Someone was screaming. But weren’t they all dead? Who was left to scream? Maybe there was another pocket of hrevl survivors somewhere; maybe they’d been discovered. So… maybe there’d been another pocket. Aprevalli couldn’t see anything, couldn’t move, all she could do was listen to the scream. But the scream was wrong, she realized. Far too high-pitched to be a hrevl. Was a ketalec screaming? But the ketalec didn’t scream they… she wasn’t going to think about what they did. What would scream at that pitch? Nothing on Astasheth that she could think of: it was a place of low, slow sounds. No, that scream was a…
Terran. It was a terran. She, no, he, wasn’t on Astasheth. He was on New Melbourne. He was spread out over a plot of land, so he must be gardening. Yes, gardening sounded right. He could feel the ground beneath and around him, the soil cold against his vines. He couldn’t see because his eyes were closed. He opened his eyes. The stars twinkled above him. The screaming continued. Some of his vines weren’t submerged in soil, they were submerged in… oh dirt! Oh dirt and rot and frost and fire! He had vines growing into Simeon; he had vines growing into Simeon. Simeon was trying to thrash, he could feel his body buck against his vines, but he had wrapped up the man as snug as an insectoid in a carpet. Not intentionally, it had been intentional the first time she’d wrapped up Sephal and held them immobile. Not that Sephal had thrashed, they’d craved the security of being totally under Aprevalii’s control. It had also been intentional the last time, when ichor bled from their body and burned her vines until she’d almost shrieked with pain. But she wasn’t the one shrieking now, that was… barren clay! Who was shrieking? And where was she?
He was on New Melbourne. The shrieking sophont was in his vines was Simeon. She was on Astasheth, holding back her screams of pain; the sophont in her vines was Sephal, and they were dying. The screams stopped. Sephal died. He didn’t know what to do. She didn’t know what to do. Sephal had died, and he couldn’t undo that, but maybe Simeon wasn’t dead. He wished he believed in Sephal’s gods, could beg them to keep Simeon safe, but Sephal’s gods hadn’t saved them, and Aprevalii had prayed—unbelieving but hoping—for days for deliverance. It hadn’t mattered. Sephal’s gods probably didn’t exist, but if they had, they’d turned their faces from the hrevl and let all of them die. Gods like that didn’t deserve prayer.
No, he had to stay in the present. Astasheth was far away and nothing could be done; Simeon was here right now. But he didn’t know how to treat vines growing into a terran. Should he pull them out? But that would almost certainly make Simeon bleed if he was still alive. Frost! He had to check if Simeon was alive! He let his awareness flow into the vines growing into Simeon. The body was warm, the blood flowing around his vines, the breath causing the vines encircling the body to loosen and contract. Okay, Simeon was alive. That was good. And Aprevalii was alive. That was a fact. He assembled his vines into something more suitable to locomotion and carried Simeon out of the garden.
Aprevalii hadn’t known there was a form titled “Acknowledgment of Guilt for Reckless Endangerment of an Independent Sophont by an Irresponsible Affini.” It had to be filled out in quintiplicate. He also hadn’t known there was an “Addendum for Instances Where the Independent Sophont is Really Cute.” He suspected that the addendum was always included.
Simeon was stable, but he’d gotten the distinct impression the nurse who’d told him that was holding back on the details. Aprevalii’s own condition was less certain, at least to Aprevalii. The doctor and her floret had infodumped at him, and each other, for five minutes, then breezed out. It had been adorable, but also mostly incomprehensible, especially because the doctor and floret used an Affini dialect he’d never heard before when talking to each other.
Simeon had taught him to take a self-inventory of his mind and body, and with the paperwork done Aprevalii supposed he might as well. He let his awareness flow through his body, pulled in his vines, clenched them tight, then released them. No pain. There was no pain. There had always been pain ever since he’d been burned by Sephal’s ichor bleeding into her own open wounds, poisoning her forever, a constant reminder of her guilt, of Sephal’s death. “I’ll be okay. You need to put me down, I’m hurting you.” That was the last thing they ever said. Aprevalii hadn’t put them down, hadn’t cared that Sephal’s essence was toxic to her own. Something was beeping, she tried to tell what it was, but the beep was in the present, not the past. He focused on it; likely a monitor in a nearby room.
As for his mind… no real changes there. He felt worry, guilt, and anxiety. Those were more or less his default emotions, but now they were focused more on Simeon than the hrevl. He wondered if that was an improvement. What would Simeon say? But Simeon wasn’t there; likely he wouldn’t see Simeon again. He hadn’t seen Sephal again, not since Liliac took their body to the temple roof. She’d half-wanted to go up there, to join Liliac at the vigil, but she’d been in no state to, physically or emotionally. By now their body was dust and ashes. Maybe some fragments of chitin remained. Or maybe they’d torn down the temple to build something new. He had no idea what had happened on Astasheth since he left, he only knew that his petition to leave it an empty memorial and tomb had been rejected.
A knock on the door. “Come in,” he said. He had to say it again louder. The door opened and a cheerful-looking terran walked in. She was wearing a collar, so presumably a floret, but it never paid to assume. After all, Simeon had had a terran mistress at one point… he wondered if she’d collared him; Simeon would be so cute in a collar.
“Miss Rhoda will see you now,” said the terran. “I think you already saw her colleague, Miss Vintas, but I’m guessing you didn’t understand a word she said? Most sophonts don’t.”
“Miss Rhoda is much easier to understand. Even I understand her sometimes, when I’m allowed to understand language at all that is.” She giggled. “C’mon, follow me!”
He followed the terran out of the room, down a corridor, and into another room. “Aprevalii Phores, Ninth Bloom this is my mistress, the revered and honored Probisium Rhoda, Two Hundred Forty-Second Bloom.”
“Two hundred… forty-second?” He’d met affini that old, and older, in the core systems. But never out on the frontier of affini space.
“It sounds more impressive than it is,” Probisium said. “I was rather reckless in my youth.”
The terran mouthed something at Aprevalii, but he’d never been good at reading lips.
“Little one,” Probisium was looking at her floret. “We do not tell our guests how many of my reblooms were due to my own carelessness and how many are because I am… how did you put it?”
“Older than dirt, revered and honored mistress.”
“Yes. Why don’t you go to the snuggle room while Aprevalii and I talk?”
“Snuggles!” the floret screamed, and she ran out of the room.
“I know you spoke Visna Vintas, how much of what she said did you understand?”
“None of it,” admitted Aprevalii.
“Unsurprising. She keeps getting florets to translate for her, but every time she gets a floret they become just as jargony within a few years. It’s very cute, but not very helpful.
“So, according to your records you’ve had hrevl ichor poisoning for the duration of your current bloom. Not a diagnosis I’d ever seen before, so I had to do some digging and found your monograph. There’s an annotated edition for doctors, did you know that?”
Aprevalii thought he recalled filling out some forms to authorize commentaries on his work, but he’d been in a fugue state at the time. He shrugged.
“Anyway, the ichor proved entirely recalcitrant to extraction, but there was apparently a method that either no one thought to try or was dismissed as unethical: transference to another sophont.”
Aprevalii stared at Probisium. “No.” It was faint, almost inaudible even to him.
“Calm down, it’s not as bad as it sounds,” she stroked him and he let his leaves stop rustling.
“Hrevl ichor is toxic to affini, but terrans can adapt to it, at least to an extent. Unfortunately, they apparently adapt to it by metabolizing it, and we suspect withdrawal would be fatal. Hrevl ichor can be compiled, so that’s not as big of a problem as it might be. But it will require very very careful monitoring.”
Aprevalii stared at Probisium.
“Developing a hausteric implant that can interface with, and maybe even dispense, the ichor will be tricky, since the implant is biologically affini, but I’m sure we’ll work something out.”
Aprevalii stared at Probisium. “He agreed to domestication?”
“He’s still unconscious, but it’s the logical treatment for the problem, so I don’t think there will be any objections.”
Aprevalii stared at Probisium.
Minutes later, when she’d left the room, Aprevalii was still staring.