"...Thrip mouthpartsss, meanwhile, are unique for being asymmetrical; their right mandible is reduced and vestigial in adults or even absent in some species! Oh, uh, thrips are insects in the order thysanoptera. Most ssspecies are less than a millimeter long, and collectively they're important agricultural pests even outside the sol system! Or uh, they were? I don't really know much about new Affini agricultural paradigms. Or even the old Terran ones, except where bugs were concerned. Like how in the 21st century, as an alternative to chemical pesssticides, farmers would use parasitoid wasps-"
"Okay, sorry, I'm gonna veto the parasitic wasp thing actually" Kit interrupted, actually stumbling a little at the mention of it. "That stuff is definitely fascinating, but it also gives me the willies."
Parasitoid, Hiss's brain corrected. Another part of its brain knew that it would be rude to actually raise a fuss about such a minor error, though.
"That'sss, super fair actually. Where were we, again?"
"Well, you were telling me about your mandibles, but you started by explaining bug mouthparts more generally, and how ortho-somethings like grasshoppers are kind of regarded as the basic setup? Then you rattled off the names of all the moving parts, and then I think you got sidetracked by other admittedly very cool bug facts? I'm still excited to hear about your mandibles though, Hiss!"
"Oh, drat, right!" (Orthopterans. Labrum, mandibles… gh, not now, brain.) "My mandibles are a lot like those of a bull ant," explained Hiss, clicking the serrated implements for good measure, "although they're obviously much larger, and proportionately more slender, to take up less space in my skull when retracted. Which isn't an ant thing. Nor are skulls, really. Sssometimes, you have to sacrifice authenticity for practicality."
"Oh, yeah, kind of like how I kept my human ears for hearing, and my fluffy fox ears are just for looking cute!" said Kit.
Hiss nodded thoughtfully. It had been wondering about Kit's two sets of ears, but it seemed rude to ask.
"Eleven-ish more blocks to the grocery store, by the way. You feeling alright?"
"Oh, wow, already? And uh, yeah, think so. Is it okay if I ramble about bugs some more? It’s helping dissstract me from the lights and the wide open." Hiss suppressed a shudder.
"Sure thing, friend" said Kit, with a kind smile. Hiss felt its cheeks flush a little, which was confusing. Thank goodness that wasn't visible through its cuticle.
Across a small park plaza loomed Kit and Hiss's destination; the Grocery Store. Well, not a store, given the whole "moneyless society" development, so… Grocery Depot? Grocery Repository? With its many slopes, tiers and terraces, it seemed almost like a Grocery Ziggurat. Instead of sun-baked clay, though, its walls were made of beautiful stained glass, depicting hundreds of varieties of fruits and vegetables spilling from a great cornucopia in a rainbow of color. Every terrace and ramp was a garden unto itself, with grass underfoot and metal railings at the edges that were both shaped like and covered with flowering vines. The largest terrace, situated on the roof of the top floor, was an arboretum and community garden and botanical garden all in one.
It was familiar enough that it no longer gave Hiss a headache to look at, but it was still like, a lot. For most of Hiss's life, you got your groceries at a concrete rectangle. If you were between paychecks, between jobs, or too anxious or overstimulated to go inside, you got your groceries from the dumpsters out back. Well, Hiss did, at least. That sort of scavenging was unnecessary now that money was a thing of the past. Poverty and agoraphobia built particular habits, though, and Hiss had continued dumpster diving until it was clear to it that food waste was becoming a thing of the past, too.
Well, and because an enormous, motherly mass of ferns showed up at its door to tell it that everyone was very worried about it and its diet of nearly and actually-expired food, and that she was going to help Hiss live and eat better, 'by any means necessary'.
"Everything good?" asked Kit. "You've been murmuring to yourself for a bit there"
"Oh, yeah. I do that sssometimes" Hiss replied, glancing at the building again. "It's weird, though. All around us is an Affini surveillance network that's beyond any old corporate dictatorship's wildest dreams, and they mostly use it to make sure everyone's eating their vegetables."
"No escape from the benevolent nutritional plamtopticon," Kit remarked, with a smirk.
The two stood there for a moment in silence. "...I guesss we need to actually go inside at some point, huh" Hiss eventually sighed.
"Yeah. You do seem to be putting it off. Would it help if I ran interference on the ladies by the entrance?"
Hiss finally tore its eyes away from the grocery temple and looked around the plaza. Sure enough, two Affini were lounging on the plinth of… a brightly-painted statue of an Affini holding a human up in the air, the two figures in turn holding up a cornucopia spilling out bright red tomatoes.
Hiss decided then that no committee could have designed this place. The imagery was too cohesive. This had to be a single architect's bizarre vision.
One of the plants gave Hiss a friendly wave. They must have noticed it staring. The creature twitched, wishing that it had thought to dim its eyes sooner. The green glow was so visible at night…
Right, Kit's offer. "Yes, please. The pink one's tried to pet me before, and…"
Oh, Kit was already halfway over to where they were sitting. Better follow. At a safe, un-pettable distance.
"Amaranthus! Asphodela! So lovely to see you! What brings you two to this part of town?"
"We're sophont-watching!" the pink-flowered Affini excitedly replied. "Poor As here was bored out of her core, so I dragged her here, kicking and creami… pardon me, kicking and screaming, to show her my favorite hobby over some tea~" The pink Affini (Amaranthus, Hiss deduced) gestured with a slender vine at a tall glass vase resting between the pair, and then dunked the vine energetically into the muddy liquid inside.
The other affini, who had an angular, dusky green look reminiscent of a succulent (and no facial features besides her eyes, Hiss noted) glanced at her companion. "Am, please stop splashing the tea," she said in a somewhat fried monotone. "It's going to get cold. Ah, and it's a pleasure to see you, Kit, as always."
"Yes indeed!" Amaranthus interjected. "There's been a lot less cuties passing by since sunset, so I'm simply overjoyed that one of my very favorites has happened by, and with a new friend, no less! May I pet you, Kit?"
"You absolutely can, so long as you mean 'pet my head' and not 'make you my pet'. The latter stops being funny after the first time you hear it." Kit frowned for just a moment, but once a veritable tide of Amaranthus's vines descended upon them and began petting them and playing with their hair, their expression turned to one of great satisfaction.
"Wait, wait," said Hiss to Amaranthus. "You didn't asssk my permission the other day before touching my head and freaking me absolutely the hell out for the terrible crime of walking past you, but you ask Kit? Do you only bother with consent if the person's already your f-friend? Do you only bother asking if you already sussspect the answer will be yes??" Hiss sputtered, before pausing to catch its breath. Its mandibles clicked anxiously. It hadn't even meant to unsheath them.
The pink Affini made to reply, but stopped. She looked genuinely… upset? Guilty? Angry? Hiss wasn't the best at reading facial expressions at the best of times. Affini expressions were much harder, and that wasn't even accounting for the fact that Amaranthus's face seemed to have come slightly unwoven. Asphodela's blank face was even more inscrutable (or even less scrutable, perhaps?) She had her hand on her friend's shoulder, but said nothing.
Kit gave the two Affini a glance, lifted a few lingering vines politely off its head, and walked back over to Hiss. "Are you okay? We can go, if you like."
"I'm, okay. Not panicking now. Just mad. How come she asks sssome people, but not me? That's such Affini bullshit. You and her know each other, right? Please tell her that that's not okay."
Amaranthus opened her mouth again to reply, but her companion squeezed her shoulder and shot her a stern look.
Kit started speaking again. "This past month or so, Am's been making a genuine effort to ask permission before touching or interacting with people. I agree it's something she ought to already have been doing consistently, but she's putting in the work now, at least. Apparently she gave someone a really bad scare, and felt super guilty about it. Might well have been you, actually."
"It was", answered both Hiss and Amaranthus, at roughly the same time.
"She usually asked permission even before," added Asphodela, "but she sometimes lets her excitement get the better of her. One time, she was really happy to see me and hugged me from behind while I was distracted. I swear I nearly bit her face off."
Kit blinked. "As, you don't have teeth. Or a mouth."
"But you don't- yes, that." Hiss helpfully added.
"She does when she's mad," Amaranth grumbled.
"Hold on," said Hiss, politely raising a tentacle, "that sssounds cool as hell? May I please see, Asph… er…"
"Asphodela Lacerta, Fifth Bloom" the grey-green Affini replied. "'As' is also fine. Ah, and I go by she/her and they/them pronouns."
"Hiss, mononym. It/its. Not a human. Not a person either, but 'sophont' is fine. May I see your mouth? Ugh, wait, that's a weird thing to ask actually, hang on."
"Oh, no, nothing wrong with your request, don't worry. It just takes me slightly longer to do this deliberately." A ripple seemed to travel up Asphodela's torso and shoulders, then her neck. Then, her head began to bulge and contort, before finally her entire smooth, mask-like face unfolded into something like a seven-armed starfish bristling with glistening, metallic, needle-like thorns. Three wickedly-barbed viney tongues slithered lazily in the air.
The two sophonts stared at the newly bloomed flower of teeth before them. "You have the most beautiful mouthpartsss I have ever seen." Hiss murmured. Kit remained quiet, utterly transfixed. Their expression was somewhere between mute horror and total fascination.
"Why thank you, little Hiss~", Asphodela's voice purred from somewhere in her chest.
"hjkdfvshfnjka," Hiss replied. Kit barked a laugh at this. Hiss was too preoccupied to dwell on why.
"Before we go any further, little creature, are you open to further flirting? I do not wish to cause you discomfort, after all." Gosh, their voice was a lot more bassy and resonant when she projected it from her torso like this. It was a nice effect.
Hiss thought for a moment before answering. "No," it said "I think I've had as much as I'm comfortable with for now. It'sss been a bit of a tough day ssso far. Fair bit of anxiety and social interaction. Fell off an apartment building. You know how it is."
"Little terran, you fell from a multi-story building?" Asked Asphodela, her alarm quite evident even in her somewhat flat affect (but pleasingly bassy and croaky voice, Hiss's brain added).
"And you're quite positive that you're undamaged?" Amaranthus interjected. "No bruised or broken bones, no internal damage? You look quite robust, but a checkup with a vet may still very much be in order, Hiss!"
Kit began to reply, having apparently regained their composure and situational awareness to tear their eyes away from Asphodela's kaleidoscopic jaws. "Honestly, I think the panic attack was worse than the fall. Hiss stood… yeah, 'stood' is the word, legs or no legs. But yeah, it stood right back up less than two minutes after hitting the pavement, dusted itself off like it had just tripped over a pothole or something, and had a conversation with me." Kit glanced back at the the Affini (including Asphodela, who had started folding her head back into its regular configuration) and apparently noted some confusion, adding "A pothole is a crumbly hole in a paved asphalt road, by the way." Both Affini met this new information with a sort of confirmatory hum. How was Kit so good at reading Affini? Or humans, for that matter?
"I've ssslithered away from rougher scrapes none the worse for wear," Hiss reassured them. "If it's any reassurance, I have a checkup in like three days, and then sssurgery for my new antennae a week after. If anything got through all these layers of plantech and chitin and carbon fibre, they'll catch it."
"Also, not a Terran anymore." It added.
"My apologies, Hiss. I let my concern steer my phrasing there" said Asphodela, her mask-like face now fully reassembled.
"It's fine. 'Terran' stings lesss than 'human'. I need some quiet now, but it was, er, a pleasure to meet you. And Am?"
"Thanks for trying harder. I'm ssstill a bit mad at you, but you seem to be doing your best."
"Thank you, Hiss" replied Amaranthus with an earnest grin. "I wish you both a lovely evening, and a most fruitful grocery experience."
"As do I" said Asphodela. Kit and the pair waved goodbye to one another as they and Hiss resumed making their way to the entrance, and Hiss gave a small wave too. It seemed a bit rude not to.
As they approached the eighteen foot tall automatic stained-glass doors of what passed for a normal big box shopping experience in the protectorate, Hiss rifled through its bags for its noise-cancelling earbuds and its grocery list. Kit produced their communicator from their purse and looked their list over as well.
"So," Kit asked. "Do you want to shop as a pair, or split up and meet back up outside? I'm down with either."
"Ssseparate. I'm going to have music on, and I've got a lot of stuff I need and a very precise route through the store planned to pick it all up and get the heck out as quickly as possible."
"Sounds good, friend." Detecting their motion, the twin doors swung dramatically open, and the two entered the ziggurat.
The interior of the place was, as expected, enormous. All the way to their left stretched a vast panoply of fruits and vegetables both strange and familiar, and roots, and leaves, and flowers and tubers and nuts and seeds and more besides. Delicious smells wafted over from the kitchens further back devoted to freshly-prepared meals, which were apparently at least somewhat staffed even at night, and somehow managed to make a cafeteria look downright lavish and cozy. There was even a waterfall that apparently emptied into an indoor koi pond, according to the map of the place that Hiss had consulted online while planning the trip.
To the pair's right was the even larger section of the store devoted to shelved and refrigerated goods. The shelves' contents were just as varied as the produce section, and grouped much more tightly together. Also, the shelves were thirteen feet tall. There were human-height touchscreens where one could apparently look up exactly where things were, and request the services of (or accompaniment by) either an affini or some sort of robot to help you reach anything that was too far off the ground for you, or just outright bring it to you.
Screw that. Hiss hated dealing with unfamiliar computers, and novel technology in general. It had taken long enough just to get comfortable with navigating the new overnet on its ancient communicator. Sure, publicly-facing, Affini-made touchscreens and maps and whatnot were shockingly accessible and user-friendly compared to older corporate-made stuff, but that only mattered when they were positioned somewhere a human-height being could actually reach, and Hiss didn't want to learn a novel interface when it was already anxious from just being in public. Besides, it had no intention of being trapped in a conversation with a strange Affini or a robot just to reach things. Hiss knew for a fact that, coiled up, it could jump ten or eleven feet straight up, and it had meticulously planned around this; everything on its shopping list was somewhere it could reach, and all listed in the exact order it would pick them up in on its winding route through the produce and the aisles. It looked around one more time to square its mental map of its route with the actual shape of the place before starting up its playlist and getting to work.
"Oh, Hiss, do you see that Affini's head peeking out between the shelves there?" Kit asked, pointing upward toward somewhere. "I'm pretty sure that's Euryale. Biggest Affini I've met, and I don't think I've ever seen zir indoors before. "
It took Hiss a moment to spot what Kit was gesturing at; a vaguely familiar face, if it could even be called a face, towering above one of the aisles. Three concentric wheels of blazing orange eyes lit up a horned wooden mask. Charred into the mask's surface was a labyrinth of dizzyingly intricate patterns, and behind it was an undulating, serpentine mass of pallid vines that barely resembled a head at all. The vines' undulant dance filled Hiss's head with static, and focusing on the patterns on the mask made its stomach sink and vision swim. It wanted to look away, but Hiss's gaze was drawn irresistibly to the masked giant's eyes themselves. Hiss's thoughts froze. Its guts churned. Its epicuticle crawled.
"Anyways, good to split up? I'm mostly going to be grabbing snacks and frozen meals, but I'll be doing a bit of wandering and seeing what my stomach likes the look of"
"mmh", replied Hiss.
"Great! I'll see you back outside then! Feel free to message me if you need any help with anything!" With that, Kit gave Hiss a thumbs up, and strolled off towards snacks.
Eventually, the Affini sank back out of view, and Hiss's awareness returned to it. Kit was nowhere to be seen, having presumably split off as agreed. More pressingly, the terrifying Affini was still lurking somewhere, if someone that huge could even be said to lurk. Cursing to itself, Hiss smashed play on its music, snapped up a basket in each tentacle, and sprang off towards the produce section like a beast possessed.