(Content Warning: Little bit of mentions of orthorexia and a dash of internalized ableism. Yey. Additional content warnings will be supplied in future chapters)
September, 2564, New Kitigan Zibi Anishinaabeg Land, Old Outaouais Region, Northeast American Bloc. 10 years after the signing of the Terran Domestication Treaty, the dissolution of the Terran Accord, and the establishment of the Terran Protectorate.
Bernadette's eyes lazily scanned the office room from her seat at the round table. The walls were a blasé beige colour, hung with portraits of chiefs and other valued members of the band, as well as some government papers and paintings in the Janvieresque style. At one corner of the room, there was a cabinet full of folders and papers. At another, an old coffee machine. The second most interesting sight, aside from the portraits and painting, was probably the antique-style clock with an electro-magnetic hand-design and a pendulum making a steady noise which was very nearly impossible for Bernadette to tune out.
Sitting beside her was her client, the current acting chief of Kitigan Zibi Anishinaabeg Nation: one Johanathan Sauvage. (He remarked once that "Whoever white man christened my ancestor must've had a funny sense of humour.") The native man had a weathered face with a broad nose, a cool sepia skin-tone, a cleft chin, a strong jaw, a pair of deep green eyes, and a long head of greying black hair that billowed out behind him.
As she passed a glance as this fairly sterile-coloured business casual suit, Bernadette checked her similarly-inoffensive light blue business shirt and her deep blue jeans for any creases or debris, and fiddled with her deep brown oxfords for any signs of wear or tear, as she likely did a hundred times on her way and during the meeting.
Mr. Sauvage was the first to admit that Bernadette wouldn't have been his or his people's first choice, or even their tenth; she was just a paralegal, with no specialization in indigenous workings, but legal representatives for band governments were always a challenge to come by. Thankfully, Mr. Sauvage was well-prepared for these sort of discussions. There wasn't much talking Bernadette had to do herself, which suited her just fine.
The normal circumstances ended there, because at the other side of the table in which the meeting was being held, stood an eight-foot-tall, vaguely-humanoid plant alien that was noticeably struggling to fit herself inside a room and at a table which was clearly not designed for her. Bernadette had thought that was kind of funny. Two hours ago.
The Affini, for that was their name as best could be translated into English, was already a towering creature, and Bernadette had been reminded that -by their own standards- this alien was a short specimen of the species. It was difficult for Bernadette to tell where the foliage of the alien's body ended and where her clothes began, or whether the 'clothes' were just an extension of the alien's body.
Nonetheless, her 'clothes' seemed to be comprised of overlapping pleats of plant matter, shaped into the form of a rather raggy-looking dress which made her look more like a hedge witch than an alien representative. The 'dress' went up from the alien's feet, up to a pair of straps which looped over her shoulders and kept the dress in place, letting it show part of her neck and shoulders, while covering every other part of the body save for her arms. At the end of her feet, she wore a pair of 'shoes' of similarly organic appearance, which were in the shape of brogues.
Plant matter further up the alien's body was fused together to form the facsimile of a long face with a jutting chin, a straight-bridged nose, and a pair of eyes patterned in what almost looked like orbs made from stained-glass. Behind the face was a trail of coniferous-looking needles, which cascaded down her body to resemble hair. Bernadette guessed that these were probably held together by some sort of branches, vines or fibre, but none that Bernadette could readily discern.
She distinctly recalled seeing other Affini with deciduous-looking leaves, even in the same region, so she surmised that this was some sort of cultural difference, or maybe an adaptation to exposure to the cooling temperatures. Many of the needles were brown or yellow-coloured, and were making a bit of a mess in the room as they were shed. From the alien's body, came out a quartet of vines that were all at once dexterous, nimble, and strong, able to effortlessly carry piles of paperwork.
And oh, there was paperwork. So much paperwork. Bernadette quietly sighed as she speculated why a civilization like the Affini were even bothering with what ought to be a most inefficient medium for recording data, much less why they needed to have so much of it. She was half-surprised that the table hadn't started groaning and cracking under the weight of it all. Heaven's sake, there were even stacks piled around the table, on the floor.
She wondered exactly what plant or plant-like substance they were synthesizing to manufacture the paper, and then she wondered if it should be vaguely disturbing for a plant-like species to use a medium traditionally made from plant fibers. No, she decided: historically, her ancestors once made the hide of cattle into a form of parchment called vellum. A medium which, incidentally, was eventually phased out by paper, and- oh, câline, she was supposed to be taking notes of the conversation between Mr. Sauvage and the alien, and she let her mind wander AGAIN.
Mercifully for everyone, it seemed like the meeting -hard to call it a negotiation- was wrapping up. They'd already stonewalled the Affini's attempt to compromise between her species' and the Algonquin's notions of law enforcement, though Bernadette was still surprised that was even up for discussion, given the way the Compact usually preferred to handle things. The conversation, however, had now wandered to the two arguing over the subject of pharmaceutical distribution.
"I understand, Ms. Sidra," Mr. Sauvage explained patiently, in his accent that was mixed with French and Algonquin, "But my people aren't concerned about your supply chains. We want to put our trust in human drugs, made by human hands."
"Which you are rapidly running out of," The alien's voice vibrated like a sound-clip which had been given a flanging effect, like some character in an old video game. The alien's accent, for some reason, sounded like Received Pronunciation. Bernadette wasn't certain, but she thought she could see the Affini trying to mask her frustration, "The xenodrugs that we have available can easily meet your people's needs, and more."
"That may be so, but my people don't want your drugs. We've seen what that stuff does to people in the cities. Makes them dull. We don't want that. It was enough trouble convincing the band to trust you repairing our water pipes and helping to clean out the river."
"Plenty of the human-manufactured drugs have similar side effects, if not more intense than the ones we offer."
"I am well aware of that." Mr. Sauvage held up a hand, "Your kind have done a lot for our people, Ms. Sidra. Hell, the Compact have done more for my people in a few years than the old governments did for centuries. You've even helped us pick up the pieces we lost with the building of the Accord. But you're just asking us to make too many changes, too fast. We need time to adjust."
The Affini made some noise resembling a sigh, taking the stack of papers in front of her in her hands and lining them up into place with a quick tap against the table, "I understand. I guess that's the end of it, then. Regardless, thank you for taking the time to hear me out, Mr. Sauvage."
The chief stood up and offered the alien a handshake, which she reciprocated, "Thank you for being so understanding, Ms. Sidra." The Affini made her way out of the room as awkwardly as she came, her form twisting and folding in on itself to make space.
Bernadette and the chief turned to one another as the alien departed. "I believe that's the end of my people's use for your services, Ms. Marc," said the chief.
"Well, I'm glad that things worked out for you." Bernadette scratched the back of her neck self-conciously, before handing a card with her name, number and e-mail address, "If you have any need of me, please don't hesitate to call or send me a mail."
Mr. Sauvage gave a weak smile, taking and and pocketing the card without even taking a look at it, "Have a safe trip home, Ms. Marc."
"Thank you." Bernadette nodded, "Have a great day." She tried to keep her dissatisfied sigh quiet; so what if she felt like she 'hadn't done enough'? It had to be enough; the job went exactly as either of them could've hoped. Shaking those thoughts aside, she grabbed her bag and her light grey jacket and headed out from the office to take her cab home. Along the ride, she tried as she could to take in as much of the countryside as she could, the old world being slowly swallowed up and reclaimed by the forest, before she drifted off to have a nap.
September 2564, Ottawa, Northeast American Bloc
Bernadette took in the sight of the city as her cab neared its stop and she got off. It was all still a wondrous sight to take in, even after ten years. The defeat of the Terran Accord had brought rapid changes in the past decade. Things had not only settled back to normal since the Affini invasion, but better than normal in every way.
How things have changed. How they've stayed the same. Franchises made redundant, replaced with small-chain stores. Streets, cleared of automobiles and replaced with trams and buses, with just a few roads set aside for the occasional cab. Military outposts were stripped down and repurposed for civilian uses. When she took walks around her neighbourhood, Bernadette could still remember the nearby barracks, now a safe-injection clinic, that was once lined with barbed wire and patrolled day and night by hard-faced men.
Young trees lined the streets where there once had been bare asphalt, letting loose their leaves in anticipation for the winter. The leaves were still fresh, in their brilliant reds and oranges and yellows. The rain had not yet come to break them down into the soil, to bring the soothing scent of leaf litter, and the leaves had not yet dried and curled up, where they could give a pleasant crunch when walked over.
The city, once a dull palette of gun-metal greys and browns, was now vibrant with life and colour, the art which had been stripped away, and could not be used as Accord propaganda, returned in earnest. The city was filled with towering business centres the likes of which would have been unthinkable ten years ago, with rows of diners, restaurants, salons, gardens, clinics, and all kinds of stores and kiosks for purchasing means of entertainment. And drug stores. There were many drug stores, not only for medical purposes, but even recreational. That was a particular specialty of the Affini people. With the automation of all means of production, all work was essentially voluntary, though plenty of people were searching for ways to make themselves useful to themselves and their society, means which the new administration were all too happy to provide.
All of it was so wondrous, in fact, that it was enough to completely distract Bernadette into sauntering directly into a walking, talking tree.
Bernadette yelped as she pulled back from the feeling of walking face-first into bark and stem, "S-sorry!"
"No, no, I am sorry, I should have..." The Affini leaned forward to get a closer look at her intruder, "Oh! You look familiar?"
"Maybe? I'm not very good with names or faces, I'm afraid." This was the truth, though Bernadette was feeling some uncanny familiarity in the way this Affini was dressed.
"Hmm..." She squinted, "Were you the woman who was assisting Mr. Sauvage at the Kitigan Zibi meeting?"
Bernadette grimaced: Yeah. Assisting, she thought. If you can call it that. "Oh, yeah! I think I remember you, now."
Bernadette realized she never really got as good of a look at Ms. Sidra the first time she was in a room with her. She'd been too busy playing the game of What is Normal Eye Contact to really take in all of the details, too busy keeping notes and... well, okay, she might have checked the alien out a little bit. Not like she was looking at Ms. Sidra like a piece of... well 'piece of meat' didn't sound quite right.
The alien was... cute. Not ethereally gorgeous in the typical Affini way, appealing though that was, but rather homely. She had a pair of short eyebrows, and her green, brown and yellow... 'hair' was tied behind her head in a messy, curly bundle. She had a pair of eyes that were a royal purple, criss-crossed with lines of silver and câline, it was usually hard for Bernadette to maintain eye contact, but it was too easy to get lost in those eyes. Her gentle-looking face was creased with... laugh-lines? Why does an Affini have laugh-lines? She had the overall look of a grade-school teacher, if your grade-school teacher was an eight-foot-tall plant creature. The only thing she was missing to complete the image was a pair of glasses.
The Affini extended a wooden hand, inviting a handshake, "Ephedraceae Sidra, 20th Bloom. She/her, although, it is usually difficult for humans to come up with a nickname for that, so I tend to go by the name 'Soma'."
Oh, Bernadette thought. Right. They usually just disclose pronouns like that. That's nice. She reciprocated the handshake, "Pleasure. Professor Marc. She/her." Truth is, she didn't do much teaching, but she studied for her doctorate for seven years and she'd be damned if she wasn't gonna show it.
Soma's eyes lit up. Quite literally, in her case, "A professor! What is your specialty?"
"I studied law, sociology, political science, history and psychology, though my primary work was as a paralegal." Of course, there hadn't been much interest in many of those subjects during the Accord years. Even if they were, she hadn't finished her education, and was assigned to working in the factories at the time.
"That is so many disciplines! I have general degrees much of those same subjects actually, as well as some study in xenopharmacology."
"Oh, that's a neat coincidence!" Bernadette chuckled, "You live nearby?"
"Well, I live just outside of the city," Soma gestured vaguely to her left, "In a hab in Hull. 116 Rue de Champlain."
"That's pretty close! Yeah, I live in the area, too."
Soma smiled cautiously as she headed in the other direction, "Well, I ought to catch the tram, now! It was nice speaking with you!"
"Uh, yeah, same!" Bernadette waved her goodbye, turning to catch her own stop.
Bernadette reached the stop to her neighbourhood in no time at all. The way back up to her room wasn't much of a hassle; just a long flight of stairs which she occasionally cursed to herself with every step, on those days when she was wrung out from exercise or work. The building hadn't installed an elevator yet, and Bernadette could never imagine using it if they had. Part of that reason was due to force of habit, the other being the notion in her head that those kinds of things should be reserved for people with real disa... well, people with impaired mobility.
Finished with the stairs, she entered her apartment, flicked on a dim light and briefly took in the view. The walls were still a little bare of paintings or photos or anything that anyone would consider to make a house into a home. There was a gentle soft alloy orange colour for the walls which looked especially nice in the dim light she favoured. It had taken her a good year and a half before she mustered up the courage to get them painted.
She took off and dropped her bag, next to the coffee table with the scratch marks where the paint had peeled off, past the mat and long-empty cat food bowl in the corner, and headed across the kitchen to pick out a nutri-bar from her very empty fridge. It was kind of silly, she even acknowledged. It wasn't like there was any rationing going on any more. She could just head over to the nearby hypermarket and grab something to eat.
But there wasn't any rush, really; she didn't feel that shaky right now. She'd put enough in her stomach to keep it from complaining through the entire meeting at Kitigan Zibi, and she wasn't so tired that she couldn't do her job. Yeah, maybe she was a little shaky sometimes, a little lightheaded, a little tired, a little bit sore, but that's alright. She wasn't obsessed with her weight or anything. She wasn't starving herself. She was just... dedicating herself to making healthy choices. That's all.
If she didn't practice some self-restraint, she'd eat the entire hypermarket. That wouldn't be healthy for her, and it'd just be inconsiderate for everyone around her. She could just imagine her looking like some ridiculous, shameless glutton, stacking a shopping cart until it was spilling over with food. Filling, delicious food...
She shook those thoughts off and headed into her bedroom to similarly bare and coloured, save for the computer desk. The desk was cluttered with various media equipment, papers, implements for writing and erasing notes, deodorant, lip chap, and a fan. Her closet, by far, was the most full space in the apartment, stacked with boxes of old game-sticks, maps, pictures, effects which could make a room more presentable to others. 'Don't you want people to know what you're interested in?' she could imagine them say.
She flopped full-face into her bed, reveling in the little bounce as the mattress springs did their work. She wasn't quite tired enough for sleep yet, however, but over the next few minutes, as she burned daylight on her computer and tablet, she wondered: What else could she be doing? Work? No, there weren't any new contracts yet. She had writers' block, and wasn't making progress on her software projects. She wasn't really down to practice with her instruments today, and she had no upcoming holidays.
She saw Hermann last week, didn't have the spoons to plan a hang-out with a friend more than once every two weeks, and she wanted to do something with her available time besides mindlessly scrolling through the Overnet or blotting her thoughts out, or the constant white noise in her brain away, with music. She didn't have the energy, or rather, the inclination (Yes, that was it) to repeat her exercise routine, and she didn't feel like getting on the tram or the bus just to walk through a park alone. What was there else, actually, that she could do?
It was kind of funny, really. During the Accord years, it always felt like days were too short. With eight -often ten- hours of work a day, five to six days a week, there was never enough time to just be. Even going back to school after those years felt a little overwhelming, sometimes. Now, with her schedule and contracts set, she was blessed.... cursed? With all of the time in the world. What else was new in the city except... Except for the Affini that she just found out was living nearby?
Soma seemed nice. She was really easy to talk to for all of the... five minutes they did. Bernadette wouldn't mind talking to her more. There was that one nagging problem in the back of her mind, though, and it was always a tough one when interacting with anyone, much less the Affini: politics.
Namely, she had some misgivings about the Affini penchant for kidnapping political dissenters and brainwashing them with drugs until they were reduced to human-pets.
Oh, but of course they didn't do that to everyone. Usually, they were content to de-escalate situations before they were forced to resort to that kind of thing. Involuntary 'Domestication', as they called it, was reserved only for the most 'dangerous' of individuals. Despite all of those reassurances however, the threat was always there, always implied.
Still, it was a fun idea. Exciting, even. Flirting with the invaders! Dangerous! Who knows? She might even learn something that the Affini... haven't broadcast to the entire galaxy at this point. Troop movements, supplies, organization, something like that.
Alternatively, she could get caught, and end up looking like another one of those dissenters; made an example in front of the rest of the city, led around the neighbourhood on a leash, barely perceiving the world around her, eyes tunnel-visioned in a drugged haze, every touch tingling her skin and making her gasp and whine, constantly gazing upward at her alien overlords with slavish adoration and-
Bernadette stopped herself. Caught doing what? Gathering intelligence for who? Where was she getting these ideas from? Sure, maybe the Affini government didn't live up to her lofty standards, but it felt like there was... something, some reason that she would be... She shook her head and tried to put those thoughts away for another time. She didn't have to win hearts and minds, or upend the system. That's a job for more charismatic and capable people. She was just looking for someone new to talk with, that's all.
She grabbed her coat and made her way out of her room and out of her hab block to the tram station. Where did Soma say her hab was? Right: Rue de Champlain, just across the river. It took no time at all for her to reach her destination: Hell, she hardly even had the time to think about something to distract her long enough for her to miss a stop.
She followed the address, though it wasn't that important. Affini housing was usually quite distinguishable from human habitation in a number of ways. For one, they often featured more glass roofs and windows which could be shuttered for privacy or kept uncovered to allow natural lighting in during the more tolerable days of the year. Many of their roofs also incorporated solar panels for energy storage, and inside of course, there was abundant lighting to ensure the inhabitants' energy and good health. Secondly, their buildings featured distinctive spiraling and floral patterns covering as many inches of the outside -and presumably, the inside- as was tasteful. Finally, Affini house usually had at least doubled dimensions. The door itself towered over her at roughly 13 feet in height.
As she approached the door, she started feeling the shakes again. Just nerves, obviously. Nothing but. Did she really go all across the city just to bother some stranger? Soma was probably really busy at that moment. Bernadette was probably just gonna be nuisance. And what if the Affini just decided to wrap her vines around and plunge her poisoned thorns into her- Okay, Bernadette, she told herself, keep it together.
She decided that she would just interrupt the Affini for a minute, ask her if she was interested in taking a few hours out for a nice day at a museum. That would give her time to run- to give Soma the opportunity to make her own decision. She took a breath and knocked on the door steadily and firmly as she could. With the size of the door being what it was, it almost made her feel like she was some character in a very old black-and-white horror movie, standing out in the pouring rain, awaiting to be received by a vampire or a mad scientist's hunching, ghoulish servant.
Shortly thereafter, the towering door creaked open, and the very same Affini she encountered earlier in the day emerged, the alien's body and smile pleasantly framed by the lighting coming from inside the house, "Oh, Ms. Marc! I was not expecting to see you again so soon! Do you need something?"
It should've been simple to ask the woman she was interested in to a little get-together somewhere which was mostly certainly not a date. Bernadette, unfortunately, was a high-functioning gay dumbass, so instead, she sounded like this: "I-I was... w-wondering if you were... I mean, if you had some free some time this weekend to... go out and... grab a coffee, and... head to the park for a chat, or something...?"
Silence hung in the air for one second too many. Bernadette could feel tension building inside of her as she tried to scrutinize the alien's 'face' with her limited grasp of non-verbal language. The Affini's eyes darted between and around the sight of the human, her mouth gradually forming a smile that seemed almost... disbelieving? Uncertain? "Yes, I would be delighted! Where and when did you have in mind?"
"I was thinking... in front of the old National Museum, at around 12:30 PM, Saturday? I think there's a shop for coffee and donuts close by. I-I mean, if that's not too soon for you..."
"Certainly! I will see you tomorrow. Thank you so very much for the invitation! Is there anything else I can help you with?"
"N-no... Thanks for hearing me out," Bernadette stammered out, "It was... nice, talking to you. Have a great day!" Bernedette turned and exchanged hand-waves with the Affini as the alien shut the door and the human made her way back to the nearest stop to the bus.
Good. That was okay. Bernadette thought to herself. You only nearly choked to death on your own tongue twice during that conversation. The hardest part of setting up the date was over. Well, maybe the second hardest part. Or the third. Or- Wait, it's Friday. Saturday was the next day! Bernadette never arranged for anything to happen the next day. What was going on with her head, lately?
Regardless, Bernadette made her way back to the nearest stop and took the bus to her street, back to her hab.