It is almost a relief when the knock arrives at his door.
He does not understand what made them decide to let him go when so many now-vanished friends were not given the option, not entirely. But he has dreaded that they would change their minds in the weeks since, lying awake at night, half-dreaming of the thorny embrace in which he might awake.
Besides, he hasn’t been writing what he has with the intention of keeping his head in the sand. If this is the end, it’s the end. At least martyring himself to find out where the lines of resistance may safely be built seems to have some value. At least there will be no more waiting when the sword of Damocles finally falls.
The knock is repeated, slightly louder but no more rushed than the first time. He allows himself a few moments to say goodbye, then with the odd serenity of one who knows their fate is no longer in their hands, he cracks the door open and peeks out.
“Hello! Why aren’t you just adorable! Are you…” it’s maybe a bit xenophobic of him, but he expects Affini to be, well, green. His executioner, on the other hand, is draped in iridescent shards of blue and purple, a hundred shades shimmering brightly in the sunlight, each vine decorated with thousands of scalelike leaves. It takes him a moment to notice the little ways she is constantly in motion, parts of her pushing against each other, sliding and pushing and writhing against each other without losing the structure of a human form, each movement small enough to be invisible except for the ways they are shift angles and set light against her leaves at a slightly different angle. He could, he realizes, lose himself in the sight of her for hours at a time.
It takes him a few more seconds to grasp that this effect is probably something she has crafted intentionally. At least his executioner is gorgeous.
“Oh dear, are you okay? Can you hear me?” she calls his name again and waves a hand in front of his face, snapping him out of the reverie.
“I, uh, right,” he winces. “Yeah, that’s me. May I have your name?”
His executioner freezes briefly, before pantomimimg a legitimately baffling series of emotions. “Definitely not! Well, unless… Obviously that would be very nice, but… At least not yet! And it would really be better to get to know each other before…” She seems to figure something out as she trails off, “Selaginella Fritigern, First Bloom; she/her.”
He has zero clue what just happened, much less how to respond to whatever that was, much less the awkward quiet that now fills the air. Besides, he’s happy to savor whatever odd moments he has left. His fate may be set in stone, but there’s no reason to rush.
“Anyway,” she proves unable to endure the awkward silence before he does, “I have been reading your ‘blog’ and while, obviously, I disagree with much of what you say, it is very well-argued and I do think provides a very interesting, and uniquely Terran, perspective on recent history in ways that are quite illuminating.” Her tone is rehearsed and stilted, like she’s nervous for some reason or reading off a script. “I have left a number of comments, but you didn’t seem to respond to those or the messages and your last entries have sounded…” She trails off awkwardly, tension palpable throughout her body in a way that sets off prey instincts he didn’t even know he had. “It seemed like your habitat unit was, well, relatively close, so I decided to chance asking if we might talk!”
He has anticipated a great many ways the Affini might get him. He has imagined they may declare him a feralist to be put down for his, and the community’s, presumed good. He has imagined they may be more playfully cruel, mocking and belittling his feeble gestures at objecting to the weight of their boot, even as they flay his soul inch by agonizingly blissful inch. In every such fantasy, he has imagined himself the tragic protagonist, falling with dignity, no matter how they make him rise again.
He has not anticipated that the pretty plant lady would say she likes his quasi-seditious vanity blog. It is a level of wanton cruelty he could never have imagined, that even Terran governments, in all their excesses, would acknowledge an intolerable torture. How could even the Affini be so cruel, so monstrous as to inflict this utter humiliation upon him in his final moments. He has no response; there can be no response.
Sela advances, gently, one arm stretching to gently tug at the door frame. “Could I come inside?”
He retreats into the darkness of his home, almost surrendering the door as his head fills with memories of encroaching vines. But, if she is not forcing the issue, he can’t. For one, she is a representative of an intergalactic empire directly responsible for taking his dearest friends and shattering their minds; every Affini is a cop. Even worse is the idea that anyone, implausibly pretty fascist space plant or not, might see the state of his apartment. Also, there are rumors about what happens when the Affini discover you haven’t managed to find the energy to stay on top of the dishes for a day or five. He knows how that story ends.
“My apologies,” she backs away with inhuman speed. “I did not mean to alarm you. I can… perhaps another time?”
And now he’s made the stunningly beautiful veggie-tyrant from beyond the edge of Terran space feel guilty. He knows, intellectually, that “we enslaved most of the people you’ve ever cared for for the crime of daring to stage a peaceful protest” is an extremely valid reason to guilt even the prettiest and softest Affini. He should let her go; he shouldn’t be able to stand being anywhere around a Weed, even if he is starting to slowly accept that this might not be his execution after all. It’s best for both of them if she just walks away.
Selaginella Fritigern, First Bloom sniffles. He steps outside, careful to shut the door behind him without giving her a chance to peek in.
“There’s a cafe a few blocks away that I think has Affini seating?” he offers.
“I don’t hate you,” he says, half surprised to realize it might be true. “I just think that, at the end of the day, your entire civilization happens to be, well, an evil empire?” The Affini-sized furnishings dwarf him in a way that just compounds how small and vulnerable it’s impossible not to feel around them and he finds himself fidgeting uncomfortably.
She stares down at him, swaying gently to some unheard impossible rhythm. He wonders if this is entrapment, if she has simply decided to find a pretense to declare his enslavement, and so forced the meeting with some kind of hypnosis or subtle drug or something to get him talking until she hears something that would give her the thin excuse the treaty pretends she needs to claim him as a pet over any objection. That would certainly be a better explanation for what’s happening than accepting that he caved completely because a fern looked sad and he hasn’t had any conversation in weeks.
For her part, Sela seems almost curious. Her large eyes remain fixed on him, unblinking, as he struggles to avoid losing himself in nearly visible patterns of shimmer and spark.
When she responds it is with a voice formed from the rustling of a thousand mildly confused leaves. “Perhaps petal, I don’t quite grasp the nuance of the language, but I thought that evil was usually something to hate, at least for Terrans.”
He shrugs again, rubbing his chin in what he hopes is a thoughtful-looking gesture. This is a mistake as the rough starts of hairs, already growing back despite his best efforts, immediately steal much of his attention. “It’s hardly your fault that you’re a powerless victim of cultural forces you have not the fortitude to resist. Terrans have certainly done, and justified, far worse. Who am I to judge the individuals behind the imperialism?”
She extends a single purple vine toward him, intent on patting his head. He flinches, and the gesture smoothly transitions into picking up the pot of tea. She refills his cup with deliberate, safe, slowness before sliding the vine back into her trunk. He flashes her his best attempt at a nervous smile, suddenly glad he’s too busy being uncomfortable in his own skin to dread what might happen to him in or after this conversation. That destruction is once more only a possibility brings back all the old dread. At least, he’s too busy being uncomfortable in his own skin to really sink into it.
“You say that,” she sounds playful, with the omnipresent hint of condescension that seems to be an Affini calling card, “but calling us evil is quite judgemental, isn’t it, cutie?”
He plucks an almond shaving from his muffin, using the opportunity to mull carefully over his next words. “Please don’t call me cute or adorable or anything. It’s… it brings up bad memories,” among other feelings he has no particular desire to think about. But he’s not going to tell her that.
Because he can’t stand the thought of having to explain why on personal terms, he immediately shifts the topic, “these are dangerously delicious, by the way,” of course she ordered for him without even asking, but it is a good pick. She seems to miss the implied dig, and the compliment earns an indulgent smile, as if saying of course I know exactly what you’d like, we know everything about you and we find that something to be proud of and demonstrate in every instance. Why so frightened, little sophont?
“Anyway, when it’s society, it’s more of a critique? A polemic? It’s not,” he fumbles for the words and trails off, “It’s not an individual problem. When we did imperialism, we did a lot worse than the Affini Empire.”
“Compact,” she corrects instinctively. He can live with this kind of correction, for all the appellation was intentional. She’s let him continue talking through a few stilted pauses as his mouth runs ahead of his ability to organize his thoughts after all.
“When we’ve done settler-colonialism, we’ve done a lot worse than the Affini Empire,” he reiterates with a bit of force, “our needs and wants were far crueler than yours, at least from what you’ve shown so far, and we still managed to sell the whole conqueror’s burden story to the point that people believed it too. You’re awful, but it’s still infinitely better than we’ve been to ourselves. So I can’t really judge you individually for your failure to see your society’s horrors? Raging at individuals would just be self-satisfaction. It wouldn’t fix anything.”
She examines him, and her eyes flicker with traces of a force of will that might extinguish the stars if they stand in its way, “It is not,” she states with an iron he would not have anticipated, “structural or cultural forces that compel me to care, to want to save you from yourself.”
“I don’t need saving,” he bites back, far more quickly than he intended. It sounds defensive, the sullen refusal of a child to eat his vegetables, and he immediately wishes he’d stayed silent.
“Flower, you’ve spent the last few minutes practically mauling your chin.” She looms over him, the pretense of a human form dissolving in an instant into a swirl of iridescent leaves and thorns that threaten to devour him.
“It is not,” her voice repeats from all around him, the words a gentle caress against his spine. He freezes, some long forgotten prey instinct telling him to shut down and hope she cannot see him, “anything structural that lets me see your pain and knows how easily it could be solved, how beautiful and clever you already are even as you do so much hurt to yourself, and how radiantly you could blossom if only you were made to stop standing in your own way. How could I do nothing, knowing what you need is there within reach and there is only one fragile obstacle between us and that, petal?”
“I don’t need class-Gs,” he manages. His voice is calm in a way he doesn’t remotely feel as he shoves aside memory of Sarah’s begging gradually fading to incoherent mumblings of bliss as she is wrapped in vines and carried away, of Max, screaming obscenities as vines twine around his arm, stopping them from throwing whatever it was they were preparing to throw. This is the end. Thinking was nice while it lasted.
“Oh, you poor thing,” he hadn’t realized until now that even an Affini could pack a year’s worth of condescension into a single phrase. “I don’t believe we’ve discussed what you might need, yet.”
He pauses at that, glad to use the food as a prop to drag things out a bit more. “I don’t need them,” it sounds feeble, even to him, “maybe someday, but the time isn’t right now. If, and that’s a big if, I do anything, it’s going to be on my terms. I already had a gender assigned to me once, I don’t need anyone to do that again.” That’s better, for all that he’s yet again failed to articulate a tenth of his own ambivalence on any of that.
“Of course you will, we’ll simply be…” She pauses, the storm abating to a gentle wind that brushes against his skin in ways that set his heart bursting with terror; that’s all he’ll call it.
“But I digress,” he can hear the mockery in her voice and knows nothing about this exchange was the least bit unintentional, “we were talking about how it is not structural forces that compel me to heal that which is wounded, and that it is not evil to avert a tragedy playing out in front of my eyes. Most would say that the Compact is nothing but this writ large.”
“What I mean,” he shifts gears, “is not that wanting to help people, or thinking that people who won’t help themselves can need a push, is anything other than great.” Maybe he can still escape if he’s clever enough. Selaginella’s said she likes something in his work, for all she’s not exactly agreeing with him here. Maybe he still has a chance. He’s obligated to aim for it either way; someone needs to remember the rest, for as long as they’ll let him.
“But, deciding for them, giving us freedom and then taking it away before we can even see what it’s like is cruelty. Taking someone who contains multitudes pushing every which way and carving them up into a neat bunch of lines bound to a trellis you build, like some kind of art project… The desire to help is fine, the way you help is,” he waves his hands as if he can somehow diagram identity, “it’s murder.”
It is her turn to be a little off-balance from his words, or at least that’s what he thinks as she carefully realigns herself into a simulacrum of humanity crafted in the medium of shimmering leaves and needle-sharp thorns.
“You may have met a few too few florets to make such generalizations,” she says at last, clearly upset with his framing. He remembers Max’s face, the one time he tried to visit after, and thinks he has seen too many to be so kind.
She shifts topics easily, focusing, once again, on him, with a laser focus he really wishes she’d give up, “but would you truly despise being so purified? The multitudes you take such pride in are often only a litany of the ways you hurt yourself. Why not sink into my embrace and let them fade into the night?”
He half-suspects she may be flirting with him on some level. Of course, she could obviously do much better than him if she tried. And, even the Affini could hardly be dense enough to think that this kind of aggression—with someone who’s seen them mask-off—would appeal. No, the thought is patently absurd. Besides, her point is interesting, and interesting is a nice clinical word that lets him stop drowning in unwelcome memories. “And what if we want to suffer or be uncertain or not know what or where we want to be?”
Her response is less in the tilt of her head or the shape of her lips, but a discordant trembling that seems to spread from her center of mass and threatens once more to destabilize Selaginella’s pretense of a human form.
“Oh, you pitiful beautiful thing,” she recovers herself with visible exertion, adopting an all too human pretense of sorrow, “you have no clue how hard you make it for me to resist the urge to show you that it need not be so.”
He takes a sip of his tea as he casts about for words that will stop this from being the end. He has heard this tone of voice before. He knows where it can lead.
“I mean,” he hesitates, “not that better things aren’t possible or that we should not seek to improve the world around us, but that suffering is an inevitable part of life, and that experiencing misery teaches us much and makes joy all the sweeter. We only enjoy the cold because we have come in from unbearable heat.”
For some reason, this does not seem to reassure her.
“When,” she says with all the momentous somber she can muster, “you are raised with the inevitability of misery, I see how you might need it to mean something.”
“I think it has value, in some ways, when people suffer a little to pursue something. Besides,” it is his turn to adopt silky smooth condescension, his best mimicry of an Affini, “even if we accept that the Affini project is anything more than a pretense. It’s still a paradox, trying to end misery while aspiring toward it instead. You can’t end suffering, because deep down, the only way your entire project makes sense is if you crave it.”
She tilts her head curiously, the shape of it adjusting to help her eyes widen impossibly round, as if to absorb every scattered bit of information, or perhaps to drown him in the waters of lethe. He needs no rejoinder to continue.
“Well, your civilization, from what I’ve been able to research, is massive and ancient and impossibly connected. No person could grasp it all. No person could matter. No argument is novel; no one might achieve mastery in a field that someone centuries older has not already surpassed; no achievement could stand out against a vast empire that would never give you the room to feel competent or successful, not really. A world of bliss is a world without room for meaning. You could indulge, but...”
She’s listening. At least he’ll probably get to finish before she sentences him to slumber from which something else will awake. That calms him some, and sometimes the words simply are where he goes looking for them even if they never sound as nice as they do in his head.
“But that’s not enough. You crave self-actualization as badly as we do. When you have food and water and safety in the long term, you need meaning more than you need air. You seek out eudaimonia through conquering the stars. Facing set-backs, you construct a frontier to conquer to avoid the mind-death of your ‘civilized’ core. You need something to work toward, something worth suffering for, so you conquer, and you contribute and you feel good about it, but then you pacify the world, you domesticate it and you can no longer satisfy the needs of the empire, so you do it again.”
She mulls over his words for a good long while as if she has actually been listening instead of deciding how to cut him down while he ranted. It’s not even something he hasn’t said before, but he’ll take what accommodation he can find.
“It is not,” she shrugs, “anything larger than the realization that you suffer unbearably, and that it need not be so, that you could be beautiful and happy and fulfilled if only you were properly cared for, that unifies us in this project. Perhaps… perhaps some seek meaning as you say,” the admission seems to pain her, and he knows what nerve his writing has hit with Sela, “but to enjoy idle bliss while so many yet suffer is a horrifying proposition.”
“Structural problems have structural causes,” he says with a shrug. “You, institutionally, hunt us down and enslave us by force, even, by most accounts, attacking personally with barely any weapons or tools at hand. Surely you could win without…” he remembers the horror racing across the crowd in a physical wave as someone does something he can’t see, as it inspires others to cheer or take violent action of their own. He hears condescending announcements about just what will be done to rioters. Then he is struggling to stay on his feet as the crowd moves every direction at the same time. Finally, there is the cold realization that the Affini, who have spent the whole time watching and heckling, have begun to act.
“Are you okay? Should I…” she stops, visibly restraining herself from her first suggestion which he assumes would have been drugs of one sort or another.
“I’m sorry, I think I need to go,” he doesn’t wait for her to tell him he’ll never be leaving her side, that such a sad broken creature must be made to heel. For whatever reason, she doesn’t stop him.
She says something, apologizing, asking to meet again. He barely hears her, beyond confirming, in whatever corner of his mind remains halfway cogent, that the blade hanging over his head has yet to fall.