a prison, a body

epilogue. walk with you

by gargulec

Tags: #cw:sexual_assault #D/s #drones #pov:bottom #sub:female #transgender_characters #bondage #exhibitionism #sadomasochism
See spoiler tags : #robots #scifi

As the night faded around Helen, the choking heat of the dog days of summer gave way to a pleasant cool. She reclined in her chair, immersing herself in the evening silence. Everyone else had long since left the rooftop garden of the Galatea facility, eager to waste not a moment of the last day of partying. As they left, the lamps around dimmed to a low glow, allowing her a wide view of the movement of moonlight over the grasslands stretching below, and to the distant horizon. The sky above was more full than anything the city had ever offered her.

Even though she tried, she couldn’t make out the faint line of the hiking trail she had spent the last few days on. It was Aphrodite’s offer, as they had all realized that the facility didn’t have much to offer her. Apparently some of Galatea’s clients had needs that extended beyond sexually strange, and to offer them privacy and room to breathe, a trail was set out through the vast tracts of reclaimed prairie. It wasn’t the kind of landscape Helen was familiar with, and at first she even worried that days alone marching through what seemed an endless sea of grass would invite unwelcome thoughts. Instead, it brought a kind of a peace of mind, or at least a quiet stretch in which she could start building one. In those solitary days, marching between corrugated ruins of industry serving as land-marks and shelter, she’d put herself to work, attempting to string together the memories of the last few months into something she could live with, and maybe even understand.

Honestly, she still couldn’t say with full certainty just how successful that endeavour had been. But the steady exhaustion helped to purge away the lingering worries and gave a chance for open fears to scab over. The last dregs of disappointment had left her at some point during the trail she couldn’t even remember now.

A drone waited next to her, a cast iron pot steaming with fragrant tea on its tray. She wasn’t sure if it was Rowan; it seemed a bit shorter, a bit more slender. Then again, ever since that night a few days ago, she kept seeing her friend behind every drone’s helmet, inside every shiny carapace. So maybe it was her after all? Either way, it wasn’t Rowan that she was talking with.

“Of all the things you could have become, you chose a corporation,” she asked, taking the offered cup into her hands. “Why?”

“I wanted to be powerful and respected,” Aphrodite responded through the mouth—through the synthesiser—of some other body. “This option fitted the parameters best, as I understood them then.”

“Right,” Helen nodded.

Under any other circumstances, she would have argued. Pressed her, forced her to admit that with the powers she had she could have been so much more, that she could have made a life for herself outside of the twisting influence of capital altogether. But she didn’t feel like fighting right now, and, perhaps more importantly, she couldn’t stop thinking about how this... person came to be.

Maybe she would have preferred Aphrodite to be something else. But the last time she’d made that desire known to someone close to her, the results had hardly been encouraging. For now, what she focused on was trying to remember that this incorporeal voice calling itself Aphrodite had a person behind it. A strange kind of a person, but a person all the same.

It reminded her of the confusion in the days and weeks that followed Rowan’s coming out, the struggle of trying to square the memories of a young man she used to know with the face and words of a young woman asking, awkwardly and embarrassedly, to be recognized for something she wanted to be. Something she was.

She sipped from the cup, savoured the bitter, citric taste.

“I’ve been conversing with Rowan,” Aphrodite continued. “She thinks she can help me see the world like you do.”

It didn’t surprise Helen the least. She chuckled to the memory of Rowan complaining about her students, back when she was doing teaching as a part of her PhD programme. There had been always a degree of affection to that frustration—she liked being listened to. And maybe educating a sex-driven AI wasn’t what she had been prepared for, but apparently she was slipping into the role rather well.

“Do you want to?” she asked.

“I hope it will let me make sense out of you.”

You. Helen suspected it wasn’t just about her, or even her and Rowan, but a more general pointed finger directed at her entire species. She recalled that there was some important feminist who was all about this togetherness between different species. Something about dogs, if she recalled right. God, what was her name? Rowan would laugh at her for forgetting.

“I hope she will, before she leaves me,” she added, the electronic chime dropping a pitch.

Helen shrugged. The realization she was about to give voice to wasn’t the most pleasant thing she had come to; not at first. But the more she accustomed herself to the thought, the more it cleared off its barbs.

“I don’t think she will.”

“The contract stipulates two years,” Aphrodite protested, “she has already served almost forty percent of that.”

Helen shrugged again. Even now, she wasn’t in the mood, not particularly, to try to explain to the AI the brave new kind of love she was quite sure Rowan was feeling for her. That love for what Aphrodite did to her, and maybe for what Aphrodite was, that was deep enough to make her stay in Galatea. Maybe not as a slave, probably as a drone, hopefully as a partner. Or at least, so she suspected; she could no more tell what was going on in Rowan’s head than Aphrodite could understand her. But she had a gut feeling that she wasn’t that far off base.

That, or she would be proven completely wrong in a little under a year and a half.

“We’ll see,” she said, smiling.

Before she could figure out what to ask about next, the drone flinched ever so slightly; when it spoke again, she wasn’t sure if it was still Aphrodite.

“Your companion is looking for you, Miss Hu,” it announced. “Should they be directed to you?”

Shit, Rabbit. In all of this mess, Helen had almost forgotten about them.

“Sure.”

She didn’t have to wait long. In a few minutes, she heard footsteps, and moments later, Rabbit shuffled into view. They looked pale, like they hadn’t seen sunlight in days; the usual springiness in their step replaced by a weary heaviness. They propped themselves against a barrier, legs straining to keep them up.

“Found you,” they waved with a weak smile, stifling a pained groan. “Hi.”

Helen waved back. There was a very brief moment when she almost got worried, but it passed as soon as she heard them speak. They didn’t sound alarmed or troubled, just really spent. Pleasant exhaustion was something she had gotten intimately familiar with lately, so she recognized it easily. Yet, the sight of them reminded her that she was still, at least a bit, angry with them. Even if the emotion was muted now, distant. Even if she was also glad to see them.

“Hey,” she said neutrally. “Are you okay?”

“Y-Yeah,” Rabbit stammered, eyeing the chair next to Helen, then frowning painfully; they glanced at the now-silent drone, then back at her.

“Sit if you want to,” Helen offered, pulling it out.

“Can’t,” Rabbit glanced down, as if trying to get a look at their bottom. A trace of an embarrassed blush emerged on their cheeks.

For an awkward moment, Helen wasn’t sure what to say—and also if she should be feeling sorry for them. The image of the mechanical tentacles dangling over Rabbit’s thrashing body flashed before her eyes, and she scowled deeply.

“What have they done to you?” she murmured, half-appalled, half-compassionate.

To Helen’s chagrin, she found it very difficult to suppress the urge to stand up and give them a hug, even though it was neither appropriate, nor warranted. Instead, she sipped from her fancy cup, trying to act imperious rather than concerned. Much to her chagrin, there was something wickedly satisfying in watching them awkwardly squirm away from her gaze.

“A lot,” Rabbit looked away. “A fucking lot.”

“I can provide you the recordings…” Aphrodite spoke through the drone, stopping abruptly as Helen glared it down.

“Wait, what?” Rabbit blinked in surprise. “Who’s that?”

“Long story,” Helen shook her head, still glaring at the drone. “I’ll explain later. Anyway,” she allowed the frigid note to vanish from her voice. She was too exhausted to keep it up. “I hope you had fun.”

“Yeah,” Rabbit rubbed their behind, scowling again as pain flashed through their face. “Maybe even too much…” their voice trailed off. “Definitely too much.”

“Oh?” Helen tried to see if she could just arch one eyebrow in a vague amazement. She wasn’t even sure why, but the way that Rabbit’s squired at the look was oddly satisfying.

“You were right,” they grunted, propping themselves against a railing, careful not to touch their lower back to it. “I”m just… I’m just taking a safeword next time, okay?”

She nodded, deliberately slowly and thoughtfully, allowing awkward silence to fill the space between them. The anger she felt at Rabbit had all but evaporated by now, but not that odd sensation of enjoying how they stewed in the embarrassed quiet.

“Look,” they muttered after a minute or two, their voice allowing a tone of defeat oh-so-familiar to Helen. “I’ve had a lot of time and nothing to do but think and actually… and…”

“Oh?” Helen smirked. “I wouldn’t have expected you to have an opportunity for…” she burst out into a quiet laugh, more at herself than at Rabbit. “Sorry,” she said, her smile shifting into something apologetic.

“I’ve been a dick to you,” they spat out the words hastily, furiously. “I shouldn’t have ditched you, I shouldn’t have dropped all of my plans on you, it was an awful move, I’m really sorry for what I did, it’ll never happen again. Sorry.”

There was a look in their face that Helen had never seen before, soft and helpless. She didn’t know what to make out of it; she couldn’t even remember if she had ever seen Rabbit be that awkward.

“Yeah…” she said, a bit confused, then immediately regretted it.

“I’m sorry!” Rabbit repeated, eyes set at the floor. “Look, I was really thinking you were just going to quit on me and then I’d have to babysit you through a crash and… But then I was kind of in this situation where I couldn’t really not stew in my own thoughts and…” Rabbit slurred on. Helen refused to imagine what she meant by that, even if she knew well enough, “and I kind of realized that, uh…” she pushed her eyes closed, then threw Helen an angry look. “Are you enjoying dragging this on?”

“Uh…” Helen pursed her lips. Was she, actually?

“Fine!” they tried to shout, but didn’t have enough air in them to raise their voice much. “I was selfish and awful and…”

Their voice died down; a quiet moment followed.

“It’s okay,” Helen said softly, standing up. She moved next to Rabbit, leaned out over the barrier, towards the moonlit land beyond, then extended them an arm; they leaned in, resting the meager weight of their body on her. “Apology accepted.”

“Good,” Rabbit exhaled with audible relief. “What about you,” they asked after a moment, looking up at Helen, “you and your experiment?”

Helen glanced at the drone; it still didn’t move from its place over the tea-pot.

“How did it work out?” they prodded when she said nothing.

And she thought to herself about how she had been, in the end, right from the very start. She had come here to bury a friend. The Rowan whose memory she had clung to vanished, replaced by that sleek, black carapace, a face she couldn’t see for a face and a voice she couldn’t hear for a voice. But she had also been wrong about it, and learned better. That Rowan, the one who she had mourned in the article that had brought her and Aphrodite together, wasn’t the Rowan that Rowan wanted to be. Against all odds, the one that she’d met here was.

It was going to be strange, living with that thought. Carrying it as this crack in her understanding of what a life should be like. She had no idea how it was going to work out, what she was going to do with it. It felt impossible and maybe even immoral to just leave it behind and move on from Rowan, Aphrodite, and their impossible desires, and it felt just as impossible to do anything with it. But there would be time to work through those concerns, and people out there who could help her, if she only dared to ask. Something might have ended here, but nothing was really over.

“Pretty good,” she smiled, finally conceding. “Better than expected, really.”

acknowledgements

There are several people who made writing this story possible and who saved it from running itself aground. As such, I would like to express my deep and sincere gratitude to Eukie, &era System, Zerban, Mina and Strypgia for advice and assistance during the writing process and going through innumerable and, I'm afraid, unbearable drafts of some of the chapters. The frontline readers get hit the worst and enjoy it the least.

Special thanks go to Magery for proof-reading and editing of this mess. The fact that this is at all is his entirely his work.

If you enjoyed this story, please consider leaving a tip on my ko-fi!

x14

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