Amida kicked her legs up and down in a rotary motion, each one making splashes in the crystal clear water below her. Water dripped off of Amida’s talons, spattering upwards onto her feathered thighs and bare stomach. Amida’s arms were crossed behind her head, wings splayed across the water. The cool liquid lapped at her sides, making gentle sloshing sounds that calmed the terran woman. Amida took a deep breath through her nose, watching her chest rise and fall. Her body relaxed. One of the many magical new technologies the affini brought when they invaded was a method of keeping pool water clean without the stench of chlorine. Hell, Amida could probably drink it if she really wanted to.
The terran ran a feathered hand across her neck. Three thin slits lined opposite sides of her nape. They flexed each time she inhaled, then flattened, closing when she exhaled. Amida pulled her hand off of her neck. Her new gills had been sore the past couple of days, but now they felt as natural as any other organ. At this point Amida did not notice her gills unless she was making an effort to manually use them.
If Amida was being honest with herself, she was hoping the gills would be a bit more fulfilling. She loved to swim and dive, and she always found herself envious of gilled beasts. So why did the gills so quickly lose their novelty and become a natural, mundane part of her?
Amida pulled her head underwater, using her wings to flip herself upside down before kicking her legs to dive deeper into the pool. The cool liquid bathed her face, cleansing any semblance of early morning haze still clinging to her mind. Amida crawled through the water, finding her way to the bottom of the pool. She opened her eyes and looked around. The pool was barren, its tiled floor white as snow. Amida enjoyed simply letting the water subsume her. She opened her mouth, pushing water through her new gills. The sensation of pressing water through one’s gills was strange. It wasn’t like breathing out of one’s lungs, but it was satisfying in its own way. It was like pressure in Amida’s head was being drained through her neck.
Amida kicked her legs, propelling herself along the bottom of the pool. The water pressed against her body, hugged in a blanket of cool moisture. Amida tried to clear her mind and take in the sensations of being waterborne, but found her focus meandering. She cut her swim for the day short. Amida would have to head to the library for her day of work soon, anyway. She didn’t want to. She knew Klamath wouldn’t care if she didn’t show up, but she still felt she had an obligation to him. She had been at the New Terran Public Library since before the Terran Accord was dissolved. Originally Amida did systems maintenance on the various computers and databases, as libraries weren’t used for much besides those things. When the Affini took charge, however, the library took on a much more classical function— that of creating an environment in which sophonts could relax and read a book, free of charge.
Amida found it ironic at first given the Affini’s introduction of the atomic compiler. This device could generate any book from anywhere translated to any language in a matter of seconds. Yet Affini and Terrans alike seemed to be more willing to kick their feet up and relax at the library now that this silly capitalism thing was behind them.
Amida breached the surface of the water and threw her arms over the lip of the pool. She pulled her slim body out of the water. Liquid flowed off the parts of her that were covered in feathers— her arms, legs, and hair— while sticking to the bits that were still made of human flesh. Amida’s talons clicked across the ground. She was heading for a small chamber that was attached to the side of the pool’s main building. Currently the building only housed the restrooms, as the water cleaning and heating was now done by Affini bio-tech. Amida stepped into the chamber. It was a small octagonal oblong opening that would blast-dry the occupant with warm air. It was, for all intents and purposes, a full-body hair dryer.
The terran was dry in a matter of seconds and clothed soon after. She checked her communicator and began the walk to the library. While she could rely on being alone in the pool in the morning, this was not true of the streets. Affini passed by with florets in tow, all of whom gave Amida a smile and a wave. Many of them knew her from the library, while others waved out of kindness.
Amida opened the wooden doors to the library’s lobby and stepped into the building. It had a classical Terran aesthetic. Lots of wood, beautiful gaudy inlays, and large glass windows. At the same time it looked like something out of a fantasy novel. The biggest example of this being the sheer height of the bookcases. Affini simply loved lifting their darling florets up to retrieve a book. For more independent sophonts, ladders and lifts were also provided. The floorspace as a whole was larger than one would expect, also due to the size of the average affini. The entire design of the library was crafted with love to be a cozy space where Affini and their florets could curl up with a book.
Amida looked up to see that a pair were doing just that on the carpeted balcony. An Affini was plopped in an oversized chair cradling a floret in their lap. The pair were each reading a different book, and each had a wide smile on their face. The floret’s gaze was glassy, but they seemed to still be able to maintain enough focus to be entranced by their novel.
Amida breathed in. The smell of musty wood filled her nose. She walked over to the main desk. Klamath sat behind it, also reading a book.
“Good book?” Amida asked.
Klamath Reticulata, 27th Bloom looked down from his book. His dark brown wooden face raised its eyebrows, artificial lips poking out in a display of curiosity. Well, they seemed to be doing that. It was a little hard to tell behind his thick green “beard” composed of foliage and vines speckled with pastel flowers. His eyes were gray, but sparkled just like any other Affini’s. The old tree smiled at the sight of Amida. Then he forced a frown.
“Awful.” Klamath said. His eyes darted back to the book. Amida didn’t think for a moment he was serious. Klamath Reticulata had never read a book he didn’t like.
“Want me to put it back for you, then?” Amida asked with a smirk, reaching her hand out to retrieve the tome.
“No-no! I shall suffer it a few pages longer.” Klamath said with a chuckle. He reached out a vine and rubbed Amida’s head. Without even looking, the Affini fixed a callick and straightened a few feathers on her arm.
Amida leaned against the desk. It was too tall for her, but something about her enjoyed that. She was a doll being used in a playset that was just a little bit too big for her. She had her own normal sized accessories, phone, and hab unit, but the world around her was a hair too big.
“And how did your morning swim go, little Amida?” Klamath asked, not looking up from his book.
“It went decently. Pools are a lot more relaxing when you don’t have to pay for admission.”
“I suppose I will have to take your word for it, waterfowl.” Klamath responded with a smile and a wink. The old tree wasn’t much of a swimmer. Klamath leaned forward in his chair, causing the floor to creak beneath him. The Affini had chosen the perfect form for a librarian, at least in Amida’s opinion. A wise aged tree with a beard that reached halfway down his torso? He was straight out of a storybook. “Though— and I mean no offense by this— if I swam in that same pool every day, I would get quite sick of it.”
“It is a bit… Samey.” Amida admitted. She bit the inside of her mouth. He was right. Not even the gills could make the pool she used to love feel new again. Part of her felt like it was because the pool was no longer a privilege. She could go there whenever she wanted, and thus the elusive magic was gone. The other part of Amida said the pool wasn’t really that interesting in the first place. It was 6 feet deep at most and didn’t have any remarkable features other than the drying chamber attached to the main building. Hell, it wasn’t even large enough to make for an efficient pool to swim laps in.
“Is something the matter, little miss?” Klamath asked. One of his vines crept over to Amida and gave her a pat on the head. It felt nice, and the girl leaned into it.
“I guess you are kinda right.” Amida said, feeling the soft vine stroke her cheek. “About the pool, I mean.”
“Apologies, is this a sore spot? I didn’t-”
“No, no! You’re fine Klamath, I think the problem is deeper than that.” Amida bit the inside of her mouth. She allowed her posture to slump a bit, hoping Klamath wouldn’t notice. He did. He also noticed her wincing behind every word she spoke. “I feel like my life is that. Samey, I mean. I’ve been doing the same thing for so long. I mean I sort books now, which is different from my previous job, but my point is I’ve had the same schedule for… Years.”
“You do not have to live like this, Amida. The Compact is full of possibilities.” Klamath responded.
“Is it really my place to ask for more from you guys? I mean, you gave me a house, enough food to survive, clothing, and companionship. That is more than enough.”
“Do you feel a change of pace would be enriching?” Klamath asked.
“I- I think I do, yes.”
“Then it is the duty of the Affini Compact to make sure that you are fulfilled.” Klamath said. “The Compact has given you the universe, Amida, and you are not only allowed but encouraged to seize it.”
Amida gave a shy smile. Klamath was right. There were so many opportunities available to her, it would be silly not to take one in her lifetime.
“I don’t want to leave you to run the library alone, Klamath.” Amida conceded with a sigh.
Klamath laughed in response. “Worry not, Amida, I can handle myself.”
“Well, I’ll still probably feel bad about it, but thanks anyway.” Amida stuck out her tongue.
Klamath giggled in response. Humans were silly. Silly and adorable but a bit worrying. Amida knew herself well but was scared to act on things that she knew would benefit her. Klamath was absolutely certain a change of pace would help her wellbeing, but whether or not she would be willing to take the plunge was another question entirely. This is why florets were happier, affini knew best, Klamath thought. If she were to stay, she would always have a place at the library. If she were to go, Klamath would be happy knowing the sophont would find joy elsewhere. He would have been elated to relieve the woman of her burdens, but she had turned down his domestication offer, as she had for many others. Amida was an elusive creature.
“Is Ms. Celta here today?” Amida asked. Another potential owner who Amida had turned down, Celta Alurat, 10th bloom.
“Always is.” Klamath responded.
Amida nodded and walked up a winding staircase to a balcony crowded with wooden bookshelves and small tables populated with globes of the planets in the sol system. Reading at the far end of the balcony was an unassuming Affini. Her bark was white like that of a sycamore, and her head ended in branches that stretched into the air, with leaves that fell in a shroud over her face. These leaves were parted so that the woman could see the worn book she was reading, and it appeared miniature in her large hands. Her mouth wrapped almost completely around her face, causing her entire visage to part when she began to speak. Amida would be lying if she said she didn’t find the woman to be imposing. She’d also be lying if she said she didn’t find the woman attractive.
“Hello Amida.” Celta said, closing her book. She kept a finger on the page she was reading to resume when she finished chatting with Amida. “Would you like me to read to you today?”
Amida’s face turned red. She did want that, but she was on a mission today. It would have to wait.
“Can’t say I don’t want that.” Amida said with an awkward laugh, “But I’m actually planning on traveling soon, I was wondering if you knew any nice places that fit my preferences.”
“And those would be?”
“I’m thinking about going to an aquatic locale.” Amida said. Celta wasn’t surprised. The girl who had waterfowl feathers and gills grafted to her body wanted to live in an aquatic locale, who’d-a-thunk-it?
“Planet, station, or ship, honey?” Celta said as she placed a hand on top of her book and leaned backwards into the affini-sized chair she occupied.
“Any, honestly. And by aquatic I mean I want to- like- live underwater.”
Celta raised an eyebrow. “Always a little waterfowl.” She said, patting Amida on the head with a vine. Amida smiled and clutched the vine, trying to use it to hide her blush. “You know you will need more surgeries before being cleared to live in an aquatic system, and you will need an excuse as well. Me and Klamath will vouch for you.”
“Thank you both. And I already have gills, remember?” Amida said, pointing to her neck. Celta laughed in response and pulled Amida forwards with a vine wrapped around her back, then swept her legs and caught her in a chair held by another vine.
“Do you also have a swim-bladder?”
Amida pouted. “Mm, no.”
“Can your organ tissue survive immersion without becoming damaged?”
“Well you should learn, honey.” Celta said with a chuckle. She patted Amida on the head with a thick vine. At this point she was just teasing. Whoever was helping her emigrate would have told her all of this. Celta just liked to see her pout. Amida was sure of it. “I can give you some recommendations. You know Xa’acan, correct?”
The most commonly spoken aquatic language within the compact. Amida was learning it in her free time. It was incredibly interesting to learn a language that was meant to be utilized exclusively underwater. Interesting and difficult. Properly practicing Xa’acan requires one to actually be underwater, if even a bit of your face isn’t submerged the language comes out different than intended, and depth pressure could also affect pronunciation. It was a challenge, but one Amida enjoyed.
“Enough to be conversational.” Amida responded.
“You are a quick learner, Amida. With a little immersion, you will be fluent in no-time.” Celta responded with a smile.
“Haha, immersion, like water.” Amida said. Celta sighed.
“Off the top of my head I can think of a few places you may want on your radar. You will find everywhere you go to be willing to accommodate you, but it would be best to go somewhere with at least a bit of innate land-dwelling accommodation so that you can get your bearings without having to jump straight into aquatic life.”
“Wait-” Amida stopped herself, “Well, I guess I don’t want to actually sleep underwater. I like my bed.”
“It would not be difficult with a swim bladder.” Celta responded. Amida scrunched her face up, signaling to Celta that there were reasons other than staying suspended that made Amida not want to sleep underwater. Celta couldn’t blame her, she wouldn’t want to sleep underwater either. “Message received.” Celta tried to imitate Amida’s expression with her own wooden face.
Amida’s expression melted into a smile. “Thanks Celta, I do appreciate this.”
Celta smiled in response. She opened her arms and loosened the vines draped around Amida’s shoulders, offering a hug to the terran. Amida accepted, practically tackling the Affini, burying her head into Celta’s chest. The soft leaves caressed her face. Celta wrapped her vines tight around the girl and squeezed. Amida whimpered. The compression sent waves of pleasure through her body. Amida felt like she was drifting in a sea of blankets, cradled like a precious plush. Celta’s warmth surrounded her. She nuzzled into the foliage adorning the affini’s chest.
“I don’t want you guys to feel like I’m leaving you.” Amida whispered.
“Shh… We’ll always be here for you.” Celta said. Her chest vibrated, and Amida hummed in response. “And if you ever want to come back, I would be happy to have you as my own.” Celta slipped a vine under Amida’s chin and craned her neck upwards to look her in the eyes. The human blushed and looked down towards the ground. “You have Klamath and I’s communicator details, you can message us whenever you like.”
“I-I’ll keep that in mind, Ms. Celta.” Amida sputtered. Celta smiled and released the girl, then pulled her tablet out of its resting place within her vines.
“Let’s find you a cozy aquatic getaway, waterfowl.”