After everything she’d seen, Irene had started to feel as though she was beginning to get a grasp on just how completely outclassed humanity was by the affini. Then Curbita unfurled herself into a perfectly coordinated whirlwind of vines and, in the course of minutes, accomplished what would have taken her hours. Dishes were washed, the scattered mess across her floor was swept up and disposed of, the fridge was emptied then filled with new groceries, trash was bagged, her counters were cleared and wiped down, all while Irene watched in bewilderment, tightly clutching the vines Curbita had left for her. The fact that affini were capable of unfurling themselves like so to begin with was impressive enough, but the sheer level of multitasking on display was like nothing Irene had ever seen.
The whole display just left Irene feeling insignificant and incompetent. What was strange, though, was that Irene wasn’t sure how to react to those feelings. Normally she’d feel terrible, berate herself, ask herself why she couldn’t function that way. She wasn’t necessarily not feeling inadequate and upset that she couldn’t act with that level of competence, but beneath those feelings ran an undercurrent of awe and reverence. The affini were just like this, that truth was growing more and more apparent. Who then, could really question humanity’s rightful place under their care? A lot of people, apparently; logically, Irene knew that her line of thought wasn’t necessarily sound, but it wasn’t her fault Curbita and the other affini had such a humbling aura about them. And yes, Curbita made Irene feel insignificant, but she felt she didn’t need to be significant when Curbita was around; at least, she didn’t need to be significant by the standards of capitalism.
Still, it was impossible for Irene not to wonder, what would happen when Curbita went back home? What would happen when she was left alone in an empty, bland apartment with nothing but her own thoughts to occupy her once more. She would at least be safe, probably; the affini were sure take her part of the city by the end of the month. But even then, wouldn’t that only remove the consequences of her failings? They would still be there, at the end of the day. How long until all the mess Curbita was in the process of sweeping away crept back? How long until her sink was again completely filled with dirty dishes? Would Irene’s daily life truly be that different? Certainly it would be nicer, more comfortable, less stressful without the looming threat of starvation or houselessness.
But even before the instability, before she’d lost her modest, but livable income, Irene had hardly been happy. She didn’t have friends, her relatives weren’t worth her time, she had little in the way of meaningful hobbies. kept herself locked away inside, isolating herself from the outside world. Ridding her life of the looming threat of capitalism wouldn’t fix how lonely she was, how purposeless and useless she felt. The biggest change would simply be that society would not punish Irene for being purposeless and useless, she still would, though. And all that was assuming she even made it that far. What if she didn’t last until the affini took over her portion of Monte Cruces? What if some of the rebels had seen Curbita’s aircar despite its camouflage? What if she awoke in the middle of the night to the sound of steel-toed boots kicking in her door and the last thing she ever saw was a muzzle-flash? Distantly, Irene became aware of the fact that she was crying. Her hands tightened around Curbita’s vines as she sank onto her side, hugging the vines tighter for comfort.
Before Irene had time to fully process, Curbita was upon her, pulling her into the affini’s tight embrace. “Hey,” she whispered. “What’s wrong, dearest?”
“Scared—the rebels—what if they—don’t want to be alone—don’t want them to hurt me.” Her words came between choking gasps, forced out between heaving breaths.
More vines wrapped around Irene, covering her from her neck down, securing her tightly, but not uncomfortably. Irene found herself being lifted into the air and held before Curbita’s face. “Sweetheart,” she murmured. “Do you really think that the Affini Compact would ever allow any harm to come to you, or any other cute little human? Do you really think I would ever allow any harm to come to you? The Duri resistance is a sad, harmless, inept group of fools. They can not, and will not ever hurt a soul.”
Confusion was perhaps an upgrade from complete panic, but Irene still wasn’t entirely sure she believed Curbita. She knew first hand the dangers they posed. “But Curbita, I’ve heard them. Just last night there were gunshots right outside my window.”
“You heard gunshots,” Curbita corrected. “But I’d bet you didn’t see them. When, Irene, was the last time you saw any armed rebels at all?”
What kind of question was that? There were all kinds of paramilitary looking assholes roaming the streets; Irene saw them all the time. Then again, Irene realized, Curbita did specifically ask her about armed rebels. The more she thought about it, the more she realized she actually wasn’t sure she’d seen any rebels with guns. Or, at the very least, she hadn’t seen their guns.
“You can’t think of a time, can you?” Curbita asked. Irene shook her head. “Have you even wondered why it’s taking us so long to finish taking this planet?”
Where was Curbita going with this? Irene couldn’t help but wonder. Perhaps it was simply a distraction, meant to ground her. She did feel a little less panicky, though that was possibly simply due to her affini’s proximity. “I always just assumed for some reason you wound up with fewer ships than you were supposed to have. One ship definitely struck me as odd since from the research I did on other planets it seems like you’d normally want several.”
A wide, pride smile bloomed across Curbita’s face. “What a smart girl you are,” she cheered, mussing Irene’s hair to her delight. “That is part of it, yes, though the real answer is a bit more complex. You’ve mentioned Duri has a bit of a contentious relationship with Terra. Well, what you may not know is that Duri hasn’t provided Terra with its most current census data for just a little over fifty Terran years. Worse still, instead of making estimates or at the very least simply noting this down, the Accord, in all of its incompetence, simply used that fifty year old data without second thoughts.” Despite her word choice, there wasn’t a hint of anger or disdain in Curbita’s tone, she sounded more like a teacher chiding a misbehaving student than a galactic conqueror bemoaning the state of her conquest’s government. “Thus, when the Affini Compact moved to take Duri, we were expecting a far smaller population, and prepared as such. There were to be other ships, but when an emergency arose elsewhere in the galaxy the captain of Sempervirens decided that we could handle Duri on our own. Reinforcement ships are on the way and should be arriving any day to clean up the rest of the planet, but until then we’re having to be far more slow methodical than we’d like.”
“Um, Curbita, forgive me but I don’t see how that means the rebels aren’t dangerous?” Irene asked, shrinking inward a little in her affini’s grip and glazing away, almost ashamed for questioning the woman.
“Chin up, my darling girl.” As she spoke, one of Curbita’s vines tilted Irene’s gaze back to Curbita’s face, then delicately stroked Irene’s cheek. Irene knew exactly what that little stroke meant, too; it was a reward, a bit of silent praise and affection for doing as she was asked. “The reason, my sweet flower, that the conquest has been slow, is that our resources have been stretched thin. But it is not fighting or capturing or even building and renovating that has stretched us so thin. The reason our creep across this planet, and, in microcosm, this city, is that the vast majority of our resources are going toward ensuring the continued safety of every single person living in the unconquered parts of the planet. We have scouts, drones and cameras on every corner of every street of every city. We monitor every bit of rebel activity, ensure every non-rebel citizen is never in the slightest bit of danger. They are toothless; their weapons have long been raided and either confiscated or destroyed by our scouts, drones and nanoswarms which continuously scour this planet for any and all danger—”
“But the gunshots,” Irene insisted. “I heard them.”
“What you heard was sad, pathetic posturing. A desperate flailing attempt to instill fear in a populous they have no control over. It was noise, perhaps a recording, or harmless fireworks. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time your sad little ‘Duri Freedom’ radicals have pulled such a stunt.” Curbita fixed Irene with a calm, caring, but incense gaze, her eyes shimmering cyan with flecks of greens and gold sprinkled throughout. “I assure you, my Irene, there is no danger. It pains me, and all of the rest of my shipmates to know that so many of this planet’s people have yet to be gifted with the comfort and luxury of the society we will soon build for them. The pain and suffering inherent to your human ‘capitalism’ is unacceptable, and we wish nothing more to fall upon all of Duri like some sort of Green Tide. But until our reinforcements arrive, we have had to sacrifice the speed at which we liberate this planet from such discomforts to ensure that each and every one of its citizens live to see that day come.”
Under any other circumstances, Irene wouldn’t have believed any of what she’d just heard. With everything she’d seen though, after witnessing just a taste of the Affini Compact’s capability and unfathomable power, after spending a day growing to trust and rely on Curbita, Irene couldn’t muster even a kernel of doubt. She felt foolish, honestly. Of course the affini would go to such lengths. Irene was convinced then, that there was nothing the Affini weren’t capable of achieving with the right motivation and a bit of time. And it felt safe; she felt safe. There was no risk of any harm coming to her, Curbita would not allow that to happen, so it wouldn’t.
Sadly understanding that in her mind wasn’t entirely enough to stop her body from panicking the way it had been. She was still distressed, and that fact only frustrated her further. Her stupid body wasn’t listening to reason, Curbita had went through all that to calm her and she wasn’t doing what she was supposed to and it wasn’t even in her control. It was fucking bullshit, it was—it wasn’t necessary. It didn’t need to be her problem.
As though to confirm her own thought process, Curbita made a gentle rumble sound, likely an approximation of a throat clear; the sound immediately captured Irene’s attention, her eyes focusing on the sight before her. Curbita really is so pretty, Irene thought to herself. “Little one, would it be okay if I gave you something to help you calm down?” Out of the corner of her eye, Irene glimpsed a colorful flower hovering before her face. It took Irene a moment to realize Curbita was offering her drugs, but it felt obvious in hindsight; affini pharmacology seemed to be one of their biggest points of cultural pride. A little flicker of doubt brushed at Irene’s mind, but she banished it. Curbita had her best interest in mind, there was no doubt.
“Please?” Irene asked.
On cue, the vine bearing Curbita’s flower pulled toward Irene, pressing the flower against her lips and nose like a mask. “Just breathe deep for me now, sweetheart,” Curbita cooed. Irene obeyed, taking slow, full breaths, pulling the sweet, heavy heady scent of Curbita’s flower into her lungs. There was a distinct sense that Irene could quite literally feel the drugs sink into her, rest heavily in her lungs then dissipate through her body, weighing her down in relaxed contentment. Her awareness of the world around her began to slip, then narrow into a fine point of singular focus: Curbita. All her thoughts save those which bade her to relax, let go, and focus on Curbita were banished. Really, how could Irene focus on anything else when Curbita was so indescribably pretty? When she had showered Irene with such limitless kindness and care? “That’s my girl, just relax now, sweetheart. I’ll take care of everything; you just have to let me”
As Curbita began to lavish all manner of delicate strokes across Irene’s flesh, squeeze her in all the right ways, surrounder her in warmth and comfort, Irene realized this was the exact sort of thing she’d fantasized about so many times. To be treasured, but kept, controlled, how many times had she imagined herself in this exact sort of situation? There was no denying it, Curbita was acting like the exact sort of loving owner Irene had craved in all of her most indulgent submissive fantasies; treating her like the exact sort of pet she longed to be. Even so, Irene never could have imagined just how wonderful it would truly feel. Did Curbita know, somehow, or were affini just like that? Perhaps it was both. Irene didn’t really care. She’d forgotten why she ever bothered to pretend this wasn’t everything she ever wanted; she’d forgotten what had even made her so upset in the first place. She was spellbound now, captured entirely by Curbita’s will, and she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Good girl.” For a few beautiful, perfect, endless moments, Curbita’s praise was all Irene could think about; all she knew. “So relaxed now, so comfortable, so safe. You trust me to keep you safe, right, Irene?”
She couldn’t help herself, there was no stopping her; the words slipped out unbidden. “Yes, Mistress,” Irene whimpered. It was already too late when Irene realized what she’d said; even so, she didn’t care. The words felt right on her lips, they were music in her ears and bliss on her tongue. In honesty, Irene had been longing to say them since Curibta first took Irene into her arms. There was nothing to complain about. Curbita was acting the owner, and Irene was more than happy to fill her part as the pet. Still, the thought crossed her mind that perhaps this was the wrong thing for her to have said. Was it appropriate for Irene to address Curbita as such? A hint of tension began to creep into the back of her mind.
The soft, pleased, rumbling hum which rolled from Curbita’s core banished Irene’s doubt, hopefully for good. She didn’t want to feel that way anymore. Her fingers ran lavishly through Irene’s hair as Curbita’ clutched Irene even closer. “That’s my girl.” For a few minutes, the world faded away and everything was sleepy, comfortable bliss; Irene allowed herself to be drowned in Curbita’s will. When her affini stirred and softly called her name, it took a moment for Irene to drift back up from the dull, blank lull of docile, peaceful contentment she’d fallen into. Slowly, her eyes began to focus again, bringing Curbita’s face into view. “I think it’s time we get you home, dearest,” she crooned.
The words were already perplexing; Irene’s state of sleepy, drug addled bliss didn’t help make piecing things together any easier. She scrunched her face up in concentration, earning a musical giggle from her affini which immediately relaxed all her tension, and also had the effect of breaking her concentration. “Home already,” Irene slurred.
A light, chiding sigh escaped Curbita’s lips. “Little one, surely even now you must be able to understand; from the very start, there was never any chance I would have allowed you to remain here. Your little fib about a kindly old neighbor you needed to look after was clever, but I saw right through it. I simply cannot and will not permit you to live in these conditions, to suffer under this cruel way of life which so many humans cling to. I will not allow that for even one day more. The question was never whether you would be staying here, it was always whether it would be off in your own hab unit, or with me. I think we both know the answer to that question now though, don’t we?”
A flustered string of unintelligible sputtering and moans erupted from Irene’s lips, before she finally managed to compose herself enough to choke out a weak little, “Yes, Miss.”
With an amused chuckle, Curbita stood from the bed and looked around the apartment. “Well, I suppose I kind of carried your food here for nothing. That’s alright though, you weren’t ready to admit where you really belong. Let’s go home, pet.”