As Ms. Kistia led the way through the Affini craft, Gale was pleasantly surprised by its size. From what space flights she had been forced to endure in her life, she had formed the impression that being cramped, uncomfortable and nauseous was an inherent part of the process. Clearly that wasn't so. In fact, though Ms. Kistia and Gale didn't linger as they traveled through the corridors from the docking bay, she even caught glimpses of wide pavilions and verdant parks towards the central body of the structure. She had no idea about the ships' dimensions, that was the kind of context-free information that just evaporated right out of her brain, but she was certain it was orders of magnitude more than the largest of human ships. It would have to be if it could hold the entire refugee population of a Terran space station.
"Are all Affini ships this size, Ms. Kistia?"
"Of course not, Ms. Gale," she replied. "This ship is in the smallest class of military vessels we have, it just happened to be the closest to Phrygia 3 Station when the evacuation decision was made."
Gale smirked and rolled her eyes, amused by the typical Affini standoffishness surrounding their technological superiority. Even the most understanding and egalitarian affini seemed to love showing off the potency of their technology and how insignificant Terran technology was by comparison. She had replied with shock and awe the first couple times, as was clearly the intention behind the delivery, but had grown well accustomed to it since. Of course this behemoth of a ship was considered small by Affini standards, it was exactly what she had come to expect from the extravagant aliens.
"What sort of temporary housing conditions are the refugees being kept in? Are there proper accommodations or are they being kept in the cargo hold?"
"In the cargo hold? What possible reason would there be for keeping sophonts there? Of course they have proper accommodations."
Gale shrugged. "It's not that unreasonable of a question to ask from my perspective. It was not an uncommon practice for Terran ships to transport humans in their cargo holds if... okay, wait, that sounds worse than..." She paused, carefully considering and letting her thoughts resolve fully before continuing. "No, actually, it definitely was as bad as it sounds a significant amount of the time."
"Delightful." Ms. Kistia replied drolly. "No, Ms. Gale, I am pleased to say that they are currently living in a designated section of habitation units generally reserved for temporary visitors to the station. That being said, I do not doubt that our cargo holds could more easily be rendered fit for habitation than the apparently dreadful living quarters on Phrygia 3 Station. After the rebel occupation cut off civilian trade, various important hygienic and medical supplies were apparently becoming quite scarce."
"Sounds like our surplus of supplies and medical care would be an appropriate topic to focus on in the upcoming meetings, Ms. Kistia."
They passed an affini in the corridor going the opposite direction through the habitation ring, for whom Gale stepped aside in a largely unnecessary gesture of politeness. Spotting her trailing Ms. Kistia, the affini cooed and reached down towards Gale's head with a tendril. Her reactions were too slow to intervene under the effects of the xenodrugs, but Ms. Kistia had no such inhibitions and was able to effortlessly deflect the questing vine with one of her own.
"I'm not a pet, thank you," Gale politely informed the affini in the local alien dialect. Or, at least, in the mutually intelligible subdialect of said local Affini language dialect designed to be pronounceable by individuals with a fixed number of vocal chords. It was one of the first sentences she had learned in the language, precisely due to the frequency of situations like this.
The bewildered affini's eyes widened as though Gale had just slapped them. They looked down at her, then over to Ms. Kistia, then back at her. She could spot the exact moment they gave up on understanding the situation by the shift in tension in the vines forming the affini's torso, and they settled for moving on without another word, their wooden face immobilized by surprise.
Gale and Ms. Kistia continued down the corridor, but the moment the affini stranger was out of earshot, they both simultaneously burst into mischievous laughter. One of the first times this had happened while the pair were out on work business, Gale was delighted to find that Ms. Kistia was just as amused by Affini presumptuousness as she was. Without explicit discussion, the two had come to an unspoken agreement to make a game out of such incidents, and Gale greatly appreciated her superior's assistance in shutting down any such unwanted attention. Her coworkers were one thing, she knew them and they knew her, but she certainly had less than zero desire to be touched by total strangers. Luckily, those unfamiliar affini generally learned not to make the same mistake twice.
Ms. Kistia recovered from laughing first, and resumed their previously productive discussion. "The first group that we'll be meeting have been selected from the more cooperative and open social circles amongst the refugee population. Statistically speaking, this group generally comprises those who had specific negative experiences with their living or working situations under the Terran Accord, ones which they could attribute to specific causes rather than simply general dissatisfaction with their lives. As a result, Terran military and rebel propaganda campaigns which portrayed life under the Accord as having been unambiguously positive before the arrival of the Affini to foster nationalist sentiment failed to resonate with them."
"Somehow, I feel like I'll be able to relate fairly well to them."
"That is indeed the hope, Ms. Gale. I don't anticipate we will have any difficulty with this first group, simply connecting with them and resolving any concerns that they may have while allowing you to get first hand understanding of their mindset.
"How many will there be? I'm not sure I have the presence to manage an entire crowd."
"Nor do I expect you to. We have identified various socially influential individuals from different groups, and invited them to speak with us. This approach has proven quite effective with humans in practice, due to your species' inherently social nature. Once these influential individuals are convinced, they are generally very successful in convincing the rest of their group"
That was a relief. Large groups of people were not her forté. "Stands to reason. It fits well within my observations about how Affini-provided services are generally structured to have public facing floret representatives, such as restaurant staff or store greeters, even when the intermediary between the service user and the affini individual performing the work is completely redundant or trivially replaced by a technological interface. Having undomesticated and possibly wary sophonts interacting with happy and cooperative domesticated individuals on a regular basis is, itself, part of the purpose."
"I will never tire of just how insightful you are into Affini social engineering, Ms. Gale. The vast majority of sophonts, and even some affini, struggle to appreciate the subtle nuances which you tease apart with such casual ease. In this instance, most affini who haven't been involved with the pacification process of new sophont species generally don't think past the most obvious benefit of regular social interaction with our florets."
"That obvious benefit being?" Gale asked, obligingly. She and Ms Kistia both knew that Gale already knew the answer, but Ms. Kistia had clearly phrased her statement to elicit the question. The reliable formula of the back and forth rhythm of their conversations was something they both enjoyed.
"Why, just how enjoyable it is to have such adorable florets around, of course."
Gale huffed lightheartedly, eliciting the usual soft chuckling from Ms. Kistia and harmoniously resolving the metaphorical chord of their brief linguistic duet to their mutual satisfaction. The affini then followed it with a gentle brush of a leaf against her shoulder which, due to the influence of the focus juice in her system, nearly caused her to miss a step as she compensated for the flood of oxytocin and sparkling warmth through her body.
"Please refrain from any of that during the meeting, Ms. Kistia, or I'll be hard-pressed to maintain decorum. I presume we are employing the usual strategy for Affini-wary Terrans, are we not?"
"Indeed, Ms. Gale."
"As expected, having gone through the trouble to fetch me. Having a human leading the conversation despite the presence of an affini should hopefully disrupt whatever assumptions they've made from rebel propaganda enough that we can get something through to them. So long as I can avoid making an absolute fool of myself, of course."
"I will be there to support you, Ms. Gale, as I always will."
The first group they were here to speak with were already waiting for them when Gale and Ms. Kistia arrived. The room was obviously designed primarily as a recreation room for affini, with massive chaises longues for the aliens and their florets to recline on. As a result, several of the waiting humans were sitting in a variety of uncomfortable looking positions, the dimensions of the furniture being such that it was impossible to both rest one's back and drape one's legs over the edge. The only ones who seemed remotely comfortable were those who had completely given up on anything resembling a conventional sitting posture.
Gale saw their eyes flick warily to Ms. Kistia as soon as her supervisor followed her through the door, casting a shadow of anxiety across the room. It was the expected reaction, and it was only natural that their attention would naturally drift towards the affini. Gale took the initiative to redirect the room's attention and, hopefully, take steps towards relieving the tension.
"Stars damned affini," Gale declared, rolling her eyes. "Can conquer whole galaxies and they're still hopeless at interior decorating. I mean, look at this!" She gestured exasperatedly at one of the massive chairs, exaggerating for the crowd of course. "No matter what the room's supposed to be for, they make it look like a lounge. Meeting room? Lounge. Restaurant? Lounge. Seriously, how are you supposed to sit on this?"
She got a small laugh out of at least two of them - an older woman who reminded her of the librarian when she was a kid, and a wide-eyed young woman - just as she had hoped. "Ms. Kistia, when we get back, please remind me to look up what form to use to submit a formal memorandum to the Affini Compact to let your society know that some rooms, in fact, do not need to have sofas in them. And don't tell me that there isn't such a form," she turned to performatively wag a finger at Ms. Kistia. "The Affini Compact has a form for literally everything, I'm absolutely certain that there's paperwork to let someone know that they have terrible taste."
"You will have to be more specific than that, Ms. Gale. There are at least a dozen such forms."
"Of course there are."
She reached over and plucked one of the large, impossibly soft throw pillows from the unoccupied chair and heaved it to the ground, sitting down on top of it with her legs crossed. As she did, she scanned the room. They were all looking at her instead now, perfect. It was a level of scrutiny she could manage, especially with the class-E drugs in her system.
Based on what she had read, most humans on recently defeated worlds with high levels of Terranist activities before pacification reported negative feelings related to powerlessness and fear of disproportionate punishment. Her complaints about furnishings were obviously petty and overblown, but they served an invaluable purpose. After experiencing firsthand how the Affini effortlessly crushed the military might of humanity, Gale hoped that seeing a fellow Terran standing up to the Affini in a constructive way without being immediately drugged into submission would resonate positively.
They were all looking down on her, literally speaking, given her choice of position. This too was calculated, of course, to be juxtaposed in their minds against the affini who, as a matter of principle and cultural norm, generally insisted on being the tallest organisms in the room.
"I'm sorry about all this," Gale said, as Ms. Kistia coiled herself up next to her on the floor. "I'm Terran Accessibility Liaison for Xenia, which is a fancy title which basically means that I'm the one responsible for keeping uncomfortable nonsense like this happening down on-world. You can just call me Gale. My affini colleague here is Kistia Esera, Second Bloom." Of course she doesn't lie and claim her position is superior to Ms. Kistia's in any way, but she provides her title and leaves Kistia's out to allow them to make the assumption. Choosing to sit on the floor as well rather than grabbing one of the cushions like Gale did was also a nice touch, she would have to compliment Ms. Kistia on her execution later. "We're here to answer any questions and concerns you might have about coming to live on Xenia."
"Wait, I recognize that name. Linden's resort planet?" The speaker was a younger man, with short cropped hair and a scattering of small burn scars all across his face and arms. An industrial accident of some kind, Gale was certain, though she didn't have enough first hand knowledge to speculate exactly what.
"That's the one! Though, thankfully, Linden has absolutely nothing to do with it anymore. Of course, now that there's no money anymore and tourism's kind of on hiatus, that means there's a ton of empty timeshare condos and other luxury accommodations for everyone. So, that'll probably be an improvement, if I had to guess."
"Must have been nice to work there," the librarian-like woman commented.
Gale laughed. "Oh, that's what I thought at first too! Turns out their whole family friendly image is customers-only. They had us canned in repurposed remote outpost buildings, the kind for frozen worlds or underwater, and about two dozen people got maimed every month, give or take, building the skyscrapers we weren't allowed to live in."
She then took a gamble and shrugged while looking vaguely, but not so intently as to cause discomfort or overcommit if she guessed wrong, in the direction of the scarred man. "I'm sure you all know how it is. Comfort and safety always takes a back seat to profit."
The man nodded, wincing slightly, and her satisfaction at her correct guess was tempered by her empathy towards the man's familiar plight.
"Thankfully, things are better now," Gale seized on the initiative and turned it back towards the positive message. "One of the first things the Affini did when they came to Xenia was to condemn all of the old units, move us all into the condos and give us some actual food to eat for once. I haven't had any rehydrated food in months!"
"You are still fond of your teas, Ms. Gale," Ms. Kistia supplied helpfully. The help didn't come from the reminder, obviously. The help was in interjecting herself into the conversation in a lighthearted and nonthreatening way, so she could play off of it and make the affini seem... well, not more human, but more personable.
"Rehydrated food is terrible, Ms. Kistia. Rehydrated beverages are entirely normal and reasonable, they're supposed to be that way. It's entirely different. If you had an actual mouth, I'd have you try some, and you'd understand."
The incredulous younger woman piped up from the crowd, what was likely an internal interjection that slipped out into actual words. "Wait, they don't have mouths? But..." She trailed off, focused intently on the affini in the room. Gale wasn't certain if she was an amateur xenobiology enthusiast or fixated on the rumours of the terrifying Terran-eating aliens. Perhaps both.
"It's entirely for show, dear," Ms. Kistia answered, gently, then switched to speaking while leaving her face entirely immobile. "Having lips to move while speaking tends to put Terrans more at ease, as well as assisting those with mild hearing impairments. We have neither lungs nor digestive system resembling those of Terran vertebrates."
"They are plants, after all," Gale added. "They mostly drink water and fertilizer through their roots, and a bit of starshine. Or they use grow lights." She pointed up at the ceiling. "That's why they keep everything so damned bright all the time. In case they want a snack."
There was a soft round of polite laughter from the room, but far more importantly, she watched several of them - including the young woman who had asked - visibly relax at this. Gale suppressed the impulse to cheer. She highly suspected Ms. Kistia had made a point of bringing up Gale's diet specifically to try and make room for a segue like this, and it couldn't have gone better. With any luck, that should quell those ridiculous rumours once news got around. Honestly, why did Terrans automatically assume alien diets would include human flesh, it would be horribly laden with bioaccumulative pollutants.
Gale leveraged the momentum. "And I don't know if food rationing was as strict on Phrygia 3 Station as it was on Xenia before the Compact showed up, but you won't need to worry about that either. Thanks to Marta's work in agriculture and food synthesis, I'm pretty sure it's not even possible for Xenia to run out of food anymore. And not just algae or grain mush, actual real food. With all day restaurants and food delivery. Plenty of everything else too."
"If they don't eat the food themselves, how can you be sure it's safe?" the scarred young man asked.
"I'm as sure as I can be," Gale noted. "Even if they don't eat, they can follow a recipe just fine. My organs haven't liquified due to alien toxins or the like, even though I haven't cooked for myself in... well, at least a month now."
"Is that because your owner does it for you?" the same young woman blurted out once again, wide-eyed and apparently fascinated. Gale mentally thanked Ms. Kistia, or whoever was responsible for inviting people to these meetings, for including someone so unfiltered in the audience. If it was deliberate, she hoped that there would be at least one such individual in every meeting so they could go as smoothly as this.
"What?" she feigned surprise. "Oh, no. I don't have an owner, since I'm not a floret. In fact, the vast majority of humans within the Terran Protectorate are undomesticated and, based on my research on trends amongst similar sophont species the Affini Compact has encountered in the past, domestication rates amongst Terrans is likely to stabilize in the 25% to 40% range in the long term."
"Really?" A gruff, musclebound older man at the back of the room spoke up for the first time, eyeing Gale skeptically. "After they captured and brainwashed Terra's finest, and coerced the government into signing a 'Domestication Treaty'?"
The room held its collective breath, many of them looking nervously at Ms. Kistia. There it was. The crux of the matter. And very familiar territory for Gale and Ms. Kistia to explain, with all the explanations they had given to various wary Xenians over time. They practically had a script for the next bit.
"Whichever bureaucrats came up with the name of the treaty were absolute morons," Gale declared.
"Sophont Domestication Treaties are a traditional and very specific area of Affini law, Ms. Gale. The title of the document conforms with the established precedent, and accurately describes the purpose of the treaty," Ms. Kistia corrected, as though she hadn't said the exact same thing to Gale a dozen times before.
"I understand the legal precedent, Ms. Kistia, but I also understand how Terrans think," she countered. "You put a title like that on it, of course every single human is going to automatically assume the Affini intend to have them personally collared and turned into pets. It was the worst way they could have gone about it. Nobody but the Affini actually recognize a meaningful distinction between 'domestication'" - Gale switched languages as necessary to use the semantically meaningful Affini words - "as it pertains to individual sophonts, and 'Domestication' as a political philosophy."
Gale turned to the other humans in the room and raised a hand. "No pressure, but, array of hands. Who else assumed that's what the 'Human Domestication Treaty' meant?" The man who brought up the Treaty raised his hand, of course, followed by, somewhat hesitantly, a couple others, then several more, until the majority of the humans in the room had their hands raised.
She lowered her hand and scanned the crowd. "The truth about it is... complicated. I mean, the Affini absolutely do take humans, and other sophont species, as pets in a sense very similar to the way humans keep other animals as pets, although far deeper and more nuanced. But unless someone poses a direct threat to themselves or others, then that's on a strictly volunteer basis. And yes, in fact, there are apparently volunteers, including several former coworkers of mine."
"What? Why?" It was the same young woman again, voice tight, perhaps a bit too intrigued. Gale could already tell that she was going to be a very enthusiastic floret for her future owner.
"There are a wide variety of reasons, apparently. I've found it helpful, both intellectually and for my sanity" - this finally earned a laugh from the gruff man in the back - "to think of the relationship between a floret and their partner as simply another type of relationship, albeit unorthodox by Terran standards, amongst others like friendship or romantic love. There's just as many reasons people get into domestication partnerships. My former coworker Heather, for instance, bonded with her affini partner Alvya over mutual attraction and love of music."
"But as for the treaty, it's more like... well. Hm. Now this is just an analogy, but for the sake of example, think about how you feel about a small, cute animal. A cat, a rabbit..."
"Ah, like a horse," agreed the old woman, and several others nodded in consensus.
Gale stared blankly a moment, baffled at how anyone could mistake a large equine for a small domestic animal, before moving on. "Yeah, sure. Whichever you find most familiar and cute. Now, imagine if you saw one running around the inside of a spaceport. It doesn't understand the potential danger, so you'd want to bundle it up and take it somewhere safe. Or if you saw one on the street, mangy and emaciated, you'd want to make sure it received food and proper care, right? That's how the Affini Compact, with their millenia long lifespans and eon spanning civilisation, sees literally every other sophont in the universe. Improperly cared for and needing to be kept safe from blundering into harm's way. 'Human Domestication', as a philosophy, is about making sure that humanity as a whole is healthy and safe."
"The Terran Navy never 'strictly volunteered' to become alien pets," the gruff man spoke up again, crossing his arms. He didn't look upset or angry. He just looked wary, and Gale could sympathize.
"No, they didn't. But if you saw a child with a knife trying to fight a point defense drone, you wouldn't trust its ability to make good decisions either. Hence the health and safety clause." Gale shrugged. "I'm not saying the Affini are perfect, because they're not. They're ultimately people, and people make mistakes. Like their treaty names. Or interior decoration skills. They can be pretty arrogant and condescending at times. But they really, genuinely, care about making things better. Life on Xenia is better now than it ever was under Linden and the Terran Accord and it's getting better every day, and I'm glad I can be a part of it."
The room went mostly silent after that, and Gale took the chance to scan the faces of the others. They seemed to be considering her words rather than dismissing her outright, which was certainly good news. Stealing a quick glance of Ms. Kistia, she saw that, despite her relatively neutral smile, the affini woman's foliage was swaying with poorly concealed satisfaction. Though, she supposed, it was totally unreadable to everyone in the room but her, a private gesture of appreciation for Gale alone.
The young labourer spoke up first. "So... how nice are the apartments?"
Gale grinned. Now this was a question she felt confident answering, even without the xenodrug boost. "Depends if you want the lakefront view or to be closer to the Green Belt..."