The Terran squeaked and tried to make herself smaller in the chair, and then realized it wouldn't work. Sitting there, she got a better look at her captor, her jailer…sorry, her guardian. She hadn’t gotten a good look aboard Thors Hammer, mostly because she was too busy crying and begging the Affini not to harm the three intubated patients. The Affini was tall, as most were, but also a bit broader than the three she’d seen so far. Her body was made of vines, but there were striations running up an arm, almost like…like a tattoo, all swirls and whorls of a lighter color. Bits of color, pink, purple and yellow flowers were sprinkled here and there on her body. She had these white things that looked like little blobs all over her head and what looked like tendrils for her hair, but they were thicker. Her face was that bark that she saw before, but it was more expressive now, with eyes that were shining a deep green-blue. A smile that showed off rows of white teeth, and she had these…they were like antenna, but they went back, not forward. There was bark on her upper body, covering what would normally be a chest, and almost looked like clothes, or a bodice of some kind. She hadn’t seen many Affini, but this one was wearing clothing. Actual clothing…well, of sorts. A decorated loincloth that draped down from her waist to mid-thigh, and what looked like a curtain of vines, or a half skirt fell from waist to mid calf, open in front. It had leaves, bright flowers and those little blobs of white on it. All in all, a very striking Affini. Not that she had a lot of experience to go by. And her feet looked more like feet…but they did that rooting thing that she’d done on the ship, and she wondered for a second what she was holding onto until she saw some of those little roots twist the carpeting slightly..
The Terran watched as Gladialis smiled at her again, and sat down on the couch. The Affinis eyes twinkled as she looked at her, and she blushed as one eye dropped into a wink, trying to sink lower in her chair. “Oh, no, little one. Feel free to look as much as you want to”, she heard that musical voice say again and she blushed. “Umm..I’m..i’m sorry”, she whispered, feeling very self-conscious about herself.
"Nothing to be sorry about, little kitten. I never got a chance to introduce myself before, brave little one. My name is Gladialis Dulcisa, Fourth Bloom, and my pronouns are she/her. May I be lucky enough to know your name, little flower?" The girl sniffled again, and shook her head. "No?", she asked her gently. "But what shall I call you, little one?"
"It...it's not...I don’t want to be called my old name anymore", she whispered as she shifted on the chair, knees pressed to her chest. "I...please don't ask me what it is", she said, starting to cry again.
“Oh, darling, no. No, please don’t cry”, Gladialis said and rose up to comfort the little Terran. She stopped, and hovered there for a moment when the girl gave a squeal and pressed further back into the chair. Clearly, the girl was scared of Affini, or maybe just her, which hurt her heart. But there was time, she reasoned. Time to show her how good life would be when all that fear was gone. Or at least not to be scared of her.
"She hasn't found a name yet, the poor darling", Sarthusea said. She felt terrible for the little Terran. Imagine, feeling pain each time someone called your name. So sad, how some Terrans couldn’t be themselves, and lived in pain. And how other Terrans looked down on anyone who wasn’t like them. Her heart broke, just thinking about it, and she knew she would be giving Susan some extra hugs and cuddles tonight.
“Ahhhh. Well, that’s ok”, Gladialis said, smiling again. “I’ve found that names are like flowers. Sometimes you have to smell a few before you find the one you like the most. You know, little one, in many of the stories and legends on Terra and around the galaxy that started on Terra, the heroine or hero often has to journey to find their name. To discover who they are, and which name best fits them. Perhaps that’s where you’re at, hmmm? Just beginning your heroine’s journey to find out who you are. Oh!! And that reminds me, I have something for you”, she said with a smile. Her body shifted, and she brought something out from inside her, prompting another squeak from the frightened girl. “A group of very smart people, including Hesplex and their cotyledon Dawn, told me that Terran girls like plushies. So I got this for you.” A vine stretched out, depositing it on the table, close enough for the girl to get to, but far enough away that she could run if she wanted. Well, the illusion of being able to run, Gladialis knew.
The Terran looked at it, even as the vine put it in front of her. A stuffed…it looked like a big bee, like the colony had to pollinate the plants and make honey. And it was cute, with big eyes and a warm smile. Looking at it, she hesitantly looked at the Affini, who smiled and made a ‘go ahead motion’, and then reached out and snatched it, holding it to her chest. “Ummm…I…what’s going to happen to me?” She asked as she sat back in the chair, ready to hide behind it for all the good that would do.
“Didn’t Hesperia and Ilex explain it to you, little one?”, Gladialis asked. She didn’t miss the way that the Terran had shrank back when she tried to get close. OR the way she’d grabbed the beeple plushie, holding onto it for dear life. She had no experience dealing with florets other than the casual passing by, or interacting with them when visiting a friend. But this girl was not a floret, so THAT didn’t mean the dirt it was planted in. She DID have experience with many sophonts who were Independent in her travels, so she just fell back on that, but also taking into account her fear of Affini. Meaning, no casual touching (as much as she wanted to just ruffle the cuties hair) and she needed to remember that she wasn’t using floret-speak. “Well, you’re going to be living with me while we sort that out. It’s more to make sure that you’re ok to be living by yourself, and that you don’t hold with any Feralist views. But given what Hesplex told me, well, I’m sure that it’s all just a formality.”
“And you’re…ummm…none of that….that domestication stuff?”, she said nervously, holding the plushie.
“None of that, unless you ask for it”, Gladialis assured with a wink. “But no. There will be nothing of the sort, unless you suddenly turn into a raging Feralist overnight. OR you’re not capable of taking care of yourself. Unless you’re in clear distress, I promise to keep my vines clear. Or if you ask for it, since sometimes we all need a hug. If I feel it’s necessary to touch you in any way or fashion, I’ll be telling you about it beforehand so you may have informed consent. That is something that still is important in Terran medicine, yes? Informed consent for procedures and all?”
“Ummm, yea. Every patient who gets anything done has to be informed about the risks and benefits. Just like every single patient or their family is made aware of the cost of said care before undergoing any tests or treatments just to make sure they can afford it”, she said, nodding.
“I’m sorry, little kitten”, Gladialis said, blinking. “I think I must have misunderstood you. You just said that patients have to decide if they want care based on their ability to…to pay?”, she asked with growing consternation.
“Well…yea. How else is the hospital, or the corporation that owns it, going to pay the staff that works there? Not that we got paid that much, once you figure in the debt from schooling and our own healthcare credits. How else would they keep going? Hospitals cost money, you know”, she said, confused. “Ummm…I mean, I guess that doesn’t make sense to you, since you’re all…you know, plants and all. Do you even have healthcare?”
“Wait wait wait”, Sarthusea said, putting her tablet down, some of her vines breaking from the form of her body and waving around for a moment in her distress. “I’m sorry, dear. But I have a question. You said that patients and their families need to be aware of the cost. Why?”
“What do you mean why? I don’t…I don’t understand”, the girl answered, starting to get nervous under the scrutiny. “They have to know, so they can decide if they want treatment. If they want it but can’t afford it, then their kids have to foot the bill later on. Nobody gets turned away”, she said, gesturing. “That would be wrong.”
“And you see nothing wrong with this…this horrific excuse for care?”, Gladialis said, standing up and earning a yelp from the Terran who literally dove off and hid behind her chair. She realized a moment later that her vines were rustling, making a surrusation that some might find upsetting, and she calmed herself. . “Oh…oh, little one, please…don’t be scared. You’re fine, you’ve done nothing wrong. I’m not upset with you, I swear it. I’m horribly saddened that you have had to deal with this…this travesty of a system, but Affini healthcare is nothing like that. If how we met is anything to go by, you are incredibly devoted to your patients and I’m sure they flourish with you as their nurse.” She tried to smile reassuringly at the girl, who was behind her chair, quivering at the moment and debating if hiding under the table was safer. “I promise, I’m just upset FOR you. Anyone who needs care is free to seek it here, and it’s free. Our doctors and nurses, like Sarthusea or Joyce, for example, are here because they want to. Because they desire to help people.”
“Ummm…that’s…of course they do. Terran nurses and doctors also care about helping people. Why else would you put yourself into debt like that unless you cared about people? It’s certainly not the money”, she whispered, still hiding behind the chair. “At the rate I’m going, it’s going to be about fifteen years before I’m fully paid off, and have enough healthcare credits banked.”
“Little one, I’m still confused. You keep saying debt. Do you mean that you had to pay in order to learn how to heal people, and those people have to pay for the privilege of being healed?”, Gladialis asked as she sat back down, not wanting to scare the girl any more than she already did. But she was looking forward to finding some of these healthcare leaders and giving them a slice of her mind. Or just sending the lot of them to be summarily Domesticated.
The girl slowly lifted her head above the seat of the chair, shaking her head. “Ummm, no. Healthcare is a right, not a privilege. But you have to pay for that right, since the money has to come from somewhere. That's why healthcare credits were made, so that you could slowly save up for when you needed it. Like...like some kind of insurance. We kind of learned about it in one of my classes, without going too much into detail. History of nursing, a brief overview of its evolution.” Seeing no danger, and that both Affini were just sitting and watching her, she slowly slipped back onto the chair. “Our professor told us not to worry about it, since the details were beyond the scope of us.” She snorted. “And wouldn’t be on the final exam. And yea, we have to pay to learn how to be…you know, healthcare workers. How else do the professors get paid, or the programs keep getting their practice equipment?”
“I see. There’s no such thing like that here in Affini Compact territory”, Gladialis said, Sarthusea nodding along. “Our nurses and doctors are healthcare providers, rather than workers. They provide their services, free of charge, to any who need it. The Affini Compact provides for all, little one.”
Sarthusea nodded. “I became a nurse because I wanted to, kitten. Because I wanted to help sophonts, and no other reason.”
The terran girl sat on the chair, incredulous. This was…”So..umm…you’re telling me that you work for free”, and then nodded when Sarthusea shook her head. “So who do you work for, Sarthusea? Do the Affini have just one big centralized corporation per ship, kinda like Terra Medical?”
“Kitten, I don’t work. I provide healthcare. I don’t work to do it. It may not seem like it to you, but there’s an entire planet of difference between the two. I don’t get paid, and neither does Joyce, or anyone else. We do it because we want to. Because it feels good to help out fellow beings, whether they be sophonts, florets, or Affini.”
“But…but that makes…how do you pay for supplies, or time spent? Or…or administration? I don’t understand”, she sputtered, looking at both Affini, trying to understand. “Do you simply pass the cost onto everyone else in taxes? Or do the Affini take the cost from the systems that you’ve enslaved?”
“Enslaved? Pay for…Little one, I don’t think you understand how things are here”, Sarthusea, said, getting concerned. “Doesn’t she know how the Affini Compact is run?”, she asked in Affini to Gladialis.
“No. Ahh!! I just remembered. Hesplex told me that she told them that before she was stolen from her home, she’d never heard of us. The only things she heard on that floating Feralist deathtrap a single sneeze away from a reactor meltdown was Feralist propaganda”, Gladialis said back. “You know what?”, she said with a smile. “I think it’s time we left here. If you have a clean bill of health, that is”, she said with a nod to Sarthusea.
“Well, physically, everything is ok. I’ll give you a container of salve to put on the cuts nightly, or she can do it. And nothing some good food, and a few good nights sleep wouldn’t cure”, the nurse said with a smile. “Oh, that reminds me. What did you mean, Gladialis, by that comment about how you met?”
“Oh. Well, when we were rescuing all those cuties, I found this little kitten protecting three injured Terrans. They had those…umm…they had tubes in their throats helping them breathe”, and Sarthuseas eyes rose in interest. “Anyways, kitten here bared a set of claws and attacked me, thinking they were in danger. And even when I had her in my vines, the only thing she thought of besides for asking me not to eat her was not to hurt the injured Terrans.”
Sarthusea nodded, and smiled at the girl with open approval. “That’s so cute!!!”, she said to Gladialis, and then turned to the Terran. “I’m impressed, kitten. Not many sophonts would try to go hand to vine with an Affini. That you did it to protect your patients speaks very highly of your dedication”, and then cooed as the girl blushed.
“What do you say, little kitten?”, Gladialis said to the Terran who was watching them from her chair. “Wanna make like a banana and blow this stand?”
“Do I….don’t you mean make like a banana and leaf?”, she asked, confused.
“Leaf? What kind of banana has edible leaves? Don’t you eat the fruit after you peel it?”, Gladialis asked. Now SHE was the confused one.
The Terran girl shrugged. “I think it’s something that you rub on steps and furniture to polish them”, she said. “Never had a banana, so I couldn’t tell you. Saw a picture of one, once. Looked weird, round and all orange. And yea, you had to peel it.”
“Wait…you saw an orange?”, Gladialis asked, thoroughly confused.
“No. I saw a banana. Orange is a color, not a fruit”, the Terran said, getting upset. She was certain that the Affini were playing a joke on her. “Everyone knows that.”
“Ummmm, no, little one. They named a fruit after the color. A banana is something much different. I’ll find you one when we leave so you can see, ok? And you’ll see what I mean.” Gladialis was curious what the Terran would make of a banana when she actually saw one.
“Sure. I wouldn’t mind…umm…No offense, but nurses make horrible patients”, the girl said and Sarthusea laughed.
“No, no, silly kitten. You were adorable, and a pleasure to take care of. Come by anytime you want to talk, or if you want to meet Susan. And if you decide to stay, then maybe you can help others here with us.” She smiled, her eyes twinkling as her vines rustled and she got up, giving a small curtsy, vines flaring out in a “dress” motion. “Give me a moment to get the salve, please.”
“Ummm…I’ll…I’ll keep that in mind”, she said, and nodded, then watched as Sarthusea walked out of the room. Leaving her alone. With Gladialis. Who was looking at her. After a few uncomfortable moments, she began to fidget. “So…umm…what…what happens now?”, she asked, holding the plushie and running her fingers over its super soft fur.
‘Well, little kitten. Once we leave here, we take the mag-rail to my hab. I mean, OUR hab. We get you all settled in, some new clothes, and then go over some ground rules. Maybe…well, maybe get something to eat. By that time, it’ll probably be late enough that you’ll want to sleep. Then…well…then, I have no idea”, she said with a smile that was meant to be comforting. “I’ve never done this before, to be honest. I would assume I’ll be answering a lot of your questions, and I’ll probably have some of my own. And then we go from there, little one.”
Sarthusea came back with a small bag. “Salve, and enough bandages to last you for a week. Remember what I said, kitten. You can always come back and talk to me, if you feel the need. Or spend time with my Susan, if you’d like.”
The girl blushed and nodded, whispered thanks, and hesitantly took the offered bag, slipping her plushie into it. Sarthusea smiled, but made sure that she didn’t invade the sophonts personal space, a fact for which the girl was grateful. Then Gladialis stood up. “Let’s go, Kitten.”