Author's Note: This is the third chapter of a fanfiction adaptation of Christine Love's visual novel, Hate Plus. It continues from where the Analogue: A Hate Story adapt left off. It features a female player character, who left the Mugunghwa with *Mute and is currently married to her. It also contains references to characters from Sword of the Stars: The Pit, and The Ur-Quan Masters.
Has anyone ever surprised you by drawing a caricature? Of you, I mean. Whether it's the chibi kind, or the furry kind, or some other. And before they even say what it is, you realize that it's you, and that that's how they see you ... for better or worse.
That's what it was like, when *Nemesis- I mean, *Starborn- showed me the new bioform she'd been culturing. It was me ... as a Traveler.
I don't know how she managed it, but somehow its face looked like an avian version of me. From the glossy black feathers on top, to the way that its features were spaced, to the expression they held when she turned on the lights in the display case. It looked like it was hesitant, somehow, or lost and afraid to ask for directions.
And the rest of its six-metre body, my goddess ... there was a bank of lights shining up from beneath, and I could see it breathing. It shifted positions just slightly, and I knew what it felt like to be this creature. To have its four legs and claws, and its feathered tail twitching nervously behind it. It felt ...
It felt familiar.
"Is this ... ?" I looked up at her. We were standing amid rows of clear plastic displays, inside of her atelier. It was dark, just outside the display cases, and I couldn't see the ceiling or walls. But the floor, and the cases themselves above and beneath the windows, were textured, the designs all points and triangles and shades of black with deep purple highlights.
"It's yours," *Starborn said. "Whenever you want to use it." I had been going to ask if it was me, just so I could make sure, but that answered my question as well.
"But, why? I mean-"
"Because I like you, dear. You should know that by now." She said it so matter-of-factly, like it wasn't awkward at all.
My stomach twisted into knots, as I realized that the longest of my long-distance relationships hadn't quite tapered off into nothing yet. Or that if it had, my "ex" didn't care.
"And also because you were nervous, the last time that we met in person." She stretched her wings and looked away, in what I knew was a shrug. "I realize most dustlings are frightened by Harpies. I was not called Daimea for nothing, you know, back when I was a Striker." I heard a smile in her voice, as she looked back down at me, even though I couldn't see it on her beak. "I thought this might level the playing field, so to speak."
"I ... " I wasn't sure how to tell her I wasn't scared of giant bird-dragons. I had been scared, when we were together, at how easy it was to let her ... to let an AI, do all of the thinking for both of us.
At least that's ONE thing she doesn't know about me, I thought.
"You do not have to, of course. I also have your original bioform handy, if you want to use it again."
"Oh goddess, you've been holding onto-"
She inclined her head towards a squat case shaped like an aquarium, the only one shorter than I was. I stopped short, my breath caught in my throat.
The lights were turned off, in that case. All I could see was a silhouette, one not much larger than my baby hyena plushie … and shaped much like it as well. But something as large as the rest of it loomed large, just behind it, and somehow I knew what it- what they were. "You regrew my tails," I whispered.
"Naturally. I also fixed the, ah, other features." She made a low trill with her beak, and it sounded kind of like letting your breath out because you were embarrassed. "I can continue to hold it here as long as you need me to, of course. You can use either of these forms whenever you like."
"Um, thanks." I looked back up at the huge, six-limbed bird-dragon behind glass. But my gaze was drawn back to the form that I had felt ultimate terror and helplessness in, that I had never felt like a person in … that felt like a reminder that I never really would. And I was glad that I could not smell it, nor see its face, because I knew if I could I'd be having a panic attack.
"You are close to having a panic attack, dear." *Starborn craned her head down over me, into my field of vision, and looked at me upside-down. "Is something wrong?"
I laughed nervously, as her dull foreclaws gripped my shoulders gently. "I-it's nothing … " I made myself look back up at the bioform that she'd made for me. "You're very generous … I mean, you already helped me exercise Right of Identity once ... "
*Starborn beamed at me, and I felt her feathery chest swell with pride and touch the back of my head. I guessed she was proud of her handiwork.
"A-and I'd love to, sometime. Try it out, I mean," I said, not really sure if I meant it. "But I ... um, *Mute and I are supposed to be heading to Earth. And I don't ... I mean, she ... "
*Starborn cocked her head at me, curious.
I took a deep breath. "I don't know how she'd feel about being in a relationship with someone who's not physically human," I finished, not wanting to go into more detail than that.
"Ahh." I heard *Starborn's feathers rustle, as she looked back upwards and craned her neck out of my field of vision. "The ship that she's from; it was launched before people like us came to be. Yes?"
"Around the same time, actually ... " I'd looked it up. "She's forgotten most of her past, though."
"Well." She sounded sly, now. "That explains the look that I got from her."
I just shivered, as I imagined having to explain post- and non-humans to *Mute when I got back. And tried to think what I could possibly say, that would keep her from staring at me in disbelief.
*Starborn must have felt my shoulders tense. I didn't realize she was kneading them until I felt her tug with both clawed hands. "Come, dear. Your face is bruised, you have pulled the muscles in your legs, and you are about to start shaking from lack of blood sugar. We will deal with that last problem first, and you can tell me about your adventure."
I followed her, meekly.
Her nest was a small, cozy alcove, at least on her scale. It was just behind her atelier, and I could see her cetacean crew swimming past through the clear, hexagon-patterned plastic walkway down the ramp leading to it. And hear distant fountains and falls, from where their waterways opened up elsewhere.
When I stood up and pushed aside the plants on the dividing wall, anyway. *Starborn tugged me back down to the cushions with her, and I tried to sit upright but she brought me back gently so I could recline on her shoulder, and pulled up a pillow to rest my feet on.
I want to say I was unnerved, at having her be so familiar with me when I hadn't invited her to. But honestly, I just felt tired. The last few days had caught up with me, and-
"Fire and Ice truffles?" *Starborn asked. One of the small, golden drones that had followed her since we had boarded her ship held an open box of bright red and blue chocolates up to me, its spindly arms gleaming.
I sighed inwardly and resigned myself to letting her spoil me, taking a blue chocolate and nibbling on it without sitting up. I REALLY hope *Mute doesn't catch me like this, I thought, as the inside of my mouth frosted up and my sinuses cleared. I wasn't sure how she'd feel about my sharing a bed with another woman, especially one that I'd been … that I was, apparently, still in a relationship with, despite our not having talked for a year.
Assuming she saw *Starborn as a woman, or this as a bed, or what we had as a relationship. Trying to anticipate what would and wouldn't scare *Mute was wearing me down.
"Something is wearing you down," *Starborn said. "Would a dear fox like to share?"
I winced, and let out a white puff of breath. "Where should I start?"
Did I want to spill my guts to her? Did I even need to, with how she could analyze all of my nonverbal cues so precisely? I didn't know. But I was too worn out to get up and too groggy to go back to sleep, after spending I didn't know how long unconscious. I needed to talk to someone about everything that had happened.
Someone other than my journal, I mean.
So I did, while *Starborn curled in an arc around me, stroking my hair with one clawed finger and kneading my legs with her other hand. Her claws clicked around them, while her fingers worked knots from my sore calves. It sounded like she was knitting a sweater.
Before I was even finished, my long-disused voice began to get hoarse. I was about to apologize, when her drones brought me a cup of warm tea on a saucer. I sipped gratefully -- it tasted of flowers and honey -- and went on.
"She killed herself, right in front of you?" *Starborn asked, when I got to that point in my story. I heard a low whistle come from her beak.
"Y-yes. And ... " I realized my hands were shaking, and not from low blood sugar. "And then *Mute started saying she was the ship's widow, and talking about 'widow suicide' and not wanting to be a burden, and I ... I ... "
"You did what you had to, to keep that from happening." She sounded matter-of-fact, like she was discussing the price of components. "It makes sense that you would be triggered by that, after having been traumatized."
"That, and I love her! Oh goddess, I love her ... " I doubled over and cried into my arms, hugging my knees and rocking back and forth on the pillows, and *Starborn let go of me as I did so.
It was like I was realizing that I had married *Mute, for the first time. The first time that wasn't in the heat of the moment, I mean, like when I'd proposed to her. I felt like I'd woken up, only to find that it wasn't a dream. That it was real, and that my feelings were even reciprocated in some way.
Just knowing that someone as strong, and courageous, and handsome as *Mute felt something for me, despite everything ... it was the most awe-inspiring thing that I'd ever felt. And yet, I knew -- somehow, I knew -- that it was also a terrible thing. Because she was about to go through Hell, and I was going to have to go there with her.
One way or another.
*Starborn said nothing, the whole time I was crying, and kept stroking my back with her dull claws. Tracing them down it, in patterns. I looked up to try to find something to staunch the tears, but she already had a cloth waiting for me in her other hand, and I took it and blew my nose loudly.
"I really need therapy." I sniffled.
"Yes, you do." *Starborn bobbed her head in a 'nod.' "You both do."
"Are we ... " I looked up, trying to see if there were any windows nearby that I'd missed the first time. "Are we headed back to Earth? Are we there already?" I asked, realizing it'd been more than long enough to arrive. "Dispatch Control said I had an assignment ... "
"It will have to wait," *Starborn said, holding her hand out like she was examining it. "You're in no shape to work for him right now."
"And we are heading to Arbuda IV, at the moment. I had to detour to pick up your ship, but we are back on schedule now."
"Oh ... "
"A dustling colony there reports that a strange disease is taking them. I have hope that it contains RNA fragments, which I can sell to the Melnorme."
"W-why do they pay for diseases?" I looked up at *Starborn, alarmed. "I thought-"
"They pay for all biological data, dear. Including virii." She stroked my hair again.
" … oh."
"I asked a Melnorme why, once. She said I could not afford the price to find out."
"A-aren't you going to help the dustlings- I mean, humans, too?" My eyes widened.
"Of course I am, silly fox." She nuzzled the small of my back with her beak, sending a shiver up and down my spine. "Sequencing the RNA strands will give me a start at a cure."
"O-okay ... " I shivered again. "So, um, how long are we-"
"The whole trip will only be a few days. Perhaps three at the most. Two and a half now, but who's counting?" I felt her wings flap, fanning air onto me, as she 'shrugged.'
" … okay." I guessed I could wait that long. Not that I had a choice, as long as my ship was damaged. Plus, it would give me a chance to get to know *Mute better, before introducing her to Earth … and maybe, if she was okay with it, to in-person married life.
Now I just have to hope my wife survives the trip, I thought, only half joking.
If I'd known what was going to happen, I wouldn't have thought it was funny.