Gale had been enjoying the best sleep she had gotten in months, if not longer. She normally spent her nights tossing and turning, trying to mitigate how quickly she overheated in the stale air of her room, chafing against the cheap synthetic sheets that somehow always felt too hot regardless of the season or ambient temperature. She couldn't stand to have such a rough sheet over top of her, but she couldn't stand being uncovered and feeling the sweat beading on her skin.
She even had the rare luxury of waking up gently. No alarm. No second alarm. No third, fourth, or fifth backup alarms. Just gently dawning awareness. Smiling absently, she pulled the blanket tighter around her shoulders. Unlike her own, it was thick and comfy and soft, yet somehow cool against her skin. Such a thick blanket would normally have her sweating, leaving her sticky and uncomfortable, yet it somehow wicked every last drop of moisture away. Best of all, it had quite a pleasant weight to it, one which pressed her down gently into the comfy bed.
Gale wouldn't go so far as to say she would murder for a bed this comfy for her own quarters, but she would at least consider it. Surely they could understand just a teensy bit of murder, right?
An insistent thread of thought kept catching, however, and she allowed herself to follow it. This bed was lovely. This blanket was lovely. Her bed and sheets were not lovely. They were coarse and scratchy and hard. They could not be her bed and sheets. If they were not her bed and sheets, then they were somebody else's bed and sheets. Somebody else's bed and sheets wouldn't be in her room. So she was sleeping somewhere other than her room. She didn't remember falling asleep in someone else's room. She remembered... oh! She remembered!
A shot of adrenaline hit her, and jolted her awake. Her eyes snapped open and she tried to sit up, but failed. That lovely blanket's weight was too firm, and the bed itself clung to her arms and shirt. She looked down. The blanket wasn't even a blanket, it was a delicate weave of thin emerald leaves that crissed and crossed and covered her down to her toes. Gasping in shock, the events of the day piecing themselves back together, she froze and looked upwards. The grinning face of the fae gazed down at her. Oh no. Did this mean she had accepted its hospitality? She had fallen asleep in its domain. Maybe a thousand years had already passed in the outside world, and she would emerge to find Xenia a barren wasteland, where she would suffocate and starve in solitary misery.
"Everything is alright, Ms. Gale Rossings. There is no need to be alarmed." That incredible voice struck her like ice water, making her gasp as her muscles locked in place. Every part of her conscious mind insisted that it wasn't quite right, like a reflection in warped glass. Her subconscious delighted in the incongruity, picking apart all the subtle little oddities and idiosyncrasies like a puzzle. "You are safe. No harm will be allowed to come to you."
Her rational faculties managed to knit together the rest of her mind into something resembling a functional state. "I'm sorry," Gale replied, cheeks flushing as she fully realized the extent of her humiliating display. "I'm so sorry for fainting, I'm normally quite resilient to stress, I..."
The speaker waved a tendril dismissively and Gale clammed up. "I understand completely. You were under considerable strain, not only learning of the existence of the affini but also confronting those awful men who had exploited you for so long. You performed exceptionally, truly. How could anyone hold such a thing as your body's exhaustion against you after all of that?"
"Quite easily," Gale muttered. "It wouldn't be the first time."
Gale watched something she could mistake for concern come over the affini's face. "Are you frequently pushing yourself beyond your body's limits? Have you been taking care of yourself?"
"Everyone is, not just me," Gale replied candidly. All of the vitriol from her years of misery under Linden came bubbling up to the surface, and for the first time in so long, she had an outlet other than her notebooks. "The inefficiencies of the shuttle system eat into not only free time, but time for sleep and hygiene as well. We aren't allowed proper cooking surfaces in our rooms, and the cooked food provided at the canteen comes at a significant markup. Eating during the day is almost out of the question. We ostensibly have lunch breaks, unpaid of course, but you learn very quickly that there are consequences for trying to take it. Even if you don't fall behind on work, your manager can make your life hell. But we get a slice of pizza once a month if we meet targets, so that makes up for it right?"
She couldn't help but laugh when she saw the absolute expression of horror. The speaker must have been fairly sheltered in Affini society, if such a thing was shocking to it. Gale took the opportunity to double down. "And I have a white collar job. I don't have to worry about whether or not I'm going to come home with all of my limbs intact. Last I calculated, the mean for lost-time injuries was approximately 0.7 injuries per Terran day, or about... a score each Terran month? And lost-time injuries include anything that takes a worker off the schedule for more than a day, ranging from crushed and severed digits to amputations and death. And the numbers of deaths are certainly higher than that, since my figures are based on extrapolating from medical expense invoices. If the worker dies instantaneously or is unrecoverable, like falling into a rock crusher or being cut in half lengthwise by a severed hydraulics line, there's no medical expense for that."
The speaker swore. It was in the alien language, so Gale didn't understand it, but the way it spat those invectives was unmistakable. "I thought this was supposed to be a recreation world," it finally groaned, leaves drooping.
Gale tossed one final quip in for good measure. "You know the old Terran saying. You can't build a tourist trap without breaking a few skulls!"
Of all the possible reactions Gale had considered, she couldn't possibly have anticipated that the alien might respond by pulling her closer within her leaves and stroking her hair comfortingly. "Oh you poor things. I'd heard of the brutality of Terran leadership, but I thought such things only existed within your military. This is a civilian world! How could they possibly treat you this way?"
Gale squeaked in surprise at the sudden physical intimacy, and its touch stilled. She was surprised to realize some part of her was disappointed. It had been quite a while since she'd even had a hug, much less anything like this, and she was apparently so touch starved her brain could overlook that the touch belonged to an alien conqueror who could snap her neck like a dry twig.
Carefully, it unfurled its leaves from around her and raised her up onto her feet. "My apologies, Ms. Gale, for my impropriety. The conditions you described were so appalling that I was overwhelmed by concern. I assure you that the Affini Compact is dedicated to providing the best quality of life to all species under our care."
"Species, plural?" Gale noted idly as she attempted, unsuccessfully of course, to smooth out the wrinkles in her blouse.
"Oh, of course. The Affini Compact looks after the needs of thousands of sophont species."
Gale's mind raced as she performed some quick order of magnitude estimations. "That's. Overwhelming. It's no wonder you were able to conquer all of humanity in just a few months."
The speaker seemed flattered by the response, for some reason. "You are correct, the strength of the Affini Compact is easily capable of overwhelming all of humanity. Unfortunately, we found that humans have an unfortunate tendency towards irrational and reckless behaviour. We had to be very deliberate in each encounter with humanity to minimize the risk that you might harm yourselves in your efforts at resistance, extending the pacification of humanity by several Terran standard years."
"Several years?!" Gale exclaimed in shock, patting her pockets for her comm unit by habit (she completely relied upon it to keep track of time) and sighing in relief when she found it. "That can't be right." She paused, then added a hasty apology. Offending the fair folk was always a disastrous mistake. "Not that I am accusing you of speaking falsehoods, I mean only to express the extent to which such information is wholly incompatible with my personal experience. I admit that my memory is not always the most reliable, but even so, I make a point to pay attention to news from across Terran space. An interstellar war against an alien species with power projection capabilities far exceeding our own is not the kind of news that I could easily forget. While I understand that the Linden executives were able to cover up the news of Terra's capitulation by disabling the communications relay, that only explains the past few months of my ignorance, not entire years."
"I had intended to ask about that discrepancy, once you were awake," the speaker acknowledged. "You mentioned that your communications with the rest of humanity had been lost only within the past six Terran standard months, correct?" Gale nodded in affirmation, and it continued. "And prior to that, you were regularly monitoring incoming information?"
"Yes. I make a point of keeping myself well informed, cross-referencing between a variety of formal and informal channels."
"Very commendable, Ms. Gale. Then it seems most likely your communications were being systematically intercepted and censored by some party, most likely either the corporation who claimed ownership of this world or some group within the Terran military."
Gale slapped her forehead in exasperation at her obliviousness. Of course they had been. Only company issued devices were permitted access to company information networks, giving them backdoor access to all the cryptographic keys they needed to decrypt and modify all incoming data without leaving a trace.
Unexpectedly, she found her hand being gently pulled away by one of the speaker's leaves. "Do not harm yourself, Ms. Gale," it admonished.
"Not even real harm," she protested, face red with shame. "And I deserve it. I can't believe I missed something so obvious."
"You were carrying out an independent planet-wide intelligence gathering campaign without any assistance, Ms. Gale Rossings," it insisted, continuing to restrain her hand. "A successful one, I might add. Without any formal espionage training. Nobody could fault you for a single oversight. Or, at least, nobody reasonably should, though I am realizing you have had very little experience with reasonable individuals in positions of power. I insist that you do not attempt to further harm yourself, regardless of the magnitude of any perceived mistakes. You do not deserve it. Understood?"
"Am I understood, Ms. Gale?"
"Yes, understood," she replied, vigorously nodding, and received the return of her restrained hand in response. Another pattern of little red dots mottled her skin, just as when it had taken her wrist in the boardroom. "Actually, that reminds me... Apologies if my request is impolite or inappropriate, but is there some way you would like to be addressed? I have been thinking of you as the 'affini speaker' since you spoke in the conference hall downstairs, though it's a rather lacking designation."
"Kistia Esera, Second Bloom, Chief Planetary Administration Engineer for Xenia. But as for you, you can call me Ms. Kistia for now." The Affini grinned down at her, and then to Gale's astonishment, gave her a wink. The human immediately looked downwards, overwhelmed by both embarrassment and awe.
The speaker, Kistia, was a virtuoso of subtle inflection, and the effect was not lost on Gale. A careful adjustment of emphasis and tone transformed the Ms. in Ms. Kistia into an elevated title and expression of expected deference, and by juxtaposition, its absence in the way she pronounced Ms. Gale turned the honorific into something familiar, even gently condescending. Without changing a single denotation, she had firmly established Gale's place compared to her own. Far more respected than the Linden executives, whom Kistia acknowledged with neither title nor name, but unambiguously beneath Kistia herself. Acknowledged, appreciated, yet subordinate all the same.
Though she already logically understood, it was this moment when Gale finally grasped just how dangerous Kistia and the Affini truly were.
"Yes, Ms. Kistia," Gale affirmed, doing her best to emulate the way she had pronounced it. As reasonable and understanding as Kistia had been so far, Gale couldn't risk falling into disfavour after so thoroughly burning her bridges with the company, and certainly not while she remained so frustratingly ignorant of recent events and the nature of the Affini Compact. Acquiescing to her preferred mode of address, even if Gale was certain it was intentionally belittling, was the least she could do.
The brightness of Kistia's smile went a long way towards mollifying her pangs of embarrassment. To all appearances, she was genuinely delighted by Gale's response, so much so that Gale was certain there were some subtle social nuances to the situation she was missing. At the very least, if she erred, she seemed to have erred in a favourable direction.
"You also remind me to ask, how exactly did you manage to slip out of the hall downstairs without being noticed, Ms. Gale? We had all of the exits covered quite thoroughly."
"You did," Gale acknowledged, "and from what I observed, even a small group of affini is more than capable of handling over a hundred humans. I definitely wouldn't have stood a chance to escape from that. I was watching from one of the technical rooms above the auditorium, Ms. Kistia."
"Ah, that explains it, although not what exactly you were doing up there."
Gale fidgeted with the hem of her blouse. "I don't do particularly well with crowds, so I prefer to sit alone. Once I saw the way you dealt with the first man who climbed up onto the stage, I fled."
Kistia studied her intently as Gale replied to her questions. Gale could not tell if she suspected deception or was simply curious. "Why not earlier, when I first stepped on stage? Or when I announced the fall of your homeworld?"
"Because... because that's when I knew that you weren't monsters," Gale admitted. "You are larger, swifter, and capable of lifting grown men into the air with no visible signs of exertion. You could have killed him easily, Ms. Kistia. I wouldn't be surprised if a single affini could kill an entire room of unarmed humans, assuming your stamina is commensurate with your strength. But you didn't. You took every care to avoid hurting him unnecessarily, and you reassured him of his safety as you rendered him unconscious." Gale forcefully suppressed those echoes of Kistia's voice in her mind and continued. "It was self-evident at that point that the Affini Compact was both more powerful and more benevolent than Linden, so I wanted you to have the information you needed if you were inclined to help the people of Xenia."
A glimmering ripple traveled across Kistia's surface as the ruby-beaded hairs on her foliage flexed and vibrated, as though caught in an invisible breeze. "Ms. Gale, I do not know whether to be more astonished by how easily you came to that conclusion, or just how little you seem to realize how remarkable it is that you did so."
Gale's brow furrowed. "I admit, Ms. Kistia, I do not understand. Cooperation seems like the only logical decision?"
"Precisely," Kistia replied, smiling once again that elated predatory smile that threatened to sweep Gale's legs out from under her.
When it became clear that Kistia would not elaborate any further, Gale spoke up tentatively. "May I ask a clarifying question of my own, Ms. Kistia?"
"Why of course, Ms. Gale. I would be glad to answer whatever delightful questions you have."
"Where were the other employees from the auditorium taken? Those who were escorted out of the lobby?"
"Those who didn't seem to pose a threat to themselves or others in their agitated state were instructed to go home and rest."
Something about that phrasing caught Gale's attention, leaving her with a distinct sinking feeling. "You don't know about the workers' accommodations, do you?"
Kistia tensed visibly. "I don't believe I will like what you're about to explain. You mean workers do not reside in these dozens of large buildings clearly designed for habitation?"
Gale shook her head. "Too expensive for us," she explained as she stepped up to the window, pointing towards the distant black of the mountain ridge. "Ours are tunneled into the mountain range over there. Built from refurbished parts intended for environmental shelters on desert worlds, overcrowded and wholly inadequate for long-term use, only reachable by ground transports scheduled to run near dawn and dusk. Unless you provided transport or called the shuttles back, all those workers you sent home have been milling about through the settlement, stranded and terrified."
The affini woman had started furiously typing away on her large comm unit before Gale had finished speaking, and soon began an animated conversation in alien speech with one or more others. She was bristling again, like Gale had seen in the surveillance camera, and it was even more intimidating in person. Gale was so very glad she was not the target of her ire.
As Kistia was occupied, she looked around and found her bag leaning against a nearby desk. Sighing in relief, she pulled out her spare blank notebook and pencil and settled into the nearby chair to begin furiously scribbling notes on the Affini Compact.
Gale had no way of understanding the denotative meaning of the affini conversation, but that didn't stop her from making inferences from tone and context. The more Kistia talked, presumably relaying the information Gale had shared, the louder and more acute the exclamations from multiple responding voices became. If they had been human, Gale wouldn't hesitate to interpret their reactions as alarm, distress, and concern.
She wasn't sure if she was ready to acknowledge the implications of her working theory. She had tentatively dismissed Kistia's intense reaction to the Xenian workers' conditions as the shock of one privileged elite coming to terms with the broader injustice of the universe. But hearing the chorus of other affini voices, presumably those of Kistia's subordinates, reacting in the same manner seriously undermined that previous hypothesis.
Sure things on Xenia were bad, but they were far better than some of the horror stories she had heard. Human trafficking, forced cybernetic augmentation, experimental bioactive agent testing, and that was just the legal stuff. Xenia was a paradise compared to some of the horror stories regularly reported with pride on various news networks. And so, within her conventional paradigm, she found herself unable to answer a very simple question: Why would the conquering vanguard of an empire which had subjugated thousands of alien species seem so... genuinely distressed by a couple thousand overworked, underpaid workers?
She didn't want to acknowledge the possibility she might be right, because she was terrified it might give her hope.