Interlude B: The Room Where It Happens
Some sapient creatures, the beloved plants themselves included, thought that the beating hearts of the Affini Compact were the tremendous, ostensibly motive, space stations dotted around the front, like the Sphenophyllia hanging over Mars, or the Meandrina loitering around Epsilon Eridani. Hundreds of kilometers long, they were entire microcosms of the Affini core worlds unto themselves, capable of wholly independent operation, be it organisational, industrial, scientific, or domestic.
Those creatures would be wrong, of course. The mega-ships were a vital piece, but most decisions were made elsewhere, most of the population didn’t live aboard, and the Affini’s true purpose hardly lay in the autonomous stellar gardens that grew their smaller ships.
The ships, then. Other, wiser, creatures would point to the fleet as the Compact’s true center, the distributed, decentralised starhoppers that flew between worlds, bringing with them the freedom of domestic bliss, like the Elettarium, the Baiera, or the Pinidae, all currently busying themselves with rescuing the human race from itself.
Though closer, they would be wrong too.
The heart of the Affini Compact, according to Wing Cnidaria, assistant clerk, were the clerk’s offices. The Elettarium office was located near the rear of the vessel, sandwiched between an ice cream bar and the main communications relay. Though in truth it was a large construction indeed, Wing suspected that they could dedicate the full width of the ship to it and still end up cramped between stacks of reports and piles of requests.
This was the room where the rituals were penned.
The space where the desires of five thousand, four hundred and thirty three sapient life forms went to become real. The paper—locally grown in the Elettarium’s botanical gardens and destined, one day, to be broken down for recycling—was by far the least data storage format in use here, and yet it piled to the high ceilings, held in place only through the constant rotation of the habitatable decks.
Wing had long since given up on applying classical Information Theory to the Affini Compact. Here, the words ran so thick they formed their own gravitational field, sucking in every other bit of information around until everything found a home. Astrogeologists filed reports on rock composition; xenolinguists submitted updated words for their darling companion species; botanists wrote reports on their latest concoctions; and everything besides. Nowhere knew more about the day to day operations or the large scale organisation of the greater civilisation than the clerks.
If only Wing could keep her focus on it. Today was not a normal day. In her journal, placed carefully to the left of her expansive work area, the date was circled thrice and underlined twice, highlighted in the bright red of exclamation that caught her eye every time she saw it. The room besides that was shades of grey. Black ink on white page on white desk on a black floor. To one side of the room, a full-length window gave a portal to the full majesty of the cosmos.
White stars on black void.
Wing’s fingers clutched a thin, hexagonal pen. The white status light on its side shone through her blurred, semi-transparent skin, lighting the bone within and refracting through the whole finger, lighting it up like it was she who was the digital instrument, recording every stroke written on the paper before her. She focused, forcing her eyes to glance across the form at her fingertips.
Requisition request. One standard hab unit bathtub’s worth of a specific kind of human desert. Wing glanced over to the computer terminal on the far side of her desk, and bioluminescent organs dotting her chest flashed a quick sequence of colours. The computer flashed back, and the clerk nodded to herself. This particular kind of desert was something their libraries contained the recipe for.
Transparent eyes skipped over the firm lines of the form, cross-referencing every scrap. Date of submission, date of the request being made, date they’d like it fulfilled. A hab identifier. She licked one finger on her free hand and lifted the page, checking beneath. The required data on dietary requirements, culinary preferences, allergies, and a structural assessment confirming they had the facilities to handle receipt were attached. There wasn’t a supplementary notice detailing the time and location the request was generated by one of their automated systems, so apparently this form had been filled in by hand.
Wing smiled. A creature after her own heart.
Affini script was a gentle, flowing alphabet. As close to art as language, but given that nobody wrote it except by choice, and the Affini never did anything by half, it was almost restrained in its choices. Their numerals were, in many senses, easier to work with than Wing’s native base-7 system, but…
She paused, expression utterly impassive, but luminescence glittering under the skin in tickled delight. Whoever had made this request had checked the wrong box and requested their produce be delivered by a method that wouldn’t handle that much weight. She took a moment to check the metasubmission, where the Affini responsible for such an error had clearly indicated that if an error were to be found, they wanted the form sent back, rather than quietly corrected. They had also requested a hint of “reasonable” obscurity, so Wing took a moment to consider, before penning “The Affini Compact carries all, valued protector, but your paperwork is messy and I shan’t carry you.”, signed with her name.
It was a game, of sorts. Of course, they could simply have sent a simple request and let a computer define the form. They could have permitted Wing to fix their mistake for them, or asked to be told the precise error at least, but half the work of a clerk was to act as the operator for a vast ship-wide puzzle of paper and byzantine requirements that only the Affini truly seemed to enjoy.
Well. The Affini, and Wing.
The doors to the office slid open, breaking the otherwise stony silence, as one of the many citizens under Wing’s care entered the room, not speaking a word. In fact, she walked in without even looking. Not a wave or a sound, and yet Wing found herself smiling.
Along the chest of the great plant flashed a series of brightly coloured leaves. It was a slow imitation of Wing’s native communication, with a curious accent and hesitant wording.
“Good morning, clerk,” it spoke. Montsechia Vidalii, Eighth Bloom, was the head clerk at the office, and she had taught Wing just about everything she knew. White vines wrapped around black thorns and a white core. Leaves mostly in shades of grey, giving her the appearance of simply being washed out, like all the colour had been stolen from her. She fit into the room well, and it made the brightly coloured leaves she was using to ‘talk’ stand out almost as much as they did on the cloudy surface of Wing’s body.
“Good morning, Miss Vidalii. I trust your day finds you well,” Wing flashed back, handing her superior a small stack of papers she had been unable to process herself with a look of quiet pride. Despite the mountains around them, the unprocessed forms numbered only in the low double digits, and mostly focussed around the few areas that Wing had not yet been taught.
The plant took the papers, vine not lingering for a moment longer than was polite, as a ripple of soft orange slowly swam over her torso, mottled with the deep blue of (pride/accomplishment/satisfaction). Wing saw the whites in the room start to sink into a soft pink, as the light from her own photoemitters bounced around her body, giving her a gentle glow and staining her vision. She forced the emotions down, and everything returned to quiet calm.
Montsechia moved across the room to her own desk, every step a sharp click as thorn met tile. Click, click, click. Wing couldn’t hear them, but one of the few pieces of Affini technology she bore was a tiny strip of bioengineered plant matter set just below the skin at the base of her neck. In response to sound, it lit up. It didn’t give a clear enough picture to understand spoken word, though as Wing’s lip reading was second-to-none this rarely caused problems.
In an otherwise silent room, however, the sharp clicks of Miss Vidalii’s thorns stabbed through Wing’s attention, scattering her focus, not that she’d been having much success keeping it together to begin with.
Today was an exciting day. The splash of red in the corner of her vision was impossible to ignore. (Importance/danger/attention) drawn in marker over the date in her journal, and that page had far fewer entries than the average day, as if she’d not managed as much work as she usually would have.
Montsechia’s desk was behind hers, but she had a mirror installed above, so they could still speak. Her eyes flicked up, following the creature’s journey across the room as she settled in.
“We’re going to have a busy day tomorrow, Wing,” Montsechia signalled, without looking up from her work. “I’m sure you heard about our little problem earlier, and the captain says we’re going to stay out here in uncharted space until we find our runaways.”
Wing nodded politely. “Of course, Miss Vidalii, we had the transcription here before the captain had fully finished speaking. I’ve filed it against the ship logs if you wish to check. Do you think that we will be… needed today?” she asked, the tiniest tinge of (nervous/concerned/worried) green mixing in. Today was a special day, and it would be unfortunate if something as minor as a hypermetric displacement were to alter her plans.
Thankfully, the affini flashed a brighter green of (soothing/agreement/acceptance) along with a brief, but strong moment of (negative/denial/rebuttal) red. Wing felt her heart beat a little harder, both at how much nuance Montsechia was managing to put into her language these days, and also because it meant that it was time to make her move.
She stood, for a moment unsteady on her feet and needing to lean against the desk for support, as she grabbed a small stack of papers and turned to her colleague. For a moment, she looked past, to the stars. White points of twinkling light against a black void, but stars weren’t just white. Instants of (encouraging/excited/eager) pink and (forceful/demanding/requirement) deep orange twinkled in her eyes for a moment, spurring her on. Perhaps the universe was telling her to get on with it. Perhaps she was just imagining it.
Nerves calmed—or at least, given the appearance of calm—she moved across the room to the head clerk’s desk. “Apologies, I must have forgotten to stack this small request with the others,” she flashed, colourscape the picture of apology with only the barest hint of (playful/mischievous) malachite dancing behind the words.
She turned and slipped to her desk while her partner analysed her gift. After a few minutes, a soft pink moved across her surface, breaking out from the center of her chest out into an expanding concentric circle, with the tiniest flash of her own malachite leaves barely visible underneath, being dragged just behind the pink ones on tiny vines.
Wing almost broke there and then. The subtlety on display in the creature’s mastery of her language was beyond exciting. She tried to keep the anxious green out of the sides of her cheeks, but how was she meant to do that? Her emotions could hardly be hidden, she was literally glowing with her nervousness.
“You’ve made an error here, assistant clerk,” the head clerk stated, colours firm and clear and bright. Disappointment and rebuke, and only the tiniest flash of playfulness in the final instants. “The form was submitted perfectly, though the author marked that they wished the clerk’s office to fix any issues found within.”
A vine shot across the room, landing on Wing’s shoulder and forcing her to stand and turn. Another gently pulled her across the room to face the consequences of her error.
“Now, no mistakes made on the form itself, but I can’t submit this. Do you know why, assistant clerk Wing?”
Wing gulped, flashing a tiny green acceptance through shivering glands.
“I’ve used the wrong signature, Miss. Vidalii,” she admitted, shivering finger moving to just beneath the spot for clerk’s assent.
“And so,” Miss Vidalii spoke, raising Wing’s chin to follow her as she stood. “It falls to me to correct your mistake. The form is immutable, of course, you’ve marked it done. To submit this, we must correct you—”
The affini theatrically paused, leaning over to inspect the signature, letting only the slightest malachite grin shine through. “You know how that paperwork wo—”
Wing raised her hands, which were clutching a small stack of pre-filled papers in fingers now openly shaking, her whole-body pink glow staining the clean white surface. These were correct. These she had checked and re-checked every night for a week. All they required was one final signature.
Montsechia provided it.
Wing Vidalii, Third Floret, exploded into a rapid succession of shines, giving the ordinarily quiet, ordinarily restrained interior of the clerk’s office the appearance of a rave as she leaped towards her new owner with a glee so bright it caused the lights in the room to automatically dim in insufficient compensation. The affini was hardly more restrained, hugging her new pet with a wide grin, both on her face and in her chromaticity.
The beating heart of the Affini Compact was in its clerk’s offices, or, at very least, the parts of it that Wing adored the most.