The Roots That Clutch

A Handful of Dust

by MourningStarsOfLakes

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

And if longing seizes you for sailing the stormy seas,
when the Pleiades flee mighty Orion
and plunge into the misty deep
and all the gusty winds are raging,
then do not keep your ship on the wine-dark sea
but, as I bid you, remember to work the land. 

- Works and Days, Hesiod; translated by Glenn W. Most


The trip back to the research center was bumpy at first; Slide had never driven one of the larger rover-like vehicles outside of simulations.  In the back seat of the vehicle Nessari encouraged them onwards even as her vines were clutching every handle and support she could find to avoid being tossed about.  By the time they reached the air shield Slide's driving had significantly improved and the last mile of the trip was almost pleasant.  They stopped at the loading bay outside the research center and Nessari unfurled the seven vines holding on for dear life to various internals of the vehicle.
 
“Thank you for driving us here Slide, you did very well considering the inoperable gravitational stabilizer.”  
 
Slide was relatively certain these vehicles didn’t have gravitational stabilizers.  Their cheeks reddened.  A flowery tendril patted them on the head causing them to squirm.  The vine retreated hastily.
 
“I’m sorry, did that upset you?”
 
“No I just…” Slide blushed as they tried to piece together their feelings.  It had been a surprise, certainly, but not unwelcome.  There was something demeaning and patronizing in the action and the way she had spoken to them, but for some reason it had felt good.  As if whatever they did would be good enough for the flowery alien; that she would be amused and appreciative of them even if they didn’t know what they were doing.  
 
“It’s just new to me is all.”  
 
Slide hoped that wouldn’t discourage future pats on the head while also not letting on that they enjoyed it.  To have to admit that out loud would be mortifying.
 
“Good.  From what I’ve heard most Terrans enjoy a good headpet, but each one is special and has its own preferences to take into consideration.”  
 
Slide was certain they had heard a friend of theirs once say the same thing about cats.
 
“Well before we go in…” Nessari rummaged through the bag bouncing behind her and produced a small black collar.  She presented it expectantly to Slide.
 
“What?”  Slide sputtered, searching Nessari’s pretty face for signs this was a joke, “What is that?”
 
“I told you earlier today,” she explained sweetly, “Polanis said I had to keep you on a short leash while we investigated the research center.  I suppose I could just loop a vine around your torso or try to fashion some sort of harness, but most Terran’s I’ve encountered prefer a collar.  And look cuter with one in my opinion.”
 
“I… but…” they stammered, cheeks reddening again, “That’s usually a metaphorical statement.”
 
“Oh, right.  One your silly, what are they called?  Idioms?,” Nessari said, a playful smile spreading across her face, “Well I assure you Polanis is a real stickler about keeping Terrans on actual leashes.  As I offered before though, I could just loop a vine around your waist and that should suffice.”
 
Slide looked at the collar with its little O-ring enmeshed in dark, fibrous strands and then back at Nessari.  Her gown of flowers seemed to shimmer for a moment and a sweet smell drifted in the air around them, relaxing them.  They knew they would normally, immediately say no; but something about the plantlady made them want to at least try it.  Her alluring voice, her swaying body, her flowery tunic, her purple eyes; everything about her was wondrous and beautiful and novel.  Every moment they had spent with the Affini had felt so different than the period of slowed growth they had experienced over the past few months.  The slow striving for a renewed vigor and understanding of themselves had blossomed suddenly and without warning in the alien’s presence.  They couldn’t let anything choke that new growth back down.
 
Odd as the request was, it was Polanis who had ordered it not Nessari.  Besides no one would see them all the way out here, if it helped their newfound friend stay out of trouble it was a small price to pay.  A deeper part of them whispered that they might even like it.  And of course if they found they didn’t like it they could always ask Nessari to switch to the loop around the waist.  They were sure she would allow it.
 
Their hand gently plucked the collar from Nessari’s outstretched hand and the Affini beamed at them.  The material seemed strong but silken smooth, a tactile joy in the hands and, soon enough, around the neck.  Slide fumbled with the clasp and moved their hands aside as Nessari leaned in to help.  It felt oddly pleasant, snug and cozy, confining but comfortably so.  Perhaps when all this was behind them they should look into getting a choker.
 
A verdant tendril coiled through the O-ring and wrapped itself tightly closed, tethering them to Nessari.  She opened the door to the research building and Slide followed.  After only a few steps they stopped even as Nessari continued onward.  They waited for the tug, they needed to know what it felt like.  Nessari slowed but kept moving forward, her vine stretching a tiny amount to keep this first tug gentle.  
 
Slide felt the pull along the back of their neck, the guiding force that while soft was inexorably moving them forward against their own wishes.  There was the familiar burn of humiliation on their cheeks but overshadowing it was a different heat, one of excitement.  As mortifying as this would be around other people, here with just Nessari present it was actually quite fun.  They picked up their pace to match the woman at the other end of the vine leash.
 
Before long they were in the office that Slide had used to store the two small servers they had used for on-site data and backups at the facility.  To their pleasant surprise, both servers had been powered down.
 
“Stars above!  Someone powered down the servers, so the nightly cleanup jobs may not have run!”
 
“Of course,” Nessari stated plainly, “It was part of the system shutdown instructions you gave me.”
 
Slide blinked, astounded.  In all their years no one had ever fully followed a set of technical instructions they had typed up; somehow it was a sentient alien plant to be the first to do so.  They cracked a smile as they pressed the power button on each server and listened to whirring of fans as the machines booted up.
 
A few minutes later they’d connected to the backup server and immediately sought out the job scheduler.  With a few quick keystrokes they’d commented out the nightly deletion jobs and left a very helpful message:
 
#TODO: Turn this shit back on.
 
Certain that they’d prevented any sudden deletions of backup data, they went about seeing what was still on disk.  First they checked Gunnar’s project folders, finding them completely empty.  Either the old man had gotten tech savvy enough to find his way onto the backup server and delete things or, more likely, he hadn’t done any work in the past few days.  
 
“Nothing in Gunnar’s project files,” Slide updated the Affini, “I could try to request a copy of the report from the research nexus though.”
 
“Please do.”
 
Slide attempted to authenticate against the Science Institute’s centralized research service and was instantly denied.  They tried again with the same result.
 
“Shit,” they swore, “I think they’ve revoked our credentials.”
 
A grip of icy panic seized them.  They had been cut off.  Before this they had been sure that once they were back on Uroo they’d be reassigned someplace else, but what if the Accord wouldn’t have them back?  What if the Accord learned of their aid to the Affini and shut them out for good?  
 
“It’s alright,” Nessari cooed, patting Slide on the back, “If you provide me with the server information I’m sure we can figure something out.”
 
“I doubt it,” Slide sighed, confusingly upset over their inability to commit espionage on behalf of the leafy alien holding them on a leash.  Stray thoughts and lessons from their Cryptography classes floated through their mind, “The weakest point of Terran Federated Auth is the initial token exchange, which is done over a multiplexed, five-dimensional elliptic curve interpolation.  Even then, it would take hundreds of years to crack just a single token by trying to eavesdrop on a connection.”
 
Nessari giggled behind them.
 
“What?” Slide asked, worried that they had embarrassed themselves somehow.
 
“Oh I just forgot how primitive your species advancements in mathematics are,” Nessari chortled, “What you’re describing relies on the difficulty of finding the discrete logarithm of given points multiplied along a curve, yes?”  
 
Slide nodded.  
 
“We have heuristics that could solve those within minutes.  Maybe a full hour if the key is particularly long and the points are particularly well chosen.”
 
Slide was floored.  If what Nessari was telling them was true, the whole system of Terran information security was on the brink of collapse.  
 
“Oh don’t be upset,” Nessari said soothingly, a braid of vines lilting over Slide’s shoulder, “I think it's actually quite cute that you think Terrans have found some sort of impregnable algorithm that a civilization aeons older than your own couldn’t breech.”
 
It was this that finally made Slide realize how the Affini viewed Terrans.  Not the ease at which they had taken over Karriss-7, not the collar currently around their neck, but their mastery of the underlying fundamentals of the universe that utterly dwarfed the self-congratulatory conceit of Terran academia.  Had anyone within the cryptography community even had an inkling that the most common method of key exchanges could be solved within a lifetime, there would be a panic to find a new method as soon as possible.  For Nessari to so casually tell them that the Affini could crack it in less than an hour, hell even less than a decade, put it all in perspective: Terrans were little more than children bragging to their parents that they could do double digit addition or remember their whole address.  
 
They ran a finger along the black collar and shuddered.  As they sent the server information to Nessari, they wondered how much it would be possible to learn from the Affini.  Where they so far ahead of Terrans simply due to being sentient longer?  Did they get lucky with some sort of keystone discovery that propelled them forward faster than any other race?  Or were they intrinsically more capable beings that Terrans could never hope to catch up to, let alone surpass, even if given copious amounts of time and tutelage?  
 
And no matter which was true, why was Nessari being so sweet to them?  Why was she including them at all?  Certainly the Affini could have done this without their input, through sheer technological superiority.  Was she just toying with them?
 
“Thank you Slide,” Nessari said, breaking them from their cycle of panicked questions, “Can you find anything about the other projects that were ongoing?”  
 
“Uh, sure.”  Slide tried to focus on the task at hand and not on their massive inferiority.  Sure enough, the backups of all the files they’d uploaded for Dr. Hydrega were there.  Projects about nutrient supplements, cross-breeding, pesticides, and that sore-thumb of a folder labeled “Smut” that Dr. Algieba had left behind.  They pulled them all off the backup server and sent them to Nessari.
 
“Wonderful!  You’ve been such a great help!” Nessari’s words burned Slide’s cheeks.  The pat on the head that followed only made them redden more.  They opened their mouth to ask her to stop, but closed it again before any words came out.  Nessari’s touch and appreciation weren’t the problem; the problem was that they didn’t feel worthy of either.  
 
Stars above, they wished they could be.
 
“So what now?” Slide murmured, looking at Nessari defferentially.
 
“You were the one who worked here,” Nessari prompted Slide in return, “What would you suggest?”
 
Panic and excitement seized them as the answer pounded in their head.  The only place on the compound they’d never been inside of, it’s rough facade silently glowering across the fields.  They said its name in hushed reverence:
 
“Field X.”

The reinforced steel door to the imposing building swooshed open, the dry dead air inside seeping outwards.  Slide was thankful that the access control was locally administered; the ability to enter the restricted building something they had presided over.  Of course if they had ever tried to sneak in before they’d end up facing disciplinary measures from Dr. Hydrega, but a lot had changed in the span of a day.
 
Nessari walked towards the door hesitantly, the leash shortening to pull Slide closer to her side.  The two of them gingerly stepped over the threshold, nervousness jittering through the air around them.  The hallway before them branched out at three points to the left and right, forming four square rooms of the same utilitarian concrete that the outer shell of the building was made of.  
 
Together they approached the slender rectangular window that lined the first room on their left.  Peering through the streaky glass, Slide saw the charred remains of flower stems and petals scattered on a field of brown muck.  Light filtered down through overhead windows, one still stained with soot where the wall-mounted sprinklers hadn’t reached.  A slight tremble reverberated through the collar around their neck and they realized Nessari was shaking.
 
“Are you alright?”
 
“Of course,” Nessari said in calm, practiced tones, her violet eyes lingering just a little too long on a scorched flower to make her words believable, “You don’t think whatever torched those poor flowers is still active, do you?”
 
The memory of holding down the four buttons in Dr. Hydrega’s lab rushed back to them; gauges shifting from red, to yellow, to green.  Which one, they wondered, had represented the incineration of whatever strange and dangerous vegetation had existed here until a little over a day ago?  And what had the other gauges represented?  Nothing good, that was certain.
 
“I don’t know,” they answered as truthfully as they could.  It was entirely possible there was some other protocol that would activate the hidden machinery of immolation.  Best not to find out.  “But I don’t see any reason to go in there, do you?”
 
“No,” she replied with a relieved smile, “let’s check the next one.”
 
The square field directly behind them was tougher to see into.  Brambly creepers crowded the window space even after they’d been charred beyond recovery.  Gaseous wisps of dissolving plant matter still fizzled out of a pool of viscous liquid in the far corner.  Slide could hazard a guess at what countermeasure another one of the gauges on the panel had represented.  This time their flowery friend managed not to shiver, but one of her vines was obsessively twirling their black hair.  If the motion hadn’t been derived from barely suppressed anxiety, Slide would have found it kind of cute.
 
“Next one?” they suggested to Nessari.  She replied with a nod and a tug on the leash.
 
Of the two rearmost fields, the one to their left was completely empty.  Whether it was that way before yesterday or whether Slide had obliterated all its secret growths with the press of a button, they didn’t know.  It was nice, however, to see Nessari relax a bit when she saw the field wasn’t scattered with ash and char.
 
The final field was filled with downed corn stalks; the once-green poles snapped and scattered through the field.  The ears of corn were still in their husks, although where the husk had burnt away Slide could see blackened, shriveled kernels instead of the expected golden-yellow.  Nessari looked away uncomfortably, leaving Slide to crane their neck around awkwardly upon spotting a lone splotch of green in the corner closest to them.  
 
Half an ear of corn, still partially in its husk, had managed to escape the desolation suffered by everything else in Field X.  Or at least, so it first appeared.  As Slide tugged against their leash to get a better angle on the lone survivor, they noticed that despite the green sheathe being unscathed by the fire the few visible kernels were still shriveled.  And alongside them, almost invisible against the ground, were ugly grey growths pockmarking the corn.
 
“There’s something still in there!” they exclaimed, jerking around towards Nessari and stumbling as the leash went taut.  Two flowery vines caught them under the arms and set them back on their feet again.  
 
“Sorry Slide,” she apologized, the vine tethered to their collar growing longer with each word, “I should have been paying closer attention.  I’m sure Polanis wouldn’t care if your leash was a little bit longer.”  A slack coil of green landed on the ground between them.  “Where’s this thing you saw?”
 
Slide pointed at the festering vegetable in the dirt.  Nessari squinted at it and then frowned at the doorway into the field.
 
“I could go in and get a sample, or…”  She glanced back towards the exit.
 
“I could go get it,” Slide offered, seeing the concern on her face.  The words only deepened the worry.
 
“No no no, absolutely not!”  Her voice was frantic and agitated.  She pulled out her tablet device and began tapping on it.  “Whatever happened here looks extremely dangerous and... and... there’s no way I’m letting you go in there!”
 
Slide felt a twinge of anger at the presumptuousness of Nessari thinking that she could order them around like that.  They wanted to do this for her and all she could think about was their own wellbeing!  As soon as that thought registered, the anger melted away into something more tender: that bittersweetness of realizing you’re loved without knowing what you did to deserve it or how to properly return it.
 
Nessari held the tablet up to the window and tapped it a few more times before stowing it away.
 
“I captured a few pictures so we can cross-reference them with the reports you gave us,” she explained as she faced Slide again.  She cocked her head to the side, eyes glimmering with concern.  “Slide are you okay?  You’re crying.”
 
“I’m fine,” they assured her, wiping a finger under their eye.  Somehow it was surprising to them that Nessari was right, a pool of tears had indeed been welling up in the corners of their eyes.  They put back on a brave face, burying their feelings for another time, “I’m okay.”
 
“Alright.  Then let us leave this horrible place.”  She began walking hastily towards the exit towing Slide along behind her.

“We have to be missing something,” Slide asserted as they reached the research center again, “There’s something bothering me that I can’t quite put my finger on.”  
 
In truth there were a lot of things bothering them right now, not the least of which was the blossoming feelings for flower-covered alien gently guiding her collared neck.  But they were hoping they could bottle up that issue until later, when they were alone in their room where it was safe to be vulnerable and to chastise oneself for being so.
 
“We have time to continue looking around if you’d like,” Nessari assured them.  She took a seat at one of the tables in the galley. “Maybe if you think aloud we can figure it out together.”
 
“Something from this morning isn’t adding up,” they started, pacing the length of their leash, “Something from when we were talking with Gunnar.”
 
“With his story you mean?”
 
“I don’t think so.  I mean I guess he could have lied, but I don’t think he could muster up that amount of energy and conviction if  he was.”  They slid their nail along their mouth, the smooth surface of the polish a pleasant sensation along their lips.  Their thoughts narrowed in on their companion's brambly sister.  “No.  It was something about Polanis…”
 
“My sister has many faults, but she doesn’t make a habit of lying.” Her tone was matter-of-fact and unoffended; not defensive but ensuring that all data was present. “Do you remember what she said that sounded off to you?”
 
“No.  Because… because it wasn’t something she said,” Slide said with a whirl and a point of excited elucidation, “It was something she did!” 
 
In their memory , thorny vines rummaged beneath a well worn table.
 
Nessari tapped her leafy knee and Slide, still deep in thought, reflexively sat on her lap.  Flowers parted to make room for them, wrapping themselves gaily around their limbs as they leaned back.  Slide chewed on their cheek in thought, oblivious.
 
“It was the papers!” Slide shouted, grinning upward at Nessari.  They felt the soft stroke of her hand through their hair and only then realized that they were reclining in her lap.  It felt nice to be held, to nestle in among the flowers as the vines wrapped around them.  They stared at her lovely face floating above them, words slowing down.  “The… papers…”
 
They shook their head and launched themselves off her lap, gazing bashfully down at their shoes.  Why had they been cuddling up against her like a lapdog?  They were supposed to be saving their friends!
 
“The papers?” Nessari prompted them, a quizzical expression on her face.  Slide allowed their eyes to meet her gaze, hoping their self-shame wouldn’t be too evident.
 
“The papers,” they repeated back, clearing their throat and adopting a more serious air, “Gunnar said the last pages of the report were missing.  But how could that have happened?  They looked freshly printed, crisp, as if they were just printed yesterday.”  They twirled a lock of hair in thought.  “It could have been Polanis, trying to make the evidence against Gunnar look even worse or force him to verify the information without having the conclusive pages in front of him.”
 
“No,” Nessari interjected, “It wouldn’t make a difference to her if those pages were there or not, she’d still want to interrogate him about it.”
 
“And even if she wanted to, she’d have no access to the master file,” Slide added, bobbing their head, “Our credentials were invalidated some time in the last twenty-four hours, likely when your crew departed Novaglas for the research center.  So let’s say Dr. Cael printed them out a day or two ago for one reason or another and left them in his office.  I suppose it’s possible they got left behind or lost by your investigation team.”
 
“It’s not probable,” Nessari said with a shrug, “but we could check while we’re here.”
 
They strolled the short distance to Gunnar Cael’s office, a tidy room with a desk, a few mineral samples, and a short filing cabinet.  Slide opened the drawers of the filing cabinet and found them almost entirely empty.  They pulled out two folders and handed one to Nessari.  Both began flipping through the papers within.
 
“This raises even more questions,” Slide said as they rifled through the papers, “Other than the first couple pages all of these are just handwritten notes.  The report we saw this morning was entirely printed.”  
 
They walked back over to the cabinet and pulled out the rest of the folders, looking at the cover page in each one.
 
“And the oldest of these projects only go back two months.  What was the date on the report the investigative team found?”
 
Nessari flashed them an impressed smile and began tapping on her tablet.  She arched the petals that served as her eyebrows in surprise before putting the device down.
 
“Nine of your months ago,” she replied, vines slamming open every folder as she peered through the date on each one.
 
“So why reprint a nine month old report?  Why, if he even did that, would he throw out the last few pages?”
 
“Hmmm…” Nessari hummed, the musical tones of her voice making Slide swoon on their feet for a second.  She cocked her head to the side as a vine scratched behind her ear.  Then a bevy of the green tendrils shot forward, slammed the folders closed, and spun them to their sides.  She bent down over each one again and then squinted at her tablet before turning her gaze towards Slide.
 
“Terran handwriting is normally distinct per person, correct?” The Affini asked, straightening back up with a pleased look on her face.
 
“Uh…” Slide blinked, their brain still reeling from something in Nessari’s hum, “Yeah, usually.”
 
Nessari pushed the tablet and one of the folders towards them, an enormous smile on her pretty face.  On the screen was an enlarged image of a folder reading “Biological Weapon Research.”  The physical folder bore the title “Weather Pattern Effects on Karriss-7 Rock Strata.”  The differences were obvious: the physical folder’s handwriting was a jagged panoply of hard edged characters while the handwriting in the picture was softer, curlier.  There was no doubt they were penned by two separate hands.
 
“Someone planted the report!” Slide pumped their fist in the air enthusiastically.
 
“No, the report was found in the cabinet, not in the dirt.”  Nessari corrected them, not a hint of humor on her face.
 
“What?”  Slide stared at her for a moment and then giggled, “No, not planted like a flower in the ground.  Planted as in someone else put the report in Gunnar’s cabinet hoping it would be found.”
 
“An odd word to use for something so… sinister,” Nessari mused, a budding vine tapping her cheek, “How do we determine who is responsible for this… planting?”
 
“Easy.  I’ll just check the print queue logs.”  Honestly, they were surprised it hadn’t occurred to them earlier.  Slide plunked away on their portable terminal as Nessari stacked the folders.  Just as they suspected the logs were extremely short, almost no one had an actual reason to print anything on the station more often than once or twice a week.  In the past week there was only one entry, a job created by user CalderasOtherCousin.
 
Slide bit their lip in confusion, a complex web of names and lore forming unbidden in their mind.  Each name was overly-fantastical to the point of farce and every bit of information connected to them overly-complicated and sometimes contradictory.  Of the two voices, so often intertwined, that had told them this information time and time again Slide remembered which had asked for this username.  She had assured them that the username was actually a really clever joke that only required reading the first five novels in the Ruinous Suns chronology and a handful of side stories to understand fully.  Slide had nodded along and shot pleading glances at Q, who had only stopped her to more fully delve into the neverending lore of the series.  
 
But why would she have wanted to frame Gunnar?
 
“Well?” Nessari asked expectantly, reading the look of confusion on Slide’s face.
 
“It was… Serenity.”  The disbelief was palpable in their voice.
 
“Gina’s lab assistant?”
 
Slide nodded.  
 
“How interesting!”  Her voice sounded excited and upbeat, a stark contrast to Slide’s ponderous expression.  Nessari scooped up her tablet with one flowery vine and with another nudged Slide’s portable terminal into their hand.  She seemed unable to contain herself, “We make such a great team, wouldn’t you agree?  Together we’ve already made more progress than the whole team did last night.  Maybe we can track down some more information before we head back!”
 
The flowers on Nessari’s body glowed dizzyingly with ecstatic light.  Slide’s mind skipped a beat as they stared at the swirling colors, their thoughts eradicated by gently pulsing luminescent petals.  A dull mindless pleasure crept over them, a goofy smile spread across their face.  Nessari, for her part, didn’t seem to notice the accidental stupor she had inflicted on her companion, snapping them out of it almost immediately as her vine tugged hurriedly on their collar.  She gracefully flowed towards the living quarters and Slide had no choice but to follow.

The search of Serenity’s room proved fruitless, as did Slide’s suggestion to search Q’s afterward.  Guilt had gnawed at the invasion of privacy as they watched Nessari push open each door, but relieved itself quickly upon seeing how empty each one was.  The two woman had managed to pack and move everything in the few hours they’d had yesterday, leaving each room as spotless and deserted as it had been before they’d moved in.  Not allowing herself to be deterred, Nessari dragged them (for a few stumbling steps, almost literally) towards the mycology lab.  
 
“It didn’t—“ Slide paused as the leash pulled taut, Nessari’s eager pace requiring them to break into a light jog, “It didn’t strike you as odd that the folder was literally labeled ‘Biological Weapon Research?’  That seems a little too obvious, doesn’t it?”
 
“Well when dealing with primitive—“, Nessari started overly-enthusiastically, casting a glance back at Slide.  Noticing they were struggling to keep up with her, she slowed her pace considerably.  When she started again, her tone regained its calm tactfulness although her eyes still sparkled with energy, “We weren’t sure of the level of subterfuge the Terran Accord would attempt to use and thought it prudent to follow so prominent a lead.”
 
“You thought Terrans would be too stupid to trick you, huh?”  To Slide’s surprise their accusation was playful, delivered with a chuckle and a grin.  Nessari’s only answer was a knowing grin in return as she pushed open the door to the mycology lab.
 
It was immediately apparent that the mycology lab would be much more interesting to search through than the empty rooms of the two lab assistants.  What little could be seen in the dim, soft lights gave every impression of the lab being completely and thoroughly trashed.  Smashed glass twinkled on the floor, the light too low to see everywhere it had scattered, taunting them to cross the room if they dared.  Chemical bottles littered the sink, the disposal of their contents almost certainly not in accordance with hazardous material safety laws.  The rectangular glass terrariums that once held mushrooms of various shapes and sizes sat in a crooked line on the sterile, metallic tables in the center of the room.
 
Two of them were conspicuously absent.
 
“Who did this?”  Slide asked Nessari, squinting through the darkness at the wanton destruction.  Dr. Algieba had installed the lighting specially to keep her specimens at the proper light levels for fungal growth while providing just enough light to see by once one’s vision adjusted.  Standing in the well-lit hallway though, Slide doubted their eyes would adjust any time soon.
 
“I have no idea,” Nessari replied, a tendril tapping behind her ear, “This lab was messy yesterday before we left, but certainly not this messy.”  She checked her tablet in silence as Slide continued to glean what they could from the entryway.  They could start to make out something black and angular on the ground, the hallway light just barely glinting off its lacquered surface if they moved their head to the right angle.
 
“Odd,” the Affini said, taking a wary step backwards, “The investigative team noted the presence of shattered glass last night and opted to postpone examination until a decontamination team could be brought in.”  She looked up from the tablet.  “I am completely certain no such hazard existed when Polanis and I checked it before ushering your team to the hotel last night.”
 
“What do you think it means?”
 
Nessari put her tablet away, a puzzled expression on her face.  “Is it possible that there is another Terran, or even another creature, living in the research center?”
 
“N-No.”  A shiver ran down Slide’s spine.  They were certain no one else was living on the research center grounds.  No one had ever seen an unaccounted for inhabitant on the grounds and the oxygen consumption calculations all but proved it.  But still, that very slight chance that someone or something had been skulking around without any of them knowing unnerved them greatly.  They squatted down and cupped their hands around their eyes, hoping it would help them see the shards more clearly.  That or so they could spot some monstrous creature hiding in the dim light.
 
“I’m certain that the investigative team would have logged it if one of them had been responsible for the potential contamination,” Nessari pondered aloud.  She looked down at Slide’s crouched form with confusion.  A great green mass of vines, roots, and leaves flowed steadily out of her back and into the hallway as she shrunk down to Slide’s level, her body looking like a two-and-a-half foot tall puppet at the end of a dense row of shrubs.  “What are you doing?”
 
“See that?”  Slide pointed into the dimness at the glistening, black shard of darkness they had noticed earlier.  It was still mostly intact, two lines of dark plastic intersecting at a right angle.  “Doesn’t that look like one of the terrarium toppers?”
 
Nessari followed Slide’s finger back up to one of the terrariums on the metal tables, then back down to the shards on the floor.  
 
“Oh,” the Affini said simply.
 
“We’re jumping at shadows,” Slide chuckled as they stood back up, “They’re all empty, see?”  They pointed to the unbroken terrariums closest to them, just barely visible in the dim light.  Each one was completely empty, almost spotlessly so.   
 
“It was probably too close to the edge of the table and got jostled by something, say the slam of the door, and slid off.  So long as we clear the shards of glass off the floor, we should be fine.  I think there’s a broom in the closet just down the hallway…”  Slide began walking and felt their leash slacken.  The two violet gems of Nessari’s eyes followed them on a surge of green, an almost fluid shape of plant matter unconcerned with mimicking a humanoid form.  There was something sublime in the way she flowed after them, a resonant rhythm quivering along the creeping verdure, an enchanting patterning to Nessari’s many flowers as they swam watchfully through the hall.  As Slide focused on it they could feel that rhythm around their neck as well, a pleasant pulsing reverberating down their leash and into their body, tremorring through their nerves and into their brain.  Distractedly they fumbled the hallway closet open, the broom shaking in their hands as they shivered in time to the joyous beat of floral love.  
 
Their thoughts were a cloud of fond feelings as they walked the fifteen feet back down the hallway.  Floating within a bouquet of pink and blue petals Nessari’s eyes led the way whimsically and, Slide had to admit to themselves, alluringly.  The leafy tide began to reform into the more familiar, humanoid shape as they approached the door to the mycology lab, legs and a torso springing from intertwining shoots, roots, and leaves.  
 
Slide caught a glimpse of something else, something new, as they neared the writhing and consolidating figure; a round orb, greenish-brown in color and glowing gently.  Seedlike, a hundred shoots and stems poured from one side of it before branching into the rest of the alien’s body.  The violet eyes saw them staring at it and the assemblage of greenery hurriedly hid the orb away.  A final twist of the botanical sphere before it vanished revealed a blackened scorch mark on its otherwise pristine surface.  Nessari’s face reassembled itself on her torso, eyes guardedly narrowed for an instant before radiating kindness once more.  
 
The pulsing hum however had ceased.
 
Slide stared at her, their spine and mind already missing the pleasant vibrations.  They questioned whether they should ask about what they had just seen and quickly decided against it.  It was likely something private and personal, and they knew better than anyone that private and personal things were never to be shared.
 
They cracked their knuckles and brandished the broom, pushing it roughly against the floor.  Within a few minutes they had cleared a path into the lab as the bits of broken terrariums slid with every sweep towards the far corner.
 
“I can’t believe your advanced alien race was afraid of a little broken glass,” they snarked as they rested the broom against a wall.  Humor was the perfect subject changer, a preferred distraction from sore subjects.
 
“We had reason to believe a biological weapon was being constructed in this facility,” she snapped back, grinning broadly, “I’m sure the investigative team had sound rationale for their decision.  Let’s see…” She pulled her tablet up in front of her, searching for the information that would prove her superiority.
 
Slide walked over to where the terrariums had fallen transfixed by the four-foot long gash in the center of the table, hidden from their former position by the dim light and the still-intact prisms of glass beside it.  Muddy-red streaks tinged its jagged edges, flaking off in some spots.  If they didn’t know any better, they’d think the table had rusted through.
 
A pale, blue glow caught their eye as they moved along the table.  A powder of some sort that lit up dimly wherever their shadow eclipsed the soft, overhead light.  It begged to be touched, its gentle glimmer zooming right past the part of their brain that tried to tell them to think twice.  Dazedly they swiped their fingers through it, watching the dust fall from their fingertips.  A light flurry cerulean snow drifted downwards before them.
 
 “Ah!  It wasn’t the glass they were worried about,” Nessari called out triumphantly, her eyes only now leaving the screen, “There was some sort of dirt spilled…”
 
She looked at Slide and the blue, glowing powder sloughing off their fingertips, then to the other intact terrariums utterly empty of everything; including dirt.  
 
“Slide!” She called out, tugging fretfully on the leash, “What the rot are you doing?!”
 
The spell of the mysterious powder was broken.  Slide shook their head furiously as they looked at their hand, the skin reddening and burning down towards their arm.  They screamed in pain just before four vines lashed around their appendages.  They flew backwards towards the door, coming to a stop in the cradling arms of Nessari.  Her eyes darted around worriedly, a look of terror spreading across her face.
 
“Fuck fuck, owww!”  Slide cried, flexing their swelling hand, “It fucking hurts!”
 
“Stay calm,” Nessari ordered them, panic breaking through her voice, “Relax and take a nice deep breath for me.”
 
Slide winced in pain again before trying to calm their breathing.  A white flower pushed against their face and the air became sweeter.  It nestled its way against their mouth and nose, its pleasant fragrance becoming the only thing they could breathe.  The pain faded away as their mind tumbled into weariness, the petaled mask soothing and anesthetizing them.  As their thoughts shut down a pulsing beat encompassed the remnants of their consciousness; familiar but more hurried than before.  The beautiful beat of alien flowers, the rhythm of Nessari.
 
“That’s right, Slide,” she assured them, “Just take nice deep breaths and I’ll fix everything else.”
 
Slide’s eyelids drooped heavily, fluttered, and then closed.

They were in the fields with Reya again, watching the night sky through the square patch of the powered-down oxygen shield.  The fields around them writhed with dark-green tendrils, their bluish blossoms muted in the darkness.  Something was rustling through the corn in the far distance, but neither of them were concerned.  Nights were meant for star watching.
 
“Look,” Reya said, pointing through the window.  It shimmered and widened, stretching outward until the whole sable sky was visible and clear.  “Those stars, the seven sisters.  Do you remember their names?”
 
“The Pleiades.” Slide answered.  A soft, lush vine caressed their cheek pleasantly.
 
“But what are their names?” Reya asked, touching the first with her finger.  She moved the orb down between them, it’s light obliterating all around them but her face.  “You know this one.  This one’s easy.”
 
“Alcyone?”  They knew that was one of them, it’s name so close to their own surname that even though it had been weeks since Reya walked them through the individual star names they still retained it.
 
Reya shook her head no.  In their mind, words and names were fuzzy.  They grasped for another name in the muddled mess of thoughts and things.
 
“Atlas?”  That was at least a name from mythology.
 
Reya shook her head again.  Slide racked their brain for another name, but could only remember Reya’s and their own.  A cornstalk snapped downwards in the distance.  The word took over their mind for a moment.
 
“Corn?”
 
“Nope.  This one is named ‘Slide.’”  She reached her arm back up into the sky and put the star back where it belonged.  The amorphous blurred mass of names and nouns in their head began to restructure to something understandable as Reya pointed at the next one.  “How about that one?”
 
“Reya?”  The vine twisted in their hair, stroking it softly.  The sensation made them wriggle in place.
 
“Uh-huh, and that one?”
 
“Gunnar.”  Their words were more confident now.  They felt another vine pet their arm as Reya nodded her head.  She pointed at each star in turn and Slide named them.
 
“Anise.  Quern.  Serenity.  Leona.”
 
The rustling sound in the fields drew closer as Reya frowned at the last name.  She picked the last star out of the constellation and pulled it down between them, its light erratic and dim.
 
“Oh sorry, Gina.”  Slide amended, looking in Reya’s face for confirmation.  She shook her head again.
 
“Sorry Slide, I think this one’s defective,” she said pinching it between her fingers, “Once I have some new parts in I’ll make sure to replace it.  Until then, the Pleiades will just have to work with six stars.”  She opened the front pocket on her mechanic’s coveralls and dropped the star inside.  The world shuddered.
 
“And what about that constellation?  What’s its name?” Her arm and fingers snapped towards another set of stars, “It looks different so far from Terra, huh?”
 
The warped Orion appeared at the tip of her fingers, its celestial belt a crimson red.  Reya traced its lines in the sky, first the body and then the arm with the bow.  And then another arm.  And then two legs.  And then she kept going, adding more and more limbs to the once-simple star man.
 
“Reya, I don’t think he has that many arms,” Slide said, grabbing their friend’s arm with a vine-wrapped hand.  Blue and white flowers ran in spiraling patterns down their arm, blooming on a coiling vine that continued past the shoulder to a space behind them they knew they couldn’t look at yet.
 
“They aren’t arms, Slide,” she replied, chuckling and rolling her eyes, “They’re vines.  Don’t you remember?”  The constellation shifted and twisted into a mass of thorny vines with two angry orange stars for eyes.
 
“That’s not right!” Slide insisted.  The flowering vines grew over their shoulder, wrapping them in a soft embrace.  At the edge of their vision, they could see the corn stalks shake in the darkness; more of them and closer.
 
“Oh, I see the problem!” Reya hit herself in the forehead with her palm.  She reached up into the sky and grabbed the belt.  
 
“What are you doing all the way down there?”  With a fluid motion she flung the crimson belt up onto the arm of the figure where it became solid and patterned with flowery, golden embroidery.  Not a belt, but a bracer.
 
“Now do you recognize it?”
 
“Polanis.”  Slide gasped as the constellation began slowly striding across the speckled sky.
 
“No silly, Polaris is over there!”  Reya pointed at another pinprick of light.  A grim chuckle rolled through the heavens.  Reya’s voice became sing-song, “The Hunter lost their name and with misplaced blame now chasing Terrans is their game!”  
 
The stars of the Pleiades shivered in the sky, huddling together as The Hunter drew closer.  Lush green tendrils lovingly stroked across Slide’s forehead and gently cradled their chin.  The corn stalks only a few rows away rustled menacingly.
 
“And finally our dark horse, our mangled lion, your favorite mycologist and mine: Algieba the Scythe!”  Reya threw her arms upward in a ta-da motion.  Applause thundered from all around the two of them.
 
A shadow crept out of the furthest reaches of space and grabbed the starry scythe, blotting out every star as it passed.  It snuck along behind The Hunter, growing larger with every step.  The Pleiades scattered, The Hunter lunged for the nearest one, and the shadow swung its scythe, missing narrowly.
 
“But that’s impossible,” Slide whispered, the flowering vines now leaving only their mouth and eyes uncovered, “She’s in your pocket.”
 
“Don’t be silly, of course she’s…”  Reya reached in her pocket and pulled out the little star.  Her expression changed from incredulity to shock, “Huh…”
 
The shadow swung again at The Hunter again just as the corn stalks behind Reya burst into shadowy soot of their own.  The flowering vines snagged her by the ankle and pulled her just out of the way of the blob of darkness.  A moment later they pulled Slide backwards too, and they felt themselves falling.  
 
Falling.  
 
Falling.
x32

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