Gale intensely studied the restaurant menu on the datapad, partly because she was a picky eater, but mostly to hide her chagrin. The Syrinxes were a pair of absolute menaces when they set their mind to something, and unfortunately, they had set their minds on Gale's eating habits. As much as she might believe her nutrition was adequate, it was abundantly clear that they disagreed, and had roped everyone in the core office team into the whole debacle. Thankfully, Ms. Kistia was still busy out of the office, sparing her from the ridiculous affair.
They had, at least, allowed Gale to select the restaurant, so she picked a diner in the Green Belt with good fries and supposedly highly reviewed Affini options. Gale hadn't the slightest clue how affini subjectively experienced consumption, but she could read numerical scores just fine. The concept of the Green Belt as a distinct zone in the Xenian settlement had been one of many collaborative efforts by Gale and Ms. Kistia to try and foster positive social relations between the humans and Affini. It was immediately apparent that existing human-built infrastructure tended to be far too small and cramped to comfortably accommodate Affini on a regular basis. However, more subtly, Gale became aware through personal experience and overheard conversations that typical Affini architecture often made assumptions about the scales and capabilities of those who used it, which created a poor experience and sense of unconscious discomfort amongst many unaccompanied humans.
The Green Belt, therefore, created a both literal and metaphorical meeting ground between these two worlds. All buildings in the area were required to be large enough to comfortably accommodate affini, but also have all resources available in equally readable and reachable ways for Terrans as well. No chairs that required assistance to be lifted into, no stairs too high for an adult human stride, no terminals or interfaces which presupposed that any non-affini sophonts using them would probably have the word Floret in their names. And of course, restaurants in the Green Belt had to equally serve the dietary needs of all customers, providing a neutral ground for affini and Terrans alike to share a meal and hopefully get to know one another.
The reception of the Green Belt seemed to track just slightly more positively than opinions on the existence and presence of the Affini as a whole. That is, the Affini absolutely loved it, the more open-minded Terrans found it a welcoming place to learn more about the Affini and their culture, and the rest avoided it like a radiological hazard. It was both encouraging and disappointing all in one go, though that was really just a reflection of her current thoughts on her species.
"Gale! Your turn to order!" announced Sesat, startling her out of her introspection and making her fumble her datapad onto the table. "Oops, sorry."
Gale placed her double order of extra-spiced fries and the waitress turned to relay the request to the kitchen, revealing that characteristic little scar over her thoracic vertebrae. Domesticated and implanted, just like Heather and an increasing number of other Terrans of her regular acquaintance. Not that she was truly all that well acquainted with many other Terrans, honestly. The number of Terrans on Xenia whom she could easily recall their names could be counted on both hands.
"Fries are not a proper meal, Gale," Heather chastised her from Alvya's lap.
"Actually, this restaurant uses a nutritionally complete tuber cultivar engineered to match Terran taste and texture preference," Marta spoke up. "Distribution and adoption has already been extremely promising in decreased incidence rates of vitamin and essential amino acid deficiencies on various Terran worlds, particularly those without a diverse agricultural base."
"And they taste just about as good as actual potatoes," Gale noted. "My compliments to the xenobotanist."
Marta smiled brightly, rustling her broad leaves which draped off of her body like a dark verdigris gown. She was an aquatically adapted Affini, a subtype which appeared to be uncommon but far from unusual, and lived in a home grown out on the artificial lake with her two florets. Though seemingly the same as terrestrial Affini in most ways, she never seemed to have quite gotten the hang of legs (even obviously than most), giving her the impression of flowing along as she walked. "It was a group effort, of course, but I'm glad that you're fond of them. We worked quite hard on developing something which even the most suspicious starving Terran would find palatable."
"They do feel remarkably familiar for being a totally alien plant, so I'd say you did great with that. Seriously, Heather, you need to try them."
Heather scoffed. "If that's your plan for trying and getting out of eating today, nice try, but it's not going to happen."
"No! I just..." Gale sighs dramatically and - gently, to avoid affini intervention - thumps her head down onto her datapad resting on the table, eliciting a round of laughter.
"Don't be rude now, pet," Alvya gently admonished, doing something out of sight which elicited a sharp gasp of surprise from Heather. "She would be glad to try some, won't you dear?"
"Yes, mistress..." Heather's voice was breathless and distant, and Gale had to bite her lip to stifle a reaction. It was just so... unsettling... the way that someone as willful as Heather could be made to just melt into helpless submission, with just a touch.
"Look how embarrassed you're making cute little Ms. Gale, the poor thing is bright red!" Inaya cackled. "Truly, dear, it's hard to believe you've spent months around us when just a little light pet care still gets you all bothered."
Gale jerked bolt upright and stared, absolutely mortified, at the smug affini sitting across the table. Inaya Teshir was an absolute menace, even by Affini standards. She was considerably older than the other affini who Gale knew, being on her Fifth Bloom, and was solidly over a thousand years old. She was a tech specialist from the affini fleet who Ms. Kistia brought in to investigate the incriminating evidence on the Linden servers and, after she ruled the planetary network "utterly and dangerously inadequate" and accused the network engineers of being "illiterate menaces'' of similar competence to "class-Js playing with a spool of fiberoptic cable" in a display of furious leaf-pulling rage, stayed on Xenia to completely uproot and replace Xenia's technological infrastructure. And that wasn't even getting started on her, ah, proclivities when it came to domestication.
Sesat patted Gale on the back, nearly sending her sprawling back onto the table. "Don't tease her too hard, Inaya. She might burst into flames if you keep it up! I don't want to lose any needles!"
"Thanks Sesat," Gale grumbled. She knew he was sincerely trying to come to her defense, which absolutely made it worse.
"Anytime, Ms. Gale!"
Thankfully, the waitress returned with Gale and Heather's meals just in time to spare her any further ignominy. She was admittedly rather famished, and didn't hesitate to get started eating the moment the plate landed in front of her.
"Oh dear. Are you really that hungry Ms. Gale?" Alvya wrapped a few extra vines protectively around Heather, who was eating what appeared to be some sort of salad. "I really should have noticed sooner... said something..."
Feeling a sharp pang of guilt, Gale paused and finished her current mouthful before speaking up to mitigate Alvya's concern. "No, it's... I'm not that hungry, I just eat quickly... it doesn't need to be a big deal..."
"Really now," Inaya challenged, cocking a sharp-ridged eyebrow at her. "Can you honestly tell me that I could take you to a clinic, right this moment, and they would agree that you're sufficiently fed?"
"I... I can't speak for them, but-"
"Right, so that's a no." Inaya interrupted. "Am I going to have to start monitoring your activity, Ms. Gale? Because I'm sure you'll find that far less enjoyable than I will." As she talked, she drew out a datapad from within the white fibrous mesh which grew laced around her scale-like and poised long, talon-like fingers menacingly over the screen. "It would be no trouble at all, really."
"Surely it won't have to come to that. I'm confident that all Ms. Gale needs to thrive is a little bit of assistance, isn't that right?" Marta interjected. Her smile was bright and warm, and yet perhaps a bit overeager.
Gale looked back and forth across the table, scrambling for a response. "I. Er."
She failed to come up with a satisfactory excuse before Sesat chimed in enthusiastically. "You know, we could make this a regular thing! Going out to eat together, I mean. Oh, I bet Tam would love trying out new food. I'll bring him along too, when he's not too tired from playing!"
"I think that would be lovely," Alvya added.
"Hey, I'll never say no to spending more time with Mistress," Heather added, nuzzling against Alvya's chest with an incredibly gay smirk.
Surrendering to their collective benevolence, Gale gave them a resigned nod and returned her focus to her fries. Whether they had explicitly choreographed the whole exchange or not, it was abundantly clear that Gale was not going to be having a say in the matter.
Thankfully, the affini were gracious enough in their victory to grant her a brief reprieve to eat in peace. Their conversation moved on from discussing Gale's eating habits to making small talk about their florets, and Gale listened idly in as she ate. She had met them all, of course, as her coworkers each brought their respective florets in with varying degrees of regularity. They were all quite friendly and she enjoyed their company. And yet... like Heather, the way they acted, the way they were treated by the affini, the way the affini talked about them... They were so very loved and cherished, it was impossible to miss how proud the affini were of their florets, but every little detail just emphasized that they were pets in the affini's eyes...
Gale forced herself to take deep breaths to calm down, face burning. She had to do a better job at concealing her unease. Her coworkers were doing nothing wrong, it was simply how Affini culture was. She might not understand how they could just take sapient beings and bend them to their will like that... but, well... it was a fact. And the florets clearly enjoyed it. It was Gale who had the problem, so it was her responsibility to deal with it. The Affini, especially her coworkers, had done so much for all of them, the last thing she wanted was to make them feel uncomfortable. She wasn't one of those Free Terranist assholes.
"Oh, Ms. Gale, is everything alright?" Marta's use of her name broke through her thoughts, and Gale looked up towards her. "Is your airway obstructed? Penny and Kasey sometimes have trouble when they eat quickly, too. Combined respiratory and digestive pathways are such a fault intolerant design..."
"No, that's not it, I just..." Gale quickly retraced her mental steps, finding a plausible half-truth. "My thoughts wandered and I ended up reminded of some of the stuff I've been reading from offworld. About the Free Terranist extremists... you know, the details only included in the Affini translations of those reports."
She watched the collective wince ripple across her coworkers like an ill wind. Affini generally had good poker faces, but she was learning to read the more subtle signs: Alvya's draping flowers curled in a little tighter around her face and around her floret, Inaya's layers of leaf-plates flexed to expose their sharp points, and the large prominent bloom atop Marta's head closed partway. Sesat, as usual, had the most obvious reaction and dramatic reaction, immediately reaching out to place his massive hand beside Gale's for comfort and nearly spilling her drink in the process.
"It's alright, Ms. Gale. Nothing is going to hurt you," Sesat reassured her, and Gale rested her hand atop his gratefully. Even though she had brought up the topic as a deflection, it wasn't like Gale hadn't stayed up hours into the night reading eyewitness accounts of horrifically destructive rebel attacks, knowing it was just going to make her dreams worse but unable to pry her attention away.
As many misgivings Gale had about the concept of domestication, she could not wrap her head around how the rebels could justify their actions. With a fair amount of digging she had managed to track down a couple of news wires used by Affini news sites, which exposed the bare details of rebel-involved incidents. As the fall of the Terran Accord became inevitable, defensive forces had devolved into decentralized and radicalized guerrilla fighters. They were no longer trying to protect people from the perceived menace of the Affini, just lashing out violently for no apparent strategic benefit and little care for collateral damage. They actively endangered everyone around them and even, in several tragic incidents, deliberately threw away their own lives purely to cause harm. Gale just couldn't understand it, causing so much pain with no achievable purpose.
"I know! I'm not scared, or anything. It's not that... just... I guess, I'm... I'm really glad for how things worked out, for Xenia. Seeing all of the pointless destruction and pain all over, caused by so much fear and misinformation we were accidentally spared from. And, well... I hope that I wouldn't have believed it myself, but I know I have a tendency towards assuming the worst..."
"Oh don't you dare even worry about that, you of all people," Inaya admonished, going out of her way to roll her eyes for the humans' benefit. "Such a smart girl like you? From the way Kistia tells it, you practically tore the slavers here apart one papercut at a time. The idea of you falling for such drivel is simply ridiculous."
"I appreciate your confidence in me, Inaya, but I also can't underestimate the human capacity for rejecting knowledge one doesn't want to accept. Had I been exposed to the anti-Affini rumours first, I may not have been so receptive."
Inaya seemed incredibly amused by Gale's response, her outer mesh rustling with her vaguely disconcerting laughter. "It's rather hard to forget about that, Ms. Gale. Humans are capable of weaving such complex webs of self-deception, aren't they? Do you know how many rebel fighters' lives I've digitally unraveled? Except for the most rotten, twisted souls, they always seem to know the truth deep down, no matter how hard they fight and claim otherwise. It's why they make some of the most lovely pets once they're broken, watching them slowly but inevitably accept what they've been denying all along..."
Heather burst into violent coughing all of a sudden, though Alvya seemed to have the problem taken care of before Gale could even look over and process what was happening. The woman's face was bright red, with tears streaming down her face as Alvya gently stroked her back and whispered quietly into her floret's ear. Heather nodded and Alvya picked her up, stepping away from the table. "Sorry, my silly girl needs a bit of water," she explained as she carried Heather off towards the washroom.
"See, this is exactly what I was talking about," Marta declared, gesturing towards the departing pair. "The epiglottis is such an absurdly insufficient design. Somebody should do something about that, truly."
"Quite," Inaya agreed.
The rest of the lunch passed mercifully without incident. Alvya excused herself and Heather to take the latter home, assuring everyone that she was perfectly alright and just needed to take some time to rest. She certainly had seemed rather tired out when the two returned from the washroom, though at least some part of her lethargy was most likely a product of whatever xenodrug Alvya had clearly administered to her, judging by her flushed face and unfocused eyes as she waved goodbye to Gale.
As they started walking back to the office, Sesat was extremely enthusiastic about the idea of making office lunches a regular affair. "I should put together a schedule! That way we can be sure Ms. Gale will never have to be lonely at lunch anymore!" He paused for a moment, before bringing his arms together in two sets of resounding claps. "Floret Fridays!"
Inaya hummed in delight. "Now that's an idea. Melia will love having more regular playdates with its friends, I'm certain."
As they walked past one of the myriad flower boxes lining the street, Gale finally remembered her earlier intention. "Oh, right, Marta! Thanks again for coming up with the flower box project. Even in the middle of the old city, it really breaks up all of the monotonous focus group grey."
"Thank you Ms. Gale. Every single study, both Affini and Terran led, agrees that regular interactions with plant life in a Terran's environment has a positive effect on mood. It's the least we can do to try and make this world more hospitable for all of you, even if it's been quite a bit more work than we anticipated."
"Hmm? I thought the terraforming project had largely mitigated the meteorological issues."
"It's not that, Ms. Gale," Marta's leaves slumped dejectedly. "We've started to see an unfortunate pattern of vandalism incidents that has been steadily escalating over the past few weeks."
"Oh, I'm so sorry, I had no idea. I haven't seen any of that."
"I doubt you would have. The incidents have generally been confined to the far edges of the settlement, those furthest from Affini residences." Marta sighed. "Penny and Kasey have been quite distraught over it. They used to love walking all around the city for fun, but now they tend to stay closer to home, along the water or inside the Green Belt. They just don't feel comfortable out that way anymore."
"The shipment of additional surveillance equipment should be arriving on the next freight shuttle." Like a flip of a switch, Inaya dropped from her casually glib demeanor into the coldly impersonal persona she donned for serious work. "I'll have a proper net rigged up in the problem neighbourhoods overnight as soon as they arrive. Xenia has been several deviations more receptive than the baseline for a Terran small-pop civilian world, and I intend to keep it that way. Always best to prune the blight before it can spread."
Prune the blight. What a characteristically Affini euphemism. Gale knew well enough what that meant, the reports had made that process equally clear. Gentle but firm persuasion for incidental offenders, up to forced relocation. Domestication for those actively encouraging insurrection or whose crimes progressed beyond property damage towards violence. Progressing by fractal iterations until all possibility of organized opposition was futile, from the interstellar scale down to the local, and further down still to the individual minds of each and every involuntarily domesticated Terran.
And yet, when juxtaposed against the pictures of irradiated fireballs and the screams of hostages at rebel gunpoint seared into her memory, Gale just couldn't bring herself to mind.