“Go? You…you mean now?”, she said, looking up, slightly panicked as her cuff gave a single tone. It’s not like she wanted to stay here, but leaving…being alone with her captor…that was…it was a whole other level. And she wasn’t sure that she was ready for it.
“Well, that seemed like the best idea”, Gladialis told her with a smile. “I mean, unless you enjoy it here. Then we can stay for as long as you like, I don’t currently have anywhere else I need to be, little kitten. And we can get you some clothing on the way home. It should be warm enough that you’ll be comfortable in shorts and that shirt for now.”
She sat there, gnawing on a knuckle in indecision and then Gladialis spoke again. “How about this? We can leave, but I’ll ask Sarthusea to hold your room for the night. If you decide you don’t like the outside, you can come back, and everything will be right here for you.”
She thought about it. “But…umm…that…would that mean that…that I’m choosing option two?”, she asked, and Gladialis cocked her head, curious, and then realization bloomed in her eyes.
“No, I don’t think so. Not if it’s for one night. But if you find that you can’t leave here, well, then that’s a horse of another feather.”
“Umm…Horses don’t have feathers. That’s birds, I’m pretty…sure”, she said, confused again.
“I think you might be getting horses and birds mixed up, dear. Birds had wings after they had scales, horses have wings and hooves.”
“Wait…horses have wings?”, the girl asked, now even more confused. As far as she knew, horses had tails and slithered, like alligators. They certainly didn’t have wings.
“I think they did, since I found…well, we can discuss that on the way home. I have some things that you might be interested in seeing and learning”, Gladialis said with a smile. “Shall we?”, and as the Terran nodded, she smiled, her heart singing for joy. Oh, she couldn’t wait to get to know this brave little sophont.
“Umm..just…you promise….umm…no touching, or..or anything like that?”, she asked nervously, holding the plushie, and Gladialis nodded. “I promise, little one. On my roots and vines, I promise, I’ll only touch you if you’re in danger, distress, or you ask for it. Remember, informed consent and all that.”
“Ummm, ok. Let’s go”, she said, looking around the room. Then slipped off the chair and stood there, arms wrapped around her torso.
Gladialis smiled as the little Terran got up off the chair and followed her out of the hospital wing. If you couldn’t read Affini, or see the signs, you'd never know it was a hospital, she thought to herself. She noticed the Terran looking around, and then she looked down at her feet. "Oh, little one. We need to get you some shoes."
"Umm...I...I like walking barefoot. Maybe you have slippersocks? You know, socks with the little grippies on them? Every hospital in existence has them."
"Oh. I know what he's talking about. One moment, Sir", one of the human nurses said as they overheard the conversation, and vanished into a storeroom before they saw the little Terran flinch. But Gladialis saw, and the quick flicker of pain and resignation made her heart break for the ninth time today. "Little one, I'm so sorry." She instinctively reached out to give her a hug, and stopped when she saw the girl shrink back.
"It's...it's ok. Not worth getting upset over", she said, and then the nurse came back. "Here you--", and then Gladialis cut her off.
"Excuse me, sweetie. But she asked for the socks. Not he." Gladialis's tone was sweet, but the titanium plating underneath it was quite palpable.
"That's what...oh. Oh. I'm sorry, Miss. I apologize for that", she said, blushing as she handed over the socks.
"It's ok. No worries", she said to the nurse, and then raised the socks. "Thanks for the socks", she said, and leaned against the wall, slipping them on. Losing her balance for a moment, she put her foot down, but before she or her foot hit the floor a vine was there. Holding her upright as she yelped and stiffened, her cuffs yelling. BEEP. "I'm...please let me go”, she whispered. Trying her hardest not to flail around, recognizing that Gladialis wanted to help.
"I'm sorry, little one. I didn't want you to fall and get injured”, Gladialis said, slightly mortified and a bit upset with herself. Dirt, not even out of the hospital and already she’d overstepped her bounds. DIRT!!! Before she could apologize again, the Terran shook her head.
“No..umm…that’s ok. I…I guess. You didn’t want me to fall. That’s all right. Ummm…thank you”, she said, blushing and hugging herself.
“Ok”, Gladialis said, nodding. To the Terran, or herself, she wasn’t sure. “Let’s get going, then. You don’t have to hold onto me, but stay close to me, little kitten. If you look like you’re wandering or lost, then someone is going to try to help you, thinking you’re a lost little pet. Or a Feralist who escaped and is trying to run. Both of those come with…well, quite a bit of touching from Affini who just want to be helpful.” She waited until she got a nod from the human. And then she led her out of the hospital and into the Baeira proper.
“Welcome to the Baeira, little kitten.”
She could barely hear Gladialis as she stepped out of the hospital, looking around in wonder. The hospital was…she was looking out onto a large park, with what looked like water in the middle. She squinted, looking up, since the light was coming from up top, and it looked…”Is that a star?”, she asked, shielding her eyes. Refusing to look at it directly, she looked around. There was green stuff on the ground that she had learned in school was “grass”, even though she’d never seen it. There were Affini everywhere, Terrans with them. And other species that she’d never even heard of. She saw something that looked like her plushie buzzing around some Affinis head, landing on it to hold it. But the Terrans!! Walking next to the Affini, looking up at them. Sitting at tables with them, being held in their laps, which made her squeak and draw back, scared. Some of the Terrans were running and she tensed, looking for whatever they were running from and then saw that they were kicking a ball to each other. Another was running, shrieking, making her tense and prepare to run herself. As they were caught by vines, she heard the the Terran laughing and giggling as the Affini that reeled them in began to snuggle them, vines rustling.
She had no idea how long she was standing there and staring in shock. But Gladialis gently made a rustling sound, dragging her back to the present. “Why don’t we get going, little one? And I can answer your questions as we walk”, she said.
Gladialis was busy watching Kitten as she simply stared, thinking to herself that this was too adorable for words. The look on her face was wonder, amazement, surprise, and shock all rolled into one. “Little kitten”, she said again, and watched as the Terran blinked and looked at her. “Come with me, little one. We can walk and talk as we go.” The little Terran nodded, then shook herself, almost as if she was girding her loins for battle. Well, maybe she was, in a way. The way she was looking around, this was all new. Gladialis was again reminded that they knew next to nothing about this little sophont, and she resolved to change that. “So to answer your first question, it’s not a star, no. It’s a simulated day/night cycle that was reproduced using multiple wavelength lamps recreated on the inner screen of the ring walls, from what I understand. Capable of giving the correct wavelengths to prevent SAD, promotes the production of some of the vitamins you lovely sophonts need, and can feed Affini as well. From what I heard, one of the lead engineers made it as a way to flirt and show off for their floret. Which is, to be fair, how quite a lot of Affini inventions were made. But we all like it, so it stayed.”
The Terran girl nodded, and began to follow, walking closely to Gladialis, mindful of her warning. They left, walking towards what Gladialis called the mag rail while she looked around. After a few minutes of walking, Kitten noticed something. It was REALLY easy to walk here, almost like gravity was lighter than what she was used to. She had noticed that aboard the Terran ship as well. She almost felt like…not like she was lighter, but that she was moving faster than everyone. She and Gladialis appeared to be in some sort of food district, with little cafes, shops, even someplace called ‘the snuggle café’. Tables sized for Affini were everywhere, with chairs, some of which had some steps on them so that shorter people could get up them. Everywhere there were Terrans with Affini. Sitting with them, sitting on them, cuddling, and she blinked as one was sitting in a little cubby made inside an Affini, edging a little closer to Gladialis. There were, and she whimpered slightly, a lot of Affini. She blushed a fiery red when she saw that many of the Affini were handfeeding the Terrans, none of whom seemed to mind, based on the moans and…Oh my, as she blushed.
She also noticed that most of the Terrans had collars on and…they all looked a bit glazed, and were a bit clumsy, which she was able to see as she watched one or two. And not a single one was afraid of the Affini, looking at them with these dopey expressions…If she didn’t know any better, she would have said that they were drugged, and looking at the Affini like they couldn’t get enough of them. Like the Affini were the drugs, or some object of worship. ‘Some sort of anti-anxiolytic? Were the Free Terrans right? Are they turning people into..into these brainless husks?’, she wondered. She turned just in time to see an Affini walking near her, a vine from its hand forming a leash that went to the collar of the Terran following after it, maybe a clumsy step or two behind.
“Oh!! You’re a cutie!!”, the new Affini said, and some vines stretched out, ready to ruffle her hair or touch her or something. Before she had even a chance to move, or even to make a sound, Gladialis had placed herself between them, some vines reaching out to on all sides. Blocking access to her, she realized.
“Apologies, friend”, Gladialis said in a musical voice. “She’s a bit skittish and doesn’t like being touched just yet. You understand, I’m sure.” Out of the corner of her eye, she could see the little kitten huddle closer to her, but not too close.
“Oh, of course!! My apologies, friend. You have a cute sophont over there, and we bid you both a good day. Don’t we, Samantha?”, the Affini said, its voice far deeper than anything Kitten had heard before. No less musical for it, a deep baritone that sounded lovely.
“Uh huh, Master Trilipa”, the girl said, her voice soft, slightly slurred. “You’re cute!!”, she said with a giggle to Kitten, and then walked by her. Kitten looked at them, wondering what was going on, but at that point the duo had walked away, the Terran waving a goodbye, and she and Gladialis were walking towards a ramp that led to a small elevated platform.
“Can you please…umm…can you explain what just happened?”, she asked Gladialis, who looked at her with a smile.
“Well, you told me that you didn’t want to be touched. So I prevented another Affini from touching you”, she said, sounding a bit confused, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.
“No, well…I mean, Yes, I saw that, and thank you”, she said. “I mean with…why do they all look like they’re drugged, and wearing leashes? And collars? Are they all being tracked? Why do I feel so light? And is it safe for them to be outside, how are they paying for things, and I have so many questions”, she blurted out, then shrank back and blushed, holding her plushie tightly. Gladialis let out a musical giggle and smiled at her as a pod slowed to a stop. She looked up and blinked, having not even realized that there was a rail system there.
The door opened and Gladialis ushered the little Terran into the pod. The seats were all designed for Affini, and Gladialis looked at her ward. “May I please help you up onto a seat?”, she asked.
The Terran looked at the seats, clearly not meant for her, and blushed as she nodded. Still unable to help her yelp as vines coiled around her waist and gently lifted her to the seat. Beep. She knew that she wasn’t aboard Thors Hammer anymore, that this was different. But the feeling of the vines on her instantly brought her back, and the minute she was on the seat she pulled her knees to her chest, sniffling, the plushie to her face. “Little kitten, I’m so sorry to have upset you like that”, she heard Gladialis say, and she looked up to see that Gladialis looked as she sounded. Saddened, upset. “Ummm…it’s…it’s ok. Just some more stuff to work through..ummm…You were…you asked. That’s…thank you”, she stammered, blushing and sitting there. The pod accelerated smoothly, so smoothly that if she hadn’t been paying attention she would have never even noticed.
Gladialis sat down and let herself relax a little. They had gotten to the mag-rail, and the little kitten hadn’t run back to the hospital or broken down crying. That was good. “I can answer some of your questions, little one. But if you have questions about the ship, just turn and look out the window. What you’re looking at”, she said as the little Terran did and then gasped, seeing the hab rings slowly spin past each other, “Are the hab rings that help provide gravity. I suspect, without knowing the veracity of said statement, that the reason you feel so light is that you’re used to a higher gravity than what we have here, even if it’s only off by a few points.” Then realized that the little kitten wasn’t even listening to her, so engrossed was she by the rings, so she stopped talking and just soaked up the adorableness that was being displayed.
Kitten just stared. Looking at the rings, she was thinking about the lights and how many there were. If each small light was a window with one occupant then…she looked up, trying to think about it, to imagine the number and then realized that there was some kind of pattern between the lights and the way things were moving. She took a moment to try to see it, but then blinked, dragging her eyes away from it. She slumped back, shocked. “How…how big?”, she asked, turning to look at Gladialis.
“You mean the ship?”, she asked and Kitten nodded. “Hmm…If I remember correctly, thirty five kilometers long, eight kilometers wide when the petals are folded in, and fourty kilometers wide when they’re unfolded.”
The little Terran gasped. THIRTY FIVE Kilometers!!!! That was…she heard the soldiers talking on the ship about some Terran ship whose name she never learned. But they were all proud that it was seven kilometers long. Supposedly it had enough weapons to start a war with an asteroid field and win. But if Gladialis was correct, and this ship was THAT big….She blinked, and slid down. “That’s…The….ummm”, and she tried to collect herself. “The Free Terrans are..they’re really outgunned, aren’t they?”
Gladialis nodded. “In every single way that matters. I heard that one of our scouts caught a battleship with their cargo chutes, but I wasn’t there so I couldn’t say for sure. But yes, little one, there really wasn’t a chance. This ship took a direct hit from some vaunted Terran energy weapon and it didn’t even warm a square meter of the hull.”
The Terran turned, brow furrowed as she buried her face into the plushie. She had no love for the Free Terrans, not after what they did. But they were fighting for their freedom. Which, after seeing those others, she had to wonder if they were right. Her head was whirling, so many thoughts flying through that she had no way to gauge time or distance. She had no idea how long it took, but soon the pod slowed, something being said in a flowing language that she didn’t understand. A rustling of vines made her look up as Gladialis stood and nodded at her. “We’re here, little one. We’re not far from our home. I figured you might want to get a little something to eat, and I can answer some more questions. How does that sound?”
She nodded and got off the seat, the little drop a reminder of how high up she was. She got out of the pod and looked around. It looked almost like the place where they were before. Green stuff all around, Affini leading more Terrans around by leashes or carrying them. Sitting at tables and eating. Handfeeding the Terrans. She looked up at Gladialis, frowning. “Doesn’t anyone have jobs? You know, stuff to do?” She looked up at tall buildings that looked like multistory apartments he’d seen in some of the vids in school, usually of Mars or some Jovian colonies.
“Oh, of course, little kitten”, Gladialis said as she led the way. “Everyone has a job to do. But we also understand that there is a work-life balance. Tell me, little one, how do you feel about Italian?”
“Ummm…wait..what? Umm…I guess?”, she asked, the change in conversation throwing her for a loop. “Why?”
“Because that’s what we’ll be having.”
“Ummm…sure”, she said, following Gladialis. She followed her closely, with Gladialis keeping other Affini from touching her again, slipping into that fast, rippling language again. They all smiled at her, making her hunch down, unfamiliar with the attention and not wanting it. Finding an empty table, Gladialis stopped by it and asked if she needed help to get up. She shook her head, putting the bag with her plushie on top of the chair. “I can do it”, she said, and then tried to scramble up the side. It took a little doing, but she made it up by herself. Then squeaked and blushed as the Affini around her started clapping, having watched her. “Good job, little cutie!!” “Adorable!!” “Spirited!! Such a determined little cutie!!”, she heard, and she blushed, trying to hide as she grabbed her plushie and hid her face in it. A few of the Terrans started smiling, clapping and whistling also, then went back to looking up at the Affini with those looks on their faces.
Gladialis smiled, proud of the little kitten for making it up without help, as she wanted. Part of her was itching to just reach a vine out and help, seeing the little one struggle. But she held back, knowing that she needed a victory right about now. “Good job, kitten.”