Chapter One: Lost in Space with a Dying Houseplant
The Terran Catastrophe-class Battlecruiser, Indomitable, cracked. For one brief, horrifying moment, Drive Engineer Third class, Katie Sahas felt all the oxygen in the room rushing away, yanking her away from her workbench at perilous speeds.
In an instant she went from engrossed in her work to flailing, reaching desperately for one of the many handholds around the mighty heart of the warship, their pride and joy, the Jump Drive. She managed to grab hold of one, barely, and clung to it for all her life was worth, holding her deep breath inside, as if it were her last. Only after several moments did she realise the blast doors had sealed, and she wasn’t about to die.
“What the hell just happened?” she asked, raising her voice so that it could be picked up by the ship’s internal communication microphones. Her voice, deep and gravelly and painfully human as it felt to her, seemed to echo, unanswered. Comms were down? She pushed off of the handhold and sailed through the air, back towards her work area, where she had a proper hardline terminal.
Let’s see, let’s see… every system reported catastrophic failure, like the ship had been torn in half and the two sides couldn’t talk to each other. That, however, was impossible. This ship was the pride of the Martian shipyard, with a hull meters thick of some advanced composite. It was meant to be, well… Indomitable. They didn’t give names like that to ships that couldn’t walk the walk.
What systems could Katie get to work? From her position in the Drive room, she was meant to be able to see almost everything. It was the best protected, most hardened area in an already hardened ship. The blast doors alone were a meter thick, and even the vents got sealed in an emergency, which… this was.
Katie had frozen. She’d managed to get a visual from one of the exterior cameras. Some kind of bio-mechanical looking tube was moving through the ship. There was a hole. With growing panic, she figured out how to rotate the viewpoint and despaired.
No. No, this couldn’t be happening. They’d done so well! They’d spent a week drifting on a pre-programmed course, no engine plume to give them away! No jumps to detect, just clean physics bending them around planets! They’d been doing fine! Since they’d lost that last away team, onboard hydroponics had been breaking even! They had enough fuel for weeks! How could they possibly have been found, and how could they possibly not have noticed the gigantic Affini cruiser approaching?
Katie took deep breaths, knuckles going white as she clung to the workstation forcefully enough that the screen started to distort under her fingertips. It didn’t matter any more. People didn’t come back from this. The Ochre Skies had been in contact for months, ever since the fucking weeds had taken Earth, but one little run-in with an Affini ship and you never heard from anybody ever again. Didn’t matter if they were friends, if they were family, if they were loved ones. Maybe the fuckers killed everyone, maybe they used them for fertilizer, maybe they used them as batteries, for all Katie knew. All that she could be certain of was that no matter how important you were to somebody, you never heard from them again once they were captured.
She knew that no human vessel had ever escaped a direct confrontation, and that nobody would ever know what happened to her. She hardly had friends, but she’d still wanted her name to matter. She was just going to disappear. A slave, stripped of who she was and forced to… she didn’t know, water plants all day? Work in a mine? Nobody knew. There was propaganda, but it was obviously faked.
She heard a bang, from beyond the blast doors, and screamed.
“You’ll never take me alive, you fucking weeds!” she screamed, and dived back for the console. No, she wasn’t going out like this. She was going to make an impact. People were going to know her name. She’d practiced this a dozen times. She’d practiced this in her sleep, or at least her nightmares, knowing that she’d fought too hard to be who she really was, and to figure out what she wanted out of life, to spend the rest of it as an identical drone in an Affini water mine.
Her hands were a blur, snapping out to grab levers and twist dials, turning everything she could directly into the red zones on all the little readouts. On her first day, back at university, learning about the most advanced spacial science humankind thought to exist, they had opened the lecture with a long list of things that they should never, under any circumstances, do.
Well, she was doing them.
The mix of exotic matter they used as fuel was usually carefully balanced to avoid runaway effects. Water was a temperature moderator, and she didn’t want that just now, so coolant flow was all the way down. She knocked everything out of balance and dialed in a destination at random. It wouldn’t matter, the drive would tear space apart long before it actually tried to go anywhere. Nobody would be making it to the destination. In a handful of moments, she turned the Jump Drive at the heart of what had once been a symbol of hope into the biggest bomb she’d ever dared imagine.
The last stage was on a timer. Not a digital or mechanical one, but a physical one. The core was already unbalanced, the jump was already locked in. The sphere in the center of the room thrummed with energy even at idle, but she could hear the nightmarish groan of straining bolts and struggling metal, now. It was already critical, and the only way to stop it before it blew would be to release the energy some other way, which would probably also work for her purposes.
Those fucking plants might have the most advanced ships in the galaxy, but they weren’t gods. They still had to obey the laws of physics. Soldiers had guns and knives, but Katie had subatomic chaos on scales hitherto unimagined.
Once the Drive got hot enough, the coolant would flow back in, but things would be far too hot for it to work. It would boil in an instant, and the expanding steam would push back down the pipes. There’d be a few moments where all the slack in the criss-crossed network of vents and plumbing across the ship could hold the extra volume… and then something would break, the steam would rush out, oxygen would rush in, and the Affini would get one hell of a surprise when their ‘helpless’, ensnared ship suddenly blew a hole in their hull. Even if it didn’t, it would blow a hole in the drive, which would then tear local spacetime in half and scatter their atoms across the universe.
All Katie had to do was survive it, which… was easier said than done. She was sealed inside the room with blast doors that simply couldn’t be opened until the emergency was resolved, which was unlikely to happen any time soon.
A moment later, the blast doors all opened of their own accord, as the ship computer gleefully declared the emergency over. Katie lost valuable seconds, freezing in terror, as what looked like vines shot into the room, latching onto handholds with a terrible grip. Some inhuman mass of unknowable, eldritch being hauled itself into the room, just a… mess of tentacles, leaves, vines, and thorns, a whirlwind of colour and shape. It was impossible to tell what it was truly looking at, but the hairs on the back of Katie’s neck stood on end. It was looking at her. Sizing her up for the mines. She knew it.
Nope. Nope, nope, nope. Katie turned and ran, yanking herself around handholds at irresponsible speeds, not daring to look back until she’d already left the room. The nightmare of leaf and wood was taking a more bipedal shape, inspecting the readouts against the device that dominated the room, the Drive. Did they… understand human technology that well?
Well, it’d do them no good. Katie figured they could probably override the computers, or any of the safeties, but at this point the conclusion was up to physics. She never thought she’d be thanking the corners cut in that particular Drive design, that traded off safety for a few extra percentage points of peak distance. It couldn’t be stopped now.
The plant seemed to understand, too, whole body seeming to unfurl in surprise. Vines stretched far wide as it shot towards her at an alarming speed, flinging itself through microgravity like earth’s best zero-g gymnasts never could.
So began a chase. Katie knew the ship better, but she felt helplessly clumsy, grabbing onto individual handholds and hauling herself along, faster and faster, while the beast behind her simply attached to everything near it and moved itself with incredible speed.
The chase was over in seconds. She’d been so close to the escape pod. How could it end like this?
A vine had snapped out and grabbed Katie by the leg, and moments later the rest of the beast was curling together, taking a human-like shape around Katie’s body, cradling her in strong, powerful arms. A few pieces of wood and a pile of leaves came together with a sharp click and a rustle, forming something that looked very much like a face, with contouring done through shapes and shades of leaf or curved wood.
It looked like an surrealist’s painting of a human being. The eyes were little buds with a bright blue glow, set under half a centimeter of dark wood in an inaccurate impression of eyebrows. The teeth were thorns, with a tongue that seemed to be made of tightly wrapped leaves. The foliage surrounded it, leaves arranged in a soft fade from the deep green of a healthy leaf around the face all around to a mottled mix of dying browns and growing lighter greens. The coat of leaves was joined by a dazzling array of flowers in as many colours as Katie could name, and then twice that number again in ones she could not, decorating the creature’s head while its body was still pulling into position.
That was simpler. Still incomprehensibly complicated. Vines met and entwined, meshing together in a complex weave and pulling tight, leaving the limbs themselves looking almost as if they they were a single whole growth, not a collection of hundreds of independent tentacles.
The whole process took a terrifyingly short amount of time. There were hardly seconds between Katie being grabbed, and the face suddenly lighting up. It looked worried. Panicked, even.
“Little one, do you know what you have done? Can you shut that machine down?” The words, even spoken with clear haste, seemed to be set to a rhythm, almost sung, rather than spoken. It was like music. The accent was… implacable, certainly unlike anything a human would, or perhaps even could, have spoken.
Katie stared up, eyes wide, drinking the creature in, brain utterly failing to process thought. They had her. It was all over. She wished her training had been more… anything, but she’d been drafted at the start of the war and nobody had had time for anything then. They’d run and they’d kept running and by the time they thought they’d put enough distance between them and Earth… this happened. She’d only been a civilian Drive engineer then, but the only real thing they had taught her was, ironically, protocol for surrender.
“D- Draft Officer Jack Sahas,” she rambled at a panic. Why did her last words have to be a denial of who she was? “Technician, Third Class, Indomitable. Serial number eight-five-thr— three, I, please, no, I don’t want to die, I—”
A mighty clang sounded throughout the ship. Something had just broken. The creature made some kind of short, sharp sound. Unmistakably a swear, despite the vast cultural differences, but like one in a foreign language, sung to her despite the hurried breath. It continued for a moment, speaking rapidly in some alien tongue while Katie tried and failed to slip out of its iron grip. It didn’t take long for the noises to grow, rapidly reaching a crescendo.
Katie squeezed shut her eyes as everything seemed to break into motion around her. She felt her back hitting metal, hard, and then heard an almighty roar, felt the heat of fire and flame along with a low grinding wall of noise that would have haunted her nightmares, if she was going to get any more.
She didn’t dare open her eyes. She heard a cry, and then the slam of a bulkhead. She felt something slam against her, soft in some places, hard in others. She felt a rapid acceleration, the kind that any spacer knew would kill them if they weren’t strapped in, which she was not. Something held her in place anyway.
Why had she done this? Katie’s mind swam in half-conscious fits and spurts. She’d had a good life, before. An okay life. A— A life. An existence. There was always work for a civilian Drive Engineer. It was the everpresent Jump Drive that had made human civilization even possible, once the need to exploit the stars became obvious, and they were complicated. Like, really complicated. Katie had studied for years before she’d been allowed to orchestrate her first Jump. She’d never wanted anything to do with the military. She’d never wanted to be drafted. She’d never wanted to be forced to rebel. Humanity had never shown her an ounce of kindness, and yet it had made her fight for it all the same.
Why had the Affini made her do this? Why were they so cruel, so evil, that they would sweep over the galaxy and destroy everything that they found?
Katie had only just started to learn how to have hope for the future again. Getting HRT in interstellar space wasn’t easy, but she’d managed it. Getting work as a pre-transition trans girl wasn’t easy, but everyone needed to Jump, and she was demonstratably good at what she did. She had a name, she’d just started to understand who she really was, and then news of alien warships had hit. Everything since then had been chaos, and the one thread that had kept her going was the warm, fuzzy feeling in her gut of knowing her body was finally self-repairing, finally turning her into something closer to what she was meant to be. If slowly. If imperfectly. If still in a broken human shell.
Then she’d died in an Affini raid, and it had all been for nothing. She hoped she’d taken a few of them with her, at least. They weren’t people, they were just monsters. Even that one who’d talked to her in such melodious English, with the barest hint of panic in her otherwise confident voice, giving the appearance of a rich inner life. Probably as a defence mechanism. They weren’t people.
They weren’t people.
She hadn’t just killed people.
Katie opened her eyes wide, taking a deep, ragged breath as she woke from high-G-induced unconciousness. She tried to sit up, but something was pressing her down, despite the microgravity, and she was still desperately gasping for breath. How was she alive?
She was… in an escape pod. How? She’d been captured, she was…
Katie screamed, eyes going wide, heart accelerating to a frantic pace, as she spotted the Affini weed’s face lying to one side of the pod. She scrambled back, rapidly pushing vines and leaves off of herself, throwing them to the floor and then kicking them to one side, just to be sure. She couldn’t fight. She couldn’t do anything. She’d escaped, only to still end up trapped with one of them!
Except… it wasn’t moving. The face was static, dead. Some of the vines seemed like they’d been sheared clean in half by something, and a good half of the beast was burned or speared by little pieces of metal. It had taken the brunt of the chaos, and died in the process.
Died to save her.
Why? The creature was much faster than her, it could have reached the pod in half the time. Katie crept forward, hearing the crinkle of leaves underfoot, as she moved to kneel by the pieces that once made a face, lifting them easily with one hand. They were connected to some of the vines, but… no breath, no movement, nothing.
It wasn’t a person. It hadn’t sacrificed itself for her, it couldn’t make choices, it was just a hungry beast. A… a hungry beast that could talk to her. A hungry beast that had understood what was going on. A hungry beast that had definitely sacrificed itself for her. Fuck. It… wasn’t a person. She was misunderstanding.
She was safe, at least. She left out a breath that she hadn’t realised she’d been holding, and looked around.
The inside of a Terran escape pod wasn’t a luxurious affair. There were some seats, with straps that would hopefully keep you alive during launch. Enough for half a dozen per pod. Katie knew from some half-remembered snippets of training that the pods usually had enough fuel to make it to the nearest station, and enough oxygen to last a few hours. Long enough that if you were going to get picked up, you would have been… but what would pick her up, with the Indomitable gone? Nobody else would come close to an Affini warship.
They also had a small window on the bulkhead door. The one that was the only thing separating Katie from a quick death in the void of space. It was small enough that she had to lean in close to peer through it.
She screamed, jumping back. Vine, vine! There was… no, it wasn’t moving. It was… one of this creature’s, she figured, almost sliced clean off, but not quite. She forced herself back to the window. She had to know. There was a debris field, but… not big enough to be a whole ship, not at all, and no sign of anything else. No battlecruiser. No Affini ship. Just scraps of metal and plantlife and stars.
The radio seemed dead. Whatever had taken comms down on the ship must have done the same here. Thrusters… everything reported okay, but they couldn’t get a lock on anything to thrust towards. She could fly them manually, but it was best to know where she was going first. She didn’t.
Air. A little dial that would tick down for a few short hours, and then she would die. It began to dawn on her that she hadn’t achieved anything, not really. She was going to die out here instead of down a mine. At least she’d die as herself?
She found one of the chairs, brushed off the leaves, and pulled herself in to sit.
“Fuck,” she breathed, putting her head in her hands.
A vine lifted it back up.
Katie screamed, batting it away and scrambling back… back where? There was nowhere to go! Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. She had nothing to fight with.
“Get away from me, you— you fucking monster! You killed my friends! You made me— you made me kill… You made me!” she screamed, her voice a dull roar that made even her shy back. Why couldn’t she have lived long enough to feel comfortable in her own skin, at least? Was that so much to ask?
The plantlife around her slowly groaned, pulling in towards a central point in halting, hesitant bursts. It didn’t look scary like this. If anything, the weak, careful movements reminded her of a wounded animal. The pieces that formed its face slowly moved to a position vaguely atop of the pile, as other vines and flowers lazily flopped their way into position around it, curling around one another to form a single solid form. After a few moments, the face started to move, slowly and carefully, with dull blue eyes behind the sockets.
“Oh, dirt,” it groaned, voice soft and slow, letting the rest of its body slump out in a tangled mess. Only the head looked like it was fitting together right. It let out a long breath, before continuing with a voice that sounded hollow, like it was coming down a tunnel. “You didn’t kill anyone, child. Most of the crew had already been rescued, and I got confirmation that everyone else had escaped just before your little bomb went off. But—” the bundle said, with a gentle, grating laugh— “you are the most effective little rebel I’ve ever seen.”
It had an accent, of sorts. It didn’t seem like a huge leap to assume that English wasn’t its first language, though it seemed to get the pronunciations about right. No doubt tortured out of earlier prisoners. The way it spoke, though, had an almost melodic quality, like it was matching its words to a beat that Katie couldn’t hear, or like they were the words to a very unusual song. It stuck in her head.
Katie joined the plant in its slumping, letting out a deep breath. She’d failed, then, but… at least nobody was dead. “I’ve never killed anyone, I— I’ve never even held a gun. I… I just wanted to live. I won’t let you put me in the mines, I’m…”
The vine that had touched her before reached up once again, just to make contact with Katie’s hand. She jumped, but it didn’t seem scary. The creature was clearly dying.
“Jack,” it said, and Katie twitched.
“No!” she snapped, throwing the vine back and rising from the chair in anger. She kicked a little too hard and ended up needing to brace herself against the ceiling, but she needed to get away from that thing. “You can’t take my identity away from me, you utter fucks. Do you have any idea how hard I’ve worked to get— to get here? I won’t let you turn me into one of your drones, I won’t let you force me to be something I’m not, I won’t—”
The vine gave her hand a light squeeze, slowly pulling her back towards a handhold, and Katie looked back towards the face. It was just a few pieces of wood and plantlife, but it looked… almost human, the way it moved. She could sense the pity in it.
“Oh, sapling, I’m sorry. I should have realised,” it said, voice gentle. It was a bundle of scorched leaves on the floor, and it was apologising to her for not being perceptive? “Nobody wants to take anything good away from you. We want to help you be who you really are. We know that humans need a little help with that, sometimes. We’re here.”
She paused, gathering strength. She didn’t sound out of breath, but then, did plants breathe? The voice was more… out of sync. Like it was being made by a thousand little sounds, and they weren’t quite lined up right.
“Do you have a better name for me, flower?”
Katie glared, immediately suspicious. What could they do with a name? Bind her, force her to do their bidding? No, this creature couldn’t even stand.
“Katie,” she offered.
“Good girl. Mine’s Thatch.”
Katie’s cheeks started to burn immediately, as she was left speechless, mouth half-parted. Gender-affirming praise was not a thing she was used to and not even slightly something she’d been expecting from a plant. It took all her willpower to stop herself from babbling incomprehensibly, and so she found herself staring blankly at the alien’s pretty hair.
Thatch was, now that Katie could see her without the threat of immediate hyperspacial fire, almost a work of art. The plates of her face were just bits of bark, the vines were just… vines, dotted with leaves. The flowers were pretty on their own, but any flower looked better arranged in a garden, and that was exactly what Thatch was. A garden. What could have been trivial points of colour instead formed something reminiscent of hair, with a rainbow of colours cascading across it in a gradient that Katie had to admit was masterfully done.
Her face, despite being made of nothing but vines, leaves, and wood, was expressive and piercing. It was clearly taking effort to maintain, if the rest of her body simply lying unwound was any indication. She was obviously very, very injured, and yet they were talking about Katie, instead.
“Are you okay, Thatch?” the girl asked. She didn’t want to care, but it was hard not to feel a sort of kinship with another sapient creature. It could be like her, forced to fight for those who had never lifted a finger in aid. She wasn’t a person, Katie reminded herself, but… she sure acted like one. This clearly wasn’t the monster she’d had nightmares about, but it was still one of them. She should want her dead. Want it dead.
Her question garnered a laugh, at first, and a few moments of struggle as the Affini tried to pull herself back together. Katie stiffened, pulling back, but she needn’t have bothered. Thatch only managed to get most of an arm done before one of the vines that tried to wind around another came up short, ending in a scorched tear, and the whole assembly fell apart.
“I… have seen better days, but the Elattarium, the ship out there collecting you cuties, will be here to pick us up any moment, and Affini medical technology is the best there is. I’ll be fine, and we’ll get you some better medication too.”
Katie blinked. She felt like every sentence it spoke left her with a million more questions. “What do you mean?” she asked, shrinking into herself. Why would she accept anything from these freaks of nature? “I don’t want any of your drugs in me! I bet that’s how you… how you enslave people, before you send them into the mines!”
Thatch giggled, tilting her head to one side with a bemused expression. It was a musical sound, high and tinkling, and despite the rigidity of her face, it still reached her expression and especially her eyes. “Mining for what, floret?” Thatch frowned, tilting her head a few degrees to the right as she considered. “I suppose you aren’t that, yet, actually. Regardless, we have machines to do the dirty things. Why would we ask you to do that, if you didn’t want to?”
Katie’s eyebrows came together in a frown. The monster was talking as if they weren’t using their tremendous military might to force humanity to do anything, which was absurd just on the face of it. Why else do this?
“Well, what… do you want with me? Why are you chasing us through the galaxy?”
“Because we can keep you safe,” Thatch declared, seemingly without a sense of irony. Katie gestured around at their rather dire situation.. "Our situation here is your doing, dear, but we’ll fix it. You… I’ll be honest, because you deserve that much. You’ll be processed for domestication, as per the terms of the Human Domestication Treaty, as soon as we get back. You could have hurt a lot of people, and you almost got yourself killed, never mind injuring an Affini. We can’t let that happen again. We just want to help, and one thing your culture gets wrong is not realising that if you give everybody choices, some of them will make very bad ones.
“On the bright side, once you get back there’ll be Affini queuing up to take somebody as cute as you in, and I think you’ll find our kind of HRT a lot more potent than yours.”
Katie fell silent, looking away.
Cute. Thatch thought she was cute? And… they wouldn’t take her off of her medication? On the other hand, human domestication was not a very attractive phrase. It brought to mind images of torture, to break her until she just did as they said. Was that what they were doing to the human race? Breaking it? Did she care, save for that it forced an identity onto her that left her skin feeling like it didn’t fit?
It didn’t seem worth asking that question. They’d be picked up any moment. She’d soon be finding out first hand. She fell silent, her millions of questions suddenly feeling rather academic.
A moment passed. Then another. Eventually, Katie got up and moved back to the window, peering out. Nothing looked any different to how it had before. Still just stars, scrap, and seeds.
“I… don’t see anybody coming, Thatch,” she whispered. “I don’t see anything out there. Can you… do you know how to fix the radio?”
Thatch’s beautifully rendered face slowly shifted into a frown, as weakened vines trailed out to grab handholds, so she could lift herself to the window. Her voice had been, even if weak, still chipper up until this point, but that seemed to falter.
“They… wouldn’t leave us. Maybe they’ve just… lost sight of us, in the explosion. The radio should still work just fine, we didn’t break them, we were just intercepting all the signals. Could you… I don’t think I can reach the switch from here, could you turn it on for me, pet?”
Katie wrinkled. “My name is Katie,” she insisted, but did reach over to flick the switch on the radio panel to a full-spectrum broadcast, all in the clear. This was an escape pod, priority one was meant to be the safety of its occupants, so the radio should be something anyone could pick up.
“Elettarium,” Thatch spoke, as loud as they could manage in their current state. “Come in. This is Thatch Aquae, First Bloom, with the human Katie Sahas, independent, in a human escape pod. She is unharmed and currently compliant. I, however, require immediate medical attention. Please respond.”
Moments passed, with the two of them staring at the receive light on the radio panel, willing it to blink. It refused.
“Elettarium, please respond. Immediate medical attention requested. Emergency code—” The creature rattled off some sounds that Katie was certain she could never have replicated, more like music than speech— “, say again, immediate medical attention requested.”
Nothing. The radio panel sat there with an unblinking red light. No incoming signals. Nothing.
Thatch slowly slumped back down, lowering herself into one of the seats. “Emergency codes aren’t even answered by people. They get picked up and acknowledged by the machines, even if everyone else is busy. Even if the ship were somehow disabled, it’s a separate network. I… don’t understand,” she said, losing some of that confident edge.
The two of them sat, staring up at the small porthole, hoping for any kind of movement, staring out at static stars twinkling down at them, and trying not to look at the life support panel and its many dials, each slowly winding down to their death.
“They’re not coming, are they?” Katie asked.
“I think that they perhaps are not.” The Affini shuddered, face twisting in pain, as they faced oblivion together.