Adorable siren, do you love the damned?
What do you know of Remorse
whose poisoned arrows mercilessly take
our heart for their target?
Adorable siren, do you love the damned?
— L'Irréparable, Charles Baudelaire; translated by Richard Howard
Nessari looked frustrated the next morning as alien words flew out the door of the tiny conference room over the strange melody of Affini voices. Slide waited patiently outside to allow the two sisters a semblance of privacy, even though they couldn’t understand a word of the language. They could detect discordance in the two’s voices and gestures, but not nearly the levels of agitation from the previous day. Polanis shot them a look, uttered a final few more words back towards Nessari, and then brushed past Slide on her way out of the room.
“Slide,” Nessari called, motioning them forward, “Polanis has agreed to allow you to aid in our investigation so long as I am supervising you. I trust that you won’t do anything to get me into trouble.”
Slide nodded their head as they walked towards Nessari. Her gown of flowers was even more wonderful today; a motley of blue hues dotted with the occasional white accent petals. Further twists of navy and indigo blooms twirled along her arms and vines, beautiful and entrancing. Slide looked down at the drab jeans and hooded sweatshirt they had hastily wriggled into before leaving their room this morning. They grasped at their dark hair, certain that sections of it were still unkempt and sticking out at odd angles. There was a surge of feelings that swam through their mind and through their heart: awe, jealousy, desire, anger; mixing and churning in their soul, causing them to stop in their place until they could do what they always did and shove them away.
An inviting vine lazily tapped the chair next to Nessari as she sat down in the conference room. Slide pulled the chair out and sat next to the botanical alien they were beginning to think of as a friend.
“Polanis has gone to fetch Dr. Cael so we may interview him about what we discovered last night. Please ask any questions you feel would be useful in uncovering what happened here. I also managed to convince Polanis to allow us to return to the research center for investigation and data retrieval after the interview, provided that I keep you on a short leash.”
She clasped her hands together and beamed with positivity. A twisted mass of two vines gave Slide a comforting and reassuring half-hug. The feeling was strange to them for two reasons: physically the vines were far smoother and silken than they had expected and emotionally they felt like they’d known this alien creature for years instead of less than a day.
“I am confident that between those two things we will have all the answers we need to determine whom among you is innocent,” she continued, the deep purples of her eyes filling Slide’s vision, “I never imagined anything like this happening during my first command, but as they say ‘the obstructed vine grows all the more beautiful in its obstinance.’”
Slide nodded, certain that they had never heard the phrase before. Footsteps clattered down the the hall, getting louder by the second.
With a bounce in his step that didn’t match the glowering Polanis behind him, Gunnar Cael strode into the tiny conference room. He sidled behind Slide and squished his way past Nessari’s thick and flowery body.
“Oh no, don’t mind me,” he chirped as Nessari attempted to scoot her chair closer to the table, “I’ll be past you in a second.”
Slide watched as Nessari’s body shifted and distended ever-so-slightly, distributing her bulk for just a few seconds into a few more inches of height, so the chair would slide effortlessly inward. Polanis plunked down at the other end of the table with a thud; vines, shoots, and leaves splaying outward in an intimidating show of verdant pageantry. Gunnar calmly slid the chair opposite her back towards the wall with two gnarled hands, lowering himself gently into the seat before scooting it forward.
“Dr. Cael,” Polanis grumbled, a noticeable derision in her voice for his title of doctor, “Do you know why we brought you here this morning?”
“My assumption was that you had found my award,” he replied, half-smiling as his gaze turned towards Slide, “but given Slide’s presence I must admit I have no idea.”
Polanis roughly rumbled out a few words in the Affini tongue that Nessari quickly answered in Terran:
“Apparently during the packing process his award from the Terran science institute was misplaced. I assured him that we would make sure it got back to him once found.” She turned her head back towards Gunnar. “I’m sorry to report that we have not been able to locate your award yet, Dr. Cael.”
“What we did find however is far more concerning than a misplaced trinket.” Polanis stretched her arm with the crimson brace toward the floor, reaching below the table and returning a moment later with a sheaf of papers that she slammed on it’s cheap, pinewood surface. A long, thorned vine whipped in front of her in a stunning display of menace before pushing the papers across the table towards Gunnar. “Do you recognize these papers, Dr. Cael?”
The old hands collected the crisp papers off of the table. His eyes squinted in the yellowish light as recognition passed over his face.
“Ah yes, this old project,” he said rustling through the first few pages, “An attempt to aerosolize the F. Emasculata bacterium for wide-scale botanical control.”
“So you freely admit that you were developing a biological weapon capable of being deployed against the Affini?!” Polanis quivered with excitement, looking far more pleased than worried.
“Well that wasn’t the stated purpose of the project,” Gunnar stated simply and calmly, not a trace of concern in his voice, “but considering that it was sponsored by Central Intelligence with very little information as to how or where they were planning to deploy it, it certainly seems a probability.”
Polanis shot Nessari a wicked grin of victoriousness, her orange eyes burning with righteous contempt. Her side of the room grew thicker with thorns as dark, brambly vines continued to spread themselves out behind her.
A tickle moved across Slide’s shoulder. They turned towards the sudden sensation, dreading internally that they’d find one of those thorny tendrils beginning to envelop them. Instead they found the friendly petals of a turquoise flower, its colors dancing slowly and calmingly in their eyes. They glanced at Nessari who seemed completely unaware of the protective and supportive gesture, her gaze sweeping from the gloating Polanis to the reserved Gunnar. Something squirmed in their stomach, pleasant but concerning; a feeling as impossible as it was familiar.
“Dr. Cael, was this weapon ever completed?” Nessari asked pleasantly, her tone more suited to asking about the weather than after genocidal weaponry.
The geologist thumbed through the papers, their rustling filling up the otherwise silent room. When he got to the last one he shook his head and began again, searching intently for something among the condemning pages. Before long he reached the end again and gave Nessari a puzzled look.
“Hmm. This report is missing it’s final few pages. When I finished the project I reported to Central Intelligence that none of our efforts to deploy an aerosolized version of the bacteria were successful.”
“So the bacteria can’t be deployed against the Affini?” Nessari continued, her violet eyes withering Polanis’s self-certainty with an I-told-you-so look. The thorns and brambles slithered back towards their progenitor.
“Well that’s a question of broad-scale scientific possibility,” Gunnar replied, turning his head thoughtfully towards the ceiling, “A thousand years ago spaceflight was considered so impossible that we didn’t even consider it fit for fantasy. Five years ago anyone claiming that sentient plantlife existed would have been declared a lunatic. And yet, here we all are.”
“Don’t dance around the answer Dr. Cael,” Polanis growled, “Can the bacteria be weaponized?”
“Yes, probably,” Gunnar sighed, holding up the stack of papers, “The methods outlined within this study would be my best guesses as to how to aerosolize the bacteria”
“But none of them worked.” Slide reminded him. They noted something off in his demeanor, a nervous flicker in his eyes.
“That is what I reported.” There was a hollowness to his statement, something unsaid hanging in the air. Gunnar looked at Slide, chewing on his lip. Guilt played across his eyes. “But I…” He hesitated again, staring back down at the papers in his hand. “I didn’t actually run most of the experiments. Almost all of the data and the results were faked.” His head rested glumly on his hand, his usual cheeriness nowhere to be found.
The air came alive with the melodic voices of the Fellcor sisters; slow, legato phrases lacking the normal fury of Polanis and missing Nessari’s eagerness. Slide waited for a lull in the discussion between the two plantwomen before asking the question they were sure was on everyone’s minds:
Gunnar blinked, pulled out of an introspective hole. His jaw made the motions to form words, but no sound came out. His weary eyes darted between each of them.
“Why? Because…” He shook his head in frustration, hands balling into fists. “Because it’s fucking evil!”
Gone was the soft-spoken geologist content with playing whist on the border of Terran space and napping through Science Institute’s deadlines. The Gunnar sitting at the end of the table snarled with fury, his voice tinged with indignation and exasperation.
“Wide-scale botanical control?!” He spat, ripping the first page of the report from the rest of the stack. The next three sheets went flying towards the wall as he shook the first page in his hand. “Do they think I’m an idiot? If I gave them a process to weaponize F. Emasculata how long would it be before I heard on the news that some backwater colony saw mass crop devastation in the middle of tariff renegotiations? How long before I’d see my efforts to alleviate scarcity and nurture life turned to the manufacture of misery?”
Silence answered him as the Affini sisters and his Terran colleague stared in astonishment at the outburst. He breathed heavily and set the paper back down with a trembling hand. Slide spotted the glint of a tear under his eyes, the fire there begging to smolder back out but not yet gone.
“I won’t allow them to make me complicit in their atrocities again.”
A soft green shoot slid across the tabletop, gently resting itself on Gunnar’s hand.
“Again?” Nessari prompted gently. Gunnar’s eyes traced the crooked line from Nessari’s mouth to her vine resting on his hand. Gingerly he touched it and then tenderly clasped his own hand over it.
“Years ago on Wynock, a little mining colony closer to the homeworld, they wanted me and a few others to study an semi-amorphus rock strata on the planet. It was normally solid, extremely tough and sturdy at that, but with the application of enough isopropanol it would melt down for a time into a more malleable and fluid state. Given the amount of isopropanol required to cause the state change though, it wasn’t useful for much more than amusing children and visiting geologists.” A smile flickered across his face just for a moment. “Not that there’s much difference between the two groups.”
“The Science Institute wanted us to see if we could find a more efficient way to liquefy the rock as well as a way to rapidly and efficiently cause it to reharden. It took a team of five of us three years, but eventually we did it. One chemical solution that would cause a cascading liquidation effect requiring only a thousandth of the fluid-volume of isopropanol and another solution to force atomic realignment into a solid. We were assured our endeavors would be used to excavate veins of ore more safely on Wynock and the liquefied rock poured as foundations and fortifications for buildings. I believed them and was proud of my work.”
“It was four years later as I was vising Terra that I read the story. A group of workers on Wynock had halted production in an attempt to improve conditions in the colony; higher wages, more leisure time, and the like. Two ships passed over their headquarters spaced a minute apart. The first dropped the liquefying agent, collapsing the building into a slurry of rock and debris. The second dropped the hardening agent, ensuring no possibility of rescue. Forty-seven people.”
His face was bleached white, his words a rasping whisper.
“At first it was called a tragedy, an atrocity, committed by unknown assailants. Rumors abounded of planetary factions, of separatists and terrorists seeking to undermine Terran logistics chains or prepare for an invasion. Within a week the story changed, someone had captured video of the second ship as it descended to deliver its deadly payload and a team of investigative journalists were able to make out the ship number and trace it back to its port. The next day Terran Central Intelligence admitted its involvement, but every underlying fact was shifted to smear atrocity into necessity. For that’s how it is: the Terran Accord can not commit atrocities, only be the target of them. The groups previously theorized to be behind the attack were now said to have been the targets of the attack, that the collection of miners and laborers in the building were actually the separatists seeking to harm Terran freedom. Forty-seven people; no longer innocents but enemy casualties. Transformed overnight into the very bogeymen initially invented to bear the blame for their demise. The monstrous event was lent the invented complexities and nuances necessary to purify it in the public eye, to make it an action digestible by a populous that wants to believe itself good at heart; one that believes the ideals of freedom and prosperity are greater than any human cost.”
“That my work had been used to harm others was horrifying enough, but that it had been turned to such wicked means by the very people I entrusted it with? I prepared my resignation that very day, the venom of my betrayal coursing through every word. I readied myself to deliver it personally, to scream my outrage into my director’s face, when it occurred to me that even then I’d be doing their dirty work for them. To resign would be an abdication of responsibility, a symbolic act of self-absolution that would allow this machinery of death, destruction, and desolation to continue onwards unabated. I am an educated man, and I’d say at least moderately intelligent, but I am not an irreplaceable genius. To step aside would only allow another to take my place, perhaps someone more amenable to the goals of power, willing or even eager to participate in the miasmic outward sprawl of empire and the misery such an endeavor entails. To step aside would alleviate me of future culpability, but would it save anyone? Would it prevent another forty-seven from perishing when they inconvenienced the Accord? I doubted that.”
“Better to sideline projects that were likely to lead to calamity, to mark experiments as failures so as to discourage further investigation. They took my work to better the human condition and turned it to their own wanton ends. Now I leech their resources earmarked for new malignancies and turn them towards the aim of life; I perform fictitious experiments to stall their quest for further tools of subjugation. The Institute of Science can ask me to do whatever it wants, but I’m going to plant corn and play whist.”
He gave them all one last glance of furious fervor before crumpling backwards into his seat. The youthful vigor borne of irreparable regret that had animated him through the last five minutes, stolen and saved from every hateful moment of his past, was utterly spent. If he had looked thirty years younger during his rant, he looked sixty years older now.
“That’s why,” he gasped, exhausted, “That’s why I faked the data related to the F. Emasculata project.”
It was Polanis who broke the silence this time, the initial surprise at Gunnar’s monologue fading back into incredulity. Her few words were directed at Nessari, who responded with her own short phrase in the alien tongue.
“Dr. Cael, I believe you,” she said in Terran once more, her violet eyes sweeping back over his drained form, “but our source indicated—“
“Nessari!” Polanis hissed from across the table, orange irises narrowing at her sister.
“It’s not exactly a secret any more, is it?” Nessari responded, a vine brushing through her hair, “A lost floret and an anonymous source about dangerous experiments. I think we can all surmise Gina knew of something dangerous going on here and reported it. But if you weren’t working on it Dr. Cael, then who?”
“I’m not involved in the day-to-day of everything my colleagues were researching,” Gunnar started, his gaze moving from Nessari to Slide. He stopped mid-sentence, mouth hung open. He painfully winced. “I’m sorry Slide, but if it wasn’t myself or Dr. Algieba then it would have to be…” He trailed off, unwilling to issue the condemning proclamation.
Slide’s stomach plummeted as panic flooded their nerves.
“No! She wouldn’t!” The words conveyed a surety that internally they didn’t possess. Images of the matronly botanist raced through their mind, forming a mural of the woman who had strove to encourage growth in her colleagues as much as she had in the arid world around them. To think the woman who had sat down with them when they had felt adrift and aimless, a void of a person who had left behind a part of themselves before identifying what they had wanted to become; to think that the woman who had assured them that they had made the right choice, that they would become something more beautiful and authentic because of it, would be researching weapons of biological destruction was devastating. Dr. Hydrega had been a friend, a mother, and a symbol; a fellow traveler who had already walked the path Slide was on and now guided them along it as well. An awe-inspiring figure who lived unapologetically as her authentic self, a thing Slide deeply worried they would never find the courage to do.
And yet no matter how many memories of late-night chats and words of encouragement Slide conjured to her defense, their mind kept interjecting with one from the previous day. A memory of gauges and indicators in her lab, of Slide purging the contents of Field X at her direction. Unsettlingly they wondered if she had made them complicit in the destruction of some horrid specimen rotting and withering away flowers in the foreboding concrete outbuilding that housed the experimental field. Would they one day feel as Gunnar did; fueled by regret, trying to mend what could never be undone?
“Dr. Hydrega,” Polonis finished, ignoring Slide’s protests. Gunnar nodded slowly.
“Then that will be the next person we question,” Polanis continued, thorny vines collecting the scattered papers of Gunnar’s report, “However I’d hate for more surprises. Nessari, take your pet back to the research center and see what you can find. Verify Dr. Cael’s story and find whatever you can about Dr. Hydrega’s research.”
She paused, orange eyes enlarging with impatience. “You have your orders, get going!”
Nessari jumped out of her seat at the sudden command, stopping only to usher Slide out of their seat as well. As the two hurried out of the room Nessari’s vines curled around Slide’s torso, as if to shield them from her sister’s baleful gaze. Slide resisted the urge to lean back into them and let themselves be swept along in their new friend’s leafy grasp; to remove their agency from the situation and thereby absolve themselves of the rough decisions ahead. But would that suffice? Would that aid in protecting their mentor? No, they had a job to do, friends to save, and a modicum of dignity; albeit not enough to fully stymie the desire to meld into Nessari’s foliage and nest through the storm.
Together they zipped through the hallways and soon found Q standing at the counter in the lobby, bleary-eyed and angry. She slammed on the bell at the front desk repeatedly, its dull metallic clang failing to summon the manager.
“That is a lovely song you’re playing,” Nessari called out to her pleasantly. The sincerity in her voice made Slide chuckle in spite of the events of the past hour. Q spun around, frowning.
“It’s not a song!” she angrily insisted, “I’m trying to find the manager so I can get a separate room.”
“Wait. Did something happen with Sere?” Slide’s worry was evident in their voice. They’d always thought the nerdy assistants had made a cute couple.
Q’s eyes flashed from Slide to Nessari and back to Slide before turning to stare down the empty hallway, her mouth contorting in distress.
“I’d just like a separate room if they insist on keeping us here.” Q’s blue eyes swung back around to throw daggers at Nessari.
“We sent the hotel staff on their way to Uroo this morning,” Nessari informed her. Slide was certain the Affini understood and intuited the hostility radiating from Q, but she gave no sign of being perturbed by it. “I believe I can grant you a room through their systems though. Give me one moment.”
Nessari produced a tablet from behind her back and a trio of tendrils poked and prodded at the device. Within seconds a beeping sound came from Q’s portable terminal.
“I have given you access to a separate room. I hope it makes the coming days easier for you.”
Q mumbled out a thank you before storming back down the hallway.
“I wonder what happened,” Slide asked as they exited the crummy hotel, more to themselves than to Nessari.
“I don’t know,” she answered, “Perhaps one or both of them found the events of the past day stressful? I have heard that stress can induce anger in Terrans, as well as rash decision making.” Nessari opened the door to one of the vehicles outside, her gentle hand nudging Slide inside.
“You know how to operate one of these vehicles, correct?”
Slide hadn’t driven any sort of vehicle in years, and had only driven a rover of this class in simulations. They placed their hands on the wheel and examined the buttons, switches, and knobs of the control board. They weren’t entirely unfamiliar.
“Of course,” they replied, happy to see the pleased smile on Nessari’s face.