"Have you ever seen snow, Ms. Kistia?"
"Yes, I have," Ms. Kistia replied, her lilting voice teetering on the fulcrum between curious and confused.
It struck Gale that, after spending several minutes formulating her thoughts about her family, that must have made for a rather odd question to break the silence with. "As a child, I grew up surrounded by snow in Svalbard. Enough to cover the ground and require dedicated vehicles in the dark months. Enough for ski resorts to be built in the fjords. Enough even to preserve genuine glacial remnants, buried deep in the valleys and protected by nearly perpetual mountain shadows. Well, that and extensive meteorological engineering, of course, which also ensured adequate picturesque levels and consistencies of precipitation at exorbitant cost."
"Based on what I have seen of 'cutting-edge' Terran planetary engineering, I imagine that maintaining such conditions against adverse climatological conditions was rather arduous." Ms. Kistia seemingly couldn't resist the chance to indulge in her species' playful conceit, slipping in an obvious tonal jab not only at her species' terraforming technology, but at the concept of any Terran technology meriting such a designation.
"Exactly!" Gale nodded. "That's exactly the point! And as a child I just... I didn't know that it was unusual. It was all around me, it fell abundantly from the sky, and I could lie in bed beneath neosilk sheets in my luxuriously temperature controlled house, watching through my window as it danced down from the clouds, glittering in the streetlamp glow. It wasn't until I was embarrassingly older when I finally realised that most Terrans haven't seen real snow in person in their whole lives."
"And of course, clever as you are, I imagine this realisation prompted a cascade of similar revelations about other aspects of your upbringing."
"Should I be embarrassed at how little I've changed, or impressed by your ability to accurately extrapolate and infer my past behaviour?"
"The two are hardly mutually exclusive, dear Ms. Gale, though I can hardly take much credit at all. The twig grows already bearing the promise of the branch, and such a distinctive mind clearly didn't develop in a season."
Gale took the time to puzzle her way through the subtle fae riddle in her phrasing, not surprised but still impressed by Ms. Kistia's abilities to rattle off something so poetic on the spot. Did she really improvise that, or was she preparing such thought-terminating imagery in advance to use against her on demand? Which was more impressive? "I'm going to take that as the compliment I know it was intended as, but don't think I didn't notice the implication I'm predictable."
"I wasn't attempting to conceal anything I said, Ms. Gale."
"Of course you weren't." Gale sighed. "And you're right, of course. Once I realised not every Terran grew up with snow, not just academically but emotionally, I wanted to know just what else I thought of as a universal experience was actually a luxury. It's been over a decade and I'm still adding to that list regularly. And I try not to feel bad about it... I just wince whenever I think of just how painfully oblivious young Gale was about everything."
"Growing up in Svalbard... well, back to the snow thing. Snow used to be commonplace all across our planet, except at low elevations near the equator. But we... we messed up. We messed up big time. Terran historians disagree on what event marks the point everything fell apart. Was it the first coal-fired power plant? The invention of the internal combustion engine? The widespread use of tetraethyllead as a petrol additive? The Trinity nuclear weapons test? The breakdown of the North Atlantic gyre? The jet-stream destabilisation and first self-perpetuating tropical storm system? Any or all of the various mass-extinction events during the anthropocene biosphere collapse? Ultimately, the distinction is largely immaterial to me, as I was born long after humanity had damaged our planet beyond recognition."
"Of course, by then, we had already gotten our technology up to the point of causing trouble on other planets and moons, leaving only two types of people still living on Terra. Those like mother and father, who had enough wealth to live near the poles and pretend the rest of the planet wasn't a miserable disaster, and those stuck trying to survive in the haphazard urban clusters and slums around the space-port complexes, too poor to escape the planet to Luna, Mars or one of the high-pop Jovian or Saturnian moons."
"You will likely be pleased to know that ecological remediation of Terra is progressing excellently, and that the Terrans in the 'space-port slums', as you put it, have been extremely receptive to Affini assistance and relocation while the work is ongoing."
"That's a relief to hear. They deserve to be cared for, after generations of exploitation, and I'm glad that they're not making it difficult to provide."
"As do all Terrans," Ms. Kistia added, ruffling her hair and showering her brain with sparks. "Unfortunately, most other communities in the Sol System have been far more resistant to change."
"Yeah. That's a good way to describe Terran society, especially in the inner Sol system. Resistant to change. The perfect way of describing the environment I was raised in. They spent exorbitant amounts of money on snow, air and water filtration, all to pretend they were still living in the 20th century, that they and their genetic and ideological predecessors hadn't driven the planet to its nearly-unlivable state in their relentless consumptive exploitation and isolating themselves from the consequences thereof."
"I... I feel bad for having enjoyed any of it, knowing now just how tainted it all was. I enjoyed the ski trips, even if I wasn't proficient enough at it to satisfy father. I enjoyed sitting comfortably in the warmth of the library, watching the snow falling through the window outside. I enjoyed all of the endless variety of candies, pastries and other delicacies that just seemed to miraculously replenish themselves overnight, like something out of a faerie tale."
"A faerie tale? I assume that's 'tale' as in story, some sort of literary genre?"
Gale silently screamed and cursed herself within the privacy of her mind. Stars, she had truly worn right through to the very final threads of her filter, hadn't she? Mother's disapproving scowl flashed in her mind's eye; she would have been so disappointed in her for making such a critical slip. She conjured every last ounce of discretion and subtlety she had left, smiled, and deflected. "Yes, of a sort. They're fantastical stories based on any number of Terran mythologies, often adapted by later authors intending to convey some sort of moral message. Largely unfamiliar to most Terrans, as the works pre-date copyright perpetuities and thus provided no clear financial motive for distributing as is, even though the underlying narratives are regularly stripped down and recycled as the basis for modern stories."
"It's hardly a surprise that you would still be familiar with them nonetheless, Ms. Gale."
"Less to my credit, and more on account of one of the few decent aspects of living in Svalbard. See, a long time ago, before it was a megacity, a group of scientists built a vault for plant seeds on the Svalbard archipelago as a safe repository for the biodiversity of the world's plant life. As disasters struck and the contents of the vault became increasingly valuable, the growing population of Svalbard decided to curate similar repositories of other, equally irreplaceable things for both conservationist and economic purposes. As a result, Svalbard's Central Library, one of the few still publicly accessible provided you happen to be fortunate enough to be a citizen, has reproductions and even preserved original copies of all manner of centuries old texts that I've never seen anywhere else."
"It's rare to hear you so passionate about something other than our work together. I can tell it means a lot to you."
Gale smiled, though she was screaming inside. Passion, perhaps, or else simply anxious energy she was failing to diffuse. "It does, or at least, it did. Still does, I suppose. It shaped a lot of who I am now, everything I was able to read. Significantly broadened my horizons, figuratively speaking, even though I was stuck in an insular close-minded community except for carefully choreographed vacations. Being able to just... pick out anything from the shelves and sit down was a freedom I was never afforded elsewhere. Not in the same way. The net offered nigh-infinite amounts of content on demand, but all so carefully curated and focused by self-iterating algorithms to never show you anything new unless you already knew what you were looking for. Picking up a new book and opening it up... it could be about anything, anyone, anywhere."
Ms. Kistia rustled thoughtfully. "I've always been partial to the convenience of software myself, though you are bringing me around to the charms of the printed word many of my kind seem to prefer."
"Affini still use printed media? But it's so outdated..."
"Ms. Gale, such a silly thing to say, after you've explained the answer to your own unspoken question. The affini as a whole have nothing but time on our hands. Many seem to find the minor inefficiency irrelevant when the material offers such simple charms."
"I see... I suppose, I can't argue with that. Before I discovered how much I enjoyed reading, it was first useful for, well... just that. Taking up time." Finally, her circumlocution had run its course.
"Mother and father... were very busy with their careers. They did not have much time for personal business in their schedules." Dirt, even just thinking about them and she was dropping her contractions as a precaution. "They were both partners in their respective firms, both highly respected in the legal profession. Mother in litigation, burying plaintiffs in discovery and counterclaims until they begged to be allowed to drop their suits, long before ever having the chance to argue the merits of the case. Father in corporate management and restructuring, playing shell games with assets and jurisdictions to shield his clients from any liability or responsibility. Their work was important to the machinery of the Accord. They worked late hours, and travelled frequently. I rarely spoke with them, so I had to find ways to occupy myself."
Ms. Kistia wasn't rustling with amusement anymore. "Oh... oh Gale..."
"I always exhausted both my homework and my tutors' prepared exercises early. Father would have had me enrolled in some manner of physical extracurricular, for the sake of 'balance' and bolstering my future internship applications, but I wasn't legally permitted to participate. A relief, honestly. And without any close acquaintances of my own choosing which my parents approved of, I had many hours to myself for reading, provided that mother wasn't parading me in front of clients at an uncomfortable social function. I hated those. Having to be the perfect, polite, dignified daughter."
"Gale, oh Gale..." Vines turned Gale to face Ms. Kistia, but she found herself unable to muster the capacity to focus her vision inwards from the middle distance. The affini was just a haze of greens, yellows and reds. "This is all very troubling to hear, and I find myself even further concerned that I cannot even tell if you have not had the chance to process the extent to which this is abnormal, or if such neglect was so normalised in your environment that you do not even qualify it as such."
"All of my needs were met."
"You cannot honestly expect me to believe that, Ms. Gale."
"I was given every opportunity to prepare myself for success. Top ranked educational institutions, additional tutoring to acquire additional certifications and bypass entrance-"
"And utterly failed to provide you safety or affection in any capacity, which is entirely unacceptable. Needs are not merely restricted to physical necessities for survival."
"I needed to be ready for the world. The world is cruel and ruthless and will chew you up and spit you out if you can't take care of yourself."
Ms. Kistia scoffed disdainfully. "Their words, not yours, clearly. Your voice wilts even as you repeat them. You don't truly believe that rot."
She winced. "That was how they explained it. Justified it. Excused. Never being there. And even when they were, it was... it was worse. Then I could actually see the disappointment on their faces. I wasn't like them. Driven. Focused. Competitive. I was... distractible. Overly emotional. I wanted to learn but as much as I hated to lose I never cared to win. From the very beginning, I was intended to elevate them to the fortune and power they could never reach themselves, but... I was never going to be able to. I didn't care about success. Not their idea of it, anyway."
"And the universe is far better in every way that you do not." Ms. Kistia reached out with the back of a leaf, soft and cool as it stroked her cheek. Gale blushed with embarrassment. Stars-blighted affectionate affini. "Though does that last statement not conflict with your previous ones? You describe Svalbard as a place of residence generally restricted to the fortunate, then say that they were unable to achieve fortune themselves?"
Gale felt a delightful shiver of schadenfreude. "Oh, they were fortunate, absolutely. But it's a matter of scale. Compared to the average Terran, they were inordinately rich and powerful. But in absolute terms, compared with the truly horrifically wealthy individuals who steered the course of the entire Accord? Mother and father were orders of magnitude closer in wealth to those living in the spaceport slums than those oligarchs."
"We were invited to a party on a private O'Neill cylinder owned by a Jovian finance dynasty once. One of my parents, I forget who, managed to receive an invitation to an exclusive gala event being held as a reward for some successful case or restructuring or the like."
She paused, recalling the brief vignettes of sights and emotions which her memory had deigned to preserve. "It was... gorgeous and horrific. The amount of money spent on that event would surely have been enough to feed everyone on Terra for weeks at the very least. Mother had instructed me in advance to act as though such extravagance was commonplace to us, but they clearly never expected that level of opulence. They were obviously completely out of their depth and they knew it, they were simply mortified. Honestly, I think they were only invited for the entertainment of the hosts, just to see the look on their faces as they realised just how insignificant their riches actually were."
Ms. Kistia shook her head in obvious disdain and pulled Gale closer. "Terran society never fails to disappoint me with its single-minded callousness. I simply could not be more grateful for that voracious reading habit of yours, if that is what helped you grow into such a delightful sophont despite the dreadful environment you sprouted from."
"Thank you, Ms. Kistia."
"You're more than welcome, Ms. Gale. Once again, I am so very honoured and grateful for your trust in me. And remember, you are no longer in Terran society. Nobody will ever be allowed to harm or neglect you for showing your true emotions, not if I have anything to say about it. And I assure you, I have no end of words for anyone who dares to try."
"I..." Gale sighs. "Thank you. Though for the record, I used to be far better at dealing with all this stuff myself, without bothering anyone."
"I have gotten that impression, yes," Ms. Kistia says wryly. "However, it is no surprise that you've started to open up now that you are free of the inhospitable environment and individuals who forced you to be that way. Now we can freely prune away all of those defences which once kept you safe from the dangers of that world, and now only impede you from being a part of this one." Her superior smiled down at her and punctuated her point with a clear, clean snip sound.
Gale tried to look towards the source of the sound, perplexed, but Kistia's leaves held her firmly in place. "Just a moment of stillness, Ms. Gale. As we have been speaking, I've noticed that the tips of your foliage have begun to fray. Pruning away the damaged material is a simple matter, thankfully." The snipping resumed.
"You're... are you cutting my hair, Ms. Kistia?" Gale asked, baffled.
"Yes, that's the word. Thank you, Ms. Gale. I knew that 'feathers' wasn't correct." The affini continued snipping away, carefully adjusting Gale's head position with her leaves. "Yes, that is precisely what I am doing."
"But, I- I don't- Why?" She almost asked Ms. Kistia to stop on principle, the sneering Phrygian engineer's words bouncing quietly around the back of her head, but she didn't. So what if affini were overly affectionate by Terran standards. It was just Ms. Kistia and her in the shuttle, so there was no one to see and misconstrue anything. Besides, it felt far more wonderful than it had any right to.
"Because there was damage that was in need of pruning, and we've been so busy as of late that I hadn't even noticed. I am very sorry if I have been keeping you so busy that you haven't been able to make time to visit a groomer."
Gale shivered as leaves began teasing out the knots in her hair. Ms. Kistia was so gentle, normally she would just take her brush and vigorously and painfully attack them until they gave way. But the affini was so careful, and with the added sensitivity from the focus juice... It was rather hard to muster a coherent reply. "No, it's not your fault! I've had enough time, I just..."
"It's alright Ms. Gale. I know that you have so very many things on your mind. That's why it's no trouble at all for me to take care of this small detail for you, to make up for relying so heavily upon your skills."
"I... er... yes?"
"Precisely. It is also, from what I've read, a highly effective way to help Terrans relax and feel supported. Now, as you were saying before, your upbringing on Terra was physically comfortable, albeit otherwise wholly lacking. It remains unclear by your account how you came to be out here, at the edges of Terran space?"
Gale latched onto the question as a lifeline.
"I... I wanted to... get away from them. They had my life planned out for me. Education. Career. Social circle. They didn't care what I wanted at all."
"And what was that, Ms. Gale?"
"I wanted to help. To try and make up for all the wrong my family did, they and everyone like them. But I couldn't tell them that, of course."
"I can't imagine they would be very receptive to you repudiating their entire value system and life's work, from how you described them."
"No, not at all. So I, ah, made a deal. Linden had a... program. They said it was a scholarship program. That's when a private entity pays the costs for your advanced education. But Linden's fellowship program was essentially just indentured servitude. They paid for my education, and in exchange, I had to work for them for ten years after graduating from NICE."
"From 'nice', Ms. Gale?"
"Ah, the Ny-Ålesund Institute of Colonial Engineering. It's an acronym. Ironic, in that neither the institution nor its occupants were. The building and programs and such were fine, but... the whole place was designed to help the scions of rich families continue their legacies of exploitation amongst the stars, where regulatory oversight and human rights were few and far between. With Linden's money, at least I could study colonial systems engineering, which is Terran for 'keeping your workers alive as cheaply as possible'. That's about as close to helping people as Linden was willing to pay for, and far more tolerable than mother and father's plan of a triple major in corporate law, quantitative finance and interstellar business administration."
"How dreadful," Ms. Kistia noted, then tilted her head to start trimming along the nape of her neck. "I'm sure you could have succeeded, and been utterly miserable at it."
"I'm not so sure. Maybe. Glad I never had to find out. To be honest, the other, more selfish, reason for pursuing CSE was, well... setting up colonies at the edge of Terran space was just about as far away as I could physically get from them."
"That doesn't make your desire to help others any less admirable. It's hardly selfish to wish to escape from an unhealthy situation."
"It feels like it is."
"Such a fascinating riddle you are, Ms. Gale. Raised to be selfish and take everything for yourself, but instead, you feel guilty about even the mildest inconvenience if you benefit in any way."
"You-" Gale had an extremely meaningful and witty retort at hand. Unfortunately, Ms. Kistia took that moment to start running a number of slender vines through her hair. By the time she was able to adjust, all of her readied words were utterly lost.
"What was that, Ms. Gale?"
She managed to piece together the gist of her previous statements, albeit without the flair. "Um... I... I just don't want to be a bother, you know?"
"You could never be a bother, and anyone who says otherwise simply doesn't deserve your presence." Whatever Ms. Kistia was doing with her hair was making it rather hard to focus, but thankfully didn't obstruct her ability to listen. "And the only genuine selfishness here is my own."
"What? No! How? Stars, Ms. Kistia... you're... just about the most caring person ever. Definitely the most I've ever met..."
"Thank you, Ms. Gale, for such high praise." The leaves wrapped around her hands squeezed gently. "And yet, that does not preclude me from selfishly enjoying your presence, knowing that I never would have had the chance to share your company if not for your mother and father's neglectful and controlling treatment."
"If I'm not selfish you're not selfish." Gale insisted, straining to intelligibly string syllables together. "I'm happy that I got to meet you too. And you help me help you help people. That's all I ever really wanted."
"Me too. I'm glad I told you, Ms. Kistia. You're always so good at understanding. I'm sure your florets have been lucky to have you."
"While I appreciate the compliment, I have never actually taken a floret."
"No?" Gale couldn't keep the surprise out of her voice. "But you're... you."
"I would have you know that I am still quite young by Affini standards, so it isn't that unusual."
Roots, had she offended Ms. Kistia? Did she cross some unfamiliar cultural line or hit a sore spot? "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to imply anything..."
Ms. Kistia rustled amusedly, and Gale relaxed. "Oh, no, Ms. Gale. It's quite alright. Admittedly, while I have had opportunities to take a floret of my own, I have chosen not to exercise any of them. Perhaps somewhat unusual among my kind, I've never quite found what I was looking for in the conventional owner-floret dynamic. Not that I don't understand the appeal of an adorable, helpless floret depending on me for their every want and need, mind you. But for myself, I find that pleasant but simple charm eclipsed by the delightful complexity of an interesting challenge."
Gale nodded. The feeling was relatable. She hadn't exactly made time for romance either. "Well, I hope you find our work together significantly interesting."
"Superlatively so. I very much look forward to it, in fact."
"Oh, good! So do I." A thought crossed her mind. And skewed by all the emotion of the day, Gale couldn't stop herself from giggling. "Dirt... they'd be so disappointed with me. Their own daughter, a Rossings, their flesh and blood, helping the Affini dismantle everything they've ever worked for. Stars, I'm going to be so extra disowned."
"They never owned you," Ms. Kistia insisted. Then, just as Gale was planning how to explain what that actually meant, the affini closed in further and whispered slyly into her ear. "Nor will they have anything left for you to inherit by the time we're done with them."
This pushed Gale over the edge into utter hysterics, laughing helplessly at the thought of her mother and father trying and failing to preserve their ill-gotten fortune as the affini dismantled the very system it was based on around them. No more shell companies and securities and futures for her father to hide away wealth in. No corrupt, deliberately unfair Accord legal processes for her mother to leverage. Surrounded by more luxury than ever before, yet driven mad knowing it was no more than any other Terran. Not a thing to hold over anyone else. Perfect, poetic, faerie justice.
She felt only the briefest moment of residual guilt. Only until she noticed Ms. Kistia was laughing too, shaking all around her. Then her conscience was clear.