I stared at my tails growing increasingly frustrated. Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t isolate the movement to a single end. I made my 13th attempt, deciding to focus on the outermost tail. It twitched and I thought I was finally going to crack this puzzle, but when I extended it outwards two ends quickly followed. I gave a deep unsatisfied moan and deduced I was wasting my time. Fortunately, before I could muster up the tenacity for attempt number 14 a vine waved in front of me.
“So you can learn!” I half-teased.
Miss took a seat next to me. “With that tone, I’d be happy to unlearn and return to sneaking up on you.”
“No!” I screamed and then caught the smile on her face. My hand came to my face and I slapped the sofa twice. “I can’t believe I fell for that.” Miss’s smile grew wider.
“You wanted to talk?”
“I did. Is Ratio asleep?” I asked.
“She is. She was upset her Pinnate wasn’t joining her tonight, but I’ve taken care of that.” I gave my thanks. “You’re most welcome. Now tell me, what’s on your mind?”
Why is it that you can think of a hundred ways to open up a conversation, but the moment you try the words hang in your throat? I sat there unsure what to say, opened my mouth hoping the words would form and then closed it again. I repeated this motion 5 separate times, huffed and retrieved Foxy from her nearby plushie bed, sat back down and gave her a tight squeeze.
“Why me?” I asked, my voice mumbled by the plushie.
“I don’t understand the question. Can you be more precise?” Miss asked.
“Me, save, eh. What exactly possessed you to save me?”
Miss let out a confused hum. “I’m still struggling with the question. The way you have phrased that makes it sound like there was a choice.” She paused. “I’m making the presumption here you’re referring to the ship I found you on?” I nodded. “In that case, I saved you because it was necessary. I should clarify that feeling isn’t unique to me; if any of my kind found themselves in a similar situation, I’m sure they’d have done the same.”
“Because you’re all saints and the universe is yours to protect,” I announced dramatically and coated in sarcasm.
“I’m unfamiliar with the term saint, but yes, it’s the compact’s duty to protect sophonts such as yourself.”
“Fine!” I yelled. “You saved me because you are duty-bound. That doesn’t explain why I’m living with you, why you couldn’t fix me up and place me through a re-education program and then let me go. Why is it important that I stay assigned under you? I don’t understand why you’re trying to make me a better person, what do you get out of it?
“That’s rather simple, I want to see you bloom-“
“Bloom into the best person I can be,” I interrupted. “Yes, I’m fully aware, that motto is advertised everywhere thank you very much.” My voice grew tight. “Those are the words of the compact and not your own. Miss, I want, no; I need to hear, in your own words, why you picked me as your floret. Was it a case of being in the right place at the right time? Are you angry because I hurt you and therefore trying to humiliate me in a twisted form of revenge? Or do you not know? Are you a sheep that is following an ideal that isn’t your own?” I gave a long sigh, my voice then giving way to a pleading whisper. “Whatever it’s, please just tell me. I’ve been trying to figure out your angle for days and I can’t make sense of it. Earlier today you asked me to trust you but I can’t unless you tell me the truth. The whole truth.” I gave a desperate look upwards. “Please…”
Miss sat in silence, her face a mixture of deep thought with elements of frustration. I adverted my eyes and tightened my hold around Foxy, unsure if I’d be punished for my behaviour. She extended a vine towards me; I flinched and involuntarily scrunched my eyes up. Miss let out a sound, but I struggled to assign an emotion to it. The vine that she had extended tapped against my hand gently. I opened my eyes and found her looking down at me, pity in her eyes.
“Don’t… Don’t look at me like that,” I protested weakly.
“How could I not?” she replied with half-formed tears. “I’m going to pick you up now, is that okay?”
I nodded and her vines came forward again, this time slowly. I was lifted and placed on her lap once more as she started stroking my head.
“I’ll tell you my story,” she said. “Don’t concern yourself with talking, for now just listen and if you have any questions, we can address them later.” I gave another slow nod. “Good girl.” I was gently laid down and her vines moved over me forming a makeshift blanket which I hesitantly pulled close.
Miss began to monologue.
“You asked me earlier why I saved you. The answer to that is because it’s hardcoded into my being. Life is mine to protect. It’s not a choice, it’s not even something I think about, it simply is. Yours marked the 9th race I have encountered in early-stage domestication. Each time I would lead a small cell to pacify sophonts that were a danger to themselves, who would later be assigned guardians and become happy.”
“The day I met you was to be no different. We successfully jammed your communications and pacified the majority of your crew. Knowing there were some stragglers, a few of us stayed in hiding in key areas while the rest of us searched for you. For our first encounter, it was, as you put it, the right place at the right time.”
“Our second encounter was different. I had sought you out knowing that you proved a genuine danger, not just to yourself, but to everyone aboard that ship. When I found you in that state.” She paused and tears began to flow. “Never in all my life have I encountered a sophont so wounded.” Another pause. “Impulse took over and a deep need seeded itself to protect you. Originally, I had not intended to make you mine. I would oversee your recovery and then you would be domesticated under a loving owner who could care for your every need; but as I watched you relearn who you were through your own eyes, a part of me agonised at the idea of letting you go. In your language, you would describe this as falling in love.”
“Cereus, having also worked on your recovery, noticed my feelings and encouraged me to file for your wardship. I was hesitant. Going from no florets to two would be quite the challenge, and I didn’t know if I was ready for it. After I learnt that I had imprinted on you accidentally and that you were slowly accustoming yourself to my biorhythm, I decided my hesitations were no longer valid. Whether you had done it consciously or subconsciously, you had chosen me as your owner and I would live up to everything that role entailed.”
“As expected, Ratio refused to be parted from you and after some negotiations, gave up her freedom to take care of you. This signified the start of a new journey and the next day you were both placed under my permanent care.”
“What do I get out of it? For starters two adorable young girls who love each other very much and who in time will come to love me as much as I love them. At its core though, I want to see both of you happy. Truly happy, not artificially. It would be so easy for me to break you, take away the painful memories and rebuild you in my image. You would thank me for it of course, but I would always feel I had failed you; that I hadn’t done enough. The path I have chosen will incur short-term pain, for which I will be there to help guide you through. By the end, you will be a stronger person and your truest self.”
“I’m finished,” she declared, bringing her vines to scratch behind my human and fox ears. I gave an almost inaudible purr in response and tried to identify at what point in her story I had started to drift. Being held like this made staying awake sooo difficult and I wanted nothing more than to close my eyes. I yawned and rubbed one eye lazily.
“I think you’re telling the truth,” I said, worried about the underlying message in her words.
“That’s what you asked for flower.”
“I… I know. I just. Agh! This would be easier to swallow if I thought you were lying. The idea of someone wanting me for me is just… It’s… Error.”
A vine pressed against my lips. “Shhh, you don’t need to put it into words, I understand.” I stayed silent and thought about her words. From the little I remember, there was quite a bit to unpack and while I would have liked to give it all the attention it deserved, my mind kept coming back to one specific phrase; ‘you would describe this as falling in love.’
It resonated in my mind like a disease. I tried to put my barriers up; tell myself she was lying or that she was trying to bypass my guard, but I didn’t have the energy to keep fighting. For better or for worse, her words were getting through to me. I almost found it amusing, to be honest with you. You spend a lifetime hiding away from everyone, wearing masks. You get so good at it that even you lose sight of the real you in pursuit of safety and all it takes is one person, with the right words and actions that show sincerity and boom, that all comes tumbling down. It wasn’t fair. My old life wasn’t exactly a happy one but it was structured, I had a purpose and I knew my place well. Why did the compact have to come in and throw that order out of sync? Why was everyone being so nice to me when I didn’t deserve it? Why were they giving me hope?
I realise my inner thoughts are chaotic and I can’t be sure they’re making any sense, but ultimately you could argue this was the truest version of me. When the masks are removed and you peak beneath the self-loathing, you’ll find a girl who never really grew up. She’s scared and confused and desires loving attention and despises it in equal measure. She is so weak, so fragile and so easily misled, but try as I might, I could never be rid of her. She always came back at the worst times. This was proving to be one of those times.
I took in a large breath and let it out slowly. I squished my plushie and nuzzled into her and vine alike. I bit my lip and then the vine that replaced it. None of it worked, the hopelessness I was feeling continued to swallow me whole.
“Miss?” I asked. “Can you keep talking? I don’t care what it’s about, just help me get out of my head for a bit.”
A vine held my cheek and lovingly manoeuvred my head to face the giant Affini. “You’re struggling with your emotions, aren’t you?” she asked. I nodded, not daring to speak another word. “Star, hiding them away isn’t going to help. I’m not going to facilitate that bad habit, but there is another solution.” She waited for my response and then, realising I wouldn’t give one, continued. “Star, talk to me.” I shook my head. “Star, you will talk to me because I am asking you too and it’s what you need at this moment.” I shook my head again, this time with less resistance. Miss spoke again, her voice continuing to display a motherly concern. “Star, I have ways of making you talk.” She produced a device and pressed it against my skin, her vine positioned on the handle preparing to inject me. “I can administer this and you will talk and I will control the conversation, or you can talk of your own free will and you can control the conversation. Those are your choices, though please keep in mind that staying silent here counts as a response.”
I looked at the vial, then at Miss and wondered what I would say under the effects of whatever she put into my system. Nothing good I imagine. “I’ll talk,” I relented. The vial was removed and the head strokes resumed. “I don’t know what to talk about,” I confessed, now staring at Foxy again.
“I’ve told you part of my story, so why don’t you tell me yours?”
That would make things easier. Maybe if I talked about that enough she’d be sated and I wouldn’t have to talk about how I was feeling.
“Kay… I don’t like talking about my past before the OCNI, so I won’t, is that okay?” I asked, to which Miss nodded. “I’m also working on the presumption here that you removed the OCNI kill switch and that opening up isn’t going to fry my brain a second time?” Another nod. I took in a deep breath and let my mouth take over; despite my emotional state, the words came out relatively calm and collected.
“Around March last year, standard Terra time, I graduated from my university and was headhunted by the OCNI, which is short for the Office of Cosmic Naval Intelligence. I had always been better than my fellow students and I went into this new role believing nothing would change. I was wrong.”
“The environment was incredibly hostile and competitive and I was finding out that no, I wasn’t special, and yes, I was just another cog in a machine. I had to prove to myself that I was the best, that my stepdad was wrong and that I wasn’t useless, but when I realised that everyone else there was just like me, a part of me broke. What was the point in all my effort if there was always going to be someone better than me? I started to spiral; the worst surfaced when I failed a monthly competency assessment. I beat myself mentally, went back and reattempted the exam and ended up doing worse the second time around. My position was in jeopardy and so too was my life. I knew too much to simply be let go.”
“Fast forward to May and I had barely managed to keep my head above water. Something needed to change and in a twisted manner of fate, it did. I had heard that the OCNI was performing tests on its internal candidates to check if they were suitable for the “next step of evolution” as they called it. It promised that the successful candidates would be without equal and new role models for humanity to aspire to. Honestly, I didn’t care much about being a role model, but it offered me a chance to be the best again. How could I not take it?”
“I passed all of the eligibility criteria and engaged in a month-long competition with the other candidates. In the end, it came down to me and a younger man. I was losing. I made an impulse decision and agreed to sign various degrees of my rights away. It worked, and a few days later I was being operated on. I was so proud of myself! I had done it, I was the best again, without equal and I was determined to make the most of it. The OCNI had different ideas.”
“It was… It was horrible. In my pursuit to be the best, I had given up my humanity. Turns out, they had installed various executive functions that made me a slave to their desires. I was treated as nothing more than a tool and even through my 5-month recovery period, I was worked like a machine. My assignment to the Spirit of Atlantis was the best thing that happened to me. It was the one time since joining the OCNI that I felt normal. Like a person again. Lucia stayed by my side and kept me sane and I had a team, that either through fear, the chain of command, or respect, treated me like a person. And then there was Benjamin. The two of us argued frequently, but I enjoyed it and looking back it was one of the only things that kept me grounded. Without those 3 pieces, I suspect I would have lost myself long ago. Oh! And Ratio! How could I forget about Ratio?”
“She was me, or she was everything I could have been. My potential without any of the negative influences of life. It should say a lot that I spent more time with a clone of myself than my peers or the rest of the crew, but as she began to grow, I found myself… I don’t know how to explain this next part. At some point, I stopped seeing myself when I looked at her and started to see a ray of hope. She was my legacy, and she was pure… I. Error! Words, work, please. Nope! I can’t figure out how I want to finish that, so I’m moving on.”
“One thing leads to another and boom, our fleets are engaging, we lose, I’m taken prisoner and hey presto! Here we are.”
I’m not sure why I picked that story, but I can’t lie and say I didn’t feel a little better after telling it; even if it didn’t fit the current mood.
“Flower, there’s still an element of your story that you need to talk about. Your time after your capture, how it’s made you feel, and what you want for yourself in the near future,” Miss probed.
“Who cares about that?” I asked, my words growing heated. “You’re fully capable of recounting the last 3 days, or heck, 8 weeks even. I don’t feel like entertaining that for your twisted sense off…” My voice grew quiet again and I swallowed. “Sorry. That wasn’t fair. This is just really difficult for me. I don’t like talking about myself. It’s not easy.”
“Would you like me to fix that?”
“NO!” I screamed, taking Miss by surprise. “Please don’t. No drugs! I can’t… I don’t-“
“Flower,” Miss said, cutting me off. “I wouldn’t recommend this if I didn’t think it would help you. I don’t need your permission, but I would like to receive it. Will you let me help you open up? Will you trust me?”
There was that word again. Could I trust her? If not her, then who else? I trusted Ratio and Ratio trusted Miss. Was she worthy of my trust, would it be foolhardy to give it to her? Trust starts with a leap of faith; her words echoed in my mind. That’s not fair! I’ve made that leap so many times! Why would this be any different? Because she’s not Human? I… I want to trust her. Stars! I want to trust her!? What is happening to me!? Zeitha. What do you want brain? Say yes…
Miss leant down and kissed my forehead. “Thank you, Star.”
The drug had barely been administered into my system before I blurted out; “Stars, I love the way you make me feel so small and protected.”
Miss gave an amused, happy squeal and struggled to contain herself. “And why is that?” she asked.
“All my life I’ve had to be the strong one. Protect my brother, comfort my mum, protect Lucia, guide Ratio, guide humanity. And I know all of this was self-enforced, but once it started, I couldn’t get it to go away. Did they even want to be protected? Was I being selfish in an attempt to be useful to them? Was I being useful to them? Why am I on a tangent? Oh! Right, being small. Yeah! So, when you hold me like this, I feel like there are no expectations of me. Like I can do nothing and that’s absolutely A-Okay. You’re big and scary, and really strict, but you’re also super kind. And I haven’t had many people in my life like that. Everyone wants something, and you genuinely seem to only care about my well-being but like, I’m scared. What if you’re trying to trick me and let my guard down? I don’t know why you would. I have nothing further to offer the Compact. All my memories have already been seen and you’ve made it pretty clear you don’t plan on using my mind. Maybe slave labour? But then why go through this much effort? It’s probably not slave labour which means you’re all telling the truth and you really do want what’s best for us. But that is scary in its own way! Control is always used to force your will on those that have none. In the accord, this took the form of being degraded to a theoretical machine and told to repress and hide who I was. In my family, it took the form of being abused, physically and mentally. My friends always wanted something and the moment I couldn’t give it to them they turned their backs on me. And you… you want me to be your pet and like if things keep progressing at the rate they’re, it’ll probably happen and that’s terrifying! I don’t want you to hurt me, I don’t want anyone to hurt me, but it keeps happening and-“
“I will never hurt you and I do want the best for you. If you enjoy feeling small and protected, I can make arrangements so you can always feel this way. All you need to do is ask and it’s yours.”
“Do I deserve that?” I asked. “I’m not a good person. I deserve to be punished. I need to atone first.”
“Atone for what?”
“For hurting you and Lucia and Ratio and all those pilots who lost their lives because of me! Not to mention everyone I’ve ever been horrible to or bossed around or like, just been horrible to in one of my fits or something.”
“Very well. Your atonement can come in the form of being more honest with yourself. Starting now, you will no longer lie to yourself. You will no longer repress your feelings; if they’re too much, you will tell me and I will help manage them. You will love yourself and practice that self-love every day. And finally, you will forgive yourself. Forgive yourself as I have forgiven you. With that in mind, what do you want more than anything else right now?”
“I want to sleep with you and Ratio, to be held and comforted and to not feel alone.”
“And how do you suppose you can achieve that?” Mistress asked.
“Mistress. Will you help me sleep and comfort me and stay by my side tonight and many nights to come?”
“Always~.” She sung.
She moved to scoop me up, but my mouth was faster. “Just so you’re aware this doesn’t mean I’ve given in to you!” I added hastily. “We’re not there yet and I fully-“
Mistress’ vine cut me off once more. “Shhh, flower. Don’t spoil an otherwise perfect night. Sleep now. Sleep and feel comforted knowing Ratio and I will be there in the morning when you wake.”
My eyes grew heavy and I could feel sleep calling in the back of my mind. I buried my face into Foxy and let out a content sigh.