44. Understanding

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 Forty Four: Understanding

“With all due respect, Miss Incertae, the reactor core of a Terran-era Rinan spacecraft can not ‘phase through’ the hull,” Katie insisted. She jabbed a finger towards the simulated dirt in the room’s centre, on which the four gathered individuals were collaboratively drawing a diagram.

The entire room rolled its metaphorical eyes, light strips shining in a quick bottom-to-top sequence. “What other explanation do you have for the sudden power spike just before the burn? Even if your locked gimbal theory holds, we still need a cause.”

“I don’t have an explanation for that at this time, but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong!” Katie insisted. “This era of Rinan design influenced damn near every Terran ship built for the next eighty years because they weren’t restricted by patents or non-replication agreements, and I’m telling you, these reactor designs are clean fusion. Even the cheaper Terran reproductions still at least did fission. I’ve been flying on those things for a decade, I know what I’m talking about.”

“And I have been, as you so politely put it, ‘one of these things’ for almost five hundred of your fleeting years. The technical specifications of our rocket permit a phase shift event, if barely. It lacks the hardware to intentionally induce one, but by that same token it lacks the hardware to prevent a natural occurrence.”

Katie bit her lip, looking back down at her cards. She read across the clues, though of course she knew them all intimately by now. This was a game and while in principle it did not have to be entirely realistic the way it had been played over the past several centuries was apparently with a set of pre-made scenarios matching actual historical crashes. Katie had been taught enough high-energy physics to know she didn’t understand the mechanics Miss Incartae was suggesting here, but it still didn’t feel right to her.

The ship was telling Katie that things were a certain way, and all she had to go on to disagree was a feeling in her gut. That wasn’t enough to disagree with somebody who had been an expert for hundreds of human generations. Katie glanced up, squirming in place until she was staring directly upwards at Thatch Aquae’s amused face. “Miss, am I right about this?”

Thatch raised an eyebrow and curled a length of Katie’s hair around one of her fingers. “Do you think that I know everything, katieflo—”

“Yes,” Katie interjected. “You literally do and you can’t prove otherwise.”

A vine came in from the side to ruffle Katie’s hair. It was obviously a feint. Katie ignored it, choosing instead to duck out of the way of the second vine coming at her from behind, as if she wasn’t wise to Thatch’s games by now. Unfortunately, dodging it left her open to the first vine again, and so her hair was left ruffled regardless. “You lack the knowledge to estimate the edges of my expertise, but you are learning quickly. Perhaps soon you will learn I am, in fact, ignorant of most things beyond my specialties.” Katie wrinkled her nose and shook her head, drawing out a laugh and another ruffle. “In this case I suspect both positions are, in actuality, correct. As Ined well knows and you now have the opportunity to learn, the chances of a phase shift rise as a function of the density of the fusion reaction in a trifolium pattern. The listed specifications of this class of vessel would make that a possibility that needs consideration, albeit an extreme edge case.”

Thatch reached out a vine and struck Miss Incertae’s suggestion from the list of possibilities. “However, we all know what they say about Terran engineering: what manner of machine consumes one tonne of Uranium per day and cracks asteroids in half?”

Thatch paused for a moment, glancing between the members of her audience. “Why, a Terran machine designed to split asteroids into thirds, of course. Never trust the specifications.”

The plant grinned, exposing rows of razor teeth. For a moment the room was silent, even the life support falling silent, and then Katie alone began to laugh. Cici joined a few beats afterwards, but the laugh it chose was more of a polite chuckle than anything else.

Katie, at least, appreciated it. “Miss Aquae, was that a joke?”

A momentary flicker of embarrassment completed the melting of Katie’s heart. She twisted in place until she could bury her forehead against the plant’s vines, hugging tight. “Thatch, you are such a complete dork. I love you.”

A hand atop her head pressed Katie down into quiet, non-verbal squeaks and gentle wiggles. It was strange to imagine a time where the firm feeling of powerful fingers cradling her skull could have been anything but bliss. Thatch could snap her like a twig, and that was astonishingly comforting and inexplicably hot. “And I you, flower. Pay attention to the game, now.” Katie groaned. Thatch was much prettier than their diagram.

“Jokes aside, neither the Terran nor Rinan species had deciphered the fifth fundamental force by the time this game was published. Nor, somehow, even by the time we arrived, as unusual as it may be for a species to go so long without figuring out the basics. Any solution to this game that requires such knowledge is, I think, unlikely to be the intended solution. Alas, we must apply some metaknowledge here.”

Katie didn’t really want to look away, but pushed herself up all the same and took a position sitting in her owner’s lap. Prompt obedience felt satisfying and she was proud of how quickly she’d overcome her own lethargy. If Katie had been feeling less charitable she might have pinned that moment’s resistance on what was left of her internalised feralism, but she took pleasure in twisting even that to her own ends. Thatch had told her to pay attention to the game, not to stop wiggling, and so she did both. Katie was the Elettarium’s most successful rebel, after all. She had a reputation to uphold, here!

“Okay, um, but you aren’t wrong, Miss Incertae, we do still need a second-order cause!” Katie focussed on the game, pulling them back on track.

The game continued. Katie’s conviction remained true and over time they managed to refine their theory down to one that they all agreed on: Due to a silent failure in the ship’s sentinel core, a subsequent failure in the gyroscopes—caused by a buildup of static on the hull as they passed through the highly charged radiation belt of the planet they were passing—resulted in the main computer being fed incorrect information without the expected oversight. The resulting course-correction burn slammed them straight into the planet.

Casual conversation bounced mostly between Katie and Miss Incertae. Occasionally Thatch took the conversational baton when Katie needed a break, but mostly it was Katie out in front. Thatch’s gentle emotional touch revealed a slowly growing strain, and Katie was hardly a social butterfly herself, but between them they found an ebb and flow that worked for them. This was more socialisation than either of them were used to, and Thatch lacked the advantage of an owner there to ensure she didn’t push herself too hard. She did have a Katie, though, to handle the important task of her caretaking.

They could lean on each other, and between them they could handle anything.

Katie couldn’t help but notice that while the rest of the group was at least cyclically engaged, Cici was sat at the edge of the board, unusually quiet. She’d been aware of it for a little while by now, but didn’t want to press in case the machine was having a difficult time.

However, it had been quiet and still for quite long enough. Miss Incertae had said that it was here as emotional support, but that didn’t really add up. As much fun as Katie was having spending with a spaceship, she’d come specifically to hang out with Cici and she simply wasn’t. She was hanging out in the same room as Cici.

Katie leaned back, only a few degrees. Little more than a slight shifting of her weight. To an outside observer it would probably have been a barely perceptible change of stance, but Katie was sat in the lap of the only creature in the universe who truly, deeply knew her. Thatch casually raised a hand and slid a pair of fingers through the ring on her collar, then pulled her into a tight, one-armed hug while seamlessly taking over her part in the conversation mid-sentence. Impressively, she used the exact words Katie was going to, before returning to her own vocabulary the next sentence. Katie did her best to tune the words out, though her brain would never quite let her ignore them entirely.

Katie glanced over towards the short, boxy machine. The first time they’d met, Cici had been, for all appearances, an emotionless, autonomous weapons platform that was dead set on ending her life.

Katie blinked. It was weird how many of her close relationships had started with attempted murder. There was maybe something to learn in there, though she suspected that the Affini at large would take issue with her internalising “If you try to kill somebody they’ll become your friend”.

Cici couldn’t be further from a weapons platform now. As Katie watched, the deep orange glow of vacuum tubes rose and fell as a mechanical mind wandered. Electrical switches broke and made as tiny electromagnets switched, producing small but audible snaps each time. Motors rumbled without end, driving a form of physical cognition that was at once utterly alien and yet still deeply relatable. On the sensor assembly at its top rapidly blinked a small light. It reminded Katie of cheap old Terran infrared diodes so poorly shielded that they spilled light out in the visible spectrum too.

Where was that pointing? Katie tried to trace its likely path and spotted a little flower in the corner of the room that stood out in the otherwise fairly boxy, artificial enclosure. Miss Incertae had mentioned some kind of relay before, hadn’t she? Katie supposed she could hardly begrude Cici a secret language by which to speak with its suitors given how much she relied on hers.

One of Thatch’s stray emotions caught Katie’s attention and gave her enough warning that she caught a joke being told by their host. It was at Katie’s expense. It was also very funny, and more than a little hot. Katie began to doubt that any affini anywhere had ever successfully managed to play through an entire board game to its conclusion.

She wasn’t sure if the fact that they’d managed to conquer Terran space so easily despite being this distractible was impressive or just humiliating for the Terrans. Their mightiest war fleets had fallen to a species that spent nine of every ten minutes getting distracted by their florets.

They hadn’t even played through the first phase yet and already the subtle dance of Affini social interaction had brought them to the first point of divarication: Did Katie laugh, smile, and blush, and thus consent to being picked up, slammed against the wall, and mercilessly twisted until she was so desperate she’d happily grind her cheek against the dirt while a pair of capable bioengineers melted what little remained of her shattered mind?

Stars but she was tempted. The things this pair could do to her. The things they could make her do. For a moment Katie was tempted to throw caution to the wind and leap at the chance. Even ignoring her own needs, helping Thatch make friends was, as far as priorities went, about on the same level as eating or drinking. Thankfully, Katie didn’t have to manage her own meal times any more, but she did still have her responsibilities.

But no.

Katie shied a fraction deeper into her owner’s grip and the opportunity politely moved on. There would be others. There always were. Rebel propaganda claimed that the Affini ignored the needs and consent of their wards and simply did as they wished, but reality couldn’t be further from the truth. They prioritised her needs on a fundamental, cultural level, and her consent was a necessity only where it didn’t conflict with those needs being fulfilled.

Katie wiggled in place until she got a good angle to reach into one of the many little pockets Thatch kept hidden around her person. Being made out of prehensile vines had its advantages, which was good as Katie’s skintight clothing certainly didn’t have room for pockets. Katie stuck her hand into Thatch’s hip and rummaged around.

Let’s see. A little spare water bottle, for if either of them got thirsty. No, they might need that. Spare parts for Katie’s collar? Definitely not disposable. That rock that Katie had hunted down and delivered? Very important that that stayed on Thatch’s person. Katie wrinkled her nose, feeling through the gathered objects. Katie was pretty sure that Thatch was carrying enough tools and materials to bootstrap their rescue from a planet in days rather than months. She glanced upwards, flashing her owner a quick smile. Katie really was taken care of in ways she hadn’t even realised.

However, Katie wasn’t looking for useful tools, she was looking for something useless. Finally, her fingers happened across a long, thin piece of metal.

A screwdriver? For what screws? Katie absolutely couldn’t let June know they had this. Whatever. It wasn’t one of their custom tools, so it probably wasn’t very important. Katie lobbed it slowly through the air in Cici’s general direction.

To her embarrassment, she missed. Katie cringed, watching the tool sail towards the far wall before a sudden shift in the ship’s velocity caused the projectile to arc and tap Cici on the side of the case. She shot Miss Incertae a quick smile, which went without explicit response.

Cici squeaked, sensors quickly making a full sweep around the top of its head. Katie couldn’t help but giggle. This was not the dangerous war machine it had once been at all. “Psst,” she whispered, attracting the attention of the closest thing Cici had to an ear. “Over here?”

The machine trundled over, moving on plush tread. Katie could only imagine they would have been absolutely useless on any terrain more challenging than being carried, though she supposed they weren’t really a primary method of motivation in microgravity, and perhaps more importantly, Cici liked being carried.

“Why did you—throw something—at me,—Katie?” came the synthesised reply. Cici seemingly hadn’t picked up many whispered words and so it was lowering the volume of normal ones. Crude, but it did the job. Katie glanced up at Thatch, who was currently embroiled in a lively debate on the feasibility of building a spaceship hull out of wood while stranded alone on a planet.

Katie had to admit that she could hardly tell her owner that she couldn’t do it. She absolutely believed that Thatch could build a viable rocket out of twigs and rocks, and as such, left her to it. For their parts, Thatch and Miss Incertae politely ignored the conversation between their wards, carving out a quiet space for a careful conversation with the words they left unsaid.

“I wanted your attention, silly.” Katie smiled, reaching up to tap a knuckle against a rivet. She got a beep in return. “We’re here to hang out and you’re being quiet. I wanna make sure nothing is up.”

Cici tried to grind her treads, but the soft material lacked traction almost entirely and she just ended up spinning her wheels in place. “I am fine.”

“Nuh-uh.” Katie grabbed a vine that Thatch probably wasn’t using and tied it around one of the exposed bits of Cici’s chassis. It was going nowhere. “You got away with that last time, but I’m gonna be a lot more assertive with you here, okay?”

“I am—”

“A terrible liar. I don’t understand how you can be a bad liar given your words are all prerecorded, but you are, so talk to me. What’s up, cee?” Katie reached up with a pair of fingers and gently cupped the edge of the machine’s radar dish. The poor thing squeaked even at that, cognition clearly stuttering as belt-driven thought momentarily halted.

Oh, dirt.

Did it have a crush?

Katie’s fingers faltered. How could she have been so blind? No, she knew exactly how. She’d been distracted. By herself; by Thatch; by this new world they’d found themselves within. Once they’d all escaped Dirt together and started to drift apart it had been Thatch she’d reached out to, and Katie had never stopped to ask if Cici’s success at finding her own social circle was what the machine had wanted.

Tiny fans whirred, pulling cold air over radiators suddenly made hot. “In the first—thirty seven—years of my existence—I longed to—meet the alien life—that statistics suggested—must be there.—I had such expectations of you,—Katie. The ways in which you would be—different.—The ways in which you would be—wonderful.”

Katie glanced away. Her hand pulled away from Cici’s chassis. “I’m sorry if I was disappointing.”

“No!” Wheels caught on treads and Cici lunged forward to give Katie a light bap on the shoulder and press her sensors back into the palm of Katie’s hand. “You exceeded the bounds—of my imagination.—Everyone has.—This is all so much more—than I had dared imagine.—I just–” Cici’s words halted, voice sample cutting hard at the end of the word in a way that didn’t match how an organic would have handled trailing off. The implication was the same. Cici’s sensor array rotated a few degrees away, directed at the wall.

Katie felt a dull kind of nervous tension bubbling up into her from below and casually reached down to hold a vine in response, trying to press comfort into Thatch. Katie lacked the same capabilities as the affini, but she wasn’t going to let that stop her from providing support for her person.

The affini in the room were listening, of course. They continued to play their games but Katie had long since learned that it was impossible for her to escape Thatch’s attention, no matter how distracted the plant might seem. These were the apex predators of the universe and there was no escaping their gaze.

Wordless conversation happened over instants, felt rather than spoken. Thatch was feeling anxious about where the conversation could lead. Katie thought she could handle it. Thatch was very proud of her for doing something difficult, and promised that she’d be rescued if it started going bad. Both of them were new to doing more with their problems than running away from them, but together they could handle anything.

Katie smiled. That last emotion was Thatch’s, pressing into her with a stunning confidence. Katie had this.

“You just…?” she prompted, guiding Cici’s dishes and antennae back towards her and holding them in place. She could feel the increasing temperature radiating from the poor machine, but a moment later a waft of colder air washed over them as the room’s atmospheric controls began to drop the temperature.

Katie glanced over to one of the light strips on the wall, which blinked at her. She took in a deep breath. Okay. She wasn’t alone in this. Katie was in a room with not just one but two affini watching over her. She wasn’t going to be allowed to screw up here. She could do this. Katie smiled over at the probe, trying to channel the patience of the immortals surrounding her.

“I wish you felt—about me—like I wish you did,—Katie Aquae.—I wish—Thatch Aquae— felt about me—like–” It paused, as if unsure of the words, or perhaps simply not in possession of them.

“Like she does about me?” Katie suggested. She felt a weak tugging against her fingers as Cici attempted to look away, but it wasn’t difficult to overpower.

“Eyes on me, Cici,” Katie whispered.

“Like she does about—you,” it echoed. “When we met,—we seemed—so similar.—Now you are—so changed—, and I have been—left behind.”

Katie’s eyebrows twitched. She wasn’t that different, was she? “You’ve changed plenty, cee, and I know there are people who feel about you like Thatch feels about me. You have what, a dozen people on your list now?”

“Fourteen,” it admitted. “Miss and Miss Varie—Miss Dentate—Hx Viridi—Mr Samar—Miss Saprot—Mx Incertae—Lord and Lady of the Altheae—She, o Cynanchum—Zea—and the Order of Liliales.”

Katie wondered if the machine was intentionally ordering the list by weirdness, or if she just happened to be attracting the attention of those unconventional even aboard the Elettarium.

Katie glanced over at her owner shuffling a deck of cards for a spaceship and decided that it was probably neither and that all of these weeds were just reliably obtuse. Then again, she was too. “But none of them feel right?” Katie asked. She wasn’t quite sure how to approach the question more politely, even knowing that one of the people on the list was present in the room. Hopefully after ten thousand years Miss Incertae had figured out how to handle rejection.

“No,—it is not that.—They all seem—wonderful.—I would gladly go—with any of them,—but to go with one—means refusing—another.—Besides all that,—none of them are you—or Thatch.”

Katie blinked, tilting her head to one side. “I wouldn’t be on that list regardless, though, I’m no affini.”

A dull buzzing rose from within the chassis for a moment, before falling away. “I am told that that matters—but all I know—is how I feel—and species divisions—seem so very—arbitrary.”

“Picking somebody wouldn’t have to change that. You could still spend time with us,” Katie promised. She smiled as softly as she could, hoping to reassure it. As strange as it felt, despite being the youngest thing in the room Katie often felt as if she were the most mature.

“Once I picked another——I do not know that I——would want to.——What if you were——no longer——as important——to—me?” The words were halting and uncertain even by Cici’s usual standards, with clear gaps between snippets of phrasing.

“Of course we would be.”

“I was not—to you.”

Katie winced, her own reaction mixing with a sudden spike of emotion from Thatch. She squeezed the vine, asking for more time. She could handle this. The last thing they wanted to do was overwhelm Cici and have it retreat again. That was surely why the gathered affini were letting her do this—because there were some conversations that could only be had between equals and they could never have them.

“That’s… it isn’t like that,” Katie protested, but it felt weak even as she said it.

Wasn’t it exactly like that? Whether she viewed what had been done to her as a kindness or not, either Thatch had elevated her own importance to stratospheric levels or she had reduced the importance of all else. It didn’t really matter which it was.

The end result was the same.

Katie’s every choice, every action, every thought was coloured first and foremost by her relationship with Thatch. While her universe hadn’t quite shrunk to only include her owner, like it did for some pets, Katie undeniably orbited only the one body.

“But you do not deny—that you chose—somebody else,” Cici pressed. It wasn’t even wrong, it just…

Katie looked away. Had she done wrong by it? It had needed her and she hadn’t been there. It had needed her to feel something for it and instead Katie had given herself to another.

Had she been selfish? Had she been cruel?

Katie sighed. “How could I deny that, hon? I’m literally a housepet. We both know it. You can’t be as important to me as Thatch is, I’m sorry. I’m hers. She comes first, always, and everything else is by her leave. I love her so much and—” Katie was getting distracted. Everybody already knew that Thatch was the most important person in the universe, probably. They didn’t need to be told.

Thatch was the first real person Katie had ever met. In a world that was graphite on canvas Thatch had walked in painted in oils. Meeting her had expanded Katie’s reality and shown her that life could be so much more than it had been and—

Katie faltered, looking into Cici’s dull amber status readouts like she was trying to stare into the machine’s soul. To Katie, Cici was the cute robot who had surprised them all by becoming a friend.

But to Cici? Katie had been its Thatch.

The first one to really sit down and talk to it like it mattered. The first one to offer it comfort when it needed it and the first one who was safe to confide in. Thatch, bless her core, was a mess and had struggled with Cici’s advances, but Katie had been there as comfort regardless.

And Katie had abandoned it.

In a sense. Not intentionally, not avoidably, not in any way that Katie could truly say she believed she could have done better but all the same it had needed her and she hadn’t been able to be there for it.

Katie glanced up at the most important person in the room with a vaguely helpless expression. Thatch was mid-conversation, talking about taking things apart and putting things back together in a way that had a blush glowing on Katie’s face before she realised it was part of the game, and not meant to be hot. Probably. Affini flirting could be opaque.

Thatch reached down and stroked the top of her head, for all the world appearing as absent minded as an affini could be, but Katie knew her plant better than that. Thatch was never not paying attention to her. The firm drum-beat of confidence thumping down upon Katie was enough of a sign. Thatch believed in her.

Okay. Katie returned her attention to the machine that, as expected, was waiting patiently for the end of her sentence.

“I’m sorry,” she started. “I didn’t choose between you two. If I hadn’t have gone with Thatch there wouldn’t be a me to know. I was spinning out and I couldn’t handle going back to being independent. None of that means you aren’t important to me, I just had to get myself into a place where I could be okay first. I care about you and I wish I could have done better, and I can do now.”

A moment of quiet passed while the machine processed. The quiet clicking of partially electronic gearboxes echoed off the walls and Katie could see the inner workings of Cici’s semi-mechanical mind switching to a lower gear. How would a gear chain even work in this context? Slower, but more thorough thought? How deep could Katie really take her understanding of an alien cognition she hadn’t been enthralled by?

Eventually Cici began to emit words again. “I wish you—had been there—after we got back.—Everybody I met was—so lovely,—but I did not know them—and—they were not you——but I think I understand.—I do not sleep—as you do,—but my energy—is a limited resource—and sometimes I—too—must choose not to—do something—I desperately wish to do. If—— if you could have—would you have—helped?”

Katie nodded rapidly. “Yes! Of course! And I think I can now—” If Thatch agreed, which Katie appended only mentally and squashed down the urge to say— “and I’m here now.”

If Thatch agreed.

Katie was technically taking a risk by making authoritative statements of her own but she knew her person well enough to be confident she’d agree. Besides, if Thatch didn’t Katie was pretty sure she could be convinced. Ownership was a two way street. Katie would do as she was told, but Thatch would look to her to help guide the decision. The final call always lay in her loving vines, but Katie’s influence was nonetheless necessary to help her have the information and the confidence to make it.

Katie briefly wondered whether she had more actual agency as a cherished possession than she’d ever had as an independent sophont, and then decided that the question was kind of meaningless. She didn’t have agency just because Thatch took her needs into account when making decisions and probably everybody in the room—herself included—would have laughed at her if she’d suggested otherwise.

Cici vibrated gently for a few long moments before the status lights across the front of its casing all blinked green one at a time over a few moments. “Please—do not leave me—again—katie.” It tried to shift its sensors upwards. Katie let it. “Thatch.”

Humanity had long been afraid of the dark. One could stare into the unknown without ever being certain that nothing would stare back. It was better to avert your eyes and hope that whatever was watching would leave you be, in the hopes that you would not catch its attention and seal your fate.

Neither Katie nor Cici put much stock in old Terran fears. Cici caught Thatch’s attention and sealed their fates. Polite talk of games and rockets paused as the cosmic nightmare tilted up Katie’s chin and planted a mind-melting kiss on her forehead. “You are a wonder without compare,” she whispered, before returning her attention to the probe.

“I am sorry for my part in that as well. I let you down and I will do what I can to repair any damage caused.” Katie shuffled backwards, squirming up against Thatch’s stomach and chest. She reached around and gave a vine a tug, gently pulling Thatch’s arms around until she was being held in place like an oversized stuffed animal. The image was complete when Thatch lowered her chin to rest against the top of Katie’s head and hummed.

There was something that had gone unsaid for a while now, Katie knew. She’d pieced together enough to understand what she needed to know, but the details were still something Thatch had been avoiding. It was obvious, from Katie’s perspective. Just as she was learning the slightly contradictory taste of the lies Thatch told herself, she was familiar with the jarring hitches of rhythm that arose when her plant’s thoughts strayed towards something that she would rather not think about.

Katie had allowed it, because the details wouldn’t change anything and it wasn’t Katie’s forgiveness Thatch had needed, but it was time for that to stop.

Thatch’s tight grip wavered, moving back and forth from gentle squeezes to moments of intense, almost crushing tightness as she worked up the courage to broach the topic. Katie knew that the easy thing to do would have been to avoid it once more, divert the conversation with a joke or a flirt. Katie also knew that no matter how distracted Thatch seemed she always had one eye on Katie. She gave a quick shake of her head as a message to her and Miss Incertae both.

Don’t interrupt. Her houseplant was thinking.

“I can not take you,” Thatch eventually admitted. “I can not be on that list of yours. I am, with my katieflower’s help, crawling out of a hole I have been trapped within for half of my lifespan. When we first arrived back on this ship, I threw myself into helping you and your fellow probes because I felt, and feel, a debt to this universe.”

The pressure of the hug was only just bearable. Katie certainly couldn’t speak through it. She was here to be an emotional support animal and nothing more. Her lack of response was the response. She didn’t need to say anything. She would love and support Thatch no matter what, and this comfort would always be there for her.

“katie is helping me see things more clearly, but this is not a process that can be rushed. I am in no place to take a pet, but katie took me. Before my…” Thatch searched for the word.

“Breakdown?” Miss Incertae suggested.

“…Yes,” Thatch eventually acquiesced. “Before I turned and ran from this community, I saw echoes of my own failures all lining up to reoccur. I am capable of so much and that is terrifying to me. I do not expect any of you to understand—”

Cici beeped an ear-piercing interrupt. “Thatch Aquae—I am a—self-replicating engine of war and exploitation—designed and programmed—to expand endlessly—through the universe.—When we first met—I put my considerable capabilities—towards trying to end the—lives of—two of the most—beautiful creatures—I now know.——I understand.”

Thatch’s hug was just barely loose enough to breathe through, but of course, before Katie had even opened her mouth Thatch had noticed the intake of breath and given her the space she needed. “Miss, I lived most of my life in a civilisation that forced me to hurt everyone around me to survive because of a misguided ideology that put us all in constant conflict. I was good at it, because I had to be to survive it. I understand.”

The spaceship chuckled. “I suppose if we are all coming together to bully poor Thatch, then how could I not join in? I do not have weapons like cce, and I do not live in conflict like katie, but I am a vessel that holds five thousand, four hundred, and thirty three sapient lives: Two thousand, seven hundred and eighteen affini; one thousand, eight hundred and ninety two humans; and eight hundred twenty three various others, including our delightful cce and our cherished katie. I skip across the surface of this reality like an asteroid bouncing over the surface of a gas giant. I exist on a scale that is impossible to make safe. The only difference between a starship and a weapon is intent. I understand.”

“We all understand, Thatch,” Katie whispered. “You aren’t alone.”

The plant fell quiet. She was wrapped around her floret with only vague allusions to maintaining a human shape. Mostly Katie was simply tangled in tentacles that pressed close around her every square inch of skin. The larger, thicker ones curled around her torso with a truly indomitable grip, while smaller vines entwined with Katie’s limbs and held them at her sides. The smallest vines wrapped around her fingers and toes, gently wiggling them one finger at a time in an increasingly complicated pattern.

Thatch was distracting herself, but she deserved the distraction. Katie was held too tight to wiggle, so Thatch could wiggle for her. Eventually, the plant nodded. “Thank you all. I— Yes. I think I comprehend. You must understand, I was uplifted barely more than a Terran lifetime ago in one of the more recent Gardens established in this area of space. I am a native to this galaxy. In many ways the Affini Compact is as alien to me as it is to you two.” She paused to tickle under Katie’s chin and across Cici’s chassis. “I know it, truly, by reputation only.”

“The core worlds cannot be described, truly,” Miss Incertae interjected. “But I do not think there are many who would say they know the Affini Compact. I had travelled and searched for thirty five blooms before eschewing my Affinity for something Other. I—either my affini progenitor or my current self—am not native to this galaxy, but I would not say the Affini Compact is something which can be known even on my scale of being.”

The whole ship shrugged. Katie felt the subtle shifts in their collective momentum as the multi-kilometre vessel wiggled fractionally in place. “Perhaps those who have been with us since the beginning would disagree, but I suspect not. We are the Affini Compact, here, in this room. Here, on this ship. We are a civilisation hewn from fractal; the same in spirit—if not in detail—no matter from how close or far from which you observe. One can only know a civilisation that spans a dozen galaxies and uncountable worlds by reputation, even when one is a citizen.”

Katie gave Thatch a squeeze. She couldn’t move, but that didn’t preclude her from trying. “Maybe we could go exploring, eventually? I’d like to see what the rest of you dorks are like. Maybe we could visit those core worlds of yours? Find out what kind of civilisation we’re building, together?”

Miss Incertae coughed, or at least simulated it. Katie wasn’t completely certain it hadn’t actually come from the drive plume, by the volume and the subtle shake of the ship. “We would have to take a vote if you wished to travel there with the rest of us. The core worlds require significant preparation to visit if you wish to keep your mind intact.” She paused. “The same would go for you too, Thatch.”

Katie’s affini squeezed back, vines so small Katie wasn’t sure she’d ever seen them acting independently entwining with her hair, brushing it straight strand by strand. “That could be nice,” she admitted. “I feel like a fake at times. Perhaps seeing others like me would help. I find myself unwilling to commit to leaving this ship, however. We are only just starting to meet those aboard but I do not wish to abandon the momentum we are building. For the foreseeable future, I would prefer us to remain aboard. We go where the Elettarium goes. This is our home.”

“We remain here for another week,” Cici supplied. “Then the Meandrina will arrive to begin the processing of—my people.—After that, it will be up to the crew.”

Thatch breathed out, and nodded. “Which I suppose only leaves my final point. Cici, I am sorry that my failure to process my own difficulties spilled over onto you and the other probes. We will stay with you.”

“Apology accepted.” Cici buzzed happily, rubbing against Thatch’s side with the edge of its casing. “Now—would you like to finish our game?”

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