The Roots That Clutch

Unearthed Secrets

by MourningStarsOfLakes

Tags: #dom:female #Human_Domestication_Guide #scifi #sub:nb #f/nb #mystery #nonbinary_character #slow_burn #transgender_characters

Secrets, silent, stony sit in the dark palaces of both our hearts: secrets weary of their tyranny: tyrants, willing to be dethroned.
- Ulysses, James Joyce

“Greetings and peace to you Terrans,” the lead Affini said, hands and vines spread placatively, “I am Nessari Fellcor, Second Bloom. We are here to aid in your evacuation from the planet.”
 
The sentient alien plant was at least seven feet tall, and Slide wouldn’t have been surprised to find that she was closer to eight. Light purple eyes gazed around the room on a verdant face comprised of smoothed leaves. Wriggling vines occasionally popped out of her seemingly-solid torso, revealing briefly an ever-moving interior of sticks, leaves, and vines. She had replicated Terran hair through a number of shoots and tendrils growing out of her scalp and likewise fabricated an organic dress that registered as somewhat human.
 
“Evacuation?” Reya growled at the alien, shifting herself to stand between Nessari and Slide, “What the hell are you talking about?”
 
Nessari cocked her head, confusion evident on her face even across the species barrier. A vine scratched behind her green tendrils that imitated hair as she began speaking in a sing-song language that was as incomprehensible as it was captivating. Another Affini moved to her side, a crimson brace embroidered with golden flowers running from her left shoulder down to her elbow. The crimson-shouldered Affini tapped her cheek as she spoke back to Nessari in that same melodic tongue. 
 
Slide glanced around at the other Terrans. They were all still standing defensively, readying themselves for protective action if necessary, but listening to the two Affini chatter brought out something else in them. There was a distinct curiosity replacing the knee-jerk defensiveness, a fascination with the xenos and their rustling plant-like bodies and musical voices. Even Reya let her weight shift back to a more passive stance; still keeping herself between the potential threat and her friend, but no longer primed to leap on them at the slightest provocation. Slide felt themselves relax in turn, tension in the shoulders falling away as they took a deep breath in.
 
The only person who didn’t show signs of calming was Dr. Algeiba, but that was only because she hadn’t moved from her seat into a defensive position at all. She was just sitting there at the forward table, looking almost bored by events of the last few minutes. Slide wondered how she could stay so cool and calculating even in the midst of a barely known alien species barging through their door. Slide wondered if she really was that devoid of emotion.
 
“We are certain that your Sector Chief Kolima was supposed to notify you yesterday so you could prepare your things for transit back to Novaglas.” Nessari spread her arms again, almost questioningly. “Did you not receive a notification to that effect?”
 
“We were told that only two of us were being relocated,” Dr. Hydrega replied, fingernails clacking on the back of her chair, “Nothing about an evacuation.”
 
“I see. I am afraid, however, that information is incorrect. All Terran personnel are to be transported back to Novaglas within the next day for transit back to your Sector Hub.”
 
“The only people ready to leave right now are Dr. Algieba and myself,” Dr. Hydregra said, motioning to the other doctor. She only now noticed that her colleague was sitting passive and resigned. “Leona, don’t you have anything to say about all this? How the fuck can you just sit there?”
 
“I’m already packed,” Dr. Algieba replied with a shrug, “If they’re guaranteeing safe passage back to Novaglas and then to Uroo, it seems like essentially the same plan from yesterday.”
 
Dr. Hydrega’s face flushed red with flabbergasted anger. Her hand left the back of the chair she had been leaning on to gesticulate at the other doctor, her fingers curling into claws. No words came out of her open mouth to chastise her colleague, but everyone could feel her anger radiate out from her quivering form.
 
“Excuse me Miss Fellcor,” Slide peeked out from behind Reya, waving their hand, “Or is it Miss Bloom?”
 
The crimson-shouldered Affini smirked, trilling out a comment in their foreign tongue. Nessari appeared to pay her no mind.
 
“Miss Fellcor seems the appropriate Terran analog,” she replied with a nod, “But please, just call me Nessari.”
 
Slide nodded back. “Nessari, Dr. Hydrega has a point. None of the rest of us are prepared to leave. We have rooms full of things that we’d need to pack, let alone proper shutdown procedures for the facility.”
 
The Affini with the arm brace looked annoyed, and her words to Nessari reverberated with a grating harshness. Nessari’s vines traced and tapped a circular pattern behind her ear once more as she considered the situation.
 
“Today’s shuttle off Karriss-7 is close to full anyway,” she started uncertainly; her voice becoming more confident as her plan materialized, “We had planned for two shuttles tomorrow in case of delays, so we could put you on one of those. We would still need to transport you to Novaglas tonight for our mutual security, but it would give you the next few hours to pack. We would gladly assist you in any way possible. Anything you are unable to pack, or any shutdown procedures that have yet to be performed, we will record and see to ourselves. If we are able to verify the planet is safe within the next few days we may be able to bring you back to finish packing. If not, we will follow you instructions for transporting them to Uroo and Sector Chief Kolima can take care of returning them to you.”
 
None of the Terrans seemed particularly thrilled, but they each begrudgingly nodded their heads in acceptance with two exceptions. Dr. Algieba sat stone-still; head in her hand, elbow leaning on the table. Q raised her hand as if she was still in school.
 
“What do you mean by ‘verifying if the planet is safe?’” she asked, hand dropping to her side. A flicker of panic crossed through Nessari’s pretty eyes as the green tendril behind her ear tapped frantically. The Affini with the brace glared at her, grumbling a series of low notes her way. Nessari straightened her posture as the panic disappeared instantly, leaving behind no trace.
 
“We have a belief that there is something on this planet that would be dangerous to your species,” she stated calmly, “Which is why we felt the need to step in and negotiate an evacuation with your Sector Chief.”
 
“And what if,” Dr. Algieba hissed, eyes twinkling chaotically, “What if they refuse to go?
Nessari’s thinking vine twirled around her whips of green hair again, but before she could come up with an answer the red-braced Affini spoke.
 
“You don’t have a choice,” she hissed, grabbing a nasty looking object off her belt, “If any of you don’t come along willingly I will incapacitate you and drag you off this planet myself!”
 
Nessari turned on the other Affini, a finger wagging as she rapidly chastised them. The red-armed Affini began to argue back, their musical voices winding around each other in splendorous disharmony. Slide found themselves focusing on the weaving notes, the way they clashed so perfectly it seemed purposeful and the way they occasionally stumbled into beautiful harmony with one another. When the argument ended they weren’t sure if it had been seconds or hours since it began; time had ebbed out in their enraptured state. They blinked their eyes and shook their head to snap out of it. The red-armed Affini had skulked back towards the door where she leaned against the wall and stared daggers at all of them.
 
“I apologize for Polenis’s words,” Nessari said, leafy hands extend out to them palms-up in a plea for understanding, “If your refusal to leave is due to any sort of travel issue or sickness, we would be glad to help allieviate that problem any way we can. We only want this evacuation to go smoothly and painlessly.” She sighed. “But if you refuse to leave solely out of defiance then I am afraid we would have to briefly incapacitate you until we could transport you to Novaglas and ensure you’ve left the planet. There is an active safety concern here and we really don’t want to see any of you come to harm.”
 
The room was silent as the Terran’s heads nodded in assent. Nessari smiled.
 
“Thank you all for your cooperation,” she said as a vine plopped a tablet in her hand. Two vines and her other hand manipulated the device. “Please let me know your names before you head off to pack your things. We want to make sure we don’t leave anyone behind.”
 
“Doctor Anise Hydrega,” the botanist grumbled. Nessari’s vines swiped across the screen and she nodded.
 
Gunnar looked around to the other Terrans in the short silence that followed, offering his name up next to speed things along.
 
“Gunnar Cael, Geologist.”
 
Another swipe on the tablet and another nod from Nessari. The Terrans listed off their names in a roughly clockwise order after that. Each one eliciting the same swipe and nod from the lead Affini.
 
“I’m Q; I mean, Quarn. Invari. I’m uh… I’m doctor Hydrega’s assistant.”
 
“Serenity Montis, assistant to Dr. Algieba.”
 
“I’m Slide Alyceten. I’m in charge of the computer operations here.”
 
Nessari cocked her head, violet eyes glancing towards Slide then back to the tablet.
 
“Are you related to Al…” She looked up at Slide again, her mouth rounding into an “o” of realization. She closed her eyes and shook her head. “Roots and shoots, I’m sorry. Disregard that. It looks like your Sector Command failed to update your name on the staff manifest they gave us.” A flurry of green tendrils pounded over the tablet. When she finished she addressed Slide again.
 
“There. I’ve ensured your name is properly entered through our systems and I’ve made a note for Envoy Trolloni to remind your Sector Chief to update it in their systems as well.”
 
“Thanks?”
 
Nessari shook her head, “There is no need for thanks. It is the most basic amount of respect sentient beings are due.” She turned her gaze to Reya, motioning to her to continue the roll call.
 
“Reya Pavon, Mechanic.”
 
Nessari turned to the last Terran, vine eagerly waiting to cross the last name off her list.
 
“Gina Crasstor Trolloni, First Floret.” 
 
Every other person in the room, Terran and Affini alike, turned towards her with confusion evident on their faces. Nessari’s vine twirled behind her ear frantically. Dr. Hydrega squinted at her colleague from across the table, lips pursed in puzzlement. The songlike voices of the Affini began to chatter amongst one another near the door, hints of excitement breaking through the language gap. Slide tugged on Reya’s sleeve as they made a questioning gesture with their other hand. The only person who didn’t seem baffled by the name she gave was Dr. Algieba, who sat with her back straight and head held high. A knowing smirk revealed her leftmost teeth.
 
Nessari turned to Polanis and the two plant women chattered in frenzied arpeggios. Dr. Hydrega leaned across the table towards Dr. Algieba, hissing:
 
“Lee, what the hell was that?”
 
“You’ll understand before too much longer.” She replied with a wink leaning in closely over the table. Slide saw her whisper something too low to hear to Dr. Hydrega who then looked around at the other Terrans, confusion evident on her face.
 
Slide turned her attention back to Reya. “First floret? What’s a floret?” They asked quietly.
 
 Reya looked to Dr. Algieba and then back to Slide, shrugging, “A small flower, I think.”
 
Nessari and Polanis talked for a minute more before they both turned to appraise the doctor. Nessari said something to one of the other Affini and together they walked towards Dr. Algieba. 
 
“You are far from home Gina,” Nessari said warmly as she approached. The Affini with her walked slightly faster to circle behind the doctor. “But we will help you get back as quickly as possible.” The second Affini waved a tablet over the back of Dr. Algieba’s neck, her face scrunching for a few seconds before looking up in panic. She stepped around the doctor to show it to Nessari, who examined it briefly and then called back to Polanis. The three Affini huddled near the doctor, chattering hurriedly. They seemed to reach some sort of agreement.
 
Nessari spun around and offered her hand to Gina, “Gina, it looks like your implant has been badly damaged. We are calling an emergency shuttle to fly you to our nearest carrier ship with an on-board veterinary specialist. We will send word to Envoy Trolloni as well so she can comfort you again and support you in your recovery.” 
 
The Affini who had scanned her neck was speaking quickly into their tablet. Gina took her hand and allowed herself to be pulled out of the chair.
 
“Can you tell Eurona I’m sorry and that I’m ready to come home?” Gina’s voice cracked with emotion in a way Dr. Algieba’s never had. 
 
“Of course, little one. Envoy Trolloni will be thrilled and, I think, very relieved to hear that.” Nessari pulled her into a hug, patting her on the back. They stayed like that until the other Affini stated something to Nessari who then broke the embrace.
 
“They’ll be landing shortly. Please show Tralnix where your things you want to bring with you are and then she’ll take you out to the landing zone.” Nessari nudged Gina towards the other Affini and then motioned at Jess to follow them. She turned back towards all the other Terrans, each trying to piece together what was going on.
 
“That was quite unexpected,” Nessari informed them, her words calm and graceful, “But apparently Gina had lived with one of our kind before and now wishes to return, which we will grant her. I know this is all very confusing, and if you wish I can answer your questions on our way to Novaglas later tonight. In the meantime, let’s get you all ready for evacuation.”
 

 
Slide stared at the far corner of their closet, dresses hanging exactly as they were six months ago. They’d assured themselves that they’d have the courage to wear them after they got settled in, that after just a few weeks of adjusting to the new environment they’d be able to present as they wanted without shame or fear. But here they were six months later as Slide prepared to leave the refuge they’d fled to, untouched and unworn. Slide chewed the inside of their cheek before carefully shoving them to the bottom of a cardboard box. A moment later, they were buried by a pile of baggy sweatshirts.
 
They continued packing the rest of their clothes and then moved on to their junk pile of electronics. They had just started shoving fistfuls of cables into a box of assorted computer parts when a gentle voice floated into the room.
 
“Excuse me Slide, may I be of any assistance?”
 
The Affini leader, Nassari, was standing in their doorway with her hands folded just above her waist and a gentle glimmer in her eyes. Slide thought for a moment about declining her offer and just sending her away, but some part of them wanted her to stay. Every story they’d heard about the Affini painted them as warlike and aggressive, had claimed that they hunted and ate humans for sport. Yet only Polanis had shown any sign of aggression at all and Nessari had been nothing but kind during the whole situation. Instead of being fearsome monsters, the Affini had shown themselves to be thoughtful and interesting. 
 
And beautiful.
 
Slide blinked as they realized the thought they’d just had. They felt their cheeks burn as they realized it was true: Nessari was gorgeous in her own, alien way. Layered leaves formed a tessellated gown over her long torso dotted with blue and white flowers. Thin tendrils simulated hair on her scalp, the little vines swaying softly in the breezeless indoor air. Bangles of vine, branch, and berry twisted decoratively along her arms. And her eyes… That’s where Slide was staring, fixated on the dimly glowing purple ovals that seemed to radiate warmth in their direction. Slide bit their lip as their mind thought how nice it would be to embrace the giant alien woman and melt into her arms.
 
“Are you alright?” Nessari asked calmly but with a hint of concern.
 
“Y-yeah.” Slide felt the blush deepen on their cheeks. What was wrong with them? They were being evicted by aliens from crackpot stories, aliens that were supposed to capture and eat people, and they were fantasizing about cuddling with the damn thing. Fantasizing and stammering like a teenager with a crush. 
 
“It’s just still a shock, you know?” They looked beyond where Nessari was standing at the small bookcase beside their door. The words tumbled out of their mouth in a confused mush:
 
“If you want to… I mean, if you don’t have anything better to do, you could… Could you start to pack my books? Please?” 
 
Nessari looked behind her then back at Slide.
 
“Oh, paper books?” There was intrigue in her voice and an excited tremble ran through her verdant figure, “I had heard most of your species didn’t use paper books any more. Are these special copies?”
 
“No,” Slide found themselves saying before immediately contradicting themselves, “Well yes. To me. They’re special to me. My grandmother passed some of them down to me.” They paused for a moment but then the words kept bubbling up, forcing themselves out of their mouth. “She used to mark up the passages and write notes in the margins, so they sort of became a way to remember her by. Something that showed what she found meaningful in the text and her thoughts on it; so that by reading them I could feel closer to her, understand her better. And then the rest of them I bought from junk stores and started doing the same thing hoping that someday I might…” They trailed off. They had never actually thought about why they continued their grandmother’s habit. Not until that moment.
 
“Someday I might share them with someone and they could understand me.” Slide felt an odd feeling in the pit of their stomach, a mortifying drop being countered by a buoyant relief. They could feel a wetness at the corners of their eyes. They dug their nails into the palm of their hand to stave off the emotional turmoil Nessari’s simple question had kicked up.
 
“I’ll be careful with them then,” Nessari assured them. Slide picked apart her inflection and tone in their head to make sure the alien woman hadn’t detected their sudden moment of vulnerability and self-truth. Distressingly they realized that they wanted her to. 
 
Seemingly oblivious to Slide’s internal issues, Nessari gingerly grabbed two books off the shelf, “I hope one day soon our species can share our cultures with one another.”
 
“Yeah. Me too.” Slide murmured as they turned away, thinking about one Affini in particular they’d want to share with. They’d let her read each underlined stanza or cramped, scribbled note and explain what it meant to them; why it made their soul sing or, conversely, how it had pierced to the innermost of their being and destroyed something that was no longer true. Then they’d ask her what she saw in the words and together they’d…
 
Fucking hell. Slide’s hands were trembling as they split their toiletries between a box and a travel bag. Was this how it was going to be the whole time that Nessari was around? A constant urge to bare myself to the strange alien plant woman because human connections are so anxiety provoking? Slide groaned internally at how much there was to unpack in that thought.
 
They stole a glance back towards Nessari and saw that she had neatly stowed away almost the entire set of books in mere minutes. Slide’s mind began to generate more reasons to ask her to stay and help, but rather quickly found that there wasn’t much left to pack. It occurred to them that perhaps that was a good thing, that their strange attraction to the alien woman that they’d never see again after another day’s time would best be forgotten.
 
“Your books are packed away safely, Slide,” Nessari chirped happily from behind them, “Do you need any other help preparing to leave?”
 
“No,” Slide gulped, taking a deep, steadying breath. Against their better judgment, they turned around to face Nessari again, “I think I’m about done.”
 
“Excellent. I’ll see if anyone else needs—“ Nessari began.
 
“Wait!” Slide interjected, surprised at themselves, “I still need to walk you through all the system shutdown procedures.” They cursed themselves internally; why would they do this to themselves?
 
“Of course,” she responded pleasantly, “Let me know whenever you’re ready and I’ll take note of it.”
 
Slide nodded and turned away to finish packing their final few items. Before they swept the last remaining things off their small, facility-provided desk and into the box they buried their face into the palm of their hands and sighed. A few moments and a deep breath in was enough to refocus themselves and they guided a small cluster of trinkets into the box. 
 
“Alright Nessari,” they said, hoping they could keep it together, “Let’s walk through what systems will need shut down.”
 

 
The ride to the Novaglas Hotel and Inn had been bumpier than it had been informative. All the questions the Terrans asked were answered, but the answers left them only with a surface-level understanding of what was going on. From what Slide could understand this is what happened:
 
Some time in the past five years, Dr. Algieba had made contact with the Affini and had decided to live amongst them. Nessari was sparse on details, but it seemed like she was kept as a curiosity or a pet more than a visiting scientist or ambassador. During that time she was fitted with an implant to help her adjust to the different environment, which began malfunctioning some time after she had left. After her return to the Terrans, she eventually got assigned to the Karriss-7 research facility.
 
In a completely separate series of events Nessari and her squad received information that Terran operations on Karriss-7 were about to encounter something dangerous to their species. Their envoy contacted Sector Chief Kolima who, although resistant to their demands at first, eventually struck a deal with the Affini to evacuate the planet. They evacuated most of Novaglas and the miners first before rounding up the people in the few outlying facilities. Another squad of Affini was due in that night to help identify and neutralize the threat.
 
Dr. Hydrega tried to press Nessari on what the mysterious threat was, but time and time again she admitted she didn’t know. Her small squad was just supposed to help evacuate people; the investigative work would be done by others. For the whole journey Dr. Hydrega kept asking, hoping that Nessari would reveal something more. Every time though she gave the same answer.
 
Unloaded from the truck and in the lobby of the simple hotel, Nessari asked for six rooms from the sole remaining, and very peeved-looking, staff member. Sere quickly interrupted:
 
“I think Q and I are going to share a room, actually.” Q nodded her head in agreement.
 
“Five rooms then.” Nessari amended. The hotel keeper grumbled something under his breath.
 
Reya turned towards Slide and gave a half-shrug. “You want to share a room tonight too? Or no?”
 
Slide mulled it over briefly before shaking their head, “Not tonight Reya.”
 
“Fair enough.”
 
Each Terran except Q went to the reception desk and synchronized their room access code onto their portable device of choice. Tired, they trudged towards their rooms as a loose group. Dr. Hydrega, Sere, and Q came across their rooms first, each wishing the rest of the group a brisk “good night” before vanishing behind the closing doors. Three doors further down they came across Slide’s room.
 
“ ‘Night Slide,” Gunnar yawned before continuing onward, “See you tomorrow.”
 
“ ‘Night Gunnar,” they replied, turning towards Reya. They grabbed her free hand, leaned in, and planted a light kiss on her lips. As they pulled apart, they shared a weary smile for a moment.
 
“Goodnight Reya,” Slide sighed, “Love you.”
 
“Love you too, Slide. See you bright and early tomorrow.”
 
She walked off after Gunnar to seek her room among the five or six doors that remained. Slide entered their room and crashed on the bed, barely mustering the energy to drag themselves to the bathroom and back. Once they’d returned to the bed, they fell asleep mere seconds after their head hit the pillow.
 

 
They dreamed of vines wreathing around them, coiling around their ankles and wrists. The green tendrils tugged them through the darkness of dream, a void teeming with things barely unseen. Slide didn’t struggle; they knew they should but they also knew the vines were taking them someplace safe. Someplace nicer than the endless fields of subconscious horrors. When they reached it the change was sudden.
 
Suddenly everything was green. A meadow stretched as far their dreaming eyes could see in every direction, repeated patterns of grass and weeds iterating every few feet. The vines released Slide and they found themselves wanting to feel their embrace again. They watched as they retracted slowly through the air, impossibly long verdant tethers vanishing into the far, far distance. Slide began running to catch up to them; the vines retreated faster. 
 
Slide jumped and grasped at the vines as they slithered away, missing them by mere inches each time. The repetitious meadows began to give way to a lightly forested area. Although it was spring there were leaves on the ground, wet and still-green. The sparse trees were ringed with spiraling garlands of blue and white flowers, growing more and more dense as the vines led them deeper into the forest. 
 
Finally the vines whipped around a tree, vanishing out of sight. Slide pounced after them but found only an empty clearing when they rounded the tree. They spun around in confusion, searching fruitlessly for the snaking green ropes. Turning back to the clearing they saw now that two large purple stones had been deposited at either side of it. Slide approached the one that was somewhat closer and ran their hand across its smooth surface. A familiar glow rippled through it.
 
The ground rumbled beneath them and tilted upwards as they fell backwards into a soft net of leaves and vines. The stones and the clearing pulled further and further away, twisting as they did into a familiar face. The wet leaves Slide had been running on wrapped around the rearranging trees as a sky-tall Nessari shifted into being before them. 
 
Slide felt the vines and leaves holding them aloft crumble into dirt as the green of dreamscape woodland flowed entirely into the giant Affini before them. A sudden suction at their feet conveyed them downwards for about a foot. They looked down to see everything below their knees swallowed by the barren soil of Karriss-7. They could feel their legs and ankles become something different, roots penetrating into the ground seeking nutrients. However as they groped and clutched for the nutrients needed to spur their transplanted and transformed personage into new growth, they found only emptiness. They were stuck.
 
Slide shouted for help and the giant Nessari looked down at them. With a shuddering thud she took a knee and inspected the planted Terran, rippling violet eyes as large as the research center. Gently she reached towards Slide, her fingers morphing into slender vines, and braced around their torso. With her other hand she traced a circle around them in the dirt and uprooted them with a single, firm tug. Slide’s legs came free as they were lifted up and held in front of her gargantuan face.
 
“This is not the place for you, little one,” the giant Affini said with impossible softness, “Let me take you where you may flourish.”
 
She deposited Slide into her cupped hand and began striding across the barren land. Slide peeked out over the edge of her thumb as the titan Nessari stepped from world to world. In that manner they crossed through arid landscape, worlds of endless ocean, swirling poisonous gas, and the eternal abyss of night before Nessari stopped and began to lower them. This was a world of eternal spring and no sooner had Slide’s feet touched the ground than they implanted themselves in it, energy and life bursting upwards through their body. Blooms and buds formed along their arms, flowers burst through their hair, berries hung from their ears. 
 
Above them, Nessari slowly tipped a splash of water onto their flowering form and Slide relished the feeling of its refreshment. A hum filled the air as Slide looked lovingly upward at her caretaker and gardener. It ebbed and returned as Nessari looked down in adoration at the little flower she had saved from wilting on a desolate planet. Thunder rolled playful in the distance, heralding the light spring rains that would soon further Slide’s growth. The hum began to syncopate around them as the thunder grew louder.
 

Slide awoke to buzzer on the hotel door being pressed in a sporadic rhythm and accompanied by a gentle-but-insistent knocking on the door. They shook off the last wisps of the dream as they answered the door, eyes still bleary. On the other side Nessari towered over them, the dream reminiscence sending a pleasurable shudder down their spine.
 
“Slide, may I speak with you in private?” Nessari asked, her tone hushed.
 
“Hmmm?” Slide responded, not quite awake, “I guess so.”
 
The Affini glided past them and sat down on the small couch, looking uncomfortable. She motioned to a nearby chair, indicating that Slide should sit too. They stumbled over and sat down.
 
“Slide, what I’m about to ask you…” Nessari frowned as she switched to a different sentence. A vine was tapping a fast staccato behind her ear. “I need you to be completely honest with me.”
 
“I…” Slide blinked twice, not knowing what to make of this, “Sure.”
 
“You have only been working at the research base here for six months, correct?”
 
“Yeah.”
 
“During that time did you ever assist Dr. Cael with his research?”
 
“I…” Slide shut their eyes to think. They shook their head no. “I don’t think so. Not beyond patching his computer terminals and scheduling data backups and stuff.”
 
“Good.” Nessari looked almost relieved for a second before the frown returned. “Did you know what he was researching?”
 
“He was trying to get plants to grow in the soil here,” Slide stated slowly, “And he figured out how to do it by getting rid of a bunch of microbes or something that live here.”
 
“That’s it?”
 
“I mean, I think so.” Slide shook their head. “I think he had some other small projects going on, but that was the big one.”
 
“You’re sure?” She asked. Slide nodded.
 
“And you’re being completely honest?” Slide nodded again.
 
“Thank bloom you’re not involved.” Nessari let out a relieved sigh. Her watchful gaze drifted over to the door. “I’m not supposed to tell anyone, but our investigation team found plans in Dr. Cael’s offices for a biological weapon that we think is meant to be deployed again the Affini.”
 
Slide’s jaw dropped in shock. Their hand grabbed a fistful of their hair and agitatedly twisted it.
 
“I… I…” they stammered, “You have to believe me, I had no idea.”
 
“I believe you,” Nessari assured them, “but this means your station is going to be held here until we know who was working on that weapon and why. Anyone we can clear can go home with the rest of the evacuees.  Anyone found guilty of aiding in the construction of something that dangerous is almost certainly going to be assigned to enforced domestication of the most severe level.”
 
“Enforced…” Slide rolled each of the words in their two word question over their tongue slowly, “Domestication?”
 
“When Gina, the woman you knew as Dr. Algieba, lived among the Affini it was as a… ward,” Nessari explained, “Basically as a pet. That’s what we mean by ‘domestication.’ All of her needs were cared for, she was loved unconditionally, and allowed to pursue most interests she wanted to within reason.”
 
“That sounds… wrong.” Slide frowned, partially because they weren’t sure they agreed with their own assessment. Maybe it would be nice, their tired mind suggested, to just be able to curl up in Nessari’s lap at the end of the day.
 
“Most florets find it to be an enjoyable and enriching experience. We prefer to only take those who wish to be domesticated, however in the cases where a person demonstrates that they wish to harm us, others, or themselves without provocation it is deemed appropriate to force them into domestication for the wellbeing of all.”
 
“Isn’t that a violation of their personage and rights?”
 
“To an extent,” Nessari said solemnly, “But what would be the punishment for such a crime on Terra or in your colonies? Prison? Execution? I assure you this is a much more humane way to handle things. For many it is a relief from the stressful and hectic lives you live. Even the ones who consider it a punishment come to feel like it is a blessing after a time.”
 
“I…” Slide had to admit, she had a point. Being given a life of relative luxury for what most would consider a war crime seemed a lot less harsh than Terran justice. Maybe I should say I was involved, their traitorous mind intruded, then I wouldn’t have to go back to Terra…
 
“Okay,” Slide said, shaking their head to banish their rogue internal monologue, “but why are you telling me all this? What am I supposed to do?”
 
“I had hoped between our conversation earlier and your relative newness to the station that you weren’t involved in creating anti-Affini weapons. I’m glad I was correct in that regard.” Nessari smiled tenderly and Slide felt themselves blush once more as their stomach fluttered. It occurred to them that she must have picked up on their admittedly not-well-concealed desire to share information with the Affini when helping them pack earlier today; she had just been too polite to point it out. That only made their stomach flutter more. “And since that makes you trustworthy, I want you to help me figure out who among your group is innocent.”
 
“How am I supposed to do that?”
 
Nessari cocked her head and made an amused face, seemingly unaware she would have to explain, “You are, or were, the station’s computer administrator, correct? You can help us retrieve logs and research notes to determine who was involved and who wasn’t.”
 
“That would be a violation of my service,” Slide said, reluctance bleeding across their face, “And most of the files are archived and encrypted before being sent to the central Terran Intelligence servers. Those files are gone for good. And anything that wasn’t sent over will probably be deleted by the time we look for it by the nightly cleanup jobs.”
 
“Please.” Nessari bowed her head as a gentle insistence crept into her voice, “We need evidence to help clear your friends. My sister has been on the warpath ever since they found the files in Dr. Cael’s office. She has very little love for Terrans, I’m afraid.”
 
“Your sister?”
 
“Polanis,” Nessari replied, looking Slide directly in the eyes, “The one who threatened you all yesterday. She was supposed to only supervise my first away mission, but after discovering the bioweapon plans she’s taken charge. She doesn’t think I can properly handle something of this size and importance.”
 
Nessari huffed out a distressed sigh.
 
“I wanted to show her that Terrans can be good and kind and trustworthy. But she is advocating for domestication using Class-O drugs for any and all personnel who interacted with your facility.”
 
“And that’s a bad thing?” Slide asked, surprised at their implicit defense of domestication. They rushed out a clarification. “The Class-O stuff, I mean.”
 
“Oh yes. They obliterate a sophont’s ability to think for themselves at all. They’re normally reserved only for the hardest cases where there is no other way to ensure their wellbeing. Polanis believes that anyone who had dealings with your facility is culpable in the creation of this weapon and therefore a threat to the wellbeing of Affini as well as to Terrans. After all if this weapon were to be mishandled or, as our understanding of your history has shown, deployed against your own kind it could cause widespread devastation of a planet’s ecology.”
 
Nessari’s violet eyes met Slide’s as she held out a wriggling green hand, palm up.
 
“I can agree with her concern on this weapon’s capacity for destruction, but I also know that she is allowing recent incidents in her personal life to skew her judgment. I hold out hope that together we can prove that this plot was the product of only Dr. Cael and spare the rest of you Polanis’s heavy-handed approach to the containment of dangerous information. So please Slide, help me help you.”
 
Slide gritted their teeth; they had never broken the law before. What Nessari was asking was treason and yet they didn’t see any other choice if they wanted themselves and their friends to stay out of the clutches of the alien species. Besides, they rationalized, they already found horrible and damning information.  Chances are anything else I turn up can’t be as bad as what they already have.  
 
“Alright,” Slide responded, slapping their fleshy hand into Nessari’s larger one, “I’ll do it.”
 
Nessari smiled as the vines and shoots that constituted her hand twined around Slide’s, enclosing it tenderly.

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