Chapter Nine: A Celebration Of Shadows
As the sun sank the shadows grew braver, blanketing the land inch by inch. Though the canopy high above had always seemed dark it was only through contrast that Katie could start to learn what the night would bring. The leaves high above were losing their colour, shifting from a detailed web of plums, purples, and violets—with perhaps the odd flash of mauve—to a sheet of black.
As the light above died the forest below seemed to grow more confident. Insects that had been hiding beforehand began to buzz, crawling out of nests nestled in burls of golden bark or from under the rot of fallen logs. Katie let out a short gasp of surprise as a school of softly glowing creatures took to the air, streaming out from behind a tree to swirl around one of the many flowers surrounding them.
Those too had come to life. Semi-transparent bulbs nestled between hexagonal leaves had been ever-present on their journey, but now the day had reached its end their purpose was revealing itself. Each was a tiny pinprick, either only visible now that the sun was acquiescing to night, or that the forest only truly came to life when it no longer needed to fear the light.
Katie knelt, running her hand along the undergrowth while watching the way the glowing plants shifted at her touch. It was beautiful. The forest had seemed almost static before, as if the only life around were her and Thatch, but it was proving quite the opposite.
The plants reacted to her presence, like this. Perhaps they always had, but it was simply more noticeable now. The glowing ones seemed to subtly lean in towards her from further away than she would have thought possible. As Katie moved between the trees the plants around her turned to look, though on closer inspection they had no more reaction than that. The insects too responded to her presence, albeit by scattering.
Katie made her way back towards the river, only to pause in amazement as she came upon it. The flow was fast and undulating, with regular sprays sent crashing away from rocks set throughout or against the banks to each side. It left a mist in the air and through that mist shone the lights of the forest, a thousand thousand twinkling points.
She had been walking for too long. Her foot was starting to hurt again, so she shuffled closer to the river and sat at its side, letting her legs dangle out above the water. She risked the occasional few droplets of spray, but she couldn’t complain about the view. The strange cylindrical fish she’d noticed before still played, leaping from the water in large arcs, but now their purpose was made more clear as they snatched some of the glowing bugs out of the air into their large, open mouths. For a moment the glow could still be seen within, giving the fish an otherworldly look.
Appropriate, Katie supposed. She was certainly the first member of her civilisation to set foot here. Likely, her and Thatch were the first sapient life to ever get to appreciate the beauty around them. It was almost enough to make her feel lucky to be here.
Almost. The panic settled deep in Katie’s stomach was trying quite hard to get her attention. It was distant and easy to ignore thanks to the soft chemical blanket that had been wrapped around her, but the knowledge of how she should be feeling still tainted the surrounding beauty.
The sound of a branch’s crack from behind roused Katie’s curiosity. She leaned backwards, lying on the floral carpet behind her so that she could crane her neck upwards to look behind. Something was walking up behind her, covered in little glowing points and moving with the easy grace of a predator. The way the tiny flashes of light danced in front of Katie’s eyes was really pretty, but made it hard to tell what the thing was beside as her eyes adapted to the brightness and left the rest in shadow.
Wasn’t she meant to do something if she saw something unusual? Thatch had… Oh! She should be calling for help, she remembered. Katie was, for a moment, fascinated by the experience of having something stalking towards her and not being afraid for her life, though if she felt around in the depths of her stomach she could still sense the fear that should have been there.
“Thatch? There’s a thing,” she called, and the creature of light and shadow stopped coming. It shifted, a top piece seeming to tilt to one side. Questioning? Uncertainty? Katie couldn’t quite tell.
“Are you quite alright, Katie?” the creature asked, as Katie followed the pretty lights on their bouncing journey closer. It spoke with pretty words, in a soft rhythm that matched the gentle path of the glowing points, sounding every bit like Thatch herself, down to the melodic lilt of each and every word.
Katie nodded, then squeaked quietly as something squirmed beneath her to lift her back to a sitting position. By the time she’d looked back around for the creature, Thatch was sitting next to her, covered in the little glowing plants. Oh. Katie reached out to touch one, wiggling it back and forth with a finger while she leaned closer to her partner, for the warmth. With the sun down it was getting chilly.
“Use your words, please,” Thatch insisted, gently taking Katie’s hand in hers and guiding it back down. “Did you get the firewood?”
“Oh.” The firewood, right. That was what she’d been looking for before… she’d gotten distracted. “I… No, I’m sorry. Have you seen the forest? It’s beautiful. Have you seen you? You’re—”
Thatch pressed a soft finger to Katie’s mouth, shushing her, and then used her other hand to stop the girl from nuzzling into the first. “Oh, dear. I think now might be the right time for you to take the counteragent for your earlier dose, Katie.”
Katie shook her head. “Mmmhh, no it’s not. I’ll panic again,” she admitted, testing the broiling mess in her stomach. “Can’t I stay like this?”
Thatch’s vines grew stiff for a moment. Katie was starting to recognise that expression. Thatch was surprised or uncertain or something like it. The plant eventually shook her head. “Not right now, no. I need you to be able to focus, okay? I think the chemicals in you are degenerating and I’d feel a lot more comfortable if we got them out.”
Katie firmly refused, shaking her head emphatically. She tried to lean back in to Thatch’s side, feeling the rising heat and naturally gravitating towards it, but she was held away.
“Katie, please. I need you to trust me here, you wouldn’t be making this decision without your current dosage,” Thatch insisted as if it wasn’t obvious, tilting Katie’s head up to look at her. She did look very serious, but wouldn’t it be hard to tell?
Katie giggled, nodding. “That’s the point, I wouldn’t! But I am, and… Oh. Hmn.” The girl’s giggles died out, as she took on a more pensive expression. “I don’t want to start panicking again,” she admitted, trying to gather up all the different ways her mind wanted to split her focus and point them all in the same direction. It was unusually difficult.
Thatch let out a soft sigh and nodded. “I know. I’m sorry. I’ll be here for you.”
Katie spent a moment considering that. It didn’t seem like a very good trade, but the more she considered her behaviour, the more incongruent it seemed. Was this the choice she had to make? She could either not panic or have a self-preservation instinct? What a dumb choice.
Katie reluctantly nodded and Thatch slowly raised a small collection of vines, topped with flowers, to rest between them. It was a mix of species from this planet, it seemed, with a few of Thatch’s natural growths mixed in.
“While most of my species prefers safe injections that can still be done in a struggle,” Thatch began, raising one of her flowers with the pointed needle into Katie’s line of sight for a moment. “I find that when experimenting it can be much easier to control the mix of ingredients when aerosolised. When you’re ready, I want you to lift that collection of flowers up to your face and take a deep breath. Can you do that for me, Katie? One big, deep breath?” Thatch asked, speaking slowly and clearly, as if she expected Katie to not understand.
Katie did understand, though, she thought. She leaned over, bumping into Thatch’s warm side and slowly sliding downwards until her face was practically nestled within Thatch’s curated garden. It had a potent set of scents. Mostly it was just Thatch, but stronger. The walking flora smelled kind of sweet, with a little bit of tang around the edges. It was usually very subtle, but Katie had spent more than a few minutes with her nose pressed up right against Thatch at this point, and she was getting good at recognising it.
“That’s it,” Thatch whispered, one hand carefully pulling Katie’s hair out of her face, the other moving to the back of her head, either to comfort or to hold her down. It wasn’t clear. “Deep breaths for me now, Katie.”
Katie breathed in. Once, twice, and—
“Holy shit what,” she gasped, trying to pull the same expression as Thatch so often used where her whole body seemed to pull in and shrink. Katie couldn’t do that, but she could try to curl up into a ball small enough that the universe might take pity on her and let her slip into hyperspace. “No, I— This is awful, I want to go back,” she whimpered, breathing growing uneven and uncertain.
Thatch’s hands were around her a moment later, holding her close and still, head pointing outwards so she could watch the raging river beside them. It didn’t seem to help. What had been tranquil and beautiful now seemed overwhelming. “I— Why would you do this to me?” Katie hissed, trying to force her way out of Thatch’s iron grip, unsuccessfully.
The arms surrounding Katie didn’t budge. “I know, I’m sorry,” Thatch whispered, fingers drawing lines in Katie’s hair. “This is a lot and it shouldn’t have to be. I didn’t know what else to do, and then I made the mistake of letting you wander off without supervision, and I’m sorry. I should never have done this to you and I hope you can find a way to forgive me. I wasn’t sure how else to stop you from panicki—”
“Not that!” Katie said, voice still a whisper, as she shook her head. The lights were so bright. The sky was so dark. The insects buzzing around them were endless and she felt so fragile and cold. Worse, her thousand minor anxieties were all rushing back, forcing her to meet each one by one in an uncomfortable greeting. She’d lived with them for so long that everything had melted into one dull haze in the back of her mind, and coming back to it after some time away was torture.
“You— Thank you for calming me down before,” Katie managed to force between uneven breaths. “You should have stopped it straight away but that’s my bad not yours, I asked you not to and I didn’t know. N— Not again, okay? Don’t let me do that again. Don’t let me make that decision without knowing what I’m doing, okay?”
Thatch’s calming motions faltered for a moment, and she was silent for several more beyond, before finally coming to speak again. “I understand. I— won’t do this without asking again,” she whispered, voice quiet and a little halting.
“Not what I mean,” Katie insisted, reaching up to pull one of the plant’s arms down over her face, so she didn’t have to look at the outside world. “Calm was good. If I can’t have a conversation about it and I need to be calmed down, then do it, but don’t let me stop you from un-doing it unless I have a clear head. It was… really nice but this is awful, and it isn’t worth it,” Katie whimpered, holding Thatch’s arm close. It was good that the creature hadn’t bones, because she was pretty sure that a human arm couldn’t have bent like she was demanding this one did.
Thatch didn’t respond in words. The slow, firm soothing motions continued, making certain that Katie had no room to feel alone while she processed her every anxiety over from scratch. It took a while. By the time she was feeling calm enough to consider moving again, the sun was but a distant memory and the forest had finished coming to life. Even Thatch was a light show, covered in a dense pattern of glowing bulbs.
Eventually, things seemed still enough that Katie dared take a peek outside again. She still felt a spike of alarm at the life teeming around them, but no longer was it something that made her want to vanish into subatomic dust. Slowly, she pushed herself up. Thatch’s arms, leaves, and vines parted around her as she did, only reforming once she was through.
“Sorry,” Katie started, before getting cut off by a gentle shake of the head.
“Let’s keep our focus, hmn?” Thatch asked, raising herself to her feet in the entirely unfair manner of somebody who didn’t really have to worry about leverage or balance. Katie spent a moment figuring out how to stand up herself, from her seated position, and then awkwardly rose in a several-stage operation that left her palms dirty and her knee a little scuffed. Thatch had offered a helping hand, obviously, but hadn’t Katie been supported enough?
“Focus, right. Dinner?” Katie raised a hand to her mouth to cover a yawn. “…and bed?”
“Dinner and bed. We’ll worry about the fire tomorrow, hm? I think we haven’t time to cook anything tonight regardless, if you’re already yawning.”
Katie began to protest. Thatch raised a hand to her own mouth, while opening it, and Katie’s words were stifled by another yawn and then crushed beneath a raised eyebrow.
“Okay, okay, fine,” Katie said, raising her hands in defeat. “Did you find anything that looked edible?” Katie asked, cautiously skeptical. To her surprise, Thatch reached inside of one of her arms and did actually retrieve a small bundle of brightly coloured, triangular items.
“I found several other species around here which I believe should be edible, but I don’t think they would have a very pleasant taste uncooked. These are a kind of fruit, I believe, with high sugar content and I don’t feel any meaningful toxins. I don’t think they’ll be very healthy, so we’ll try to prevent these from being a staple of your diet, but for tonight I think you deserve some comfort food, don’t you?”
Thatch twisted the fruits out of their resting places. Had she taken the fruiting plants into herself too? Katie considered thinking about the implications of that, but as soon as Thatch handed one of the fruits over her body stopped pretending it wasn’t hungry and admitted that she hadn’t eaten for an entire day.
This one was bright red, a little hairy, and with an odd squish to it. Like a triangle, but with rounded points, and then extruded a centimeter or so into three dimensions, and about half the size of Katie’s hand otherwise. Katie made a face, carefully biting the tip, and winced as red juices began to drip.
She wrapped her lips around the damaged piece and tried to suck the juices out, and…
“Mmh!” she exclaimed, raising her eyebrows and giving Thatch a thumbs up. ‘Mostly sugar’ sounded about right. It was like a hairy chocolate bar, but one of the good ones, not the mass produced shit she’d usually gotten in deep space. It took thirty seconds or so before she’d drunk most of it, and unfortunately that was the good bit. The actual fruit was stringy, with a slightly bitter aftertaste and an uncomfortable partition between the outer skin and the flesh within that made it difficult to cut through with teeth alone. All the same, Katie chewed it down and held out her hand for another.
Thatch had several. A whole plant’s worth, by the look of it, but when Katie finished the second and held out her hand for a third, she got a gentle refusal instead.
“Katie, we need to ration these. We’ll make you something healthier tomorrow,” Thatch declared. Why was it her decision? Just because she’d been the one to find them?
Katie frowned up at her partner. “Aren’t we meant to be equals? You aren’t in charge of me. Give me the fruit, Thatch,” she insisted, holding out her hand for a long moment in a quiet standoff.
The noises of the forest continued to swirl around them. The quiet hum of a million insects, each individually so quiet as to be silent, but together forming an unavoidable presence. The twinkling lights surrounding them mostly held still but some whirled around on unseen currents, moving with unknown goals.
Thatch looked far more of this world than not, joining in on the celebration of night surrounding them. Most of the planet barely reacted to Katie’s presence, but that one small part that did was very focused. After a few moments more, Thatch handed a third fruit over.
“Thank you, Thatch,” Katie said, taking its weird hairy surface and giving it a gentle squeeze. She could feel the slippage within where the skin and the meat slid over each other.
“You’re welcome, Katie. Are you sure you’re still hungry? I imagine you don’t want to ruin your sleep, either, and too much sugar will keep you awake. I think I could synthesise something to calm you down, but that seems like a very heavy-handed solution, no?”
Katie glanced down at the fruit. She didn’t even want it any more. She bit into the side anyway, but after a moment of drinking she’d more than had enough. She pulled a face and held it away, watching the rest of the sweet nectar within dribble onto the undergrowth with a stomach full of regret.
Thatch reached out to take it back. “We’ll save the rest for later, then,” she said, slipping it back inside her body with a patient smile. “What’s next on your agenda?”
Katie glanced towards the sky. With the sun stolen away, the skies too were ablaze with a million million stars. An alien sky. As a Jump engineer Katie had crossed the length and breadth of Terran space and there was a difference in the skies between one side and the other, but it was subtle.
This sky, though, was unrecognisable. How far out had they gone? Just how far away had they gotten thrown?
“It’s getting late,” Katie admitted. “Time for bed?”
Thatch nodded to herself. “Aren’t you forgetting something, little Katie?” she asked, raising her eyebrows and staring down at the girl. Katie squirmed on her feet. Was she? What was there to forget here on an alien rock hanging below an alien sky?
Katie tilted her head to one side, uncomprehending, until Thatch continued. “Your medication, Katie, remember?” she asked, and Katie winced. She was usually pretty okay at remembering it, but it was a routine. As soon as the routine was interrupted her mind just never went there, and what was more of a routine interruption than this?
“Oh, right, that,” she said, feeling the blush rising on her cheeks. Given that it was the one thing in this universe keeping her sane she really should keep better track of it. She looked back up at Thatch, suddenly realising the implication. “Wait, you’ve made some? It’s ready?”
The affini nodded, opening an arm to retrieve another twisted collection of vines and flowers that looked surprisingly intricate for flora. “Now, I’ll need to be sure you understand the consequences, as per our earlier agreement, before we do this.”
Katie nodded quickly. “Yeah yeah, I got the whole informed consent thing out of the way a while back, gimme.”
Thatch deftly avoided Katie’s attempt to grab the bundle of leaves, shifting away with preternatural ease. Katie again cursed the creature’s ability to seemingly ignore inertia and balance by simply faking the whole body to begin with. “This is likely to be a little different. I wasn’t able to perfectly reproduce human-level medication, so this is likely to be a lot more impactful, and you might notice some changes—”
“That’s the point, Thatch! I want changes! I promise I understand,” Katie protested. Thatch continued to avoid her for a moment more, before finally wrapping a vine around Katie’s torso and forcing her to calm down.
“You promised, Katie. We’d talk about anything that might ‘mess with your head’, and these might. If you wish to let me dose you with anything so long as I think you’d want it, then don’t you think that rather leaves a gap in your defenses? If you’d rather I simply go ahead and do what I think would make you happy, however…”
Katie shook her head rapidly. “Ah, no, okay, yes, let’s talk!” She remembered the last thing Thatch had given her quite clearly. When she thought about it now it terrified her, but at the time? Her head had been quiet and accepting, and she hadn’t really minded at all. Was Katie one bad decision away from getting dosed with something that would stop her from ever wanting to be truly clear-headed again? She had to be careful here, if she was to get out of this with her sanity intact.
“My last hormone prescription did mess with my head a little,” she admitted, “but it was all good. I stopped feeling so dead inside all the time and started actually having emotions. Is this going to be more of that?”
Thatch nodded. “I believe so. Unless I made some big mistakes somewhere, it should be just like that. I’ve watered it down as much as I can so it’s closer to your old dosage, but we can make it stronger over time if your body gets on with it. Until then, it’ll still have to be a daily thing, but that should make it easier for you to remember. You know what to do here, right?”
Katie nodded. “Deep breaths,” she said, as Thatch brought the bundle of plantlife up to her face, and raised a hand to rest against the top of Katie’s hair.
“That’s right,” Thatch replied, voice soft and quiet. “Deep breath for me, now, Katie. Breath in. Hold,” Thatch guided, voice soft but firm. This was medicine, after all, you couldn’t mess around with it. Katie breathed, smelling a potent floral scent. A mix of Thatch’s usual aroma and a few other, more subtle smells, thick in the air.
Wherever the scent touched seemed to tingle, and as she took it into her body, Katie briefly thought she could feel the shape of her own lungs, before the soft sensation diffused throughout her entire form. Her skin felt lighter, her mind a little softer, but she was sure that was just her imagination. Just excited to be back on her medication.
Katie held her breath, only starting to worry towards the end, when it started to burn. Thankfully, Thatch continued. “And out. You did very well, Katie. One more time?”
Katie nodded. Was the lightheadedness because she’d been holding her breath or an effect of the new medication? Either way, she breathed it in again. Thatch didn’t count with words this time, instead using a hand to indicate when Katie should breathe. True to her question, the second was the last, and while Katie was still holding her breath Thatch was busying herself folding the grouping back inside of herself.
Thatch’s hand dropped; Katie breathed back out. It took a few moments for her breathing to steady afterwards, and several more for the scent to leave her nostrils, but Katie felt good. She wasn’t going to be stranded here without her medication and that made everything seem a little bit easier. There were still going to be challenges, but… the challenge seemed more surmountable if she had a more stable foundation to begin from.
Thatch smiled down at her, one hand still resting lightly on the back of Katie’s head. She pulled it away quickly, once she noticed. “Feeling okay, Katie?”
The girl nodded rapidly. “I—Yeah, thank you. This helps, a lot. I owe you one.”
Thatch raised a hand, shaking her head. “Debts are not a concept my people are comfortable with. Consider it a gift. Now, time for bed, perhaps?” she asked, stretching her false face with a false yawn that brought a real one to Katie’s lips.
There was hardly much to prepare for bedtime. Without any meaningful camp to speak of, it was mostly a matter of finding a chunk of undergrowth that looked well sheltered and lying down in it. Katie picked one just out of sight of the river, hoping that come morning the sunlight would still wake her up. Thatch spent a few minutes poking and prodding at an area a few meters away, before eventually unceremoniously collapsing, bipedal form slumping apart in a display that probably should have been more discomforting than it was. Katie watched the way that her travelling companion went from being a person to something closer to a small hedge with interest.
If she looked for the person, Thatch was all gone. No face, no body, nothing. If she looked for Thatch, though, she was hard to miss. The same curiously hesitant way of moving. The same subtle aura of quiet surrounding her, something that Katie had only started noticing as they’d gotten deeper into the day. The same sweet scent. Katie had never really lost the sense that she was being watched, either, though she still couldn’t prove it any better than she’d been able to when they’d first met.
Katie rolled over, pointing her head away from the glowing pile of leaves that was her… what? Companion, certainly. Partner, ostensibly. Friend? Hardly, but perhaps growing in that direction.
It was time to sleep.
Katie wondered if any part of their escape pod had made it to the ground. The last she’d seen it it had been disintegrating, so probably not, right? That was kind of a metaphor, right? The works of the Terran Accord burning up, leaving only her, right?
Ugh. Sleep! Katie rolled over in the other direction, maybe hoping that her thoughts would get lost in rotation.
How were they going to get off of this planet? Katie was a talented engineer and Thatch certainly seemed to have some smarts of her own, but what use was hypermetric theory if you didn’t even have a campfire? Breaking the spacetime barrier required exotic forms of matter that they just didn’t have access to. What were they gonna do, build a particle accelerator out of twigs?
Mrngf. Katie tried sleeping on her stomach but that was just painful, so she lay on her back instead.
It was cold.
The twinkling lights wanted to stab through her eyelids.
Her brain didn’t want to let go. She was tired, but… hell, she hoped this wasn’t having had too much sugar. Dumb stupid plant being right all the time.
With a sigh, Katie sat up and shuffled over to the only clump of plant matter around that she knew the name of, and took a moment to identify the sheet of leaves and vines that usually adorned Thatch’s back.
“Not a word,” she whispered, as she tugged the sheet over to her chosen sleeping position. By the time she’d gotten there, there was a little bed of vines in place too, and at this point in the night Katie wasn’t going to complain. It took a few more moments to figure out where she wanted everything, and then she took her place lying down and pulled the foliage over her. It was slightly warm and much more comfortable, and the only real problem was—
“Thatch, could you get the lights?” Katie whispered, and a few moments later, all the plants in the sheet began to dim, before going entirely dark. Katie tucked her head underneath, breathed deep of a familiar scent, and was asleep within moments.