A lone girl with a fuzzy chin was curled up in the corner of a room. It was a simple room, albeit a completely unfamiliar one to her. She hugged her knees to her body and stared past them with sunken, dead looking eyes. Memories of the last few cycles (was that the word for days or years? She could never remember) threatened to trapeze unwelcome and unbidden through her mind, but she resisted them as best she could. Instead, she tried not to think at all...something she'd never been very good at.
She wasn't doing much better now.
The door slid open and the nurse came in. She was pretty. The girl in the fetal position was too tired to physically show it, but she paid attention. The nurse walked over to her and frowned.
"An affini is going to come in now, okay?" The nurse asked. The spiky part of the lonely girl laughed darkly in the back of her head. So much for that, it seemed to say. The girl knew this would happen, though. After all, she had asked for it, and she had genuinely asked for it, not in the victim blaming "what did she expect" sort of way. She gave a slight nod. The nurse frowned. She seemed afraid. That made sense, the lone girl supposed.
She was a murderer, after all. Someone as selfless and kind as this nurse had every right to be scared of her, no matter how vulnerable she thought she looked. "Thank...you," she croaked in a hoarse voice. The nurse froze. Her mouth curled slightly into a smile.
"You're in good hands, now," the nurse tried to reassure her. She knew better, though. Still...the nurse probably wasn't lying. It was entirely possible she believed her sweet honeyed words with her entire heart. It wasn't as though the girl cowering in the fetal position would know how to tell.
"Am I interrupting something?" Asked a voice, female-sounding and gentle, from the back of the room. A ten foot tall plant creature shifted and condensed and reorganized itself to a more manageable shape and height-both best described as "roughly human"-and "walked" into the room.
"Not at all!" Said the nurse. She turned to the alien. The girl in the corner could only assume she was concealing a smile of relief to be released from this duty. In fact...the girl in the corner almost hoped for it.
"Good. As the ship's affini expert on humans, I'll be taking over. That's what she asked for, yes?" The plant spoke in a simulated voice from behind the simulated teeth of a simulated face. The nurse nodded. "Good girl. But...I would like her to confirm it. Is this what you wish for, still?"
The girl in the corner was silent. It took a moment for it to register that this question, soft and gentle, could possibly be aimed at her. Once that clicked, she looked up. It was the first time she'd moved her head since she curled up in that white room.
"...yes…" she sounded ashamed of herself. She felt ashamed of herself. She was ashamed that she felt ashamed, and even more ashamed that she sounded ashamed. The affini nodded.
"You may tend to your next patient," she said to the human nurse. The nurse smiled and nodded.
"Good luck, Chr-"
"No." It was the only assertive thing the girl had since she arrived on this alien ship. No. A word which she seemed to cling to, a word which she was willing to employ, unlike any other, with the simple blunt impact of a blacksmith swinging his hammer. The nurse froze for a second and nodded again.
"My apologies," said the nurse, "you've been a blessing to work with-"
"No." The girl in the corner said again. There was a moment of pause and the nurse seemed genuinely hurt. A terrible clawed hand ripped into the patient's heart and threatened to make her cry.
"...you have…" the girl with the sunken eyes whispered, almost like a ghost. If her "no" was like a bomb, these words were a smooth pebble falling onto a soft surface. They were weak. They were quiet. "Not...not me." Her body threatened to convulse and she violently asserted her will over it. Her arms hugged her knees tighter. The nurse half smiled.
"Thank you…" she said, and left.
Now it was just her and the plant.
"Do you dislike your name?" The affini said to the human, with a gentle tone. A compassionate tone. The question's purpose wasn't to pry out information, or trick her into some kind of checkmate, it was an attempt to understand her.
"No." The girl said defiantly. "Not...not my name."
"I see," said the affini. Her leaves and vines rustled around her. They were pretty. Not in the same way that the kind nurse was pretty, but the lone girl appreciated them too. "Would you like to be called something else?" There was a brief pause. The human relaxed a little bit. A kind of anxiety was forming in her gut, at meeting an affini for the first time. She knew the propaganda about them was probably bullshit but, having been fed propaganda both for and against them, she had no idea what to actually expect. Still, even if this was a ruse, it meant she could pretend to be worth deceiving. That was something.
"...yes…" she mumbled. "Mane."
"That's an odd name for a human," the affini said. Her voice didn't convey any judgment. She was just...interested. "Now, Mane. This isn't a comfy floor. Would you rather sit on the patient's bed?"
"...yes…" Mane answered shakily. She started to get up. Leaves reached towards her. "No. No touching."
"Of course," said the affini. She retracted her vines and allowed Mane to move. Mane went to the bed and sat down. Mane was tall and skinny, with long unkept filthy blonde hair on her head and shorter, rougher stuff on her chin. Mane sat on the bed and returned to the fetal position. The affini seemed to smile at her.
"I'm sorry," Mane said. The affini regarded her. There was no look of confusion on the plant creature's simulacra of a face but the flowers lining her arms did...some kind of movement. Mane figured that this was body language of some kind, but she was unable to tell what it actually meant.
"Whatever do you have to be sorry for?" The affini asked. Mane's face sharpened. She glared back with daggers and fire in her eyes, fire which imbued her with an illusion of the life and spirit she so obviously didn't have left in her.
"I killed a man." She said. Her voice was solid again, each word lacking the dramatic might of her saying "no" but the full sentence coming together with the brutal slicing contempt of a knife. "I killed my father and deserted my family." The dark emotions she had starved with her numbness came burning to her mouth. There was acid in her eyes, there was steam boiling in her tongue. She annunciated like each sentence was a venom brewed hatefully with intent to kill. "I murdered a human being in cold blood and...and...and…" her reserves ran out. The act of violence had taken all the fight she had. She dropped her head into her knees and sobbed. "I'm sorry...I'm sorry...I'm sorry…"
"Dearrrr," purred the creature charged with her care. "You're obviously scared. Would you like some x-"
"No!" Mane screamed. Her long untended nails dug into her knees through the medical gown she had on. "N-not for fear. Please." She sobbed weakly for a moment. All was still. Then, she swallowed and looked up. It was like she'd time traveled to before the outburst. Her eyes weren't red, her jaw wasn't trembling.
"Okay," conceded the affini. "No xenodrugs. My name is Effus, I'm just here to help you. Okay?" Mane trembled.
"...why?" she asked weakly.
"Well," Effus started, "because you, a lone terrified little thing in a tiny ship you barely knew how to fly, sent an SOS into affini space begging to be taken as a pet. The human you killed was a rebel collaborator and you're clearly afraid of him."
"I'm…" Mane tried to interrupt. Ultimately she failed. She averted her eyes. "...go on…"
"So. You weren't exactly in a right sense of mind when you sent the signal. Would you like to revise your requests-"
"My demands…" Mane sheepishly cut in. The affini made a strange mirthful sort of sound and its vines rustled all about.
"Your requests, right now?" A hand made of plant matter retrieved a clipboard from a nearby cabinet. Effus held it up, along with a pen.
"Ye...yeah…" Mane said. She lookup at Effus with big pleading eyes. "I...I want help transitioning."
"We can do that." Effus wrote something. "With or without xenodrugs?"
"Whichever is faster, as long as it's safe and it works. Unless it's exp-"
"Dear," Effus said to the patient, "you're with us now. You don't have to pay for medicine anymore. We're post-scarcity, little one." Mane seemed flummoxed. She tried to hide it, but it was unlikely that Effus didn't see.
"O-okay. Second, uh, before that I'm...I'm a trans girl, I don't know if…"
"That's okay dear," Effus said in a soothing voice. "Thank you for telling me. It's important to know what you want to look like. She/her pronouns?" Mane nodded. Effus gave some kind of gesture with her dangling vines. Mane had no idea what it meant. "Continue."
"I...I…"Mane hesitated. "Is it true pet humans have to get that...that implant…?"
"Yes, dear. I'm afraid that's probably non-negotiable." Mane's entire body clenched. She seemed teary eyed.
"Can I...try living as a pet, but like...without one? For a while…?"
"Yes, dear. Of course." Effus wrote that down too. "Of course, there's a very real possibility, depending on how that plays out, that you'll have no choice eventually right?" Mane sighed. A profound sense of cold sadness washed over her and she laughed, dark and empty, as tears rolled down her face.
"That's fine," she lied. "That's...fine…" more bleak laughter. "Third demand, whatever punishment my mom might get for my dad's collaboration I want waived."
"Is she involved?" Effus asked. "I'm afraid that we can't forgive that if she is."
"I don't...think so," Mane sighed. "And, fourth...last, I guess...I want help."
"What with?" Effus asked. She was writing furiously.
"I have depressive fits and anxiety," Mane admitted. "They're nothing life threatening, I guess. And...trauma. I think I might have some kind of PTSD?" Effus nodded and continued scribbling.
"We can absolutely provide these to you, Mane Gresh-"
"No." Mane said sharply. "No last name."
"Would you prefer your mother's...um...young hag name, are they called?" For the first time since her father died, Mane cracked a smile.
"It's 'maiden name.' And...no. I'll pass on that."
"Understood. When would you like to meet a temporary owner, Mane?"
"How soon can I? Can I pick one? Can I at least ask for a certain type of personality? Or, ah...affini...ty?" Mane smiled again and giggled. She let her feet drop down and hang from the bed, revealing a torso that just barely had breasts.
"Well, it'll be a day or two. If you'd like you could spend them in my habitation. I'd have to put cuffs on you, though."
"But...I'm not a danger to any of you," Mane said, sounding hurt.
"You misunderstand," Effus said, "The cuffs are not to punish you or restrict you. They are to protect you. They monitor your heartbeat and have weak xenosedatives they can administer if you're afraid or about to do something reckless." Mane hesitated. Her smile dimmed.
"...is it automatic?"
"No. They send me their readings and I tell them what to do remotely. Unless you're on the verge of a heart attack they will not activate on their own."
"C….could you promise not to use the sedatives unless I give permission?"
"I promise that I won't use the sedatives without your permission unless you endanger someone," Effus answered honestly. Mane sighed, looked away, and lifted both her arms.
"Try not to look so ashamed dear," Effus said as she leaned over the bed. She was taller now, about seven feet, which allowed her to do this and still have her eyes level with Mane's. "You took a risk and asked for help. We don't know what drove you to feel you had to do this." Vines unlocked a drawer, opened it, and pulled out a pair of cuffs. "This isn't a punishment, I only have to do it because of protocol. Okay?"
"Okay…" Mane tried to look Effus in the "face" as she was cuffed but couldn't find the courage. They clicked into place around her wrists. They were surprisingly comfortable. Mane wiggled experimentally with her arms and discovered that she still had ample freedom of movement.
"Come come," said Effus. "Our meeting went quicker than it was scheduled to. I have time to take you back. Not enough for a proper tour, but you can have Airy give you one."
Mane nodded and hopped out of the bed. Effus offered her a vine to take and be led by. "No." Effus shrugged and walked out of the room, deliberately moving slowly to let Mane follow in her tracks. They traversed lots of white corridors before they moved across some kind of threshold into what Mane guessed was the affini part of the ship. The air was thicker with some kind of gas and everything was just...kind of...huge. Elaborate walls and arches and windows and plants everywhere and it was all very pretty. She followed with her head hung low and her mind too lost in thought to track or notice more than the swirling flowers that decorated Effus' body.
She had finally made the decision. There could be no more turning back. She had taken hold of her destiny for all of an hour, and that taste of power was gone. She looked out a window into space. The endless black looked the same, except the bigger ship had even bigger windows to see it through. Its incomprehensible vastness was still equally crushing.
She was still so tiny.
Did the affini, with their giant bodies and gargantuan ships and instinct to meet all who resided within it, see the same inky emptiness? Did they feel compelled to meet and bond with new species to defeat that emptiness, or was it so far beneath them that it held opportunity instead of loneliness? She forced herself to focus on Effus instead.
"This is where you'll be living for now," said Effus. She opened a big door and gestured inside. Mane took a step into the affini's living quarters and noticed immediately a multitude of books and screens and gigantic couches.
"Airy!" Trilled Effus in a soft inviting tone. Almost like a dog, a human came bounding into sight in seconds. She wore a cute black dress.
"Hi!" Yelled Airy, practically vibrating with joy at the sight of a new playmate.
"Hello little one," answered Effus in a kind of loving pet voice. Something resembling jealousy stirred inside Mane at the way Airy and Effus lovingly regarded each other. "This is Mane. She's staying here for a little bit while we find her a temporary caretaker. Be a dear and show her around while I'm at work, okay?"
"Okay," pouted Airy. "You're not staying?"
"No, darling, I'm terribly sorry. I just thought this poor little sproutling could use some company as soon as plausible."
"Possible," Mane's subconscious blurted out using her mouth. Neither of the other two responded to this at all.
"Okayyyy," Airy pouted. "I miss you."
"I miss you too," Effus said and then left. Airy turned to Mane and smiled.
"Hi! My name is Aria!" She said with a smile so bright that Mane felt like a charlatan for having it to herself, even briefly. "What's your name?"
"I'm...Mane." Airy was pretty. She was tall, just a little pudgy, and had wide hips and a round kissable face.
"That's a nice name," Aria nodded, "Come on, I'll show you around!" She took Mane's hand gently. Her grasp was soft and warm and gentle. It...cared.
This girl cared about her?
Why did Aria care about her???