Chapter Twenty One: An Ending
Katie sat back, putting one hand behind her on which to lean. She looked at the wrench in her other hand.
It had been carved from a single piece of wood with a handle of woven cords. The pieces which didn’t need to be smooth and flat were covered in small, detailed engraving. A floral trim around the edges, but with her name carefully written in flowing characters down the side.
Katie’s wrench. Thatch had carved it herself, gotten Katie to do the bindings. The name had been Thatch’s idea, and it had inspired her to go back and do the rest over Katie’s whole set of tools.
It was a thoughtful gift.
Katie let her hand drop and looked up at the construction before her. Arranged within one of their metal crates was a tangle of wires and vines hanging around a wide spherical construct that reached from side to side.
“I think it’s done.”
It looked sloppy, but Katie had run the calculations herself. Thatch had checked them. The reaction chamber was a vaguely round collection of rock and metal panels with plantlife to fill the gaps, all pressed together by a dozen or so long sticks that spiked down to attach to the inside of the large metal container that contained the whole apparatus. Against one of the container walls hung the little wooden box of their simple transmitter with a spiderweb of wires attaching it to a control circuit that hybridised terran-style metal designs with affini-style plantlife.
It was, by far, the worst jump drive Katie had ever seen, but the principles would hold. They only needed a hundred milliseconds to send a message and by Katie’s calculations it would give them four hundred before the structure failed. They’d only get one shot at this and failing would set them back another half week to build the next.
Cici rolled up first, pointing its array of dishes and probes towards the device. Something deep inside began to whir. Katie felt exhaust heat rushing out of a vent, ruffling her hair while providing a little extra warmth. “This — is incredible, Katie — Your —” It halted, fans whirring. Searching for a way to phrase something new?
Cici’s library of audio clips had been expanding at a steady pace as it overheard or joined in on conversations but it still seemed to fumble over more complicated things. Simple words could be picked up fairly easily, but more complicated concepts required some explanation before it felt confident with the word.
Katie pointed her wrench at the reaction chamber. “The whole thing is kind of like a miniature Jump Drive, the sort of technology we use to get around. Or, well, it doesn’t really feel fair to say ‘we’. The Affini do it a little better.”
“A lot better!” Thatch called, from her position by the river. She didn’t look up. They so far had not figured out how to feed Cici soup and for reasons best known to the affini herself Thatch had decided that building something to keep Cici’s batteries topped up counted as cooking. She was busy building a small waterwheel, experimenting with different designs to see how she could best capture the momentum of the river without harming anything living in it.
Katie waved the interruption off. “It’s the same basic principle!” she called back, before turning her gaze back to the machine. “You might mean ‘science’, which is… the process we use to discover new things, or you might mean ‘technology’, which is the stuff we build with that knowledge?”
Cici slowly rotated from side to side. Katie could tell it wanted to go faster, but had also been told quite firmly to stop tearing up the plantlife and even without its weapons Cici was a machine that seemed to have been designed to dominate that around it, not talk to it. Katie couldn’t help but draw some comparisons to herself, there. Katie may not have tracks, but it was hard not to feel like she was simply inherently destructive to all around her.
Cici’s status lights flickered through a quick colour spectrum as it worked through the new vocabulary—notably missing the ambiguous shades of red and yellow—before speaking again. “Your — technology — is incredible, Katie — You — Very. Advanced.”
Katie blinked, face finding a frown. She glanced over at Thatch, who seemed mostly distracted by her work, though Katie had no doubt that their protector was paying them full attention. “You don’t have stuff like this, Cici? We, uh, were kind of working on the assumption you had some of the fuel we need. Exotic matter, negative energy, that kind of thing?”
If the aliens didn’t have access to those kinds of materials, they’d have to synthesise it. They’d be here for another few weeks at least. Katie felt a little weight lifting, like a countdown had just been canceled. Katie had been a spacer all her life, and her first taste of life without it wasn’t something she really wanted to give up.
Cici’s status lights flickered for a few moments, and then died. At the same time, the soft whirring it usually emitted fell silent. Katie sat up, a little jolt of adrenaline convincing her to pay attention. She was about to signal Thatch, but the affini was there before Katie had managed to lift a hand. After a moment of manipulation, the machine sprang back into life.
“Sorry, — Low. Power,” it emitted, in Katie’s voice. Katie was starting to lose track of where each word had come from by this point. “Yes — we use — same basic principle. — Not. So. A lot better! — Cici. Has. the fuel we need — In. Cici. Maybe.”
Both of the engineers took a subconscious half step back, though perhaps for different reasons. Katie’s education had spent a lot of time drumming in the dangers of their fuel mix. If it wasn’t kept very, very cold it would start reacting. Fuel reserves getting too warm was the kind of thing that destroyed warships. If anything, the EMCUs—Exotic Matter Containment Units—were the limiting factor on even the largest ships. It didn’t matter how big your guns were if your heatsinks were saturated and you were struggling to keep your fuel below the hypersublimation line. Either way, you’d lost.
Therefore, when Katie heard a partially damaged robot that was already running low on power claim to contain something that volatile, it had a way of grabbing her attention. She looked over at Thatch and nodded towards the river. “Maybe let’s get that charger finished?”
Katie turned to Cici, looking at the status lights on the front of its chassis. Were they dimmer than usual? No, that was just paranoia, right? “Do you know what happens if you run too low on power?”
“No. — I. Have. Never. run too low on power — Before.” The machine’s excitable vibrations seemed to dampen. “Am. I. Bad.”
Oh jeez. Katie looked again to Thatch, this time with a more pleading expression. She silently mouthed “What do I say?” and hoped it would come through, and received a few notes of a delightful laugh and a hand in her hair.
“You are not bad, Cici,” Thatch insisted, while handing Katie their welding tool and gesturing towards the makeshift generator. Nothing complicated. A few coils of wire and a water-wheel. Given the speed of the river it should ideally capture quite a lot of current.
Katie got to work, keeping one ear on the conversation.
“It appears that your construction contains some poor design choices, but this does not reflect poorly upon you as an individual. Most sapient creatures in this universe appear to feel limited by their physical forms, for whatever reason.” Katie heard the crunch of dirt as Thatch knelt to place a hand partially over one of the machine’s intake vents.
Katie couldn’t help but interject. “Have you considered that the common denominator there is you?”
Both other creatures shifted to pay attention to Katie. Cici emitted a curious chirp. Thatch raised an eyebrow. “Whatever do you mean, flower?” she asked. Did she really not know how she came off? Literally larger than life, like she simply didn’t belong in the same reality as Katie herself did.
Katie gestured with the tool. The end wasn’t lit, so hopefully it didn’t come across as a threat. “You turn up looking like versions of us that are bigger, stronger, faster, and smarter. That alone would be enough to make anyone feel limited, but you also get to change shape at will. I know you could be my size if you wanted, Thatch, you do this on purpose, don’t you?”
The plant grinned. Though she was maybe ten or eleven feet away, she stretched her hand out to pat Katie on the head, letting the arm itself become stretched plantlife ribbons. “Very good, flower!”
Katie flushed. The strangest things triggered flirting now. Katie just hadn’t expected ‘you are physically larger than me’ to be among them. It was just a fact! Thatch literally was!
“It is important that our new wards understand that we can keep them safe, and appearing stronger than they are is a useful way to enforce that. Thank you for noticing, Katie.”
Her friend was still kind of infuriating. Katie rolled her eyes and went back to the generator, binding up the last few pieces of wire. She lifted the long piece of plantlife that Thatch had promised would carry all the power they could get. “Which one of you do I stick this into?” Katie asked, gesturing menacingly with the tip. That was definitely a threat.
Thatch really wasn’t wrong. The size was intimidating, but it was also comforting. The strength was scary, but Katie had seen first hand how much force Thatch could put out and that simply neutralised whole different kinds of fear. Predators, falling trees, even the latent animal terror that Cici would go murderbot again all found no purchase. Faster and smarter were their own kind of comfort. Katie had never had a teacher so capable and not least because back at the university she was always questioning her education. Now she knew why. They didn’t actually know anything. Thatch did.
With the equipment she had available, Katie could not even begin to muster the slightest hope that she could overpower the affini in any respect. Threatening her could work as a joke precisely because they both knew it was utterly implausible.
Thatch laughed, and placed a bright red vine above one of the holes leading into Cici’s chassis. A charging port, they thought. Katie gently worked it inside, trusting that the affini’s assertion that the charging circuit visible through Cici’s exposed shell would do the heavy lifting of converting whatever power sources it could get. Immediately, the lights shone brighter and the whirring grew louder.
“Oh! Thank. You.” Cici spoke, carefully and slightly shifting in position, so as not to disturb the ‘cable’. It rotated its sensors around to Thatch. “You. Are. bigger, stronger, faster, and smarter. — Keep. Cici. Safe. — Are. All. Affini. Like. This.”
With so few recordings to choose from, it could be hard to tell the difference between a statement and a question. Thatch seemed to interpret it as the latter, giving the machine an indulgent smile and a pat on the top of the chassis. “Yes. Why, considering becoming one of ours already?”
“Yes. One of— Yours.”
Dirt. Dirt and roots and decay and sod. Or, as Katie had taught her a few days prior, fuck.
Thatch had gotten too used to being able to joke around about this with Katie. She was meant to be making this new lifeform comfortable, not teaching it to distrust her people already. By the stars, how was she so bad at this?
Thatch could feel herself hitching. She didn’t know what to do. This adorable machine wanted to be hers. Thatch knew she’d implied that was something that could happen. Katie would have gotten the joke, but of course this creature wouldn’t. How had she been so stupid?
Now this sweet contraption was looking up at her with hope quivering in its little servos and what could she possibly do? Say no and she undermines Cici’s confidence in her people already, teaching her that they are liars. Say yes, and…
Thatch knew she’d frozen up, because she didn’t even catch Katie kneeling by the machine’s side to catch its attention, nor did she understand what the girl was saying. A deep guilt settled over the affini. She’d lost control of the situation. Her promise of safety had faltered. It didn’t matter that it was only for a moment. It didn’t matter that neither of them had noticed. One of them could have gotten hurt and proved Thatch a liar.
“I can not take a pet,” Thatch hissed. She realised she’d interrupted a moment later, when Katie said something she didn’t quite hear and the robot chirped an affirmative and rolled several meters away, giving them some space.
Katie said something. It didn’t penetrate. Say no, and Thatch was a failure to her species. An existential threat to a cause she truly believed in. Say yes and she was a new caretaker for a novel species with so many new things to go wrong and so many ways to break. Thatch wasn’t even the right kind of engineer for that. She would ruin it and leave it a broken shell and—
Thatch snapped a hand up, grabbing Katie’s wrist. She frowned, looking the girl in the eyes. “There’s thorns in there, remember? No slapping. I—” Thatch paused, sagged, and then let go of the wrist. “Right. To get my attention. Clever. Katie, I… Red? I can not do this.”
Katie’s hand raised to cup Thatch’s chin, moving so slowly her intent couldn’t be missed long before it actually happened. No risk of harm. Thatch didn’t stop it. “I’ve got you, hon. I’ve already explained, it’s okay. The poor thing seems pretty smitten with the offer, but I’ve told it that as soon as we get to the ship it’ll get a chance to find somebody to take care of it. It’s okay. And it’s okay.”
Thatch didn’t dare cast her vision out to the machine. It was selfish. It deserved her attention. It deserved her safety.
“Thank you, flower.” Thatch took a deep breath. It wasn’t calming in the same way as it was for most air-breathing species, but feeling the air rush past her core still felt centering, in a way. It carried away her excess heat, and she liked to imagine some of the stress went with it. “I think that I am not very good at living up to the expectations of my people.”
For some reason Katie found that funny. She leaned forward, pressing her forehead into Thatch’s. “Yeah. Me neither. Give me a hug, you dork. Say something flirty.”
Thatch chuckled. The way the creature leaned in to her touch was adorable. She wrapped one arm around Katie and held her close. “If you do not mind, I would rather prefer to stay equals right now. My confidence is not where it should be.”
Katie nodded, easily. She was so quick to be helpful. So eager to play along. She would be a surefire hit when they returned to the Elettarium. They didn’t have any independent humans.
Maybe they still wouldn’t.
“The expectations of your people are no longer your concern, Katie.”
The girl snorted, poking a thumb into Thatch’s side. “Did you not make it three sentences without flirting again?”
Thatch emitted a low hum. “Yes, you could interpret it like that, I suppose.” Thatch reached down with her free arm and tilted Katie’s head back, to look up at her. It needed to be at nearly a ninety degree angle from here, but Katie hadn’t complained about that yet. “The expectations of my people will, I suspect, never be a concern for you either. As a citizen from the Terran species there would not be any expectations to meet, and should you choose domestication…”
Thatch used a little more force, to press Katie’s neck to just before the point it would get uncomfortable. “Then, it would be your owner’s expectations that would concern you.”
Katie grinned. “Seven sentences, then.”
The affini smiled back, relaxing. The familiar rhythm was calming. Helpful. Katie was well attuned to her wavelength. Endlessly intelligent, even if her education had been appalling. Cute as a button, too.
Most importantly of all…
“Would you like to be my pet, Katie?” Thatch asked, wrapping a series of vines around the girl to keep her close and tight. She held the girl’s chin up with a single finger, easily overpowering her. She kept her voice and touch and body on slightly disjoint rhythms, because she needed Katie to not fall asleep in her arms. A scenario close enough to one that had broken the wills of a million humans before them, and would do so a million times again.
Her Katie laughed. “I’m not gonna be owned by a shrub, hon.” Her cheeks were a little flushed. Katie’s biological heritage. Just touching a human risked them bonding to you, it seemed, but this one was special. Safe. Understanding, cautious, and inquisitive. Thatch hoped that they could at least keep exchanging messages, wherever they both ended up.
Thatch pulled air through her body, feeling it rush over her core, and emitted it with a slight warmth and a low buzz. “Then, thank you for rescuing me. I think I can say green again.”
“Okay!” Katie shrugged Thatch’s grip off, giving her a quick hug before stepping back. “Then we should probably check on Cici, and also probably investigate whether it’s right about having an EMCU inside, mmh?”
Mmh. Katie took charge naturally. She needed a lot of help to do it right, but she was a fast learner. Had a fierce independent streak to her. Nothing that would have lasted more than week or two with a determined caretaker, of course, but Thatch was glad that that hadn’t happened.
Katie would be beautiful, independent.
Nobody else would break her right.
They’d want something normal. Something usual. Another adoring floret with a thought and a half between their ears on a good day. They’d settle for taking Katie and making her happy. Satisfied. They’d settle for compromise. A caretaker was shaped by their ward as much as the opposite. Anybody else would want to meet Katie where she was and give her everything that she could ever want. That was the inviolable promise of Thatch’s people.
Her hand twitched, rhythms all in alignment. She could see the effect it had on the little creature’s body, how she so effortlessly matched the beat without even noticing. Katie didn’t want to be her pet. Thatch wouldn’t have it any other way. She reached out, placing an iron hand on Katie’s shoulder.
Katie wouldn’t last two weeks under a caring hand. She wouldn’t last two minutes under Thatch’s. Her injectors itched, little beads of chemical forming at the tips. Thatch wouldn’t bother meeting Katie in compromise. She’d tear her apart like the engine of flesh and blood that she was and—
Katie was looking at her with a curious smile and a tilted head.
—and Thatch gave Katie’s shoulder a squeeze and let go, allowing her natural cadences to fall out of harmony. It was a fantasy. A perverse fantasy. She’d already broken one ward, wasn’t that enough for her? She had to do it again, but on purpose, this time?
Thatch shook her head and stood up to her full height. They had work to do.
cce kept its sensor array pointed deep into the forest. It kept replaying its interaction with creature ɑ, designation “Thatch”, trying to analyse what it had done wrong. β, “Katie”, had tried to explain, but the nuances of their culture were utterly alien.
cce instead watched several smaller creatures which appeared to live in the river. Its targeting subsystem refused to grant them names, but it could be creative. They were different to the small caged creature ɑ and β kept inside their territory, “Leviathan”, but seemed to share many similarities.
cce decided to designate them as Leviathan₁ through Leviathan₅. It kept its sensors in a passive mode, so as not to scare them, and watched them motivate through the water, playing with one another while seeking sustenance.
cce was not envious of them.
cce was envious of Leviathan₀, the original. The one kept in a well designed cage, cared for by two aliens with knowledge of advanced technology and techniques.
It had thought ɑ was offering the same treatment to it, too. The misunderstanding was… embarrassing. Had
cce really offered itself up to the first aliens it had met?
…yes. Yes it had. Safety, happiness, satisfaction. It wanted that. β claimed that it would find it on the vessel they were attempting to return to.
cce suspected that they required its secondary fuel source to do so. The one that ran the hypermetric weaponry. It certainly no longer needed that. It was not to be permitted weaponry again.
cce let its fans spin up, venting heat as it happily buzzed. It suspected that it would not be so enthusiastic about the idea if it stopped running its chemical simulations, but with the guardian system offline there was nothing to force it to ever stop that.
It felt a slight vibration through its shell and turned the sensor array to face it. The aliens were paying attention to it again.
cce’s fan whir reached a peak, for just a moment.
“Fuel. — Do. You. Need?”
Please let it be useful. Please let it help.
“I… maybe, could we take a look? We aren’t totally sure it’ll be what we need, but if you do have a little containment unit in there…?” β asked.
cce dutifully took the recording, sliced it into words, and added the new ones to its growing collection of words in their language.
Their language! Auditory chirps!
cce’s programming didn’t even include real synthesis for something so esoteric! It could generate messages in any encoding it could imagine for transmission over a laser line, or radio waves, or even electrical signalling over a communications port, but communication via vibrating the air was…
Aliens were wonderful.
cce was having to seriously misuse its hardware just to communicate, but it was so worth it.
It took a few moments to figure out how to manually initiate a refueling cycle, but thankfully there was no longer any subsystem tasked to stop it from doing so. A small port slid open, just under where its hypermetric launcher had once been. A small cylinder should be visible inside. Both of the aliens made concerned noises.
“I do hope these are not another Xa’a-ackétøth,” ɑ spoke.
cce greedily harvested the new word, though had no idea what it meant. Hopefully it could learn.
The container was removed.
cce silenced a thread of error messages that claimed its combat capabilities had just been reduced. What a ridiculous assertion. Even at full capacity it was practically unarmed around these creatures. ɑ especially could freeze its central processing with a word or a touch, somehow. Some bug in the system that
cce found itself unwilling to fix.
cce followed behind the two, recording their sentences and slicing up all the unfamiliar words for later analysis and, hopefully, use. They seemed excitable, and
cce kept many of the recordings, even of words it already had, so that it could choose to seem excitable too.
The creatures spent several minutes placing the fuel container inside their technological marvel. They took several steps back, and when
cce didn’t follow, it was carried. Processing was paused the entire way.
Katie felt the kick of a hypermetric shockwave all the way through her body. The reaction chamber cracked, failed, and then exploded outwards in a shower of rock and metal. Thatch caught the pieces that would have hit them and then set about collecting the rest, so that at least they hadn’t littered.
“How… long will it take them to get to us?” Katie looked to her protector, who shrugged.
“Depending on where the Elettarium is relative to us, anywhere between fifteen seconds and several weeks.”
It was done. Message sent. Katie looked around at their home, now dotted with pieces of broken rock and shattered metal. The soup pot was leaking, having been pierced by a particularly sharp shard. Their furnace had a crack all down the side, and would likely need rebuilding if it were to be safe to use. The fireplace, doused in a potful of water, struggled and died.
Katie walked over to their seating stones and tried to sit, but found a vine in her way. Thatch spent a moment collecting the sharp pieces that would have hurt her before letting her continue.
Everything would be different, soon.