Once word had spread that the Affini were offering free food, and once the first few daring individuals successfully managed to sample the fare without consequence, people began flooding into the park Ms. Kistia had chosen by the late afternoon. From her rooftop vantage, she could watch the people milling about and celebrating as they ate to their hearts' (and stomachs') content, while avoiding the misery of actually being in the crowd. The Affini had commandeered the shuttles to freely and continuously ferry anyone who wished to back and forth from the worker's accommodations, as well as to provide moving assistance.
That was something Gale was more surprised by than, with the benefit of hindsight, she should have been. One of Ms. Kistia's first actions earlier that day had apparently been to make preparations for condemning the old workers' accommodations and moving everyone into the various luxury highrises and condos. Affini cargo transports had started descending en masse through the clouds starting in the early afternoon. One by one, they offloaded their Affini-tech equipment and supplies before setting off to transport workers' belongings to their new homes. The dusty old tunnels would be deserted by the end of the week, and Gale wouldn't miss them.
Gale had tried to argue that she wouldn't need any assistance with moving, but was summarily shot down. Moreover, Ms. Kistia expressly forbade Gale from going back there at all. She had already made arrangements for Gale's old rooms to be secured - which Gale could infer was to acquire the cache of her old notebooks filled with encrypted evidence - and her personal effects would be delivered to her new apartment early the following morning.
"If you don't have a preference, I was planning on having you put into one of those buildings over there," Ms. Kistia indicated with an outstretched vine. The building silhouettes stood out clearly against the rolling hills of bioengineered terraforming lichens in the warm starset light. "Would that be acceptable, Ms. Gale?"
"I. Um, yes, the buildings are fine. But I need to go back to my old rooms for the night. My medications-"
"Have already been packaged and are simply awaiting your approval on the address to be delivered," Ms. Kistia interrupted her.
Gale fidgeted, scanning the affini's expression for any signs of condemnation or disdain. With the wealth of information the Affini clearly possessed regarding humanity, it would be trivial for anyone to look up the purposes of her medications and draw the obvious conclusions about her. Worst of all, she would know exactly how much of a disaster Gale was, which would surely undermine the unwarranted confidence Ms. Kistia seemed to have developed in her meager abilities.
"What's the matter, Ms. Gale? I hope you won't be telling me that you've been having to ration your medication due to the cost."
"No, that's... well... I have, sometimes, depending on the pay cycle timings. But..."
"That stops now, am I understood? Terran pharmaceuticals are trivial to produce and will of course be provided to those who need them in appropriate quantities at no cost. That being said, Terran medical knowledge and pharmaceutical technology is extremely primitive, and dangerously so in the areas of neurological and psychological health. I would like to see you visit an Affini physician as soon as possible to have your entire medical file reassessed, who I'm certain will strongly advise you to switch to more advanced and effective Affini-designed xenodrugs. It's truly remarkable how well your brain and body can still function despite all of that in your system."
Ms. Kistia knew, then. Of course she did.
Gale didn't realize she was trembling until Ms. Kistia reached out to rest her hand on Gale's shoulder. "If you have any phobias regarding medical care, or would like additional information-"
"It's not that. I just... I would have expected more of a reaction from finding out. But you aren't reacting at all, and I don't understand why."
The affini woman pulled Gale into a proper hug. "I'm very sorry to hear that you have come to expect such a negative reaction, but I assure you that no affini will see you as any lesser for it. Quite to the contrary, we strenuously encourage the use of biochemical technology wherever possible to improve the lives of all sophont species."
Bit by bit, Gale managed to exhale out the tension which had been building in her body, resting against the pleasant coolness of the affini's torso. She was going to have red marks all over her face by the end of it, she noted idly, but it wasn't really a concern. Nobody but the two of them were up on the roof to see them, and Kistia couldn't judge her when they were her fault after all.
"Is that why you've been avoiding your fellow humans all day? Have they been mistreating you?"
"No," Gale replied, then paused. "At least, not the majority of them, and not for any, ah, medical reasons. Perhaps they would if they knew, but I've done my best to keep my private information private. I wasn't treated any worse than anyone else, really, only the shared suffering from the inherent exploitation and profit-motivated behaviour of the whole corporation. I'm... not much of a social person, generally?"
"And yet, you seem to tolerate my presence well."
"Not like you've given me much of a choice," Gale grumbled, halfheartedly.
Kistia rustled with barely contained laughter. "You could have asked to be rid of me at any time, Ms. Gale. You needed only say the word, if you ever truly wished to be left alone."
Gale opened her mouth to retort, but found nothing she could say to that. She hadn't even really tried.
"Generally social or not, I have greatly appreciated your assistance and company today, Ms. Gale. You've been immeasurably helpful and lovely."
"Oh, uh, thanks." Gale was grateful for the pleasant cool of the affini's touch to relieve the wave of heat that washed over her. "It has been my pleasure," she added, drawing from the archaic and overly polite vocabulary of her faerie stories to compensate for her initially inarticulate reply. Then, belatedly, she realized it was true in the literal sense as well, not just as a conversational formula. She had genuinely enjoyed herself, working with Ms. Kistia. It was all she had been trying to do for years, getting out there and actually making things better for people, but the Affini were enabling her instead of obstructing her.
And just on a personal level, Ms. Kistia was easy to just be around. She genuinely listened to what she had to say and appreciated it, unlike just about every other manager she had ever had. She didn't berate her for mistakes or lack of knowledge, or even think less of her for having emotional needs instead of being an infallible machine.
"Likewise, Ms. Gale," she replied, "and I would be most grateful if you would continue gracing me with your assistance in the future."
"Of course," she replied without hesitation. "I would be glad to help you any way I can."
"Wonderful. I was hoping you would say that. The accommodations I chose are as close as possible to the planned location of the planetary administration complex, as well as the other planned Affini infrastructure and residences."
Schemes within schemes. The Affini certainly didn't do anything by half measures. Or, at the least, Ms. Kistia certainly didn't.
"Unfortunately, Ms. Gale, until construction is complete, we do intend to keep using your former office building as the temporary administration centre. There are few buildings with an appropriate layout and sufficient internal space to accommodate multiple affini comfortably. I understand if you would find that too uncomfortable or traumatic, and we can make alternate arrangements for you."
"I don't mind, actually. The familiarity will be nice. The only real problem was the management, but I won't be seeing them ever again."
"Not undomesticated, certainly."
Gale started, heart racing. "Wait, what? Ms. Kistia, you can't be serious. With the kind of stuff they've done, and you'll just let them go to do it again?"
"Of course not. The domestication process is quite thorough, and none of them will be in a position to hold any power ever again."
Gale tried to pull away, flooded with the sudden need to move and put distance between herself and everything else, but Kistia's adhesive held her firm.
"You're safe, Ms. Gale," Kistia rustled softly, running leaves gently down her back. "It's alright."
"No, no, you don't- They'll tell you whatever you want to hear to save their skins. They'll tell you they'll never do it again, and they're lying. Every single time, they escape without consequences, and then..." The furious executive was there again, in her mind's eye, lunging at her, face contorted into grotesquerie, ready to make her suffer for her betrayal.
"Oh dear..." Kistia kept holding her, vines and stems wrapping around her trembling body, shielding her from the outside. "You're safe here, Gale, I've got you. It's just you and me, and I promise I will protect you from anyone else who dares try and hurt you, human or otherwise."
Gale pressed herself further into the central mass of Kistia, overwhelmed. "No, no, you... they'll... I..."
"Ms. Gale, try and breathe for me, you're having a panic attack,"
"I know, I know, I just... I'm sorry, I'm sorry..."
There was a pause filled with stammered apologies and whimpering before Kistia spoke up again. "I can give you something to help you calm down, if you'll let me. Xenodrugs, designed exactly for this purpose."
Don't consume anything gifted by the fae, or you'll fall within their debt, and you'll never leave. "No, I... I can't... you... you'll..."
"It has nothing to do with me, Ms. Gale. I won't hold it against you if you accept help. I only want to help you feel better."
Gale's racing mind latched onto the opening in her words. "If you wish to... I will allow you... in order to ease your mind..." There. A trick from one of her stories. Now it was Gale doing Kistia a favour.
She barely even noticed the slight pricking sensation. It was impossible, however, not to notice the feeling of overwhelming calm and relaxation that flooded her afterwards. She gasped in shock as her shaking muscles stilled themselves unbidden, all the tension melting effortlessly away as she sunk limply into the affini. She could still move, she flexed her fingers experimentally, but it was hard to want to. All of that instinctive need to run, to hide, to protect herself, it all vanished in an instant like morning mist. There were no responsibilities, no ever-looming feelings of nonspecific dread. No reason she couldn't just continue laying there, indefinitely. Forever, maybe.
"There, dear, isn't that so much better? You're safe, and there's nothing to worry about," Ms. Kistia asserted, voice gentle and distant. Gale tried to speak, but actuating her vocal chords was an unnecessary effort, so she shut her mouth and nodded instead. "Thank you for allowing me to help you," she added, and Gale smiled softly. Her ruse was a success.
Slowly, the leaves and vines cocooning her body receded, exposing Gale to the air once more. She opened her eyes and looked around, reorienting herself, but found there was a subtle delay to her actions. It was as though her body and mind had a throttled connection, creating latency in every sensory perception and motor impulse. It was like being overtired. She was overtired, in fact. But it hadn't felt like this before. She knew what overtiredness felt like. This wasn't that. This was different.
Gale began mentally cataloguing the various strange feelings, only to discover with muffled dread that it was far more of a challenge than it should be. Each observation threatened to send her mind off on an ephemeral tangent, and she kept losing track of which items she had already enumerated. Something was very wrong with her. She couldn't think right. With focus, she could certainly sift through her brain to find what she needed, but the focus itself was in short supply. And her working memory. It even took mental exertion to dredge up the phrase "working memory". And the fact she was struggling to articulate a proper litmus test for the state of her higher-order reasoning was sufficient evidence to prove impairment in that area as well.
"This... this is wrong..." Gale mumbled, slurring her words slightly.
"Hm? What was that?" Kistia leaned in closer.
Frustrated, Gale focused more intently on her articulation. "This... the drugs. They aren't working right. I can't think properly."
"That's normal, dear, especially the first time. Humans commonly report feelings of haziness and-"
"No, no, no, no..." Gale whimpered. "This is wrong... I'm... I can't be broken..." She couldn't stop the tears from flowing. She wasn't scared. She didn't know if she could be scared, the drugs were very effective at suppressing anxiety. But they didn't suppress the fundamental wrongness, the feeling of utter dread creeping over her. Her body was one thing, it was a write-off anyway. But if she didn't have her mind, if she couldn't think properly, then she wasn't herself anymore. She needed to think to be. And she couldn't think.
"You're not broken, I promise," Kistia said, before gently reaching down to wipe away Gale's tears. Gale tried to reach up to grasp her hand, but found her body was too slow to catch it before it retreated. The tears resumed, flowing even faster. "Oh dear... such an intense negative reaction to this type of Class-E xenodrugs is quite unusual."
E? Elimination? End? E... Ex... damn it, she couldn't even think of any good E words anymore. Exterminate. That's one. Just like they always thought aliens would do. And now they were exterminating her brain and she was going to be left a useless, pointless, redundant, useless husk. Damn it, damn it, damn it. Another tangent. She had to focus. She could think her way out of this. "I am. Broken. Compromised thoughts. Reasoning. Memory. Internal monologue, inconsistent. I'm... distractible. I keep getting lost. This isn't me. I'm not... like this. I want to be me again. Please... please... I want to be me again." She looked up, pleadingly, trying to look the affini woman in the eyes. Eyes were an E word.
"I'm sorry, Ms. Gale, this is entirely my fault." Kistia looked so upset. Gale didn't want her to be upset. "Class-E xenodrugs are generally very well tolerated by humans, but I truly should have known that you would be an exception. In retrospect, it's clear that your cognitive capabilities are integral to your sense of self. But now that I've caused you such distress, simply providing the counteragent would likely leave you in a state of uncontrollable panic, which would pose an unacceptable risk to your emotional and physical wellbeing."
"I'm broken forever?" Gale wanted to cry. She was already crying, actually. That was convenient.
"No, no, of course not, my dear Ms. Gale," Kistia hastened to reassure her. "You'll be fully yourself by the time you wake tomorrow."
"No, I need... need to be me... now... if I'm not useful... they'll get rid of me... you'll get rid of me..." It wasn't a fear. Wasn't even anxiety. She was too numb for that. Just a grim, exhausted certainty. Without her mind, there wasn't anything left of her. Just a drain on resources. Inefficient. Ms. Kistia was competent and efficient. Gale couldn't do anything useful like this. For her or anyone. "Want to help... want to be good... can't help you like this..."
"I will never get rid of you," Ms. Kistia said. She had her comm unit out, and was rapidly poking away at it. "I promise you, Gale, I'm going to make this right. You'll be alright soon, so just try and rest for a moment."
"Thank you, Ms. Kistia," Gale smiled weakly at the Affini woman. She appeared to have ended up in Ms. Kistia's lap at some point, and her leaves were running through Gale's hair pleasantly. A distraction. Kistia was trying to distract her from her state with physical contact. Contact, social grooming, autonomous response to increase neurotransmitters. Oxytocin. Or, dopamine? Both? Was oxytocin a neurotransmitter or just a hormone? Damn it, it was working. But she said she was going to fix it. So distraction was okay. She didn't have to fix it. She didn't have to fix everything alone. Ms. Kistia could fix things too.
"Alright... I've looked up the interactions, and I have a class-A xenodrug that should alleviate most or all of the cognitive impairments. It's not the primary indicated use, but its mechanism involves accelerating and reinforcing various nervous signals, which should counteract the worst parts of what you're feeling."
"Side effects? Contraindications?"
"No contraindications. Your coordination won't be fully restored, however, and certain senses, particularly touch, will be intensified."
"Don't have coordination anyway," Gale smiled. "Sounds good."
Gale watched a light pink bloom emerge shyly from Kistia's mass. She suppressed the urge to wave to it. That would make her look ridiculous. It unfolded itself as it came closer to Gale's arm. It had a stinger. No. Maybe? Some needle or thorn or the like. That must be how they administered their drugs. They grew their own drugs? On their bodies? Specifically human-compatible ones?
The stinger-needle-thorn pierced her skin with barely a pinch, and Gale started fizzing. At least that's what it felt like as it took effect. Fizzing out from the point of contact in waves. Like the feeling when one's leg wakes up after falling asleep, but pleasant. It wasn't overwhelming, but she absolutely understood why it was significant enough to deserve the warning.
As it spread, Gale could feel the effervescent sensation driving out the sluggishness in her mind. For one, she could retrieve properly esoteric E-words from her vocabulary, such as effervescence. More importantly, it wasn't an ongoing struggle to keep more than two or three concepts in her working memory. Presumably her long-term memory was still a write-off, but it always had been. She ran through a quick suite of internal calculations and cognitive tests, all of which returned satisfactory results.
Remarkably, even as her cognitive faculties rebooted, the anxious feelings stayed buried. She could vaguely sort of sense the general outline and impression where they should be, she was academically aware of what those anxious thoughts in her current situation would be, but they held no emotional weight. She felt good. She felt very good, actually. Without the cognitive overhead from having to manually combat anxious responses, it was possible she was thinking more clearly than she normally did.
"Thank you Ms. Kistia. That's much better. Possibly even better than normal, actually, it's quite pleasant. I do see what you meant about the sensory aspects. It's somewhat distracting, but not overwhelmingly so."
The relief radiating from the abashed affini woman was palpable. "I am very, very glad to see that you're alright with the results. I'm sorry for causing you such distress."
"It's alright, Ms. Kistia. I'm not upset with you. I consented to the process, and it was my fault that I failed to ask about the side effects first. The class-E drugs were and are astonishingly effective for their intended purpose, and thus far, I quite enjoy having a baseline state of calm rather than barely contained distress. Please don't beat yourself up over it?"
That got the hint of a smile out of Kistia. "Perceptive as always, Ms. Gale."
"I'm an expert in self-deprecation, I know it when I see it."
"Maybe we can work on that together, then." Kistia's leaves settled slightly flatter onto her body, presumably letting go of her own stress. "I suppose, if you're happy with this outcome, then I will do my best not to dwell on it."
"Good. And, um. Thank you for taking such care with me, Ms. Kistia." Gale tried to sit upright from her supine position resting on Kistia's vines, to no avail. Once again, her adhesive leaves were holding her fast.
"Here, let me help." Kistia carefully lifted Gale up and off of her, once again showcasing the astonishing strength the Affini possessed. All the while, Gale was acutely aware of each and every leaf surface and adhesive drop touching her skin, the focus-enhancing drug providing distinct and discrete sensations from every small point of contact. For a brief moment, Gale found herself unable to breathe as she adjusted to the intensity. By the time Kistia deposited her down on the bench beside her, she was handling it rather well.
And then Ms. Kistia pulled her leaves free, retracting all the droplets from her skin at once.
Gale's awareness exploded into wondrous starbursts that sparked and fizzed and sent electric shocks through her whole body. She shut her eyes reflexively to block out any excess sensation as she gasped helplessly for air, but it didn't help. Even with her eyes closed tight, she could see entire galaxies of stars through her eyelids, sparkling and roiling in iridescent cascades.
Some time later, the sensations finally bubbled away, leaving Gale limp and immobile but for the lingering muscle spasms and twitches. "Fffuck..." she groaned softly between heavy panting breaths.
"Are you alright, Ms. Gale?" Ms. Kistia didn't seem particularly concerned based on her tone, but rather extremely amused. Damn it, she did that on purpose. Gale didn't even need to look to know she'd have that damnable hungry smile on her face, and Gale refused to give her the satisfaction of acknowledging it. Well played.
"Yeah, I'm alright," Gale replied, waving absently towards her. Her movements still had a slight delay to them, and the light breeze from the motion hummed pleasantly against her skin, but it was more than manageable. "These class-A drugs are certainly, ah, something."
"Indeed they are. But at the very least, it should be a pleasurable experience."
"Why do you even have these?" Gale questioned, more than a little suspicious. "I can see the benefits of anti-anxiety medicine for meeting a species for the first time, but that doesn't explain... this."
"No, it does not," Kistia admitted, readily. "It's one of many which comprise the standard suite of drugs used in human domestication."
"What, exactly, do you mean when you use the term domestication, Ms. Kistia?" Gale asked, carefully and deliberately. She had been a bit slow to put together the pieces, with everything else happening, but the off-handed way Kistia delivered that information finally drove it home. Whatever the Affini meant by it, she couldn't afford not to know.
"Exactly as the term would indicate, Ms. Gale. Domestication is the primary purpose of the Affini Compact. To be explicit about it, in broad terms, we take in adorable sophont species who struggle to care for themselves, like humans, and use our overwhelming technological and resource advantages to eliminate resistance to Affini control in order to ensure they are properly cared for. But most importantly, on an individual basis, domestication refers to the process by which we use our expertise in biomedical engineering and xenodrug development to turn sophonts into happy, docile and loving pets for their Affini owners."
Gale took in this information with far less alarm than she felt the concept deserved. She finally found the catch. And it was absolutely concerning. But not overwhelmingly so. Not something she couldn't rationally absorb. Perhaps it was the class-E drugs numbing her anxiety and threat response. That almost certainly had something to do with it.
But absurdly enough, it fit so neatly into the mental image she had already formed of the Affini that she might as well have known it the whole time. Perhaps, ironically, she had to a degree. Her brain had jumped eagerly to the contextualization of the Affini as fae, and what was more iconically fae than spiriting mortals away for their entertainment and amusement. And Ms. Kistia was just so... candid about it, as well. Clearly they made no effort to conceal their intentions, which surely counted for something.
"I suppose that's why you don't need a carceral system," Gale remarked, dryly. "It's rather unnecessary, when you can just brainwash the executives and anyone who opposes you with brain melting drugs and turn them into helpless pets.
"Precisely," Ms. Kistia remarked, without a hint of irony or shame. Bloody fae. "Those who pose a threat to themselves or others if allowed to remain independent are domesticated for their own wellbeing."
"Arguably more ethical than a bullet to the back of the skull."
Ms. Kistia seemed utterly scandalized by Gale's remark. "Of course it is! Our pets all receive the highest quality of care and affection. It isn't a punishment."
"Taking away their free will isn't a punishment?"
"Not at all. In fact, there are many who willingly and eagerly volunteer for domestication as well. The vast majority of our florets volunteer for the opportunity, particularly after the initial period of pacification. And it isn't uncommon for florets, particularly those who volunteer, to enjoy a great deal of freedom."
"Volunteer...?" The mental model she had been forming shattered. Her mind lurched, switching gears from detached acceptance to frantic speculation. "But... why?"
Kistia apparently found Gale's reaction hilarious, if the outburst of bright laughter was any judge. "Why indeed? What sophont would ever want to have the comfort of surrendering responsibility, knowing that they have a loving owner who will dote on them, providing for every last emotional and physical need? Ah, but I'm certain you couldn't possibly understand the appeal, my dear Ms. Gale. You're so very independent, after all."
"I... yes, of course..." Gale replied absently, still reeling. People would willingly surrender themselves? To be... owned? A shiver ran down her spine, which then radiated across her entire body in a burst of sensory static. "And... they have to volunteer, right? Unless they're a danger..."
"That's correct. You needn't worry, Ms. Gale. Nobody will compel you to be a pet against your will, unless you force us to do so. But I hardly see that being an issue. You're an exceptionally well-behaved human, aren't you?"
"Yes, Ms. Kistia!" she affirmed, perhaps a bit too enthusiastically.
The affini woman's foliage pulsed as she casually extended a vine to stroke Gale's head, momentarily fuzzing her brain with prismatic glitter.
As the pleasant feelings abated, Gale reached into her bag to retrieve her notepad. She didn't have anything to write down, but pretending gave her a moment of reprieve to collect her thoughts.
Nothing had ever shaken her to the core quite so much as the idea of domestication. Taking someone, a sapient person, and stripping them of all their agency and faculties, leaving them totally helpless and subordinate to another. She could understand the rationale behind using it on dangerous criminals. She could rationalize that away. But volunteers? People would want that? Ask for that? She acknowledged Ms. Kistia's statement regarding the greater freedoms volunteers could enjoy, though also clearly noted that it was framed as a privilege, not a right.
Even with the class-E medication keeping her anxiety in check, the nightmares still blossomed in her mind's eye. She only barely held back yet more tears, putting in extra effort so as not to trouble Ms. Kistia even further on her account. The vision of having her self taken away, her thoughts muddled and broken again but with no hope of rescue, sent off to some strange place to be utterly alone and at the mercy of some stranger... It was the worst fate she could imagine.
Gale would never allow that to happen to her, she promised herself, and wrote down that promise on the first page of her new notebook. Triple underlined.
She was independent and capable, and she had already worked so hard to try and help the people of Xenia. And now she wasn't alone anymore! Working with Ms. Kistia for just a single day, they had accomplished more than she had in her years under Linden. She had something to look forward to for once. She could actually make a difference, and she wouldn't give that up for anything.
She only needed to prove herself worthy of Ms. Kistia's trust. The affini woman wouldn't get rid of her, so long as she continued to be useful.
She only needed to keep her mind.
Then everything would be okay.