Gale was just starting to feel the twinge of a muscle cramp as she and her coworkers turned the corner onto the long walkway up to the old Linden headquarters. A reasonably foreseeable consequence of walking on a pleasantly full stomach, but Gale forced herself through the discomfort. Her coworkers had already been sufficiently inconvenienced, she didn't want to slow them down further to wait for her.
Every single work day, Gale came to work down this walkway, and it still never failed to make her smile seeing the rust outlined silhouette on the side of the building where the Linden company logo used to rest. Having quickly substantiated the truth of Gale's allegations of Linden's mistreatment of workers, Kistia had wasted no time arranging a crew to remove the oppressive symbol from sight wherever it was found. Gale and most of her acquaintances were rather pleased with the change, though somehow there remained a very disappointed core of fanatic brand loyalists who still practically worshipped Linden out of nostalgia regardless of how they were treated as employees.
A sudden chorus of sharp beeping rang out in unison, stopping the group dead in their tracks as they fished for their datapads. Inaya, of course, was the swiftest to retrieve hers, and what she saw made her exclaim sharply (presumably uttering some unfamiliar expletive). Her next sentence was slightly too quick for Gale to understand, but what she could make out included the third-highest of the dozen or so Affini words describing degrees of urgency.
Before she could even find her datapad in her bag to properly read the message for herself, Gale found herself being swept off of her feet and thrown over Sesat's shoulder. Stifling a cry of surprise - or rather, being too surprised to even cry out - she dug her fingers into the grooves of his bark to avoid being thrown loose as he burst suddenly into motion. She didn't have to worry about falling, Sesat was holding her securely against him, but her animal brain demanded she do something to try and save herself. There was nothing else she could do but shut her eyes tight and fight off the sudden motion sickness.
She felt their entry into the building both by the change in air temperature and smooth but sudden deceleration. Before she could say a word, the giant Affini was already pulling her free of his shoulder and setting her down onto the atrium carpet. Gale opened her eyes and rapidly scanned the room, assessing the situation. Marta was there, Inaya was vanishing into the nearest stairwell, and... oh!
"Ms. Kistia! You're back! What's..." Vertigo crashed into her like a runaway train as she turned to face her superior, throwing her off balance. Fortunately, Ms. Kistia was able to catch her effortlessly with outstretched leaves. Head spinning, Gale was more than happy to accept Ms. Kistia's help, allowing the Affini to draw her up and to her side where Gale could lean against her for support. "Sorry... what's going on?"
Ms. Kistia smiled weakly down at Gale, though the emotional tension behind the smile was clear as day to her. "I will explain the full details on the shuttle, but due to unforeseen circumstances, Xenia will soon be hosting several thousand Terran refugees."
Refugees? Shuttle? A thousand and one questions raced through Gale's mind, but she focused on the most important first. "What can I do to help, Ms. Kistia?"
"Your eagerness to help is appreciated as always, Ms. Gale. I will need your assistance as a mediator to facilitate processing the cases of those refugees who have thus far been too distrustful or scared to fully cooperate with the process."
Gale nodded. If they didn't trust the alien invaders, a friendly human face might be able to get through to them. "Understood, Ms. Kistia. Unless you need me to retrieve anything, I am ready to leave at your convenience."
Ms. Kistia nodded and ran a leaf down her back appreciatively, before directing her attention to Marta and Sesat. "You have the worst case numbers I sent you, make sure that we have enough accommodations and prepared meals ready for that many, as well as medical supplies. Initial numbers on malnutrition and related pathologies are potentially as high as four in five. I'll make sure updated figures are routed to you as soon as we know more." A quick duet of generic affirmational noises and they both departed to follow in Inaya's wake.
Ms. Kistia tapped a vine gently against the small of Gale's back. Upon receiving a nod of confirmation from the human, Ms. Kistia swept her up with practiced ease into her usual reclined position tucked comfortably amongst the Affini's chest foliage. Gale pulled her bag up by its strap into her lap for safekeeping as Ms. Kistia started off towards the shuttle landing. It had become a somewhat common practice for the two, whenever their inspection schedule or other meetings covered a greater distance than she could cover comfortably on foot. She had protested the first few times, mostly out of principle, but acquiesced soon enough to the undeniable convenience of the arrangement.
Despite their speed, Ms. Kistia was far more effective at stabilizing her stride, providing a much smoother ride for Gale than with Sesat. She supposed, amusedly, that his gait might have been an acquired habit for Tam's benefit, as they would surely enjoy the challenge of keeping hold during such a bumpy ride. By contrast, the gentle regular oscillations as Kistia ran were almost relaxing. She had no issues pulling out her datapad during the journey and getting a head start towards filling some of the gaps in her knowledge about the situation.
Engrossed in her background research, she didn't even notice they had made it into the shuttle until she felt the sensation of beaded leaves slowly peeling away from her skin, their additional security for the journey no longer necessary as Ms. Kistia settled down into one of the shuttle's seats. Gale stretched out and pulled herself into a more upright position as the shuttle departed. She could barely even feel the acceleration, the Affini technology providing a much more pleasant experience than any human craft she had ever ridden. It was her first time off of Xenia in years, she realized. And to think she had wanted so desperately to be rid of the planet so recently, though it felt like a lifetime ago now.
On those few unfortunate space flights Gale was forced through experiencing in the past, the clearest sign of leaving the atmosphere was the relief from the stomach-churning turbulence. However, with such a smooth ascent, the most obvious indication of their departure from the planet was the loosening grasp of Xenia's gravity well. Luckily for her, Ms. Kistia had her safely strapped down within her leaves, so she didn't need to worry about drifting off.
"Ms. Kistia, I've cross-referenced the details from your message against the publicly available Compact data sources and news feeds, and I haven't yet determined any plausible root cause for the situation. I assume whatever happened on Phrygia 3 Station that necessitated the relocation of what seems to be its entire population - comparing your estimate to the most recently reported census count - is currently classified information?"
"Indeed, Ms. Gale, though you will of course need to know. Phrygia 3 Station was only recently taken into Compact care, just under one Terran month ago. Though it was a civilian shipbuilding and refueling station, rebel groups had commandeered it to service rebel military ships following the surrender of the Terran Navy. It was therefore necessary to ensure all rebel ships relying on the station were safely captured before the station itself, to ensure that no stubborn rebels stranded themselves without a refueling depot in range."
Gale nodded appreciatively. It was a sound and practical approach, one she was sure the Affini had carried out uncountably many times. Terrans in the same position would simply have destroyed the fuel depot at the earliest opportunity and added the stranded starving enemy ships to their tally. "If the station was safely captured, what necessitated its abandonment now? Rebel saboteurs?"
"In a sense, you're entirely correct. The station had been retrofitted for servicing larger ships several times over its service life span, accomplished by adding modules to the station's primary ring. However, the most recent changes made for hull repairs on larger Terran military vessels drastically changed the inertial profile of the station. As a result, the axial tilt of the station relative to the planet became destabilized, causing significant strain on the structural integrity of the station due to the transverse stress profile it was never designed for."
The human's eyes widened with horror, and she held onto one of Ms. Kistia's leaves reflexively. She was no aerospace engineer, but she knew more than enough to put the pieces together from watching various documentaries and reading incident reports. "The station was spinning itself apart! That's awful! How could they have let it get to that point? Did they even know?"
"Unfortunately not," Ms. Kistia stated. "There were sensory systems in place to detect material strain, but these systems only existed within the original scope of the structure and were only intended to detect radial strain. Our engineers' scans revealed that the station was within weeks of suffering catastrophic hull failure and explosive depressurization."
"No wonder the evacuation was so sudden. I'm sure they're very grateful for being rescued."
Ms. Kistia hesitated just a moment too long before responding.
"Oh. Right. Rebel controlled station." Gale's mind began racing down diverging and disquieting paths. "They're not happy at all, are they?"
"It varies significantly. Not all inhabitants of Phrygia 3 Station were in favour of the station's cooperation with the rebel groups; these individuals have been largely cooperative. That said, although this group represents a plurality of the station's population, they are outnumbered by those on the station whose opinions of the Affini range from undecided to negative."
"Surely even those must recognize how fortunate their rescue was?"
"That would require them to accept that there was any threat at all to be rescued from, Ms. Gale. There are an unfortunate number who reject the notion that there was anything wrong with the station at all, presuming that their relocation was being done out of malice on our part, though the particular details vary from individual to individual."
"That... that doesn't... why would..."
"Breathe steadily, Ms. Gale," Ms. Kistia instructed, gently rubbing the back of a leaf up and down her spine. "Hyperventilation isn't good for your health."
"I'm sorry, Ms. Kistia. I don't mean to. I just... I've seen the kind of things that rebels... that Terrans do... when caught up in these... irrational..." Gale gestured vaguely, helplessly. "What if they come to Xenia and hurt people? What if... what if they try something?"
"I will not allow you to come to harm under my watch, Ms. Gale." The affini curled ever so slightly tighter around her, assuring Gale of her protection.
"I... I know you won't... I trust you. That doesn't mean I can just... turn my brain off..." Gale trailed off, a thought occurring to her. Maybe she could, at least in the ways that mattered. Slowly, cautiously, she asked, "do you... do you still have those drugs from the day we met? The sedative and focus enhancer?"
"Not quite, but very close." The alien woman studied Gale intensely, perhaps concerned given her previous response to Affini medication. "I have since replaced the sedative formulation with another closely related class-E drug; it is slightly less potent but with far fewer side effects in terms of working memory and spatial reasoning. Loss of focus and distractibility remains, of course, if taken alone."
Gale's shoulders slumped with relief at her good luck. That was even better than she had been hoping. "In order that I can be of best use, could I perhaps request that you provide me with a similar dose to last time? Combined, of course? I don't think I will be much use dealing with... well... irrationally angry, fearful and potentially violent criminals in my current state."
"Are you certain, Ms. Gale? I have every confidence in your ability to navigate the situation without the existence of xenodrugs if necessary. You need not force yourself if you are not comfortable."
She looked up at Ms. Kistia and nodded, determined. "These people, and you, deserve to have me at my best. I might be able to handle it without, but my anxiety will make the situation significantly suboptimal. Furthermore..." Gale looked away, sheepishly. "In the interests of full disclosure, I may have stopped taking my previous anti-anxiety medication."
"I know, I know... I've... I actually have been thinking about going and getting my medications switched over to Affini ones, and I read that it's important to get any existing Terran drugs out of my system first, but with the Green Belt project, and everything else, it... slipped my mind?"
Ms. Kistia took Gale's cheek in her hand and turned her gaze, gently but inexorably, back up to face her. "Very well, I will provide you xenodrugs for this excursion, but you will be going to see a physician to replace your previous medications by end of week, am I understood?"
The bargain was struck. "Yes, Ms. Kistia, thank you. I'm sorry for the imposition."
The affini woman laughed softly, beaded foliage rippling in time with the pulsing glow of her eyes as she affectionately brushed Gale's hair back. "It is no trouble at all, dear Ms. Gale." Mid-sentence, as Gale was distracted by the melody of her voice and the sensation of her touch, Ms. Kistia delivered two swift injections to her legs, leaving twin pinpricks of sharp sensation that rapidly dissipated.
"Ah!" Gale exclaimed softly, and all but deflated into Ms. Kistia's embrace as the drugs took hold. The experience was far more intense taking them together than separately. Sparks of cool fire danced across her body and mind, paradoxically numbing and invigorating. Though she had not lied to Ms. Kistia, there was another reason she hesitated. One which held her back from truly taking advantage of the gifts the Affini had brought, and far too shameful to dare admit to her superior lest she doubt Gale's conviction.
From her first taste of the full potential of the Affini's xenodrugs, she was entirely aware that if she found the right mix for her mind, if she permitted herself to become used to this state of existence with its intensely focused awareness and clarity, she would never be able to live without it. She might find fair bargains for occasions such as this, special circumstances where her full capabilities were needed, but inevitably, she would slip. She would find herself craving this blissful state of channeled energy, day after day, until she had nothing to trade in return. The fae would have her at their mercy and she wouldn't ever get free. The best way to avoid the temptation was to keep it out of her reach, as far away as possible.
But this was an emergency. She could justify it, just this once.
"How are you doing, my dear Ms. Gale?" Ms. Kistia brushed her hair ever so gently with the very tip of one of her leaves, sending cascading fractals of warmth ricocheting down her spine.
"Excellent, Ms. Kistia. This particular class-E variant mixes even more smoothly than the previous one. No meaningful cognitive impairments of any kind, to the best of my capacity to determine. And it's still doing quite well at suppressing my anxieties surrounding our upcoming work. I don't believe it's quite as thorough as last time, given that I remain fully aware of the potential deleterious outcomes of engaging with scores of rebel sympathizers, but my decision making capabilities aren't being hampered by that awareness."
Lifting her hand in the air, she flexed and unflexed her fingers experimentally. "I am still experiencing the same slight synaptic latency and dystaxia as last time, so I don't think I will be the best choice to fly the shuttle back." That one earned a laugh from Ms. Kistia.
"I'm very glad this experience is more pleasant for you than the last," Ms. Kistia said.
Gale noticed her superior's intense study behind the laughter, so she offered a reassuring smile. "Last time wasn't that bad either, once I got the focus juice going."
Ms. Kistia cocked an eyebrow. "Focus juice?"
Gale shrugged. "Less of a mouthful than Terran Class-A Xenodrug Variant 14.103, common name cerynisil."
Her superior was quite visibly amused, though with a clear undercurrent of pride. "Somehow, I find myself once again unsurprised by the thoroughness of your research."
She beamed at the compliment. "That's what I'm here for."
"For far more than that, Ms. Gale," she sighed, ruffling Gale's hair. "You know how I feel about attempting to define your worth or place by your productive capabilities."
"Sorry, Ms. Kistia, it slipped out. I've been working on it."
"You have, and I'm very proud of your progress. We will cure you of your 'acute capitalism poisoning' yet."
Gale snorted at the phrasing, one of her own sarcastic quips which had become a running joke between the pair. Turns out there were quite a lot of maladaptive behaviours which could be lumped in under that epithet. "At least I'm in recovery. We've got a whole station's worth of Terrans with far more serious cases to help treat."
"Unfortunately so. Though upon the other branch, there is no one else I would rather have by my side to deal with a mess like this."
"Likewise, Ms. Kistia!"