Gale tapped her fingers rhythmically against the desk in tune with the song in her head as she intently studied the document on her display. From time to time, she had to cross reference one or two words against the dictionary on her datapad, but she had developed sufficient working familiarity with the Affini language over the past five months to understand all the various proposals and forms that crossed her desk in her new job, or at least enough to understand the syntax and translate the unfamiliar vocabulary terms as she went.
She enjoyed her new job infinitely more than the previous one, even if the fundamental premises were the exact same. She was helping ensure the upkeep and maintenance of systems and infrastructure for the people of Xenia, just as she had under Linden. She even elected to keep her old office and desk as it was for the comfortable familiarity. But, thankfully, that was where the similarities ended.
The Affini, in addition to being generally more personable than her former colleagues due to the absence of both the crushing weight of capitalism and the hostile work environment designed to promote adversarial competition for bonuses and promotions, were making such an incredible difference to the lives of humanity that even now Gale could scarcely believe it. They had not only implemented many of Gale's ideas, but could go so much further in so many areas due to the incredible potential of Affini biotechnological engineering. Xenia wasn't just a tolerable place to live, it had become a beautiful one.
After digging up the documentation to verify that the rolling hills of green lichen monoculture were a Terran invention and there was no endemic life on the world, the Affini had summarily done away with it. All across the planet's surface, an incredible variety of plant life had taken root, all engineered by Affini scientists to be totally safe for Terran, Affini, and even Rinan life and to interact symbiotically with one another. And, of course, to suit the Affini's eclectically colourful preferences, but Gale would hardly complain about that. From anywhere in the city she could look out onto fields of rainbow flowers, interspersed with hardy shrubs designed for mediating the planetary water cycle, as well as quickly growing trees which would soon diffuse the planet's fierce windstorms and adjust their optical properties to keep temperatures on the planet within comfortably habitable ranges.
Even without all of the other sweeping life-altering improvements the Affini had brought to Xenia, Gale would sell Linden out again in a heartbeat just for the view.
A heavy knock at the door disrupted Gale's internal rhythm, and she set her datapad to the side. "Come in, Sesat."
As she had predicted from the dull thud of thick bark against artificial wood, the Affini who crouched and carefully maneuvered his massive frame through the doorway was indeed Sesat Kethel, Third Bloom. As an architect, his sphere of work most commonly intersected Gale's in her role as Terran Accessibility Liaison, and so they had grown quite friendly. It was much easier to open up around the Affini. Despite how powerful and clever they were, despite how wary she had to remain of their fae tricks, they weren't trying to take advantage of her. They were mischievous, and their culture seemed to not only condone but encourage an attitude of benevolent condescension towards members of other species, but they weren't exploitative. They genuinely were trying to make everyone's lives better, albeit with some blind spots.
And that was where Gale came in.
"Hello, Ms. Gale. Fantastic day outside, isn't it?" Sesat said.
Gale nodded in appreciation. "It really is. The rain overnight makes everything smell so lovely outside, with all of those flowerbeds they've put up everywhere. Are you certain that Marta didn't slip anything into those?"
"Of course not, Ms. Gale. Or at least, if she did, they're working on me too."
Gale rolled her eyes, smiling. For whatever reason, her introduction to the Affini that first day had made quite an impression on all of her future coworkers. Though she couldn't understand it fully for lack of the prerequisite cultural background, apparently the way she had marched into the board room and introduced herself so (seemingly) confidently to the alien strangers was quite an unusual spectacle for them. As a result, every single affini she interacted with on a regular basis who knew Ms. Kistia had picked up her supervisor's habit of calling her "Ms. Gale". It was silly, but somehow it made her feel like she belonged instead of setting her apart.
"Good enough for me. Maybe I'll even go out for a walk later, while it's so nice. Maybe see that new micro-orchard she was working on."
"You know, if you let us move you out of this tiny burrow, then you could see the view from the main office all the time."
"I know..." Gale sighed. "But I'm comfortable here. Anyway, I'm guessing you have the mockups for the recreation complex?"
"Yup, sending them right over, Ms. Gale," Sesat rumbled, making a few gestures on his datapad.
Gale pulled up the renders on her display, nodding appreciatively. Of course she wasn't looking through the drawings for correctness, per se. Sesat was more competent as an architect and construction engineer than Gale would ever be, even if she had training in that area. Not to mention that the Affini Compact had so many building codes that it made her head spin. What she possessed, and which all of her coworkers were woefully lacking, was quite simple: a human's common sense.
"Ah, spotted something," Gale spoke up, turning the display partway to face him. His branches creaked slightly as he craned his neck to see what she was indicating. "You made a classic Affini mistake right here. See the info signs, with the program schedule information? Now I'm sure these would work just fine for you and your floret, since I've never seen Tam touch the ground in the entire time I've known you two. But for an undomesticated human like me who isn't constantly climbing around in her owner's branches, there's no way I could comfortably see any of the text on any of the Terran script signs, since you put them at the same height as the Affini script ones."
"Ah, I see what you mean, Ms. Gale." Sesat smiled appreciatively at her and made a note on his datapad. "There's a few more like that inside I'll adjust as well."
"You better not be deliberately leaving things like that for me to find or I'll be very upset, Sesat."
"Of course not!" the Affini responded hastily, needles rustling. "Why would I waste your time like that?"
"I don't know..." Gale sighed. "Because it's entirely possible that everyone is just making a show of humouring my presence and trying to make me feel useful while you're all laughing at how hard I'm trying in a totally pointless role?"
"No, not at all. I promise," Sesat tentatively reached out to rest a large rugged hand beside hers on the desk. Gale accepted the gesture, placing one of her own on top of his. "We really do appreciate your help, Ms. Gale. Why would you ever think we didn't?"
"Because of all the affini that I've seen who don't? The ones who react to anything a human does like a preschool teacher does to a child's algebra homework, with feigned enthusiasm?"
Sesat paused for a few moments to parse that. "Alright, you know what, that's fair. I can definitely see where you're coming from on that. A lot of affini can definitely be..."
"Arrogant? Belittling? Condescending? Dismissive?" Gale rattled off some alphabetized options.
"...well.. yeah, honestly. Affini from deeper Compact space only really ever interact with domesticated florets. And considering how individual each floret's situation is, the threshold for 'praiseworthy achievement' varies significantly."
"And tends very much towards the lower end of that scale amongst the florets of more traditional affini, from what I've heard from Inaya."
"Very much so," Sesat agreed. "And a lot of the older affini have spent so much time in that sort of environment that they don't really know how to treat more capable sophonts."
Gale smirked a bit. "Not that the overall state of Terran space as a whole gave a particularly good impression of human competence either."
Sesat creaked with laughter. "You said it, not me!"
"Hey, you know I have no illusions about the competence of Terrans as a collective. You all unambiguously saved humanity from self-destruction. I just... sometimes the way I see affini treating humans, not their own florets, just regular undomesticated humans, just... gets to me. And I worry that you all feel the same way about me."
"I can't speak for every affini, but I definitely appreciate your help," he declared, confidently. "And so does Kistia, obviously. And Alvya, and Marta, and everyone in the office. Even Inaya! Plus, if anyone gives you trouble, I'll take care of them." Dramatically, Sesat began striking absurd poses designed to show off muscles he didn't possess, and Gale burst into helpless laughter.
"Oh stars, you're such a dork, Sesat. Tam doomed us all when he introduced you to Terran wrestling."
"Haha! Got you smiling!" he announced, striking a victory pose.
Gale shook her head, feigning an exasperated sigh. "Fine, you win this round. And, um, thanks."
"Of course! You know you can let any of us know if you ever need anything, right Ms. Gale?"
"Same to you."
He grinned enthusiastically, giving her four thumbs up. "Great! Then I'm off to lower some signs! Let me know if you spot anything else." With that, he turned and began shifting his mass out the door, then paused at the door frame. "Oh, right, I almost forgot! Heather said to tell you - and these are her words, not mine, okay? - that 'she has your tea but you have to stop acting like a cryptid and come out of your lair to interact with people if you want it'. Like I said, not my words, don't clip the runner!" He said this last bit as he finished shuffling himself awkwardly through the doorway and around the corner, before she could formulate a response. Total dork.
Gale double checked a few more details of the design - making sure any manual door handles and crash bars were at human accessible height, and so forth - before saving the document for later and stowing the datapad in her bag. If Heather thought she could get Gale out of her office with bribery, well, she was absolutely correct. She would be glad to accept a delicious bribe in exchange for a small bit of socializing, and so Gale made her way to the elevator.
Heather had changed a lot since the Affini takeover of Xenia. Most had only known her as the polite, friendly front desk woman who directed peoples' calls and greeted them when they arrived for work. Those people were, apparently, shocked by the woman's radical transformation. It wasn't surprising they would jump to blaming the aliens for the change. Gale, on the other hand, had heard plenty of stories about Heather's life before working for Linden. The vast majority of the changes were nothing more than a return to form for her, freed from Linden's conservative dress and conduct codes.
Her becoming a pet, however, was entirely the Affini's doing.
"Hey, there she is!" Heather cheered as Gale stepped into the room, drawing everyone's attention. Gale waved in acknowledgment to her coworkers embarrassedly, noting the absence of Ms. Kistia, as she made her way across the room - not to Heather's desk, of course. Heather didn't work anymore, and would never work another day in her life - to her owner's desk.
Alvya Syrinx, Second Bloom had been the first affini whom Gale had actually spoken to, with the variegated leaves and violet flowers. Gale had inadvertently given the soft spoken affini woman quite a fright when she had unexpectedly knocked on the boardroom door right behind her and asked to come inside. She was gentle, unassuming, and had a tendency to hide herself in a shroud of her own flowers when she wasn't actively engaged in social activity. Quite different from the casual confidence that seemed to be norm for most affini based on Gale's observations of various incidental encounters.
Alvya was, in short, the last person Gale would have expected to show up to work just two days after their introduction with her former co-worker Heather - now Heather Syrinx, First Floret - on a leash. Gale was so utterly taken aback at the time that she made quite the scene, and Alvya had needed to lightly sedate Heather to keep her from bruising her ribs laughing at Gale's utter bafflement.
Heather had in fact been working the morning the Affini arrived, and had fallen in love with Alvya at first sight, as she was more than eager to explain to anyone who would listen. "Tall, graceful, the most beautiful voice I've heard, plays more than a dozen instruments, grows her own drugs, and could crush me with any part of her body. What more could a girl ever want?" She was out the door as soon as the affini boarded the elevators to the executive offices, and had apparently spent the rest of the day giving herself a complete makeover in preparation for making a move on Alvya.
By the time she showed up to the festivities that evening, she'd not only shredded the Linden dress code, but had metaphorically lit it on fire and done a line with the ashes. She'd shaved half her head, chopped the rest back to a ragged pixie cut and dyed the tips a bright violet to match Alvya's flowers. Gale had asked where she'd gotten all the hair supplies from on such short notice. "Stole 'em, obviously," Heather had answered candidly. "Money was cancelled, aliens had taken over the galaxy, what the fuck was Linden gonna do about it?" She'd even pulled out a glittering synthleather vest and leggings that she used to wear on stage, back when she was the frontwoman for an indie stormcrash band on the Ionian club circuit in college.
Gale had opted out of hearing all of the sordid details of their meeting, but whatever she did, Alvya fell for Heather just as hard that night. Gale did know they bonded very closely over music. Although her role on Xenia involved a great deal of translation and bureaucratic function, she was actually a musician and xenomusic theorist by trade. Terran music research was her whole reason for being there, and Heather was an absolute wealth of knowledge and first hand experience in that area.
And now, well, Heather was owned. Officially property, insofar as the Affini Compact was concerned. Gale really didn't know how to feel about it, but she couldn't deny that Heather was reveling in her new station in life. She'd taken the concept of domestication and somehow twisted it from a position of weakness into one of power, wearing a collar with (safely rounded) spikes and accessorizing her companion costumes with that same well-worn synthleather vest. And there was no doubt in Gale's mind that she truly and genuinely adored Alvya.
Even now, Heather was lounging indulgently on Alvya's lap, stretching out to rest her booted feet on an empty nearby chair which she begrudgingly relinquished as Gale approached. Gale nodded appreciatively and dusted the chair off before sitting down. "You do know you don't have to make a big deal about it whenever I walk into the room, right?"
Heather rolled her eyes, all but sticking her tongue out in a display of juvenile dismissal. "You know you can step out of your comfort zone and come work up here whenever you want, right? Then you wouldn't have to come all this way just for a cup of tea."
"I like my office," Gale protested.
"No, you're used to your office. Remember how you were constantly complaining about how dark and cramped it was."
"Well... um... it's not so bad after a while?"
"That's a pretty flimsy excuse, isn't it Mistress?"
Alvya reached down to stroke Heather's head, and her stern expression melted instantly into delight. "I do think you might benefit from some more natural light, Ms. Gale."
"Light is evil," Gale protested. "Nobody's ever gotten a sunburn from staying safely inside."
Heather chimed in. "Actually, I knew a DJ from Europa who got a wicked burn from some cheap blacklights."
"Ms. Gale, if you've been actively avoiding sunlight, this can cause serious nutrient deficiency and circadian rhythm dysregulation in humans, and should be reported to your physician."
"I already take vitamin supplements, so-"
"She started taking those because she was starving herself to save money for her meds, Mistress. Still probably only eats properly once a day, I bet. How often do you see her taking a lunch break?"
Damn it, Heather. Gale glared indignantly at the unrepentant gossip, who cheekily flashed her a victory sign back.
Alvya rustled as she turned her full attention onto Gale. She might be a bit of a wallflower, but she was no pushover by any stretch of the imagination. "Ms. Gale, if you aren't taking proper care of yourself, I will have to take action to ensure your wellbeing. I highly doubt Kistia would be pleased to hear you've been skipping meals."
Gale's face flushed at the treat. "H-hey! I eat at least two meals a day. Most days, generally. Plus some snacks."
"She's lying," Heather retorted in an infuriating sing-song voice. "Three days a week, tops, and that's just because it's the weekend and she stays home all day."
She fumbled for some sort of defense to the accusation, but realized that, for the most part, Heather's allegation was accurate. So instead, she deflected. "Look, some people still need to have enough executive function to put together their own meals."
Unfortunately, Heather only smiled even brighter at that. "Not me, anymore! That's what I have my adorable wonderful caring Mistress for! If you can't eat on your own, I'm absolutely certain that you'll have no trouble finding an owner to take care of you too!"
Gale shuddered and stammered incoherently, before breathing out a sigh of defeat and leaned forwards into Alvya's desk to hide her burning face.
Of course Alvya was more than ready for her reaction, and slipped a soft flower covered stem in between her forehead and the edge of the desk. "It's alright dear. Well, it isn't actually alright, that you haven't been eating, but it is entirely understandable that you would be struggling to take care of yourself properly all on your own. Even though you aren't domesticated, all of us are here to help and support you."
"How about we take her out to lunch, Mistress? She's a bit picky about food but I have a good idea what she likes."
"That's a lovely idea, pet. I will send a message to the office explaining that we're stepping away to eat."
"Oh, Mistress, you could totally invite them to come too! They'll be thrilled! Then we can all pressure Gale into eating properly together."
As the Syrinx couple fed off of each other's benevolently meddlesome energy, Gale groaned softly. This was exactly why Gale stayed in her office most of the time, to keep everyone from being so damned unfairly nice to her.