20. T-minus 10

by anna//bool

Tags: #cw:noncon #D/s #dom:female #Human_Domestication_Guide #petplay #slow_burn #sub:female #anxiety #dom:imperialism #dom:internalized_imperialism #dom:plant #drugs #f/f #hurt/comfort #hypnotic_voice #nonbinary_character #ownership_dynamics #panic_attacks #pov:bottom #pov:multiple #pov:top #scifi #sub:the_horror_of_existence_in_a_caring_universe #transgender_characters

Chapter Twenty: T-minus Ten

“Hand me that—” Katie felt the handle of a tool brush her fingertips and took it— “Thank you. You good for me to melt these bits together while you’re holding it?”

Thatch nodded. She was holding two long strands of metal with a series of precise vines, keeping the tips tightly together so that Katie could hold a tiny piece of fire underneath to fuse them into one piece. Thatch’s grip was mostly at the other ends, far away from the flame, but Katie could still feel tension in the air as she brought the fire close for the few seconds it took to melt the bonding agent they’d scavenged from a bunch of broken alien trash.

When she was done she carefully placed the tool against the ground and stifled it with a damp cloth. Thatch was getting better at weaving strands of worked plant matter together, and they now had sheets of material as well as ropes. Katie finally had a bed to call her own.

Their camp was fast becoming a home. Wooden poles driven deep into the dirt surrounded them, offering mounting points for windbreaks; coverings against rain; or separators for privacy. They had wooden boxes with metal hinges for storage. Stone slates for writing. A guard rail by Leviathan’s tank to ensure nobody would fall in.

To one side was their main project area. It was hardly a cleanroom but it would suffice. The pair had spent much of the last couple of days sorting through the contents of their metal boxes, creating piles of interesting things, of useful things, and of things they couldn’t figure out anything to do with just yet.

Katie knew that her contributions hadn’t been strictly necessary. Katie suspected that most other affini would have left her with a pat on the head and a face-full of whatever a ‘xeno drug’ was. The term implied the existence of non-xeno drugs within the Affini Compact, but Thatch hadn’t been forthcoming about the topic.

Katie knew that her impression of the greater Affini was probably inaccurate. A mix of two different kinds of propaganda tempered by the opinion of just one example of the species made it difficult to be confident about what was going to happen when they reached Compact space, but Katie at least knew Thatch. Thatch would give her a pat on the head and a dose of something comfortable—if Katie asked—but she’d do it after a lesson on temporospacial physics, not instead of one.

Still, Katie found herself feeling a little nervous. She wasn’t engaged in building their home, she was engaged in building something that would take it away. Thatch said it would take them somewhere better, but… This was the best Katie had ever had it and risking that for a chance at something better still seemed greedy. Wasn’t that exactly the kind of Terran garbage she was trying to cut out? Couldn’t she just be happy with what she had?

Katie glanced up at Thatch. Like usual the plant had half its attention on what they were doing and half its attention on Katie, ready to step in if she did anything dangerous. Even knowing the physics Katie wouldn’t have dared build a high-energy reaction chamber out of rocks and makeshift magnets without knowing her teacher was close.

And… that was why they had to go. Katie didn’t want to leave. This was the best life she’d been able to find and the idea of returning to a civilisation full of rules and expectations and people was terrifying. All the same, Thatch needed to go. Thatch had a life there. Friends, probably? That would be crumbling without her. Existing here on planet Dirt obviously wasn’t sufficient to make her happy.

So Katie brought another piece of flame up to another point and continued building the basic electromechanical circuit that would hopefully let them manage a brief and controlled superluminal pulse. The chamber couldn’t possibly withstand the pressures involved in doing so, but it didn’t need to. This was one and done.

“What’re we gonna send through?” Katie glanced at the small wooden box containing their transmitter assembly. It was essentially no more complicated than a spark-gap transmitter, save for the metal funnel that would direct the resulting radio pulse into the reaction chamber. Most of the circuitry Katie was putting together was solely responsible for getting the timing just right, so that the radio would send its brief message at the same time as they poked a hole in spacetime.

“Affini emergency codes are a very simple language.” One of Thatch’s vines stretched across their camp and spent a moment rummaging around their pile of slates before selecting one and bringing it back. Had Thatch done that with touch alone? She wouldn’t have been able to see the surfaces from this angle. She held the slate where Katie could see it. “It’s designed for situations like this, where a more nuanced alphabet would be prohibitive.”

The slate’s surface looked like it had been scratched up, but every line was pointing in only one of two directions. “This means ‘no signal’.” Thatch pointed to one of the lines that made a right-facing diagonal, and then moved her finger to a left-facing diagonal and raised an eyebrow.

“So that one means signal?” Katie asked. “It’s like a tap code? Simple messages encoded in the timing between signals?”

Thatch’s smile was answer enough. Katie gladly returned it. A gentle pat on the head made Katie realise she’d subconsciously leaned in, expecting it. Apparently other affini tended to be a little touchy-feely, but Thatch was always polite enough to wait for Katie to ask, even if the question was just a subtle shift in her direction.

“We have some of those too,” Katie explained, forcing herself to get back on topic. The smile didn’t drop. “Probably not as complicated. I don’t think we’ve figured out how to do it through hyperspace very easily, though. Big, complicated transmitters. Are you sure this’ll get picked up?”

Katie knew the answer before she asked the question, of course. Thatch had said it would work and so it would work. Katie wasn’t questioning her understanding of physics, but Thatch usually responded well to requests for clarification and had only paused and told Katie she lacked the requisite grounding in theoretical physics once so far.

Her affini stretched a red vine just under the first line of symbols. “Humanity tried its best but in this area they were running headfirst into a wall and declaring it a success when someone heard the bang. In the Affini Compact, we take a more informed approach to gathering knowledge. This first set of symbols here was selected to be statistically impossible to ever occur naturally in any form of background radiation. Receivers on board every significant Affini vessel—the Elettarium among them—sit and listen for it. Do you know how far a low-power signal like this will reach, Katie?”

Katie sat back, and spent a moment counting on her fingers. “We’ll only have a few watts of power, so assuming that signal strength degrades with the cube of the distance as with signals in realspace, maybe a lightyear before it’s undetectable over Hyperbackground Radiation?”

There was that word again. ‘Hyper’. Katie had no doubt that she was wrong, but she had no idea why, and the remaining gaps in her knowledge were only getting more obvious as each was filled. Humanity had thought itself clever, but they knew nothing.

“To the fifth power, actually,” Thatch corrected. “Remember that there are a couple extra dimensions in there. Still, that’s very good, flower. Have a berry.” Thatch handed over a fingernail sized fruit they’d found on their expedition out to the alien encampment. They somehow merged an intensely sweet flavour with a chewy texture and Katie was certain that left to her own devices she would eat them into extinction. Rather than wasting time with her hands, which were busy coiling two sets of metal together, Katie opened her mouth and let Thatch drop the treat inside.

Katie needn’t have bothered optimising for efficiency. She leaned into Thatch’s hand and mumbled appreciatively while she chewed, coils forgotten. It was like an explosion of flavour in her mouth, though one that was over far too quickly. As soon as she was done Katie felt one of Thatch’s smaller vines touch beneath her chin. It wasn’t a very strong touch, but it wasn’t a very big vine. Katie lifted her gaze, knowing that Thatch liked to see the expression on her face as she got a concept.

“You are not quite correct, however. With a sufficiently accurate mathematical model, you can account for the background radiation and extract only the real signals. This gets picked up, every antenna on the ship points towards the source, and the rest gets amplified and relayed as an emergency distress call. Every ship in the galaxy will pick this up, though it will take longer the further away that they are.”

“Oh.” Katie raised her eyebrows, nodding mostly to herself, eyes set slightly to the side as she worked through the implications. She paused, narrowing her eyes at the boast. “Wait, you have a mathematical model for background radiation? Bullshit, that’s so random we use it as an entropy source for encryption keys.”

Thatch’s smile broke into a grin. The gentle touch on Katie’s chin grew firm as even the small vine proved itself more than capable of overpowering her. Katie’s head was raised another few degrees, straining against the limits of her frail skeleton just so Thatch could still see her face when she stopped slouching and started towering high above. “Why do you think we had such an easy time subverting your communications, little flower? Did you really think you could hide anything from us?”

Thatch’s hand brushed across Katie’s cheek, finally granting permission for her to whimper out a quiet word. “Flirting!!” Katie complained, and in an instant all the hardness left Thatch’s expression and Katie was left to stew in her heavy breaths.

“You still haven’t actually asked me to stop, hmn?” Thatch’s grin hadn’t left her face, it had simply switched from melting Katie’s bones to bullying her more abstractly.

Katie pointed at the slate. “Message,” she insisted, changing the subject. Thatch paused just long enough to make it clear that the subject change was a request. Why had Katie given this plant a system for structured consent? She was too gay to deal with this.

Thankfully Katie was granted a moment’s reprieve. Thatch’s vine returned to the slate, drawing attention to the second line. “This part, then, is my individual emergency code. It is not actually necessary, but it will ensure that we do not bring a whole fleet down upon us when we only need the one ship. It is likely information on our disappearance will reach Compact space before our distress signal does, and so that part will ensure that everybody knows this will be dealt with by the Elettarium, or at least delegated to a closer ship.”

Katie nodded quickly. The more engaged she appeared on the topic, the less likely Thatch would start flirting. Also, the topic was interesting, and Katie liked hearing Thatch talk. Her voice took on a different tone when she was explaining things, with a delightful lilt that Katie couldn’t help but feel in her chest.

“It still takes time to travel?” Katie asked. She knew the answer to this one, though not from the Affini perspective.

“It does. There are fundamental limits to travel in this universe that even we have yet to breach, though travel speed through hyperspace is not one of them. If you would like, I am sure you could find passage on a ship returning to the core of this galaxy, where you could see our advanced transportation systems.” Thatch put emphasis on the word ‘advanced’, leaving it up to Katie to infer the opposite. Their version of the Jump Drive made the Terran design look like cave-humans banging rocks together, and they still considered it the simple version. “The black hole at the center of this galaxy makes a wonderful anchor for longer range jumps through more than one layer of extradimensional space, but it certainly does require a lot more power than we can generate on board a ship.”

There was a pattern to these conversations that had been growing more comfortable over time. A constant back and forth between equals. Hardly intellectual equals, but Thatch treated Katie as if she were smart enough to understand and simply hadn’t had the opportunity to learn and to Katie’s surprise she had so far been broadly correct about that. Katie had huge gaps in her fundamental knowledge, partially because Terran education was more interested in producing obedient workers than scientists, and partially because the Affini had fifty thousand years of fundamental research backing their discoveries and it was hard to cover all of that in the middle of a forest.

Peppered within that back and forth, however, were moments like this. They were traps. Give one answer and the conversation would continue as it had been. Give another and Thatch came alive with a very different kind of excitement. Katie was getting better at recognising them, and recognising which kind of answer would get which response.

She went with her natural reaction, which was to lean forward with a surprised expression. “Oh! You couldn’t get between galaxies very easily with a Jump Drive, of course, but… your ships aren’t even the biggest things you have?”

A slight shift of Thatch’s grin, a glint in her eye, and the sound of a vine rushing through the air followed. Katie raised a hand to block the vine but by this point she knew that it was just a game, and not one she had to worry about winning. The vine wrapped around her wrist and gently pulled it down, while Thatch placed a hand on her head and pulled her in to rest her head against the plant’s lovingly rendered knee. A finger against her lips prevented Katie from speaking.

“We have ships a hundred times the size of the Elettarium, and stations a hundred times the size of that, and a gate in the middle of your cute little galaxy that could bring forth millions of them more than Terra had ever played among the stars.” Thatch’s hand brushed through Katie’s hair and another beneath her chin.

They were working the Terran out of her, Katie suspected. She still had this deep-seated belief that in a fair fight humanity could have won out. It was hard to stop believing propaganda you’d been exposed to since birth.

“For every ship Terra’s precious navy destroyed, there could be a hundred more to replace it within days. Do you know how many Affini ships we lost bringing those cuties to heel?”

Katie shook her head quickly as Thatch’s false fingernails gently scratched her scalp. She was pretty sure her affini hadn’t had them so well defined before, but now it felt like tiny points of iron sharpness moving carefully over her skin.

Thatch leaned in so she was close enough to whisper. “One. Our happy, helpless humans never stood a cha—”

Both of them froze as the snapping of a twig caught their attentions. Katie was so close that she could feel the air rushing past as Thatch burst into motion, unravelling herself so she could turn faster. She easily took up thrice the space she usually did, standing between Katie and something else with uncountable vines spearing out from underneath her plantlife cape. Some spiked into the ground, others wrapped around the trees, but a majority hung in the air, menacing, all curling inwards towards something Katie couldn’t see.

“Stay behind me,” Thatch warned. The playfulness was gone from her voice. It took Katie a second to realise she hadn’t even considered doing otherwise. “Shout if you see anything. There may be more.”

Katie dared to peek between Thatch’s legs. It was the alien machine. Had it… followed them? Katie felt a deep chill running down her spine. If there was one of them there could be more. Just one had managed to hurt Thatch, even if only a little, and had weaponry that could shoot right through her protector’s bubble of safety. Katie wasn’t sure they were going to be oka—

Thatch’s vines moved in. Several wrapped around what looked like the weapons. Half a dozen of the smaller ones wormed their way into each of the tracks it used to move, popping the treads out of their housing with ease. Thatch rose into the air, lifting the machine with her like it was nothing while powerful strikes put plantlife through metal and began to tear off the machine’s outer shell one plate at a time. She tore the weapons systems free and held them away, pointing into the sky where they could do no harm.

Katie watched in awe. Why had Thatch not done this before? This wasn’t a creature that needed to take a railgun shell to the chest, and last time it had been them who’d had the element of surprise. The only thing that seemed to make sense was that here Katie had been in legitimate danger.

Now she wasn’t. Katie looked up at her protector with a new understanding. In a fair fight maybe Terra would have had a chance against these things but there was no such thing as a fair fight here. Thatch held back. Her every move was considered and careful, calculated to curtail the consequences. Sustainable, ethical, and precise.

Two of Thatch’s thickest vines wrapped around the naked shell of the machine and prepared to squeeze.


It chirped in a harsh electronic recording of Katie’s own voice. The playback seemed to waver, though Katie couldn’t be sure it hadn’t been in the source. When had that been recorded? Back at the alien encampment?

All movement stopped. The world itself seemed to fall silent, as if even the wind were too afraid of Thatch’s wrath to approach. Even the river seemed to grow still, as if the forces of nature surrounding them knew better than to interrupt Thatch driven to violence.

All movement save Katie’s. The only thing on the surface of planet Dirt that knew without doubt that Thatch would never hurt it. She struggled to her feet and then held out a hand to receive a vine. She climbed up one presented vine at a time until she reached her guardian’s shoulder, where she could sit and look at the intruder.

“Did you talk?” Katie asked, seemingly the only force left with agency while Thatch held all the rest on pause.

The lights on the machine blinked rapidly and a gentle whirring rose within it. After a few seconds, the machine chirped again. “Talk?” Again, a buzzing, sibilant rendition of Katie’s own voice piped back at her.

“Yes, talk. That’s what we call these sounds we’re making right now, to communicate.” Katie wondered if she was being ridiculous. Surely this wasn’t talking to her. Katie could see exposed circuitry. Katie could see thick connectors wrapped in plantlife, already pulled so taut that Katie had no doubt this machine could be permanently disabled in the blink of an eye if Thatch decided. It couldn’t be alive.

“Yes, — we — communicate. — talk — to — you.” Each word taken from a different sentence, with no attempt made to blend them together. The playback was halting, but the pauses between words weren’t quite uniform.

Thatch spoke. Her voice was hard. “Are you here to do us any harm? Yes or no.”

“no.” The voice taken was Thatch’s this time, though whatever speaker assembly the machine was using to reproduce it utterly failed to recreate the way Thatch’s words usually settled comfortably around Katie’s chest. It was weird to hear it and not feel warm afterwards.

“Are there any other of you here?” Thatch’s voice had lost its hard edge, and she was already pulling back her smaller vines, disentangling them from wires and carefully sliding them out from under circuit boards. She had been poised to tear this thing in half and not doing so appeared to take some concentration.

“here? — Yes,” it spoke, one word in each of their voices. “here? — you — no. — communicate. — no.” As the vines around it relaxed, the words became paired with slight rotation in its main body, like it was trying to emulate body language.

Katie frowned. What did that mean? She rested a hand on Thatch’s head to silence her and cleared her throat. “I. It. For. Not. On. That. Have. She. He. And. A. The. To. Of. Be—” She continued, speaking for a few tens of seconds until she was pretty sure she’d covered most of the basics. The machine seemed to understand what they were saying, at least to a point, but apparently lacked the ability to produce the sounds itself. Maybe a better library of recordings would help.

“Are there any others here?” Katie asked again, hoping the extra vocabulary would help.

The machine’s whirring grew louder for a few moments, lights flickering. Soon after, it began to speak. “Yes, — At. Home. — Not. At. Here. Here. — I. Friend. — Them. Not. Friend.”

Katie and her friend shared a look. “This is the one that shot you, right?” Katie whispered, leaning closer to Thatch’s ear.

Thatch pointed out several dents on the now-removed outer armour that she herself had left just a few days prior. “I assume so, but if this… machine is sapient, then I can not do it further harm. I may have acted far too rashly and allowed my own assumptions to guide me into a mistake.”

Katie looked back towards the machine. “Are you damaged?”

It seemed almost a stupid question. It looked like a wreck, with sparking connectors where the weapons had once been and a casing covered in dents. The armour was a lost cause.

That didn’t seem to have done much to prevent the machine from speaking, nor from emitting soft whirrs and buzzes at it ‘thought’. “Yes. Not. Bad. — I. Okay. — I. Alive. — I. Not. Damaged. Bad. — You. Friend.”

Thatch nodded, sagging slightly as she carefully lowered them back down to the ground. It wasn’t immediately obvious how to put the treads back on, so Thatch set it down on the bottom of its casing, muttering an apology. She knelt by its side and started investigating how the mechanism worked.

While Thatch was busy, Katie, now level with the green lights on what had used to be the front, investigated the machine. The circuitry was the same kind of stuff as what had been in their box, though not broken and ruined. Vacuum tubes, thick lines of something that looked like copper or brass, but also components that looked wholly unfamiliar.

“Do you have a name?” Katie asked.

The whirring grew louder still for a moment, before calming down. Its cylindrical main body seemed to be able to rotate independently of the track housing, and it made full use of that to shift from side to side while answering. “Yes. — I. No. Speak. It. — Please. Speak. It.”

Katie paused. Its green lights twinkled slightly when it spoke so Katie would treat them as eyes, even though the array of little dishes and diodes at the very top of the casing was probably what it really saw with. “Maybe let’s spell it? Do you know how to spell these words?”

Katie quickly ran through the Terran alphabet.

“I. No. Spell. — Language. Not. Yours.” The words came more slowly, as it were needing to think about them. It wasn’t using english internally, then, which… Katie probably shouldn’t be surprised at. The Affini had spoiled her in that respect, why would any other species out here speak something even vaguely recognisable as language? After a few more moments, it spoke again. “Speak. Like. C. C.”

“Cici?” Katie asked. The lights on the front of the machine blinked rapidly, and whatever traction it could produce without tracks had the entire machine gently wiggling in place. “Cici! Cici. Cici,” Katie quickly repeated, with different tones of voice, to increasing agitation from the machine.

“Cici! — My. Name. Is. Cici.” Thatch placed a hand against the chassis, two fingers curling against a vacuum tube, and the machine fell still and silent. Katie blushed. Was that just a power that Thatch had regardless of which species she was dealing with? A sharp shove from half a dozen vines had the tracks back in place.

“Oh. — Thank. You.” The machine slowly turned on the spot. The tracks didn’t seem to hitch or fail.

They stepped back. Katie kept a tight grip on Thatch’s head to keep her seating. At her full height Thatch stood maybe fifteen or sixteen feet straight up and even sitting Katie added another few feet on top of that. She looked down on Cici from far above as it brought its collection of little dishes to point towards them. They slowly tilted them up, maybe taking in the pair in close-up detail for the first time.

Katie laughed. The tilting had paused when one dish tapped against the top of its casing and yet hadn’t quite reached Thatch’s head level. Katie could relate. Even meters apart, she had to look up sixty or seventy degrees to watch the affini’s face. “Let’s take a few steps back,” she suggested, “let Cici get a good look.”

They stepped back until the sensor array could take them in. Cici’s tracks buzzed for a moment, vibrating in place, before it took off in a wide circle around them, keeping the dishes pointed in their direction as it did full loop.

“Is this normal?” Katie asked, leaning closer so she could speak more quietly, though she had no idea how sensitive the machine’s ability to hear actually was.

Thatch shrugged. “This is my first first contact as well. I believe it fits into the standard model, however.”

“You have a standard model for first contacts?” Katie asked. She could still feel the adrenaline from earlier in her veins, and while she didn’t know if Thatch had the same responses, a little bit of normalcy would surely be appreciated.

Thatch raised a hand to scratch beneath Katie’s chin, while a soft vine pushed her out of her seat and into an awaiting arm, where she could be held against Thatch’s chest. Katie rolled her eyes. Of course Thatch would have no idea how to flirt with Katie higher than her, given how much of it seemed to involve asserting her own superior height.

“Of course we do.” Thatch grinned, forcing Katie to look up at her with a firm finger. She paused for a moment while Cici finished its loop and then a vine shot out to it too, tilting the sensor assembly up to face her. Cici emitted a sharp whirr, but fell silent a moment later.

“A quick lesson, cuties. You don’t need to take notes. My name is Thatch Aquae, Second Bloom, and I am Affini. Your suffering is over. You will be kept safe, happy, and satisfied for the rest of your lives. We watch over sophonts beyond counting. We know, because we have counted. We have made first contact more times than even I am sure of, and neither of you are outliers.”

Thatch went down to one knee to bring herself right down to Cici’s chassis and spoke directly to it in somewhat of a stage whisper. “You are safe. I will not harm you. I will do nothing you do not wish. Speak ‘Red’ to stop me. ‘Yellow’ and I shall pause. ‘Green’ to confirm all is well. My darling flower here taught me those.”

Cici’s status lights continued to glow a gentle green.

The affini rose back to her full height, keeping the attention of both other sapients fixed on her. She spoke with the same wonderful cadence she always did when she was explaining something that she wanted to stick. Weirdly, while Katie had always struggled to remember details, the way Thatch taught seemed to get words jammed into her brain.

“Fight; flight; freeze; and fawn. The four usual reactions a civilisation has to overwhelming kindness. Yours, Katie, chose fight and flight. Distrustful and filled with pride, they struggled the whole way, until we had them. Cici here started with fawn, but am I wrong in thinking it now chooses to freeze?”

Katie whimpered, a tiny “ah,” of surrender. A beat later, Cici repeated the noise from its own speakers.

“Thatch, you’re flirting,” Katie hissed, hoping she could speak quietly enough to not be overheard. “You’ll scare it!”

Her utter dork of a friend chuckled. “Cici deserves a good first impression, I think, if I am to make up for my earlier errors. It would not do to give the impression that the Affini are violent.”

The machine ground its tracks against the dirt. Thatch frowned and quickly tucked a trio of vines underneath to lift it. The tracks span freely. “Please do not do damage to this place, Cici. You are a welcome guest but we will teach you how to peacefully coexist with the universe.”

The machine halted. Even the green status lights flickered out for a moment, briefly shining a dull pink before daring to shine green again. “Please,” it spoke. “I. Peacefully. Friend. Yes. Please. — Green. — No. Damage.”

Thatch placed it back down against the ground and retracted her vine so that it could choose where to look. It pointed at Katie. “Thatch. Affini. — You. Not. — Are. You. safe, happy, and satisfied for the rest of your — Life.”

Katie flushed again, hearing Thatch’s voice piped back at her. Even Thatch seemed a little taken aback by her own tone of voice, as if she hadn’t realised how different she sounded when she was flirting.

“I, uh…” Katie wasn’t really sure how to answer that. Was she?

Safe? It was hard to avoid noticing how quickly Thatch had rendered what had once been a threat harmless. Had it even been five seconds between them noticing Cici and it being entirely neutralised?

Happy? How would Katie know? She didn’t really have anything to compare it against. She was certainly happier than she’d ever been. It was hard to pretend that it wasn’t Thatch’s doing.

Satisfied? If Katie could spend the rest of her life here as a student, learning cosmic physics with a minor in Thatch herself, then that was more than she’d ever had before.

“I… yeah. I don’t know if I’m exactly what she means, but I believe her when she says it, I think,” Katie said, looking more at Thatch than Cici. Her eyes skipped across the creature’s face, analysing the soft smile, but she needn’t. She knew exactly how Thatch was feeling, and the brief rush of pride was mirrored in her own emotional state.

Thatch brushed her knuckles down Katie’s cheek and the girl leaned in, closing her eyes.

“Katie is one of our independent wards,” Thatch explained, gently stroking her Katie while speaking past her. “In control of her own destiny and, once we rejoin with the rest of my people, she will be given almost anything she might wish to ask for, with few constraints placed.”

Thatch wandered back over to their half-constructed beacon assembly, sitting down with a thud. “I can not say for sure that the same offer will be extended to you, as we will need to know far more about your tendencies and desires. I can promise you will be happy, though if you cannot be safe and content under your own guidance you will have a caretaker assigned to you. I assume. I am not sure what the protocol for artificial intelligences is, but no matter the approach our guarantee of safety and happiness does not fundamentally change.”

Cici moved closer at a fraction of its top speed. The treads still left some marks on the ground, but much less than if it wasn’t careful about it.

It moved forward to within a couple inches of Thatch’s leg, came to a full stop, and then slowly rolled those last two inches. “You. Alien. — I. Cici. — I. Independent. — I. Want. Happy. — Safety. — Alien. Talk. — Friend. — Please.”

It tilted its sensors towards the beacon assembly and spent a moment grumbling and beeping. “I. Help. Please. — rejoin Affini. — Alien. Home.”

Katie rested her cheek against Thatch’s chest, keeping her eyes closed while the plant’s hand danced through her hair. This was really happening. The gentle balance they’d been building was starting to topple over because they were so close to achieving their goal that it couldn’t not. Despite the comforting feeling of an alien touch, Katie felt a new kind of weight settling in her stomach. For the first time in her life she was safe, happy, and satisfied, and it was hard to believe she’d be able to find anything as good as this once they left.

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