The Roots That Clutch

The Unbound Botanist

by MourningStarsOfLakes

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

CW: Fatalism


 Free from the futile strivings and the cares
Which dim existence to a realm of mist,
Happy is he who wings an upward way
On mighty pinions to the fields of light.
 
Whose thoughts like larks spontaneously rise
Into the morning sky; whose flight, unchecked,
Outreaches life and readily comprehends
The language of flowers and of all mute things.
– Elevation, Charles Baudelaire; translated by Richard Howard.

 
Dr. Hydrega glowered at the far end of the Novaglas Hotel and Inn’s tiny conference room.  A smooth fingernail repetitively flicked the corner of her mouth up into half-snarl as Nessari and Slide took their places around the table.  She and Polanis both looked like they’d been waiting here for a while.  Her green irises flicked between the two of them before she settled her gaze on Slide.  Questioningly she raised her left eyebrow.
 
“So what Q said is true.  You’re working with the Affini?”
 
To Slide’s surprise there was no anger behind the words.  Dr. Hydrega’s tone was absolutely calm and measured, the voice of a scientist collecting data.  Yet there was more under the surface display of disaffection: a coy defensiveness seeking to gain information before having to reveal any.  
 
“I… Yes,” Slide stated in response.  They saw a heart-wrenching flash of disapproval on their mentor’s face.  “But only because it means I can help save us.  We’ve found research pointing towards the creation of a biological weapon of some sort, but if we can prove our innocence then they’ll let us go.”
 
Polanis rustled on her side of the table, her brambly bulk shifting to stare at Nessari.  Nessari stared back, an unspoken conversation happening between the two consisting only of looks and minor gestures.
 
Dr. Hydrega looked between the two aliens holding their silent argument and then back at Slide.  Behind her eyes thoughts blossomed and withered, fruits of one set of ideas and feelings dropping the seeds for the next.  Slide could almost hear them from across the silent room: angry chaff trying to choke out resplendent petals of understanding; dark tubers trying to hide their secrets: some sinister, some ugly, some merely personal; deep beneath the slumbering soil where they would never be exposed to the harsh light of day.  In twenty seconds a thousand generations lived and died through bounty and famine, their cultivation evident in the doctor’s shifting countenance.  At long last her left lip curled upwards in a half-smile.
 
“Fuck me, I sure know how to pick ‘em,”  Her resigned chuckle rolled heavily across the table.  “I always knew you were a good seed, Slide.  It figures you’d try to help us all if given the chance.  And without even thinking about the consequences to yourself, that’s noble.”
 
“Consequences?”  The relief that had rushed through their veins at hearing Dr. Hydrega’s approval was halted by icy dread once more.
 
“I’ve never known an empire to treat treason lightly, and certainly not in its waning days.”  
 
Treason?  Really?  They had only been trying to exonerate their fellow humans!  They’d only given the Affini what they needed to clear their names…  Hadn’t they?
 
Slide’s stomach knotted and a chill flooded their every extremity.  Oh no.  No no no no.  They had turned over so much more.  They’d told Nessari about system infrastructure and security processes.  They’d taken her on a tour of a classified facility they’d never thought appropriate to enter before, had copied all the research information they could find onto the plant-alien’s device.  
 
Stars above, they had committed treason.
 
“Oh.  I see you hadn’t considered that yet,” the doctor said with a soft pity, “We can try to keep it a secret of course, but secrets seem rather hard to keep these days.”
 
She chuckled ruefully at their ongoing misfortune.
 
“Your Accord would harm them for trying to help their teammates?”  Polanis’s harsh voice hissed suddenly.  Slide jumped in their seat; they’d almost forgotten the two Affini were in the room.
 
“Historically speaking, when those with power are forced to contend with its loss they resort to increasingly brutal means.”  The doctor paused for a moment.  “Or, I suppose, make a greater show of the brutality as it often already exists implicitly, just below the surface.”
 
Slide’s breathing quickened.  Their heart was fluttering in a syncopated staccato that only served to increase their panic.  Pain erupted through their chest as the situation slammed home.  They had never wanted to go back to Terra proper, but they’d been imagining that after this strange occurrence they’d find a new assignment elsewhere in the Accord.  An environment more conducive to growth.  Someplace where they could finally feel themselves bud and bloom and grow into a full being, a new form wonderful and beautiful.
 
But now it was dawning on them that to return to the Accord would mean their imprisonment or, more likely, their death.
 
A slithering green tendril dotted with azure petals hugged them from one side and then its twin from the other side a moment later.  Slide looked up at the worried violet eyes and felt their breathing start to steady.
 
“Are you alright?”
 
They couldn’t tell which of the two voices had started the phrase first nor if both voices had actually asked the question using the exact same words.  The human voice was easier to understand on the surface; the familiar tone of their boss, teammate, idol, and mentor, a voice somehow more motherly than the woman who’d birthed them, showing the same concern it always had for their safety.  It was kind and sweet and cozy, but still only words.  The musical voice of the sentient plant alien though, that reverberated through her embracing vines and sang along their nerves, pulsed through their bones.  It cut through the externalities of flesh and sinew to hold tight their fragile ego, to nestle and nurture their soul.  
 
The hum continued even after the words were gone.  Their heart slowed to synchronize with its soothing beat.  Warmth and weightlessness radiated outward, driving back the panicked dread.  
 
Was this what it was like to be loved to the very core of one’s being?
 
“Yeah, I think so.”  They weren’t sure whose question they were answering, Nessari’s, Hydrega’s, or their own; but they smiled all the same.
 
“Good.  Good.”  The doctor nodded thoughtfully as they sought out Nessari’s gaze.  She only needed a second to study the Affini’s face before making her decision.  “If you can keep my people safe, from the Terrans as well as from whatever punishment the Affini are planning, I’ll tell you everything I know.  As the head administrator here, anything that happened under my watch is my fault more than anyone else’s.  And as a compassionate being speaking with what I believe to be other compassionate beings, I beg you: make sure no one from this facility will be mistreated when they return to the Accord.”
 
Nessari glanced over to Polanis questioningly, a vine twirling through her faux hair.  The prickly thorns of the other Affini’s brow rearranged in answer, the orange eyes beneath them glimmering.  Her voice was just as gravelly as before, but Slide could have sworn they heard a begrudging respect hiding within.
 
“Granted.”
 
An expectant silence filled the room; Dr. Hydrega waiting for a question and Polanis waiting for an explanation.  For a moment it seemed like neither would break the quiet, that the four of them would wait in unending stasis, suspended eternally in this dingy room on a barren planet as the stars winked out one by one in the sky, all light floundering and failing except the cheap fluorescents in the ceiling above them; waiting until the four of them were all that was left in the universe, stalled on the precipice of discovery by the awkward hesitance of breaching the seal that held back the dam.  
 
“What questions would you like answered?” Doctor Hydrega finally offered when it was clear they were at a standstill.  Polanis twisted her thorny hands together into a knot of prickly bark, seemingly taken aback.  It was as if she had expected the botanist to simply begin listing every evil deed she’d ever seen or taken part in and was now at a temporary loss for how to proceed.
 
“You…” The word trailed off into a dissonant hum as the knotted bark twisted harder against itself.  Her ragged jaw hung open as she fumbled for the right question.  “You said the Terran empire is waning, that they are becoming brutal as they lose power.  What do you mean by this?”
 
The bark knot twisted some more as her wooden jaw closed awkwardly.  A prickly lash caressed the crimson arm brace with a gentleness Slide had assumed Polanis incapable of.  The botanist looked between the two Affini and then at Slide: their faces a spectrum of surprise as they each pondered the question and why it was asked.  It wasn’t related to the bioweapon they had been searching for, or to the research being done on Kariss-7, but still Polanis had asked it.  
 
Perhaps it wasn’t a question she had meant to ask, but one that she needed to ask without knowing or understanding the need.
 
“I… Well…”  Doctor Hydrega shook her head and then held her hands out to either side to point at the Affini.  “You’re here, aren’t you?  Intergalactic conquerors sweeping through the outskirts of Terran civilization before flowing inwards and upsetting the established order?”
 
“We’re just here to investigate a dangerous biological weapon,” Nessari assured her, “Nothing more.”
 
“I am– was briefed by Terran Intelligence once a week,” the doctor scoffed, “I know our ships are being captured in outlying areas of Terran space.  I know people have been taken by your kind and that we’ve even rescued a few, albeit always at huge losses.  It’s preparation for an invasion of some sort, and even if I can’t believe the ludicrous theories about your kind wanting to eat humans or use them for breeding rituals, it seems reasonable to believe an incursion is coming.”
 
“You think…”  Nessari tugged hard on a vine, the curling petals of her lips agape in astonishment, “Why would we want to eat humans?”
 
“As I said, I think that statement is just propaganda.  Just another way to keep the Terran militarization machine rolling.  A way to keep people fearful.  People might want to reason with you if they think you’re capable of reason, and that would mean compromise with a source of power the Accord government can’t easily understand or bring to heel.  That’s the sort of thing every one of these galactic governors and interstellar senators hates.  Whatever you are doing though, the military is readying itself for all out war and Terran Central Intelligence has been going into overdrive fabricating plots and hatching schemes to stop you.”
 
She drummed her fingers in militaristic cadence on the table for a few bars.  Ta ta ta ta, ta ta ta ta.  Her eyes searched skyward and Slide wondered if she was simply lost in thought or if somehow she could see through the cheap tiles awash with pale, cheap light and up through the atmosphere, past Uroo, and into some distant foundry planet where at this very moment all the mass-produced tools of destruction were being prepared for a soon-to-be-realized protracted slaughter of pride, greed, and hubris.  Imagined machines stamped out cold lumps of metal to the beat of Hydrega’s tapping: this one shaped for human hands to perform kinetic harm, another shaped larger to be fitted to a battleship.  Ta ta ta ta, ta ta ta ta.  They rolled off conveyor belts into the waiting hands of the conscripted, ready to die so the Accord could live on.
 
Hydrega’s head leveled parallel with the table again and her drumming stopped.  Slide’s phantom images dissipated.  
 
“But I suppose even if you weren’t here, I’d be saying the same thing.  Every empire established by humans shares a similar pattern.  It grows from a central fertile ground and, desiring to continue growing, puts out roots to find and absorb all the nutrients it needs to sustain itself and its expansion.  It starts nearby, whether that means taking over neighboring villages as they did thousands and thousands of years ago on Terra or, more recently, colonizing the nearest mineral rich and habitable planets.  Then just as the dust settles it realizes that the undertaking has left it with more to maintain: more mouths to feed, more area to rule, and the increasingly vast systems of infrastructure required to extract and distribute resources.  It has grown larger and so it needs even more, not just to keep growing but also to maintain.  So it sends its roots clutching and creeping further away from its center, the cycle repeating to expand and maintain.  It sucks planets dry, expropriating wealth from the outskirts to provide for the grand, looming central structure.”
 
“The cycle repeats until eventually it fails.  The core outgrows or the roots overreach and one final effort is made to gather everything it can into its soon-to-be-rotting trunk before it dies to make room for its successor.  Forever rising and forever returning.  Macrocosm meet microcosm; organizations and empires live, grow, and die just like any other form of life.”
 
Her head rested heavily on her hand, chestnut hair spilling crookedly to one side.
 
“If you’re watching for it you can see it; can feel it.  I felt it when I was working at Aglonium, this terrible, underlying shift as projects in the outlying planets were shut down for the sake of profitability.  I’d been cultivating a promising strain of Convallaria ignari, a species native to Drukelli whose berries produced a hormone that early testing hinted could reduce insulin resistance in diabetics.  My team and I were doing good work, things that could really help people.  Then one day we were told we were being reassigned and to destroy most of the crop to prevent corporate espionage.  Apparently an actuarial analysis determined that the returns on investment wouldn’t hit a break even point within the next five years, so we all got shuffled into a division working on naturally imbuing wheat cultivars on Terra with a fruity flavor to cut down on the raw resource cost of breakfast cereals.  We were given one week to finish experiments and record any and all data related to Convallaria ignari so that maybe one day someone could finish our work.  One single week.”
 
Long-resigned fury twitched through her face in a line: pursing her lips, scrunching her nose, flaring her irises; all one after the other in a moment of remembered rage.
 
“But it wasn’t just Aglonium.  Every other corporation was pulling back inwards towards the imperial core as well, abandoning projects and discoveries that were necessary for our continued growth as a species.  We were supposed to be uncovering the wonders of the universe and using them to enrich all of our lives: new medicines, eco-friendly fuels, ending food scarcity; but the benefits went back, as they always do, to the few, the proud, the powerful.  Living in palaces and manors back on Terra, their gardens and menageries stocked with species made scarce during the last large-scale collapse right alongside the species that will be made scarce during the next one.  The past mistakes we made on Terra are all forgotten in the mad rush to accumulate and amass power and wealth.”
 
She chewed on her lip to stem the flow of bitter words.  With a side-eyed glance she caught Polanis staring thoughtfully at her.  Unspoken concern and anger mirrored themselves between the amber buds of the Affini’s eyes and the green irises of the doctor’s.  
 
“But I suppose that only answers half of your question.  The other half though is simple: those with wealth and power are loath to lose it and will use whatever means they can to keep hold of it.  The Terran military has been one of the only places where funding has continuously and increasingly been allocated.  And they’ve been sent with increasing frequency to settle disputes on behalf of our corporate masters.  Strong-arming the citizens they’re supposed to protect, the people who grow their food and make their ships, into accepting less pay for more work.  All in the name of protecting and preserving the Accord.  Every once in a while things get bloody: one-sided shootouts and massacres to stamp into our minds that the only reason to live is to work, to produce profit, and that those who will not work need not live any longer.”
 
Polanis looked furious; Nessari aghast.  The creaking splintering of wood filled the silence as thorny Affini’s creepers strangled the chair she was seated in.
 
“You are saying that your people slaughter your own?”  All the normal harshness was back in her voice, made more menacing in its whispered notes.
 
Doctor Hydrega nodded slowly.
 
“You see Nessari?”  The hateful orange eyes stared down the other Affini.  “They are cruel even to themselves.”
 
The flowery Affini worriedly looked at Slide then at the doctor.
 
“Certainly they aren’t doing it for no reason.”  The confidence in her statement was undercut with desperation.  “You mentioned that you were working on solving food scarcity.  Terrible as it is, many organisms when placed in a resource constrained situation resort to violent survival instincts.”
 
“No,” the doctor replied; answering a question Nessari, perhaps purposefully, hadn’t explicitly asked, “We call it food scarcity but the total production of food within the Accord greatly exceeds what would be necessary to feed everyone within it.  The problem, so it’s said, is in the distribution logistics.  But even that’s bullshit, isn’t it?  It’s not that we can’t distribute the food to where it's needed, but that it’s not profitable to do so.  We spend trillions on producing battleships and recruiting new space marines, but never can find the money for building a better necessities distribution network.”
 
Polanis shot Nessari a withering look.  The flowers on her vines began to close, petals curling inwards.
 
“But wait,” Slide said, worriedly watching the closing blossoms, “Wasn’t this research center built for just that purpose?  To help solve food scarcity?”
 
“That was its stated intent, yes.”  Doctor Hydrega’s smile was bittersweet.  “But only one reason among many, the one with the most acceptable spin.  Like much of Accord politics, getting this center built and staffed was a Faustian bargain.”
 
“A what?  Who?”  Nessari’s deflated look was replaced with one of confusion.  Internally, Slide breathed a sigh of relief.  If a tangential distraction could pull her out of the miserable swamp of the human condition for even a moment, they would be thankful for it.
 
“A deal with the devil,” Slide offered.  
 
“I’m afraid I don’t…”  Nessari looked at Slide, searching for help.  They opened their mouth to answer when the absurdity of the situation struck them.  Involuntarily, they chuckled.  A second later, Doctor Hydrega too was laughing.  The dark cloud hanging over the room dissipated in the simple moment of joviality.  Nessari, although still perplexed, smiled at Slide.  Her flowers were glowing again as the petals bloomed on her vines.
 
“It’s–”  Slide started, cut off by another snort of laughter, “It’s another one of our idioms.  Archaic Terran.  It means a deal where one gives up something of great moral importance for more immediate material gain.”
 
“Oh!”  The violet eyes swerved to fixate on the botanist again.  Her voice was eager.  “And what did you trade, Doctor?”
 
“I had hoped this place could be a sanctuary for learning,” she explained, her ring finger bouncing lightly on the table as she did so, “A place where scientists could continue to experiment and discover with minimal interference from corporate boards and Accord bureaucrats.  A place where Doctor Cael, Doctor Beckett, and I could work on things that would actually benefit humanity.”
 
“Doctor Beckett?”  Nessari tapped on her tablet.  “I don’t have any records of a Doctor Beckett.”
 
“They were only here for about a year before needing to go on emergency medical leave.  They helped to co-author our proposal for the research center.  They were testing ways to safely and ethically speed up terraforming both via mechanical means and the introduction of certain flora and fauna.  As much as I had looked forward to working with them, by the time I could finally start working here they were long gone.”
 
Nessari nodded as she recorded the information.  Doctor Hydrega continued.
 
“Of course there was no way to get the funding to build this place without having to kowtow to the whims of the wealthy, so deals were made.  For Tryptech’s funding we agreed to projects related to self-sustainability for the Novaglas mining facility as well as harvestable stimulants for the workers.  Novaglas sits on top of the largest Calderium deposit found to date and Tryptech has been using it experimentally in an alloy for their next generation weapons systems and armor plating.  With on-planet food sources and around-the-clock workers, they stand to make trillions.”
 
“Calderium…” Nessari muttered worriedly, swiping through her tablet.  Shocked violet orbs tacked from the handheld data device to Polanis.  She whispered a few words in their alien tongue.  Polanis grumbled out a few words in return.  Nessari grimaced.  “But long term exposure near carbon-based organisms…”
 
Doctor Hydrega raised an eyebrow, interested.  “We’ve only had trace amounts to work with before.  I take from your tone that it’s dangerous?”
 
“Very.  Accumulating neurological degeneration.”
 
The doctor pondered that for a moment.  
 
“I don’t think that’ll deter Tryptech.” She shook her head. “In fact it might make them want it all the more for further weaponization.  At least Aglonium only wanted us to transplant and hybridize luxury crops to corner the high-end food market on Uroo.  That and three more years of my time on Terra.  Obnoxious and perhaps over-optimistic on this sector’s growth, but less harmful in the long run.”
 
“And then Terran Central Intelligence got involved.  They looked at a proposal for an isolated research center on a dead planet at the edge of Terran space and concluded that it was a perfect spot for more… volatile experiments.  Some of them had at least the sheen of benevolent intentions, more effective pesticides for instance, but many of them were hard to see the positive value in.  They said they’d find every way to impede construction if we didn’t accept them as our sponsor.  And when we told them that we’d take that risk, they argued that if they didn’t conduct these experiments here on Karriss-7, where a containment breach wouldn’t spread far through the rust-colored wasteland, then they’d have to do it somewhere else.  Someplace where things could go much, much worse for the environment and the people living there.  Assholes.  We eventually came to terms.  We’d do one project a year for them in an isolated field with state-of-the-art purge switches.”
 
“Field X,” Slide gasped.  There was still a hushed, dreadful reverence in their mind for the foreboding building they’d entered only once.  The memories of the desolation within sent a shiver down their spine.
 
“Yeah.  Field X.”  Doctor Hydrega snarled at the name.  “Fuck if I know everything they had Dr. Cael and Dr. Beckett do before I finally got to take my position out here, but I know what they asked when I arrived.  A review of a project Dr. Cael had done on the F. Emasculata bacteria and its ability to be used as a biological weapon.”
 
Polanis bristled to attention.  Eager amber eyes watched the doctor intently.
 
“Initially they wanted me to resume the work; they thought Dr. Cael had missed something.  I told them I wouldn’t do it, that I’d wasted enough time as it was on dead-end projects.  They didn’t like that.  I almost didn’t come out here to my little haven of science.  For a week I remember thinking that after all the shit I had to put up with at Aglonium: the gladhanding, the corporate politics, the disregard for anything short of growing money right out of the ground, the fucking deal I made, the prison sentence I set myself, to stay there for three more years to guarantee I could finally go do what I wanted; that after all that I’d be denied my post by last minute changes to the terms.  And it was rough, but I was willing to accept that.  I had no desire to trade a corporate master for a military one.  But then, finally, Central Intelligence made a counter offer: a simple review of the F. Emasculata file and I’d be free of them.  That and the funding for another scientist as a dedicated resource for their projects.  They would provide me a pool of applicants, I got to choose from them who I’d work with.  Seemed like a win-win.”
 
“And what did your review of Dr. Cael’s work uncover?”  Polanis growled.  Thorns were twisting their way across the table, knotting into sharp piles.
 
“Dr. Cael…”  She bit her lip, searching for the words to say, “Dr. Cael has seen his work used for ill in the past, and I took that into consideration when reviewing his report.  His stated methodology didn’t match his measurements, and I was of the impression that most of the data he entered was fabricated.  His conclusion, however, was technically correct: there is no simple way to aerosolize the microbes in a way that will cause mass plant death.”
 
“No simple way?”  Polanis prodded.
 
F. Emasculata is a multi-phasal microbial organism with a distinct lifecycle,” Doctor Hydrega explained.  Anger was rising in her voice, although it didn’t seem to be directed towards anyone in the room, “You can’t just bend it to suit your needs.  From my observation it exists within the first foot of topsoil, coating itself in a slim shell of nitrates.  Plant roots absorb the nitrates and the microbe goes along for the ride.  Once inside it coopts plastid cells for its own reproduction, spreading rapidly while interrupting the photosynthetic process.  As the host cells die, the microbe flushes itself back down into the root system where its legion of offspring prevent further nutrient transport into the plant.  The plant then dies, the roots rot, and all the microbes go dormant in the earth waiting for their next victim.”  
 
“It’s a cyclic process that developed over thousands of years to the point that it wiped out all plant life on Karriss-7.  But Terran Intelligence thinks you can just spray it from a shuttle and have it work exactly the same.  There are rules to how things work.  Not everything can be coerced into a weapon of war.”
 
The Affini both looked horrified at the description, although the closing statements eased their worry just a little.
 
“But there still are ways…” Slide shuddered at their own question, “There are still are ways to use it?”
 
“Sure, but they’re of limited use for what Terran Intelligence was after.  You could till it into the soil, but that takes time and requires physical presence and a large starting sample to saturate the ground with.  You could try to spray an aerosolized version and hope it slowly accumulates in the ground over generations, but once again that takes a lot of time and has minimal guarantee of working.  And that’s for just tainting crops on a disgruntled rimworld, when it comes to the Affini…”  She flashed the two plant aliens a friendly smile, “Well as long as you don’t go setting down roots in buckets of soil offered up by Terran Intelligence officers I think you’ll be fine.”
 
“You’re sure?”  Nessari was relaxing already.  Her voice was hopeful.  Speckled blooms running along her arms sighed in relief.  “It can’t be used any other way?”
 
“Well… maybe…”  Hydrega shrugged and rolled her eyes, “Maybe if you injected it into every plant manually at the right stage in the microbe’s life cycle.  Maybe then.  You’d have to trick F. Emasculata out of its dormancy phase and into its reproductive phase without having passed through the root barrier, which is pretty tricky to do.  It’s possible I guess but even assuming you could do it, the delivery method would be far too time consuming for infecting a whole field and you’d probably need a shuttleload of the stuff to infect a single one of you.”
 
“And you reported this?”
 
“Not in so many words.”  She shrugged again with a half-hearted grin, “They asked for a review of Dr. Cael’s work and I told them that while  parts of the methodology lacked rigor, I agreed with his conclusion.  As far as I’m aware, that was the end of the project.”
 
“Then why…”  Nessari fiddled with her tablet before sliding it in front of the doctor.  “Then why were we alerted to a dangerous biological weapon being worked on and why is one of your lab assistants trying to frame one of your researchers?”
 
Doctor Hydrega squinted at the screen.  “I’m not sure what I’m looking at here…”
 
“A print log showing that one of your assistants, Serenity Montis, printed out this copy of the F. Emasculata report just days ago.”  A vine slid the damning papers across the table.  “And placed it in this folder declaring it Biological Weapon Research.”  Another vine slid the folder beside the paper.  “And then left it in Dr. Cael’s offices.  Everything here is under your watch?  Then what in the green hill is going on?!”
 
The doctor looked at the accumulated evidence and shook her head.
 
“I don’t know, you should probably ask Sere directly.  Everything here is under my watch, but I prefer not to be overbearing with my observance.  Quite the opposite actually.  I still, of course, take responsibility for everything that happens here, but I figure the possibility of negligence is a small price to pay for freedom of growth.”   
 
“Hmm…”  She looked at the tablet and shook her head again, ”I can’t see Sere trying to frame Gunnar.  She was his lab assistant back before Dr. Algieba worked here and they became quite close.  And as smart as she can be when she’s focused, she can be a little scatterbrained.  How do you know she didn’t leave herself logged in on a terminal where someone else could use it to retrieve and print the file?”
 
It was a fair point Slide hadn’t thought of; Sere was terrible at logging out of machines.  So much so that Slide had developed a script to force her to log-out after an hour of inactivity.  But that still left a window for abuse.
 
“And who would do that?”  Nessari asked sweetly, as if it would make coaxing the information out of Doctor Hydrega easier.
 
“I don’t know.  Dr. Algieba has been rather testy the last month, not that she’s ever been particularly pleasant.   And she’s always had a weird love-hate thing with Dr. Cael.  Sere works in her lab.  It could have been her.”
 
“Gina?  No no,” Nessari replied with great certainty, “She alerted us to this problem in the first place.  Who else at the station would know about the experiment and want to frame Dr. Cael?”
 
“Well before you showed up there was Dr. Cael who originated the project, Dr. Beckett who’s half a galaxy away, myself who reviewed the project, Dr. Algieba and the Intelligence creeps who were there during the briefings where I walked them through the review, and Sere who was here for the original project as Dr. Cael’s assistant.”  She shrugged her shoulders and then frowned.  Her eyes downcast, she drew a heavy sigh.  “And Q.  She was here at the tail end of my review work and I had her proof read through it.”
 
“Well sure she’d have access to Sere’s account,” Slide pointed out in Q’s defense, “She and Sere are always together.  But I never got the impression she wanted to harm Dr. Cael.”
 
“Harm? No.  But she’s told me many times that Gunnar should be asked to retire.  She thinks his slipped deadlines and sloppier projects reflect poorly on us and could put the continuation of our funding into jeopardy.”
 
That was news to Slide.  Well… actually now that they thought about it Q did often treat the older doctor like he was past his prime.  She was never outright mean to him, but did seem somewhat embarrassed that he was her superior.
 
“I told her that we’re out here to get away from deadlines and mandates,” Doctor Hydrega continued,   “We’re here to discover and experiment in the service of humankind, not in the service of profits or politics or timetables.”  She grinned bitterly.  “Mostly anyway.  Dr. Algieba still had to work to keep the lights on.”
 
“I thought mechanical devices were Reya’s responsibility,” Nessari pondered aloud.  She saw the familiar grin on Slide’s face and touched a vibrant hand to her false face.  “Oh shoot.  It’s another one of your–”
 
“Idioms, yeah,” Slide finished, “Meaning, in this case, to keep our funding available.”
 
“Another deal with the devil,” Hydrega sighed, “She was never supposed to be here.  I had picked a nice dendrologist from the list of applicants, had verbally given her the job and began preparing her lab space, when Terran Intelligence suddenly changed the terms of our arrangement yet again.  I had to hire Dr. Algieba, no way around it, but she’d take on all the government and corporate project work leaving Gunnar and I to our own devices.  When I was hesitant to accept, they threw in funding for another lab assistant as well.”
 
“Why her?”  Polanis’s eyes narrowed suspiciously.
 
“I have no idea.  I assumed it was nepotism, that she had a relative or friend high up in the Terran government and that due to her temperament she had a hard time finding work elsewhere.  Given the recent revelations about her identity…”  She let her thought trail off.
 
“What?”  Nessari’s eagerness was reflected in a wave of luminescent blooms.
 
“I don’t know for sure.  Maybe it still was an act of nepotism.  What better place to hide a former Affini captive than out here in the middle of nowhere?”  
 
“She wasn’t a– “ Nessari interrupted, a hurt look on her face.  Dr. Hydrega was quick to reframe the statement.  
 
“Sorry, an Affini visitor.  There’s a stigma around the few cases of Terrans that have been rescue– recovered from Affini ships.  People wonder if those who return can be trusted.  Maybe that’s why she was out here under a new name.  It’s a place she can be out of the way, where she can continue working, and where Terran Intelligence can keep an eye on her with weekly updates.  All with none of us ever knowing that she was a previous… visitor.”
 
“This still fails to answer who has been continuing work on the bioweapon.”  Polanis tapped a string of thorns on the table to emphasize her words.
 
“I told you, no one has.  Not to my knowledge, at least.”
 
“Then why were we called here?”  Nessari asked, perplexed.  She slid the tablet back into her hands.  “Why all this subterfuge and sabotage?”
 
“If you keep asking the same questions,” Doctor Hydrega sighed wearily, “you’re bound to get the same answers.  I’ve always found when I’m stuck, it helps to enumerate the options based on existing information to know where to look next.”
 
“It could be this is all a giant false alarm.  Maybe with the intent of doing harm to Dr. Cael’s reputation.  Maybe as a pretext for Gina to rejoin the Affini, she did after all seem pretty happy to go.  Maybe for some other purpose.  Failing that, someone is lying.”
 
“I doubt it was Dr. Cael, he’s always seemed sincere about being haunted by his past, but people can change and people can do things incongruent with their core beliefs.  It could be Dr. Algieba, she was working on the Terran Intelligence projects and her circumstances of employment were suspicious to say the least.  However, as you say, she was the person who alerted you to the weapon’s development and was willing to return to your custody as soon as you arrived.  Sere has circumstantial evidence indicating her involvement, but it seems possible she’s a victim of reputational sabotage as well.  Q has no evidence pointing in her direction, but a possible motive and potential access for at least part of the frame up.”
 
“Of Reya and Slide, Reya has physical access to almost everything and frequently spends her weekends in Novaglas.  Hard to say what she gets up to while she’s away.  Slide, meanwhile, has access to all our systems and data.  While I doubt either of them has the expertise for continuing research into F. Emasculata on their own, combined with anyone else here they could go a long way into procuring information, keeping it a secret, or covering it up.”  She locked eyes with Slide.  “Sorry, just being thorough.”
 
“You’re forgetting–”  Polanis interrupted with the accusatory point of a barbed finger.
 
“And of course there’s me.  I could be lying to you about any of this.  As director of the facility I’d have the access and the knowledge.  I work under the auspices of people who desire to weaponize F. Emasculata and who continually yank me around over funding and staffing and my autonomy.  Could be I did it just to get them off my back.  I didn’t; but there’s no reason to believe me.”
 
She paused for a moment, biting her lip.  She looked from Nessari to Polanis to Slide.
 
“And of course there’s you, the Affini.  I don’t know why you would do this, but this whole thing could be a farasical charade.  The only evidence you’ve presented is a long-closed project file, a strange print job, and the lettering on a folder.  We’re to take for granted that there really was a tip sent by Gina about a bioweapon.  Maybe there wasn’t.  Maybe you found out she was here and came calling to claim her.  Maybe she just wanted to go back to the Affini and this was a whole lot of smoke and mirrors to cover her defection.  Maybe this all fits into your invasion plan somehow.  Maybe you’re bored.  I don’t know, but it’s worth questioning.  Once again, no offense; just being thorough.”
 
The room was silent for a few seconds.  Both Affini looked shocked at the doctor’s insinuations.
 
“Does that sum everything up for you?”
 
Polanis grunted in response, her dour head propped on a thorny hand.  She looked tired and annoyed.  Her head shook, side-to-side.  
 
“Fine.  You’re right, this is useless speculation.”  She gestured toward the door, a vine scooting the Doctor’s chair backward with her still on it.  “You can go.  Nessari, fetch the other one.  Serenity.”
 
“And your promise?”  Doctor Hydrega stood slowly, meeting the vicious amber eyes.  “You’ll keep my people safe.”
 
We are not a cruel species, doctor.”  Polanis seemed almost offended at the question.  Then, surprisingly, her wooden lips curled into a half-smile.  “But yes, we wish no harm on you or your team.  We will assure their safety.”
 
“Thank you.  Thank you both.”  She turned to leave and stopped, waiting for a minute as Nessari flowed out of her own seat and out of the room.  As she reached the door, she smiled at Slide.  
 
“Slide, I like the dress.  It looks nice on you.”
 
Happy warmth tickled the back of their brain.  They were pulling it off.  They weren’t hideous.  They didn’t really remember picking out the dress or putting it on, but they were glad they did.  They felt so beautiful.  So pretty.
 
Pretty.  The word pulsed behind their eyes on an infinite field of pleasurable light.  A shiver of joy radiated down their back.
 
Pretty.  Colors twisted through their mind, alleviating self-doubt and dysphoric fear.  Two violet spheres directed their ebb and flow amid the olfactory echo of sweet pollen.
 
Pretty.  Their skin tingled along the paths where blooming vines, unremembered, had slid the dress onto their body.  Their heart fluttered as their nerves yearned for the leafy caress once more.
 
“And while it’s not my style,” Doctor Hydrega’s voice snapped them back to reality,  “the collar is cute too.”
 
“Th-thanks,” they stammered as they raised a hand to their neck.  The Doctor smiled at them one last time before striding out into the hall.  Fingers stroked along the smooth, black fabric, lingering for a moment on the metal ring before feeling further back for the clasp.  
 
Did they pick this out to wear again during that same gap of memory in which they’d picked out the dress?  Or had they just not noticed that they’d been wearing it since Nessari collared them yesterday?  
 
They didn’t know.  And oddly, not knowing didn’t bother them at all.  
 
Their finger found the loose fabric to feed out of the clasp of the collar.  They lifted it and began pushing it back through the hoop that kept the excess slack in place.  The whole collar turned on their neck, sliding slightly in soft, silken bliss.  They paused and reversed course, pulling the slack back tightly against the rest of the collar.
 
They didn’t want to remove it.  They realized they’d lament its absence.
x42

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