“My name is Justicia Irwin, Fourth Bloom, it/its,” the affini who had just walked into the hab said. “So that makes you Nova Morgan, independent; may I ask your pronouns?”
Justicia recognised this particular terran, of course; the bright blue wings were a dead giveaway, even if it wasn’t easy to tell by there being very few independent terrans on board the Telluria at all. It was a little worried by the fact that the sobbing it had witnessed had escalated to the point of needing an official checkup, but, well, that was what those were for, weren’t they? Helping sophonts feel their best was the goal, after all, and it felt more than confident that it could do just that.
It was, however, a little thrown when said terran responded by simply shrugging and saying, “I dunno.”
Well! There were procedures for this. “Would you mind if I marked you down with they/them?” Justicia asked, tilting its head to try to communicate reassuring concern. The terran shrugged again and didn’t offer any resistance, so it marked that down and then turned to look in their direction.
“Thank you very much, Nova.” It leaned back in its chair, just fast enough to seem casual without looking forced, and then swiped up on its tablet. “Have we met before, actually?” it asked, putting its tablet down and leaning forward again; “I seem to remember someone who looked like you from a couple weeks ago, who was on their way to see their vet.”
Nova replied with a heavy sigh. “Yeah, and going was a mistake,” they added, and proceeded to pull the blanket covering them up so that it was tight against their neck.
“Well, Nova, it seems that there’s some disagreement on that front. Dr. Alba has been expecting to see you for thirteen days now, and with all due respect…” Justicia looked around the hab, the thin layer of dust building up on almost every surface, and continued, “It doesn’t seem as though you’re feeling your best at the moment.”
“I am not,” they answered, in a tone that sounded oddly resigned. Justicia waited a moment, expecting some kind of elaboration on that, and proceeded to receive absolutely nothing.
It pulled a small chair out from under the desk and carefully sat down, contorting its form slightly to fit comfortably onto the terran-sized furniture. “Well, that’s what I’m here for!” it exclaimed. “Dr. Alba requested a wellness check for you, so if there’s something the matter, I’d be more than happy to assist.”
“Okay then. Leave.”
Justicia looked down at them, astonished and concerned.
“I’m sorry, Nova,” it replied, placing a hand down at the edge of the bed, “I can’t—and won’t—do that until you’re feeling better. It would be highly irresponsible of me.”
“And if you really wanted me to actually feel better, you’d leave me alone.” Nova stared intensely at the affini, their golden eyes bright and sharp. “Do you really think there’s anything you could do that would make my life better than it was on Evea?”
“I do!” Justicia insisted, despite being met with an intensely sceptical look. “Your xenodrugs have helped, haven’t they?”
Nova answered with a noise that was somewhere between a sigh and a growl. “Maybe the ones I’ve asked for. But what’s to stop you from deciding what’s best for me and drugging me anyway? If I’m having feelings that are too inconvenient for you, do I get any say before you fix me?”
Justicia fidgeted in its seat. “Well, if that happened–”
“Don’t you ‘if’ me. It has happened. That therapist you want me to visit drugged me to get me to talk. My ‘caretaker’ drugged me so she could take me off-planet without asking me. Sure, I’m more than willing to take these”—they picked up a bottle labelled with the letter C and shook it a bit—“but that’s just to stop myself getting hypnotised by you people, and even then it hasn’t stopped you trying. Hell, it took a while to even get these working, because one of my alters was already so wrapped up in affini that she spent a week destroying them lest I dare feel like myself for even a second. So how am I supposed to trust that you actually want what’s best for me?”
The two of them sat in silence for an uncomfortably long time. Justicia felt very strongly as though it ought to say something, but for the life of it it couldn’t quite think of what.
Eventually, it settled on, “I’m so sorry, Nova.”
“…Thank you,” they replied with a heavy exhale. “But I still don’t trust you.”
Justicia nodded. “And I wouldn’t ask you to. You have clearly been hurt a lot, and while I don’t believe that it was intentional on anyone’s part, that doesn’t excuse the fact that the Compact was intended to take care of you, and we have clearly failed you thus far.”
The terran looked blankly back at it for a second before blinking profusely, their eyes slowly welling up with tears. Justicia moved its hand closer, resting it on theirs through the blanket, and asked, “If there’s anything at all that I could do that would help you feel better, would you please tell me?”
Inhale. Exhale. Sara nodded. “Well…”
It was still very hard to communicate in more than abstractions without the class-Fs in my system, and I certainly wasn’t going to push that boundary before Nova—as I guess they were called—was ready. But I desperately needed to do something that wasn’t laying in bed for days on end, and if they were going to entertain that idea and not just try to push me back down, then I was going to run with it as far as it’d go.
The first step, though, as I very quickly discovered, was to get myself in a state to actually leave the house. After politely asking my guest for some space to do so, which it happily and cautiously granted, I grabbed a clean towel from my closet and laid it down just outside the shower before gingerly stepping in.
And then I made the mistake of looking down at my body, and a burst of terror shot out like a flare in my mind.
“It’s alright,” I whispered to myself as best I could, pulling my head out of the stream to take deep breaths. “I’m alone, and no one is here with me. No one is going to touch me here. I am just… taking a shower.”
Pain. Fear. Eyes, all around, staring down and pulsing and flashing, purple, luminescent.
I reached down for the shampoo, sitting on a shelf under the shower head, and gently lathered a little into my hair. “And I definitely took my class-C pills this morning,” I continued, a little smirk on my face. “I checked the compiler log to make sure that they hadn’t been removed, and the security camera footage to make sure nobody snuck in and replaced them. So they will definitely work, Nova.”
Indignation. Concern. Lavender flowers and dark green vines, reaching and grabbing.
“…I’m not sure how I feel about that either,” I admitted. “I still need to talk to everyone else about that… and I probably need to talk to Illaria, too.”
FEAR. Reaching and grabbing and closing in.
“Which I will not do until all of me is ready.” I took another deep breath, and held it as I closed my eyes and rinsed my hair as clean as I could manage. I exhaled, “Don’t worry, it will be alright.”
“Everything alright in there?” called a voice from outside.
jan pona sin?
“Just talking to myself,” I quickly replied, and then sat down before the spinning in my head managed to pull me there. “We have met before, but it seems friendly?”
a! ona li apini anu seme? More vines. Holding still. ona li sama ala sama e jan Ila?
I reached out and grabbed the bottle of conditioner, and held it in my hands for a moment. “You’re that other alter, aren’t you? The one who swapped out my pills.”
lon! mi jan Sala!
“jan Sala.” I spun the name around in my head for a moment. “I remember that name. From when me and Tabitha were dating. I guess you, uh, broke off, the same way Nova did?”
Agreement. Apprehension. mi sona ala e ni! taso mi sona e soweli Tapi. toki ona pi sona toki la mi olin.
“She’s not… nevermind.” I scrubbed a small handful of conditioner into my hair, and continued, “Why did you keep it a secret?”
mi wile len! sina monsuta.
“And it’s also scary to have to wake up naked and hypnotised out of nowhere. To have your body and mind changing and not knowing why.”
tenpo ale la sijelo mi li ante tan ni: mi sona ala e ni. luka waso mi la, sina toki ala e mi.
“That’s different!” I exclaimed. “It’s not like I didn’t want you to know, I just didn’t know you existed! …But I can’t imagine that makes it any better, huh.”
taso sina sona e nimi mi anu seme? sina sona ala e mi, anu sina wile ala sona e mi? Guilt.
“…Both. Maybe? I’m not sure.” I took a deep breath and rinsed my hair clean. “Either way, I shouldn't have treated you like that. You deserved better, and… I’m sorry.”
…sina wile jo e ijo pona kin. mi wile pilin pi sona awen e sina. Soap?
“Don’t worry, I’m on it,” I replied, standing back up and grabbing the bar from the shelf. “Other people are hard to deal with, huh? Even if those other people are yourself, I suppose.”
mi wile ala pakala e jan ante. Inevitability. Friction. A kitchen knife cutting through a stick of butter. taso ona en mi li ken wan. ni la mi pilin pona mute. jan li wile e jan.
“And maybe it’s okay if someone gets hurt every so often. Because if we help each other, that hurt isn’t so bad. And it certainly beats being stuck inside alone forever,” I chuckled, putting the bar back down and getting ready to wash off.
Because it’s not about being perfectly happy. It’s about being… yourself. The most yourself you can be.
“Well, I guess that ‘myself’ is someone who talks to themselves in the shower?”
sina toki e ni, mi toki ala.
I burst into laughter, the peals echoing around the bathroom as I turned the water off. Covering my torso in a towel, I flapped my wings dry as best I could, and then pulled them in close to wrap around me in the closest approximation of a hug I could manage.
“I’m still scared,” I admitted. “I still don’t know how I’m feeling for sure. I’m… conflicted. And maybe that’s okay for now. Maybe I can worry about everything and everyone I am later, and for now, I can just… be myself. Let myself be conflicted, be unsure, be messy, be healing. I think I can manage that.”
I shed the towel as I walked out of the bathroom, pulling out and putting on a sports bra, tanktop, and pair of jeans from my closet. I took a deep breath, and called out, “Alright, Mx. Irwin. I think I’m ready to head out.
“You don’t need to push yourself, Nova,” Justicia turned to me and said. “N-not that I’m saying you shouldn’t, of course. But your health and well-being is my priority at the moment, and I’m a little apprehensive about the possibility of jeopardising your recovery, given… it has only been a half-hour, and I do still need to run your scans.”
I nodded, and replied, “It has, and you do. But I think that this is going to help me feel better, or at the very least, it’ll help me feel like I can trust you better. And with all due respect, if you break that trust, I’d like to have a witness.”
“Are you normally quite so frightful?”
“‘Frightful’ is my middle name,” I smirked back—and then saw Justicia pull out its tablet, and quickly added in a deadpan voice, “that was a joke, it is not actually.” It looked almost disappointed to have missed out on an opportunity to contribute to my paperwork.
My hands trembled as I stepped towards the doorstep, but steadying myself, I managed to firmly knock a couple of times on the door before stepping back and nervously looking around. I still hadn’t quite worked up the courage to explore again, so the unfamiliar scenery was throwing me for a bit of a loop, but it still looked distinctly affini enough that I didn’t feel too lost; I wished they had thought to steal the idea of street signs from Evea, though, even if it would make the place look less like a technicolour garden.
I turned back around just in time to see the door swing open and be greeted by a distantly familiar face, looking at me confusedly. I raised a hand in her direction, awkwardly approximating a wave, and said, “Hey, sis.”
She blinked. “Wait. Artemis? You’re alive?”
“It’s, uh, Nova now; they/them. And yes, I’m alive,” I answered, and turned back towards the affini who was standing back on the path. “My caseworker here is making sure of that.”
“Oh, dang, the affini really get around, huh?” she gasped. “Nice to see you again, Justicia, hope you’re taking good care of my sibling.”
“As best I can, Holly.” It bowed to her, and then turned to me and explained, “Your sister was put under my care while we were integrating your moon into the Compact, and she requested that she be allowed to reside on the ship; quite a lucky coincidence, if I do say so myself.”
“You can say that again,” I muttered. I still couldn’t quite believe my eyes, though; she was older than I remembered, of course, and the long and curly hair that stuck out in my memory was now trimmed shorter and tied back. But those very familiar cheekbones, the nose that looked like mine… it felt like stepping through a time machine, and suddenly instead of being a late-20’s mess barely out of a depressive spiral, I was a little kid again, and I was with my big sister, and everything was alright.
Holly wiped her eyes dry and beckoned the two of us in, and after managing to collect myself enough to move I stepped through the doorway. “Sorry about the mess, I wasn’t exactly expecting guests,” she called from behind me, just as my eyes focused on the extravagantly decorated living room in front of me, a couple affini-sized wooden chairs flanking a plush sofa that was almost as big, a chandelier hanging over the table in the centre of the room, and almost every wall covered from ceiling to hardwood floor in stocked bookshelves. I blinked, and spotted a high stack of books piled up next to the sofa, which was almost certainly the ‘mess’ in question.
Stars, I really missed her.
“Post-scarcity, huh?” I marvelled. She closed the front door and turned to me, stifling a giggle.
“I’ll be honest, most of these are just holograms,” Holly admitted; I awkwardly reached over to one of the shelves, and sure enough, my hand just passed through the images of books. “It really is astounding how much knowledge the affini have collected, though; I don’t think this would even fit a copy of all the books on the ship!”
I turned to Justicia, and it nodded in agreement. “Most of them are digitised, but we do have backups of all of the media in your system’s internet stored on-site, as well as similar recordings from the last few blooms of the Telluria’s operation. You could probably go a lifetime without even touching the outernet and never run out of material.”
“Probably not!” Holly replied, an oddly wide grin across her face. “I haven’t run the numbers yet, I’ve been busy exploring. Actually, on the subject, let me show you my current project!” She reached into the front pocket of her blazer and pulled out a small tablet, excitedly pointing the screen toward me. “One of my new friends helped me with getting full access to the research archives, and look what I found!”
I scanned the screen as best I could, but it was all written in very dense and formal language that I barely had a hope of parsing. The most I could get was… “Something about astronomy?”
Holly chuckled. “Not just anything about astronomy! ‘Transit signals indicative of three short-period exoplanets, planet 961.03 having radius between 0.74 and 1.40 times the radius of Mars, discovered in February of 2011,’”1 she read out with her eyes closed, before opening them again and excitedly looking at me. “As best I can tell, this is the first surviving reference anywhere in Terran history to mention Evea.”
“Oh my gosh, really?” My brain tried to latch onto that date and proceeded to completely fail; that was, what, over five hundred years ago?
“Five hundred and forty!” Holly exclaimed, and I jumped back a little; somehow, I had forgotten how unnerving it was when people responded to the thoughts I accidentally said out loud. “I haven’t checked the catalogues from any other species yet, but there might even be older discoveries; I’ve been told that the affini found out about Terra from another species a few hundred years before first contact, but that would have been before the Accord reached Evea, so I don’t think they’d’ve made much note of it if anyone had found it. I think it was, at least? Still not quite used to how much relativity there is when you’re dealing with interstellar history. Do you need anything to drink? Water, coffee, dragon fruit juice?”
I held up a hand for a moment, my head still reeling. “Sorry, this is fascinating,” I managed, “but… what, exactly, made you think that I had died?”
“Oh, the funeral, mostly,” she said calmly. “I’m guessing your usual mineral water, Justicia?”
“…Mom and Dad held a funeral?” I didn’t know whether I was more shocked or furious, but it was definitely a lot of both.
Holly looked over at me, a confused look on her face. “You didn’t know?” she asked. “Well, I guess you weren’t there… they said that you got in a car accident on your way home from class, and that was why it had to be closed-casket. Which, obviously very suspicious, but I wasn’t exactly in a position where I could question it, and I hadn’t heard from you until now, and…”
She suddenly stopped and put a hand to her cheek, wiping away a stream of tears.
“You’re alive,” she breathed. “My little sibling’s alive.”
Before I could even process what was going on, her arms were wrapped tight around me, as she sobbed, “Oh my stars, I’m so glad you’re safe. Don’t you ever leave me again.”
“I do need to go home for dinner at some point,” I teased, and then returned the hug. “I love you, Holly.”
“Love you too, Nova. Cool name, by the way.”
I shrugged. “It just felt right, I guess; felt nice to have a new start, so to speak.”
“You dork,” Holly laughed. “What language is that one, Esperanto?”
“Latin, actually, but very good guess.” I squeezed my sister tighter for a moment, and then pulled my arms away and stepped back from the hug. “Anyway, you said something about dragon fruit juice?” I asked.
Holly gave a quick nod. “Well, technically it’s just whole fruit right now, but I can juice them if you’d like! Just give me a second,” she said, and then skipped through one of the back doors to what was presumably the kitchen.
Once she was securely out of the room, Justicia turned to meet my eyes. “Well, you do seem to be feeling better; that is really lovely to see.”
“I presume that doesn’t mean I’m free to go, though,” I prodded.
The affini shook its head, and asked, “Do you feel successfully convinced that the Compact has the best interests of your species in mind? That despite our previous missteps, we are in fact not actively malevolent?”
…I had to think about that for longer than I might have liked, but eventually I settled on, “Holly’s happier than I’ve ever seen her, and she doesn’t seem brainwashed. That’s gotta count for something.”
“Is that a yes?” it asked. “That’s a bit of a non-committal answer, Nova.”
“Can you look up where my parents are. Ferdinand and Anaïs Morgan.” Justicia nodded and pulled out its tablet, tapping away at it for an uncomfortably long time. Eventually, it stopped on a result and stared for a few seconds, before wordlessly passing the tablet to me.
Personal shuttle intercepted while attempting to enter hyperspace in orbit of Evea-Luna, I read in silence. Two terrans found on board, both in severe medical distress due to chemically-induced attempted suicide. Upon recovery, both were uncooperative and attempted or threatened to harm themselves or their caregivers on multiple occasions. After a vote by Telluria council of 146-29, both were forcibly domesticated and assigned to class-O regimens.
“Class-O?” I asked.
Justicia fidgeted in its chair. “Permanent xenodrug-induced pacification,” it finally answered, “by way of intense and constant pleasure overwriting the personality. But it is only even considered in the most extreme cases, for sophonts who could not otherwise have healthy lives or avoid doing serious harm; I promise you, Nova, you are in no danger of such a thing.”
“Oh, that’s not what I was wondering,” I corrected; “just making sure I don’t ever have to talk to them again.” I passed the tablet back, saying, “Okay, I trust you.”
“Then we’ll get your scans done as soon as you’re back home, and you’ll need monitoring for the next few days and another visit with your vet to make sure you’re still stable and don’t need any new medications. Assuming that all goes well, then, my job should be done.”
Just then, the back door swung open, and Holly waltzed in with three pint glasses in tow, one full of water and the other two with a sweet-looking magenta liquid. “And then you get to move onto helping some other independent, and knowing our luck, it’ll be my long-lost cousin next. Here you go, you two!” she smiled, holding the glasses out to Justicia and I.
It took maybe a sip for me to work out that I in fact did not like dragon fruit, and until I was finally leaving a few hours later to actually admit as much to her. “We’ll have to try prickly pear juice next time,” she said with a determined smile and a wink.
I smiled back and bid her farewell, hoping that I wouldn’t have to wait too long to spend more time with my family again.
“I swear, if this is because there’s another form I need to fill out…” I grumbled, tongue-in-cheek.
The affini on the other end of the call laughed, “Well, there’s always more forms you could fill out, if you wanted to~” I just rolled my eyes back at her.
I was really not prepared for any kind of social interaction this late at night; jan Sala had spent most of the day flipping through chat rooms and talking to random strangers, and it was late enough that on any other day I would have started getting ready for bed already. But as I was turning my tablet off for the night, I got a call from one Alophosia Azorica, Fifth Bloom, she/her or he/him pronouns, from the Evea records office, and I knew I couldn’t wait until tomorrow to take it.
“Anyway,” she continued, “it’s not that. Or not quite that? Listen, I got assigned to process your forms to travel here, I pulled up your file. You’re that late bloomer, aren’t you? The one who got picked up weeks after everyone else?”
“Uh, I guess,” I shrugged. “Is that a problem? Mx. Irwin said all of my paperwork should be in order already.”
She shook her head, and answered, “No, you’re fine. But you’re looking for Illaria, and you’re looking in the wrong place.”
“There’s no field botanist left on Evea,” Alophosia continued. “Entire planet was scanned front to back a couple times over, and we found everything that was willing to grow in that atmosphere. When Illaria returned from her leave, she was assigned to Evea-Luna, and she’s there now reblooming. And she brought you in after she found you, and I saw the way she looked at you, and I know there’s no other botanist you could be looking for.”
- Oh my stars.
“…Wait, does that mean I have to re-apply for a shuttle?” I asked, nervous fear creeping into my voice.
“Ordinarily, yes,” she admitted, “but! Pulled some strings, called in a favor, got all of your applications edited, and with your blessing, approved. You can be on a shuttle tonight and get there by the time you wake up.”
I sighed. “Thank you so much, Alophosia.”
“Don’t mention it,” she replied. “No, seriously, don’t, this was only technically allowed. Just tell Illaria she owes her friend a big one… though, maybe wait until after whatever big conversation you’ve got planned.”
I nodded, and smiled, and waved, and then rushed outside in my pyjamas to head to the nearest strut; a brief sprint, train ride, and elevator trip later, I was in the docking bay, struggling to keep my feet on the ground in the microgravity.
Smiling nervously at one of the affini at the entrance, I gave them my name and they quickly ushered me to my shuttle, slid me into the sleek white interior, and programmed the autopilot with my destination. By the time the airlock opened, though, I had already fallen asleep, and didn’t wake back up until I heard a gentle chime and pre-recorded message letting me know I had arrived.
I took a deep breath, calmed my nerves, and stepped out into the bright sun of my old home. Once my eyes adjusted, though, I saw a familiar wrought-iron fence, and realised quite how close to home I actually was.
I stepped in through the front door, the handle smashed from forcible entrance and now just swinging freely open. I walked through the hallway, past the stairs I would sneak down late at night to have time alone, the kitchen where I slipped and broke my arm when I was a teenager, the bathroom with a lock that was my refuge more times than I might have liked. Into the dining room, the last place I ever saw my mother before I was shipped away from home.
And then, unlocking and pushing open the glass double doors, I left the house behind me and went up the steps to the garden, where a large cluster of vines with purple flowers was blooming.
“Um. Hello, Illaria,” I whispered to the bush. “I don’t know how long this usually takes, but… when you’re done, we should probably talk. Until then, I’ll be here?” I stretched out my wings and laid down on my back, staring up at the sky and waiting.
As it turned out, though, it only took a few minutes before the vines started shifting. With a slight rumble, the soil next to me cracked as more and more plant matter rose up from the ground, twisting and writhing as it slowly formed from a shapeless mass into something approximating a towering human figure. And then, a pair of metallic purple eyes, forming on the figure’s face and then looking down at me.
I waved. “Hi! It’s been a bit, hasn’t it?”