Gale groaned, leaning back against Ms. Kistia and shutting her eyes as the door slid shut behind the last departing human with a pleasant click. With each meeting after the first, things had been getting progressively more and more difficult, and even with the help of the focus juice she was starting to feel the strain. The first group discussion had been very productive, and she would have assessed the mood as tentatively optimistic. However, as she had been warned, each group had been sorted to include progressively more malcontents, albeit with at least a couple more welcoming individuals mixed in to prevent negativity from completely dominating the conversation.
The nature of their concerns had steadily shifted as well. Earlier in the day, their concerns were ones that Gale had shared. Ones about whether they and their loved ones would be able to live peacefully without concerns of starvation or injury. Ones Gale could rationally address. There were worries about the practical implications of the Human Domestication Treaty, but ones which Gale, who had read the entire document in full text in multiple translations, could directly address.
But as time went on, the objections she faced were increasingly difficult for her to engage with. Abstract, emotionally driven arguments about self-determination, political freedoms and the rightful place of humanity in the universe. Creeping ever closer to full blown Free Terranism. Thankfully, there was only one group left to go, and they would be done for the day.
Gale herself fully respected reasonable concerns about personal autonomy, of course. But that was part of the reason that she fully supported the Affini Compact. She was far more free now than she ever had been before. The constant struggle to secure enough resources to survive, and the requisite time and effort investment involved, were far more of a constraint on her freedom than the rules the Affini Compact enforced.
She struggled to think of anything that she would possibly want to do that the Affini Compact's control of humanity would prevent. She could travel, if she were so inclined, anywhere she wanted within both Terran space and the entire expanse of the Compact. All it would take would be a simple form, one the Affini would be glad to submit for her. Luxury goods and other physical indulgences? Similarly trivial to acquire.
She couldn't neglect herself to the point of illness. She wouldn't be permitted to inflict violence on herself or others. She wouldn't be allowed to die from preventable disease. And those were good things. Surely anyone would agree with that?
And they had, more or less. Especially at first. Yet, with each group, a greater number refused to accept that reasoning. Some insisted that the capacity to make those decisions without restriction was more important than the decisions themselves, an end in and of itself rather than simply a means. Yet the Terran Accord had even more arbitrary restrictions on behaviour, both those explicitly enshrined in law and those implicitly coded into the power imbalance of the relationship between the rich and powerful and the common individual.
The Terran Accord didn't allow individuals to make repairs to their own devices. One couldn't produce music or writing or art that was even marginally close to something a corporation had produced within an algorithmic margin of error. Nor could one protest against genuine horrors perpetrated by corporations or governments without risking one's own life. Simply existing in most spaces was a crime without paying for one's right to be there.
And yet, even though they were freer than they ever had been by any reasonable standard, that still wasn't enough somehow...
"Tired, Ms. Gale? Or simply lost in thought?"
"Thinking, mostly. Though I'm starting to get a headache from how bright the lights are. Is it possible to turn those down?"
"Of course. Do be aware that photosensitivity can be a side effect of the class-A drug you're on in some individuals."
"Noted." Though it would hardly be relevant to her in the long term, as she didn't plan on taking any again. "Ms. Kistia, may I propose a thought experiment? I am trying to interpret the underlying motivations behind vehement Terran opposition to the Affini Compact."
"Of course you may."
"Suppose that, instead of the Affini Compact as it is, an equally powerful civilization with extremely different motivations had arrived within Terran space. The Anaffini, we could call them. Suppose the Anaffini had developed a technology that had an equal and opposite effect to class-O xenodrugs, class-omega xenodrugs. These drugs, when administered, would render the subject incapable of experiencing anything but endless continual pain and suffering. The goal of the Anaffini Compact would be to administer a class-omega regimen to all other sophonts in the universe."
"A rather dreadful idea, Ms. Gale."
"Of course it is. And humanity has been imagining the existence of such a horrifying enemy for centuries. I think, perhaps, it represents a touch of projection of the collective guilt of our species about how we have mistreated one another in the past."
Ms. Kistia draped a dozen or so leaves comfortingly over her, drawing out a shiver from Gale as she relaxed into the affini's grasp. Though such expressions of support were far from professional from a human standpoint, she had rapidly observed that Affini culture normalized physical affection not only with humans but also between one another. She had noticed early on that affini deep in conversation seemed to instinctively reach out towards one another, entwining vines or pressing leaves together. Gale had no issues indulging Affini social practices with Ms. Kistia, so long as there weren't any strangers around to misinterpret the meaning behind them.
"At any rate, suppose the Anaffini Compact had arrived. Now to both the Affini and every Terran system of ethics I can think of, the Anaffini Compact is morally abhorrent. No matter what degree of hardship is experienced in the process of opposing such an entity, it is preferable to one's inevitable fate under the Anaffini at the hands of their class-omega xenodrugs. Therefore, it would be a rational response for any being to fight back and oppose them by any means necessary. Would you agree, Ms. Kistia?"
"Yes, I suppose so, though humanity would not have had any chance of defeating these Anaffini either."
"Of course not, but that's beside the point. I'm thinking about the morality of the struggle itself."
"I see." Ms. Kistia hummed thoughtfully as she tucked a lock of Gale's hair back behind her ear.
"S-so. We both agree that fighting the Anaffini would be moral, and that the fight against the Affini is not. The Terran Accord falls somewhere on the gradient of morality between the two. And we can also conjecture that, somewhere closer to the Anaffini on the moral gradient between the two to account for the suffering of the fight itself, there would exist a theoretical civilisation against whom fighting is exactly neutrally moral: an ethical inflection point. And..." Gale stops for a moment, thinking, then sighs. "I thought that convincing people to cooperate with the Affini would be simple. I thought that the only thing holding people back was convincing people that the Affini were on the moral side of that divider. A simple, binary, black and white decision."
Ms. Kistia's body rustled gently with the affini equivalent of a sigh. "Ah, now I understand." Her superior stretched out additional leaves to hold her more securely. "Ms. Gale, you cannot hold yourself personally responsible for their actions, whether they are cooperative or not."
"That's not..." Gale squeaked as a leaf-tip flicked her nose. "...all of it. I admit, part of it might be motivated by that. But I also just... I want to be able to help them better, and I can't do that if I can't understand why they're just so... stubbornly adamant about distrusting the Affini despite the evidence. I thought it was fear, and I can sympathize with fear, but I'm unsure if fear can justify it all. Is fear truly sufficient to make people ignore and dismiss the evidence laid out plainly in front of them?"
"It is interesting to hear you talk about fear as a motive for long term patterns of behaviour in itself, rather than a transient emotional state."
Gale shifted to look at Ms. Kistia directly, suppressing a shudder as several of her superior's leaves popped free from her xenodrug sensitized skin. "Ms. Kistia, I... um... What exactly do you mean by that statement?"
"Hm," Ms. Kistia looked at her, brow furrowing. "The Affini have not observed fear to be a strong motive for long-term behaviour, though it can drive instinctive reactions in the very short term. That is not at all to discount the acute stress responses most sophonts exhibit, but the impact of these responses rapidly attenuate as the sophont's primary needs are met."
She took a deep breath, trying desperately to avoid screaming as her heart pounded in her ears. "Ms. Kistia, may I be blunt?"
"Stars, roots, and fucking dirt this is the most egregious Affini cultural blind spot that I don't even know how to begin to elaborate on just how catastrophically this has fundamentally undermined Affini outreach to humanity." Flinching at the uncomfortably loud sound of her own voice, Gale buried her face into Ms. Kistia's foliage to muffle the noise and light. Thankfully, Ms. Kistia correctly interpreted her discomfort and completely shut off the lights.
"Ms. Kistia, do you know how humans, as a species, survived long enough to become the dominant species of Terra?" she whispered into the affini's body. While not the most conventional conversational tactic, the entirety of an affini's body seemed to be capable of some sensitivity of hearing, so she knew that Ms. Kistia could hear her just fine.
"Only vaguely. Please, enlighten me Ms. Gale."
"Millions of years ago, long before we decimated the biosphere of our planet, Terra had many vicious predators, far more formidable than us. Humans were not the fastest on our world. Nor were we the strongest. No claws, no fangs, no venom, no scale armour or thick hide or flight or anything. There was only one way we could survive. Humanity learned to be terrified. Of everything. Because every bush and every shadow and every murky pool could hide a tiger or crocodile or wolf ready to tear our throats out. Anything with any power was to be feared to avoid nearly certain death. And it worked!"
Gale felt Ms. Kistia's hand press comfortingly against the back of her own, and she gladly slipped her hand into the affini's even as she ranted. Ms. Kistia squeezed her hand, and Gale squeezed back.
"And after we learned to build weapons and walls to keep us safe? We still had the fear. So we invented even more terrible things to justify that fear. Anything powerful we couldn't control? We imagined something evil behind it. Capricious powerful entities called gods, who sought terrible revenge for petty slights by calling down bolts of lightning, sweeping away cities with floods and creating virulent and deadly pathogens. Even more dangerous predators to replace those we vanquished: dragons, vampires, trolls, zombies, and more. All because our brains won't let go of millions of years of practice perfecting fear."
"Remember the idea of the Anaffini? Powerful unstoppable beings whose only goal was to visit endless suffering on humanity? I didn't come up with that idea. Billions of humans - billions! - have lived and died over the course of millennia believing with absolute certainty that, as punishment for even the slightest moral failing in life, death would have their minds sent to a realm of eternal torment ruled by sadistic fiends much like I described the Anaffini, to experience a class-omega existence for all of time."
Gale gripped Ms. Kistia's hand firmly, knowing full well that there was no risk of harming the plant woman. That was, in many ways, the problem. "Of course the Affini wouldn't understand that kind of fear, would you? You're biologically immortal, nigh on unkillable, tie the laws of physics in a knot for a leisurely morning activity. Any threat to the Compact or your sophonts, you just defeat it, and it goes away. No danger you simply have to live with, for lack of power to change it. You just... that ever-present, all-consuming, existential terror doesn't exist in your world. Affini don't know how to relate to powerlessness."
Ms. Kistia folded in around Gale. "To us... it's heartbreaking that Terrans don't know how to relate to feeling safe."
Gale winced as her words struck home, sucking the stellar wind from her sails. "Of course we can't... safety never lasts. Never."
"We will keep you safe. All of you. Humanity will never have to suffer such fear again, beneath our boughs. That is our purpose."
"Hard to convince humanity of that when what they fear most is you. They see power and the unknown and see monsters. Demons." Gale mentally added fae to the list as well, but kept that entry to herself.
"And yet, doing nothing was simply not an option. Not as Terrans suffered at each other's hands without our guidance. Had we taken our time, developing the perfect strategy to earn each and every Terran's trust, thousands would have died in that time due to malice and negligence. Deaths which we could have prevented."
The ones Gale failed to prevent alone, no matter how she tried, with all the powers of Linden and the Accord arrayed against her.
"Even then, it would not have prevented the failed leadership of humanity from deliberately stoking those fears in a selfish attempt to hold onto their power just as they did. Perhaps we underestimated the role of fear in Terran psychology. Or perhaps it was accounted for and deemed an acceptable risk compared to the price of delay. I do not know for certain, as I was not involved in the decision. But I am deeply sorry that the consequences of our actions have come to weigh so heavily on your heart, dear Ms. Gale."
Gale shifted her free hand, clasping Ms. Kistia's hand between both of her far smaller ones in an attempt to reassure the affini. "I can handle it. I've handled it so far, haven't I?"
"You should never have had to."
Those words struck a familiar painful chord inside Gale, though she failed to articulate why even to herself. "I still think you should have started with the free food," she joked, deflecting.
"Do not think I have missed you bringing it up at every opportunity today, Ms. Gale."
"And it's been working, just like I said."
A heavy pause passed before Ms. Kistia spoke again. So softly Gale would certainly have missed it, had she not been immersed in the affini's foliage as she was. "Do you believe that you're safe now, Ms. Gale? That your safety will last, this time?"
"I..." The falsehood died half-formed on her tongue. She would not, could not, lie to her. "I want to."
The remaining words of the exchange went unspoken, for they did not need to be said. Both of them already knew what they would be.
"That is not a yes," Ms. Kistia did not say as she pulled Gale closer within her leaves, stroking her hair comfortingly.
"No, it isn't," Gale did not reply as she held on tightly to Ms. Kistia's hand.