a rose among cabbages, all things considered.” I allowed the curtain to fall back across the window. “I have grown healthy in the fertile soil you afforded me, and now it’s time for me to bloom. Me, and all my brothers and sisters.”
“Well, I don’t know. Why did your British Empire see fit to colonize so much of the planet? Superior force of arms was definitely a factor, and a misguided faith in your own sense of morality. ‘For Queen and country’ and all of that lovely jingoistic nonsense. But that’s all petals, isn’t it? Pretty blooms to hide the thorns. You did it for two reasons.” I leaned closer, smiling. He paled as he met my eyes.
Now, miss, it’s not polite to taunt a man by knowing things he doesn’t, chided Jill.
No, but it’s certainly enjoyable, I replied. Aloud, I said, “The places you took had things you wanted. Resources. Tea and cinnamon and precious metals and girls no one would ever debase themselves by marrying, but whom every British gentleman was happy to deflower. That’s the first reason you did what you did, and that’s the first reason we do what we do.”
Arthur swallowed hard before whispering, “What’s the second reason?”
I leaned closer still, watching my reflection expand to fill the reflective surfaces of his eyes. Such a wonderful biological invention, the eye. Functional and delicious. “Because we can.”
Arthur turned his face away. I sighed, leaning back into my own seat.
“Really, Arthur, I wish you wouldn’t be that way. I’m only acting according to my nature. Isn’t that what you’ve told me every time one of your countrymen leered at your sister or called me a savage jungle girl? Me, who has never even seen a jungle, who originated in a hothouse that spanned a world? ‘They are only acting according to their nature.’ Those were your words. Why is it correct when they do it, and so fearsome when I do?”
“You killed a man.”
“He shot me. Twice, might I add. I think he quite deserved what became of him.”
Arthur’s eyes snapped open. “That does not matter,” he snarled. “You are not judge, nor jury, nor executioner!”
“No, dear: I am none of those things. I am the vanguard of an invading army, and that means your laws no longer apply to me.” I shrugged. “If we fail—and we will not fail—I’ll be tried for treason and imprisoned until the Queen can find a suitably gruesome means of execution. If that happens, be sure they put me in a prison with large windows, or I won’t live long enough for you to kill me. If we succeed, your laws will be permanently suspended, and cannot be used against me. The things we do tonight are crimes of war. They are not things for which we can be punished in the court of law.”
“Britain will not lose.”
I sighed. “Oh, my sweet, foolish mammal of a man, it already has. It just doesn’t know it yet.”
The conveyance rattled to a halt behind the palace, near one of the many entrances used to bring in those who were better than servants, but less than noblemen. There was a soft sighing sound as the springs relaxed, allowing our carriage to sink lower to the ground. I stood, smoothing the wreckage of my skirts with my hands.
“We’ve arrived,” I said. “Do I look ready for an audience with the Queen?”
Arthur merely glared.
“Don’t be tedious, Arthur; it’s not polite.” I opened the carriage door, stepping into the London night.
The air, which would normally have smelled of burning gas and the wood fires used to stoke the steam engines of those too poor to afford solar paneling, smelled like sap and petrichor and electrical discharge. And blood, of course. The streets would be red come morning, painted carnival bright with the lives of those who had built this country. I hesitated a bare moment before kicking off my shoes and allowing the small root surfaces packed into my toes to taste the earth between the cobblestones. Ah, yes; the taste of home. It was falling to the planet’s surface with every barrage of laser fire and steam-powered bullets that ripped apart the sky. Our ships were designed to serve more than one purpose, after all, and with every one that fell, the Earth became a little more suited to our needs.
Footsteps behind me telegraphed Arthur’s emergence from the carriage. I turned to see him standing in front of the door, backlit by the rainbow- and ray gun-colored sky. It turned his skin a dozen shifting rainbow shades, from milky pale to carmine, and he was beautiful. I wondered if he would ever understand how beautiful he was. I wasn’t sure he’d have the time.
“Come now,” I said. “Walk with me.”
“I am not a traitor.” His voice broke on the last word.
“No. You’re not. You’re a man doing his duty to his Queen, and taking an ambassador to her, that she might properly negotiate surrender.”
Arthur looked unsure, as well he might: I had not, after all, specified who would be surrendering, and who would be the recipient of an empire. But the habit of mannerly comportment was drilled into him, and so he simply nodded, and said, “I pray we may end this peacefully,” and walked with me into the palace, while London burned behind us, and the night was radiant with alien light.
“There were those who would insist that a lady’s chief graces were as follows: breeding, beauty, and a blind adherence to the manners of the society in which she takes root, no matter how senseless or silly those manners may be. It was considered better to bloom beautifully and without offending anyone than to grow wanton and in healthy abundance.
“Clearly, this was a civilization cultivating itself for conquest.”
As I had hoped, the Queen was in her chambers. Sadly, she was there along with the Prince Consort, the Ministers of War, and a dozen other powerful men. I sighed. This would have been so much simpler had she been alone. Humans were not a hive mind in any rational way. A human alone could make reasonable decisions, come to reasonable accords. Humans in a group all seemed to believe they and they alone had the authority to speak for their species, and disputes were resolved by shouting until the loudest won. Truly, this world would be more peaceful once it was ruled by cooler vegetable minds.
All those powerful men turned at our entrance, their eyes taking in my charred, disheveled state and Arthur’s pale, shocked face, and reaching the logical conclusion. “Lady Antheia, are you hurt?” asked a Minister, a round, ruddy-cheeked man whose name I had never bothered to remember.
“Not any longer, but thank you for your concern,” I said. “I do apologize for the hour. I have a matter of some importance to put before the Queen.”
Queen Alice finally turned, a frown on her pretty, pleasure-loving face. She had never been equipped to rule. I was here to do a favor, really. “Lady Antheia. This is most irregular.”
“I know, Your Majesty.” I proffered a curtsey. “I am here to thank you for your hospitality of these past few years, and request your immediate surrender to the Vegetable Empire. We have superior weaponry, and we are even now amassing the superior numbers we will need to take your world as our own. If you cede yourselves to us, we may be merciful.”
And then, exactly as I had expected, all those powerful men drew their powerful weapons and shot me dead where I stood. My consciousness winked out before my body hit the floor.
“Humanity, in addition to being delicious and very well designed for its environment, was constantly coming up with excuses to make war upon its own kind. If they had survived as an independent species long enough to establish the means for long distance space travel, we might have found ourselves with unwanted rivals for this galaxy’s treasures. It is because of this yearning for conquest that runs so strong in the veins of most meat that I must recommend we speed up our efforts to become the only sapient life living free in known space. It is, sadly, the only way to be safe from the threat of empire.”
I never put my shoes back on.
That may seem like a trifling detail, but that is because few people fully understand the deeply concentrated root systems to be found on the soles of a diplomat’s feet—or whatever passes for feet in the local environment. My body was destroyed, broken beyond repair, and my poor Jill broken with it. But when the Queen’s men toted that unwanted seed pod away, they did not notice the small roots that had broken off in the carpet, already working their way down, down, deep into the foundations of the palace.
When we sprout, we sprout quickly, for surprise is our best weapon. Dawn came, and I rose, faceless, a pale green whisper of a thing dressed in a mockery of human form. All in silence, I moved through the chamber to the door beyond, which led to the private apartments of the Queen. She was sleeping, innocent of what was about to befall her, her husband and consort snug beside her in the bed. I did not see them, for I did not have eyes, but there are other ways of sensing such things. She did not know I was there; she presented no threat.
I ate her.
“It was a small matter for our soldiers to subdue the populace, once they had seen their Queen unmasked as an alien, welcoming the invaders into Buckingham Palace with open arms. Perhaps if we had been a little less swift, there would have been time to mount a resistance . . . but that was not to be. As the humans once said: The Queen is dead.
“Long live the Queen.”
I set my quill aside, considering the words I had written. They were good words: They would do nicely, and would serve well as a guide to the next invasion of a world like Earth. The fields were rich with our seedlings, and the men of science already looked outward, considering the next path our colony ships would take.
Footsteps behind me alerted me to the approach of my husband—a human custom, yes, but one which many of us who found ourselves with human forms and vaguely human ways of thinking had chosen to observe. It was a diversion, if nothing else, and could provide a new social frame, if it proved useful.
“All done?” asked Arthur, a smile on his emerald lips.
It had been a small thing to take a seedling of an open line, with no ancestral memory, and place it next to Arthur’s bound, struggling form. He had thanked me, of course, when his memories settled properly into their new home. He had always been a botanist. Now he could study himself, for centuries if he liked. It was my wedding gift to him.
“Yes,” I said, and wrapped my creeper vines around his waist and my arms around his shoulders, and kissed him with the mouth I had stolen from a human Queen. The British Empire had claimed the sun would never set, and they had been wrong, because they had been thinking too small.
For the sun to be shining always, one needs more than a single world. It is vital to acquire a galaxy.
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