He makes a point of arriving half an hour early to his meeting with Sela. Affini, or at least Sela, seem to have a tendency to simply take charge of arranging everything if given the slightest opportunity. Scrambling up to claim a seat at an Affini-sized table, and ordering a nice safe pot of Darjeeling gives him time to get comfortable without Sela’s raw presence stealing his attention, and he needs every ounce of grounding he can find to make it through the consequences of his terrible choices.
The tea, though he’s never had the palette to judge, is warm and bitter in all the right ways and it is good to sit by the window in silence, admiring the unfinished wood aesthetic of the shop. He hasn’t left the hab unit much lately, but, there’s really no reason that existential dread and profound loneliness have to translate into a lack of sunlight. He enjoys the satisfaction of committing to a good life choice, even as he realizes that it’ll probably only last about until he gets back home.
The barista—a skinny blonde who seems to be running the whole shop alone—offers to refill his pot, and he’s somewhat surprised to find it empty. He manages a shy thanks, but avoids drinking much more. The last thing he needs is to be all twitchy when Sela arrives.
He debates talking to the barista. Any independent-seeming Terran running a shop designed to accommodate Affini has to have a story, but he doesn’t manage to work up the courage.
Eventually, as the feeling of security he’s obtained by arriving early starts to succumb to a wave of anxiety about what comes next, Sela arrives, compacting herself to push through the door. She looks around momentarily before her gaze lands on him. She startles for a moment before smoothing it over with a bright smile. He takes a bit of savage glee in the fact that it is still 10 minutes before the scheduled meeting. Sweet, sweet victory.
“Oh,” she slips into a chair across from him, “You are quite early p…” the Affini cuts herself off with a visible act of will. He finds himself appreciative of the act despite his best efforts. Sela slips comfortably into the seat across from him and treats him to the full weight of her cheerful currently yellow eyes.
“You are quite early,” she repeats, sounding ever so slightly petulant.
“Well, the way I see it,” he looks to his tea. With a night’s sleep and a chance to reflect, he doesn’t think he’s in any danger of forced domestication, but you can never really know, can you.
“The way I see it,” it’s his turn to sound like a broken record, “A lot of what the Affini do is take the logistics of things and just solve them. Show up a little early, do a little more and more of the organization over time until, even if you’re not a floret, you end up kinda just expecting the Affini to solve things like that. Like, yesterday, you just… ordered everything as soon as we got here.”
Sela nods brightly, “Well, it varies by individual of course. Affini aren’t all alike, but there are perhaps such cultural tendencies, yes! It’s always so pleasant to arrange things just so for a cute little sophont, to take whatever little bits of trouble from their lives we can. Now, if a sophont really loves handling logistics like that we can always allow her to have all sorts of ways for her to play of course,” she honestly sounds a bit confused at why he’s very deliberately not playing along with such inclinations if he understands them.
“So that, like everything else, is a kind of domestication isn’t it? And I’m really not interested. I get that that’s a slippery slope fallacy, that letting you be the one who always picks a table isn’t going to suddenly have me drooling and begging for a collar, but, anything that goes in that way is something I’m going to try to avoid,” he smiles sharply.
Sela is uncharacteristically still, and he can see her processing, “I suppose, seeing how stressful the fact of occupation has been for you, that it would make sense to respect that for now,” she allows at last, “But really your prior media consumption strongly suggests you would be quite interested in collars.”
He freezes, and some part of his brain desperate to process literally anything other than what Sela just said marvels at the fact that he’s mirroring her again now. He hears a chuckle and is surprised to see the barista, having wandered back to their table to see if Sela wants anything, struggling to keep a straight face.
He averts his eyes. Ah, this is a nightmare. He’s so anxious about Sela arriving he’s having… caffeine induced hallucinations or something.
“Really Fontaine,” Sela chides, “they’re clearly embarrassed, it’s not at all a laughing matter that they have an interest in-”
He flails, figuratively and mentally, and Fontaine doubles over in laughter. Sela is fortunately cut-off before she can finish whatever the rest of that sentence was going to be.
Eventually Fontaine stops, and Sela manages to order water, wrinkling her nose visibly at many of the other options.
“Really, xey seem like a nice person,” Sela notes with the confidence of a plant that has probably remembered to do a background search on literally everyone who she meets more than once, “I’m sure they don’t mean to mock you at all, your reaction to such a completely normal topic was just so…” she trails off, catching herself before she calls him adorable or anything else that he absolutely isn’t.
He gives her a look, “Sorry,” she manages, “I suppose that terrans—who are not florets—are, perhaps, oddly prudish about such things?”
“Oddly?” That’s a nice safe word, and the topic, when it’s not literally about him specifically, does actually sound interesting.
She nods, and he’s once again struck by how she manages to add such alien grace to the gesture, her every move formed from the sinuous shifting and repositioning of hundreds of vines, “Yes, among the species with which I am particularly familiar, you seem quite unusually averse to discussing anything relating to reproductive habits or entire realms of hedonism.
He quietly decides to assume that ‘you’ is collective, “Any idea what might cause that?”
Sela has the decency to glance away from him, quietly staring at Fontaine as she speaks, “Us, I suspect? That would be the common factor. We… of course we preserve all parts of local culture that are compatible with your best interests. But over time there may be a degree of convergence with Affini social mores. It is ultimately an inevitable part of every sophont species’ development.”
He does enjoy a moment of pleasure in watching a plant actually quail under his best anti-imperialist gaze, “I don’t think I need to explain how totally fucked that is.”
Fontaine returns bringing Sela’s water, “It’s totally fucked,” xey clarify, “because all the prudes get domesticated till they stop being prudish.”
“I, uh,” he catches Sela looking at Fontaine, before startling into a quiet giggle as she parses the joke.
“Terran humor is rather bleak, isn’t it?” he starts to respond, but she cuts him off, “perhaps a consequence of living in such a horrid system, you grow too hard for jokes without a little cut to them? But I digress. I do not endorse this assimilation. I wish very much to help archive and preserve as much of Terran culture as I can! Your unique perspectives are valuable and enthralling and the compact is richer for every voice in its chorus,” she quiets, “to flatten them at all would be horrific.”
“That this must happen to some limited extent anyway is because it is,” she pauses for a moment, choosing her words delicately, “less harmful than the alternatives.”
“The alternatives meaning not conquering us?” he feels conviction bubble slowly back to a familiar resentment at the Affini and everything they represent.
“Yes,” she acknowledges, softer than he would anticipate.
He wants to scream, to throw something at her, or storm off in a rage. Instead he smolders and sips his tea.
“Can we just talk about accessing more primary sources?”
“Of course, I have looked into what you described, and I believe I have identified the issue.”
“Thanks,” he mutters, too upset at her tolerance of systemic injustice to be entirely comfortable feeling grateful, “What is it?”
“Well, the data simply hasn’t been translated. I assume you cannot speak any of the most locally prominent Affini languages?”
“No, I’m not…” he knows, intellectually, that writing in perhaps the widest used of Terran languages was a privilege for his work and its visibility, but it’s jarring to realize how quickly he’s been transplanted from the academic core to past the edge of the periphery, “I’m not great with languages. Is there… can’t it just autotranslate?”
She hesitates, her body twisting inwards in a way that leaves her visibly smaller, “We could, of course, arrange to have things translated, but you would still need to know what you were seeking, or rely on some kind of automation to provide data, and that might…”
He hates the thought of handing ownership of his work over to a bot, no matter how ‘helpful’ the Affini make it. It conjures unpleasant memories of the workflow in the research unit before he got himself tossed out, before things finally started going right, but…
“I think it’s worth trying,” he says, reluctantly.
She beams at him, “I can help you get something set up, but I do think you should learn Affini, at least one or two of the most common local languages of course. There’s simply so much more you could do with this project, you know.”
He wants to react to the condescension in her voice, to tell her that she’s not in charge, that a colonized person shouldn’t have to use the conqueror’s words to be heard. Mostly, he just doesn’t think he can at this point. He’s never been good at languages even closely related to his birth tongue, and the promise of learning ‘one or two’ entirely alien languages is just daunting.
He sighs and laughs to himself. Really, what’s the point anyway? It’s not like he has an audience regardless of what language he’s writing in. Of course you need to write in the right language to be heard, of course that’s just the way the compact works. It’s definitely how the Terrans excluded a lot of marginalized perspectives. Now that he’s not the one lucky enough to be in the dominant linguistic group, he’s going to fall over at the starting line yet again.
And it’s not like anyone would ever actually take him seriously even if he somehow managed to garble something out in broken Affini, besides, who is he even writing for. Affini won’t listen to him and no one who actually wants to protest them again is willing to stick their neck out on the planet. The whole project’s just another pointless endeavor in pretending to search for meaning really, halfhearted martyrdom instead of admitting how pathetic he really is deep down. And Sela wants to take even that comforting illusion from him now. Well, if he was actually more threatening than a rabbit, if this wasn’t a pointless bit of self-satisfaction to drive away the ennui, he’d have been domesticated with Max and Sarah and Rose and all the actual threats instead of left to flounder alone until he came to them and begged for release or.
“Take a deep breath,” he’s surprised to find Sela’s face uncomfortably close to his own, and slips backwards in shock, barely catching himself. Sela withdraws slightly, removing an arm he hadn’t even seen her move to catch him.
“Just breathe,” she says softly, “In and out, in and out,” Slowly, a vine waves in front of his face, ticking like a metronome as he breathes in time with the soothing buzz of Selaginella’s voice, “Focus on my voice, gently in, out, in, out.”
“Sorry,” he manages eventually, “Sometimes I get a little wrapped up in things or catastrophize and it’s been a rough few months with the everything,” he edges away from the Affini, as if running was actually an option, “I'm not ‘a danger to myself.’ I promise.”
Sela shakes her head “Oh, dear. I assure you, I will absolutely prevent any harm to you.” she seems almost hurt, “we are not going to immediately send you to a domestication clinic because you had a panic attack, for all it would…” she trails off.
“Oh,” he says because he can’t think of much else to say, “I guess, it’s just, the threat is always there. Any weakness, any vulnerability and the Affini can swoop in and take me away from me and I wouldn’t be able to do anything, and…”
“Breathe,” her voice is controlled, commanding, but not unkind.
He stops, and she inclines her head, “It is not… the relationship between an Affini and their floret, it’s a beautiful thing, a deeply meaningful thing, not a threat or a punishment or…” she sighs, “But I see how, here and now, the threat can linger in everything for all that no Affini would ever mean it as…. You would not threaten to marry someone. Even then, I have come to believe that we may be insufficiently accommodating of some cultural miscommunications.”
Her admission helps, even if the clarification doesn’t exactly accept the full weight of responsibility.
“I’m surprised you didn’t drug me,” he admits, only a little bitter, and suddenly so very tired.
“That was my instinct, but I feared it would do far more harm than good outside of the immediate term,” Sela mules it over for a few moments, “it is selfish of me, to deny you a medicine that would help because I worry it could cost me our talks in even the short term. There are a number of Class Es, or even an F or two that could…”
“That’s not… I don’t need to be medicated. I spiraled a little, it happens,” the threat of medication is oddly almost as helpful as everything else Sela has done to calm him. This is actionable, workable, expected even, “It’s, it’s not usually like that, but with the everything, it’s been a bit tricky to process and sometimes something has to pop somewhere. I’m fine, I’m managing fine.”
Sela looks at him doubtfully, as if his statement about how fine he is managing is somehow prompting a lot of questions already answered by his statement that he is fine. He needs to compromise, distract, offer something so she can feel she’s helping without drugging him to the point he can’t think for himself.
“It felt like learning Affini would be impossible and that's just,” he sighs, “that’s pretty privileged? A lot of people in the periphery don’t grow up with Terran as a first language and they manage just fine. But the entitled ex-grad student can’t even conceive of learning a second language because I’m just kinda pathetic like that. Everything I’ve been trying to say is just kind of worthless without that, and that kind of made me wonder who am I even writing for anyway? Terrans? Affini? I’m not going to talk you out of imperialism. I’m not going to convince a bunch of suicidal fascist idiots that peaceful protest is a more effective tactic against you and you already domesticated the only people who actually cared about anything I might have to say. This whole thing is just….” he lacks the word to express how futile it all is, letting the sentiment trail off
“It matters to you,” Sela says, “And I think there is beauty in the work. Perhaps you are, what’s that adorable little Terran analogy? Perhaps you are a horse, trying to stop a wagon. Standing up and bearing your claws against something so much bigger than you because you see in it the right thing to do.”
He blushes at that. What is it with her and complimenting him about the whole hating the Affini thing.
“You think I’m wrong,” he notes bitterly.
“I think you are, somewhat, misguided, that the Compact does benefit all sophonts and we could hardly leave you to your own devices. But,” she hesitates, “it has always seemed to me that there is a cost to our actions that we should bear rather than ignore. I am something of a cultural historian, at least an aspiring one, cataloging the histories of cultures before our intervention.” It’s important of course, to celebrate all the amazing and adorable things all sophonts have done without any proper guidance, even if it is not something of particular use to actually helping sophonts.”
She shakes her head, “I digress. Of course, you are not to hurt yourself for the cause. We will ensure your needs are met, and your value does not depend on the work you do or the contributions you make, but, for all the perspective is a bit heterodox, your words will live on if you choose to write them. They will be read, and I believe there is value in cataloging these critiques. In seeing how other eyes see us. Does it matter that you cannot change the world with a speech?”
Yes, he doesn’t actually manage to say. He wants to be angry at her, to be angry at the unfairness of it all, but his rage has betrayed him as it always does, and he’s mostly in that cold bitter place that so often follows a surge of emotion, upset but vaguely apathetic, deeply aware how little he can do anything beyond write a little now and then. He has never ended up sacrificing for the cause.
“Either way,” he stubbornly insists, “I’m terrible at languages. I’m not going to manage to do anything in Affini and that’s, you’re right. I need to be able to engage in Affini, to read it and respond, to bridge the gap if I want to keep doing this, but…”
“What about language do you find so impossible a barrier?” Sela smiles gently, “I would understand if you were reluctant to take this path,” her tone suggests that she cannot, “but I am sure we can arrange a solution to the problem.”
“You can do that?”
She beams at him, “If learning a language is causing a cute little sophont so much distress, I’m sure we can find a way to remove that problem. Why, I can think of a half dozen xenodrugs that may have helpful effects.”
He should lecture her about the word. She promised not to call him cute; but, oh. Oh dear. He wants to say no, to tell her that he won’t do any xenodrugs. But deep down, he knows that it was over as soon as she made the offer to get even a tiny bit transhuman about things. There’s simply too much temptation in having literally galaxies of Affini writing open to him, in the offer of being better at remembering it. He understands now: this is how they get him.