Chapter Ten: Shouting Fire In An Empty Room
The instant of a faster-than-light Jump felt much like standing next to the instruments in a voidcrash rave, but only for a heartbeat. Katie had been told, anyway. It wasn’t her scene, but she could see how it could be, if the metaphor held.
It was like getting kicked across your whole body, a deep thud that felt like it should have knocked you to your knees, but without physical force behind it. Even with the tightest quantum shielding they could build, the hypermetric shock that marked a spacecraft’s emergence into real-space bled back inside as a force that wasn’t really a force. It couldn’t be measured, but everybody who’d flown aboard a spaceship knew it. It was like the bottom of the world had fallen through and the rules were breaking down. Just for an instant. Just for long enough to notice, but not so long you could be certain of what it was.
Katie watched the dials and readouts on the side panel of her cherished Jump Drive. The fuel mix was hovering at a cool hundred degrees kelvin, stable and ready. The last thing anybody wanted was to see that thermostat creep up. That was the stuff nightmares were made of.
All nominal. Ready to jump. All Katie had to do was dial in the destination and begin the process. This was a simple trade route between two well populated systems, carrying a cargo hold full of ice down to a desert world. They’d pay through the nose for water on their long summers, and so the entire crew of the Atlantis’s Fortune were working triple shifts to haul it back and forth. Not that they’d see a credit of the profit on it.
Katie’s nimble fingers carefully took the aluminium knob of the main fuel valve and turned it three notches to the right, smooth and gentle. A needle on the corresponding dial started its long crawl upwards. A blend of exotic particles rushed into the central chamber of the drive, suspended in gravitational lenses while the temperature inevitably and irrevocably rose. At fifty below freezing, the mix would undergo a phase change, from gaseous straight through to something they hadn’t quite figured out yet.
…what you did was pop spacetime…
Katie’s finger twitched, momentarily raising the fuel feed a little too high. She corrected it an instant later, but she was already on edge.
All she had to do was let the fuel heat up enough, keep the lenses balanced and oriented correctly, and aim the quantum arch towards their destination. She’d done this a hundred times. Easy. As soon as the fuel underwent hypersublimation, the hyperspace window would open, and they’d jump through to the other end and all feel the kick of a hypermetric shock.
What did ‘hyper’ even mean? Was that just a word that they attached to things that didn’t quite make sense?
…You haven’t figured out the fifth fundamental force yet…
She had no idea what she was doing, did she? Katie was a wreck in real-space, why would she be any better in hyper-space? She couldn’t even get through the day without medical intervention, and she was expected to play with forces she literally didn’t understand? This was madness. This was—
The fuel in the reactor hit two hundred twenty three point one five kelvin and spacetime got torn in half.
…Don’t do that! It’s really bad!…
The Atlantis’s Fortune… fell? Rose?
The Atlantis’s Fortune was engulfed by broken space, left hanging over eternity. Katie looked forward and locked eyes with the void. She echoed through time, a thousand thousand copies locked into the same path. Behind Katie was Katie. Ahead, was Katie. In fact, everything was Katie. Backward and forward in time, to each side the infinite possible paths that could have led her here, and above and below the infinite versions of her she could have been. A matrix of every eventuality.
…Most of the time little holes like that close up…
She seemed miserable. In all of them. Every past, every future. Every way she could have gotten here. Every her that could have gotten to every way. None of them happy, not even in the future.
A future that was getting cut short, future Katies scattering into dust one at a time. Had something gone wrong with the jump? Did she have any idea how this worked? What she was doing? What she was playing with? What was wrong with her? Why had she agreed to do this, when it so obviously could never make her happy? Katie screamed as her future selves vanished one by one until finally, it was her turn.
Katie woke up with a sharp intake of breath, scrambling to put her back against a tree, eyes wide. She sat there, breathing hard, not really taking in what she was looking at, fingers clutching at the leaves resting over her.
That… wasn’t how it had happened. Katie knew that wasn’t what had happened. The Atlantis’s Fortune had reached its destination without incident. She’d jumped that ship a dozen times without problem. They’d only replaced her because… well, humans weren’t exactly accepting out in the fringes.
Katie squeezed shut her eyes and focused on her memory of the real thing. She’d twitched, yeah, but she’d corrected it. It had been fine. Jump’d run a little hot, but that just meant extra waste at the far side, not… that.
Didn’t it? Her classes had covered a lot of the practical aspects of Jump Drive operation and maintenance, but when it came to modeling the physics behind it all, there was a lot of conjecture. A lot of guesswork. Ships went missing sometimes, or… ships went missing a lot these days, but before humanity had found itself in a war, ships did sometimes still just vanish. Who was to say that they weren’t falling foul of a one in a million fluke; having their atoms scattered across the universe because none of them really understood what was going on?
This was Katie’s profession. The one thing that human society had always agreed actually mattered about her life; the way she could contribute to the grinding engine of capitalism. To the society that she had come from it was really the only thing that had mattered, and having her confidence in it shaken hurt.
Why? She was never going to be allowed near a Jump Drive again either way. She was…
Katie took a deep, pained breath, hands clenching. She had too much nervous energy and she needed to do something. She needed to fiddle with something. The undergrowth at her hands would do. She plucked a leaf and began to tear it into scraps. She—
“Katie?”, spoke a voice that was… airy, like a whisper caught by the breeze and delivered to her ear though there was no meaningful wind to speak of. Katie glanced around, forcing herself to actually look at what she was seeing. She was alone here, there was nobody around.
“Oh, my apologies,” the voice continued. A beat later, the undergrowth covering Katie pulled away, leaving her suddenly cold. A surprising amount of the plantlife surrounding her followed, contracting towards a central point, and—
It was Thatch, obviously. Of course it was. Was Katie just going to have to get used to this weird alien stuff, now? The affini gathered herself up, vines curling into approximately the right shape, but a little padded out and overly large, before pulling tight. The whole thing took a matter of seconds, and Katie was getting less overwhelmed by the storm of motion each time.
Thatch reformed kneeling, holding out a hand to touch Katie’s cheek, with a face that looked some combination of bemused and annoyed. Katie surmised that that was unintentional, as it pulled into a look of concern a moment later.
“I would appreciate it if you wouldn’t pluck my leaves without asking, Katie, but is something wrong?” For a few brief moments, Katie had been able to tell herself that the events of yesterday had been just a dream, but the waking world had a way of stealing those hopes away, didn’t it? She was still stuck on… the rock. The planet they were on. Whatever it was called.
She was still trapped with this creature, the enemy combatant she was meant to hate, that she’d just wasted the last year of her life fighting against. The soft leaves slightly pressing into her cheek tingled slightly. Thatch was another living creature, and in this situation, Katie would take what she could get.
Katie nodded, glancing away. “I had a bad dream,” she admitted. “I’m okay, just frazzled. We have lots to do today, I’ll probably feel better once I make myself useful.”
Katie moved to stand, but found a vine blocking her path. She glanced back up with a frown at the affini, who’s expression had only shifted deeper into concern.
“You don’t need to make yourself anything, Katie. We have, frankly, all the time in this world to talk. An hour or two here and there isn’t going to make much difference, and we’ll both be much better off if we’re happy.”
Katie looked away, feeling a surge of embarrassment. “It was just a bad dream, it’s no big deal. I’ll be fine,” Katie insisted, fishing for some way of changing the subject. “I am pretty hungry, though. Got any more of those fruits?”
“Maybe for dessert.” Thatch seemed to take the bait. “We’re going to do some cooking this morning. We have flowing water, plenty of firewood, several species I think you’ll find quite palatable, and even some things that I think should work as spices.”
One of Thatch’s seemingly infinite vines turned Katie’s head with a gentle yet insistent touch, so that she could observe Thatch attempting to put her foot down. “We can talk about your dream while we prepare the meal,” Thatch continued, voice firm. It was a little cute, given that Katie knew full well the plant would cave at a sharp glare, but she reluctantly kept her gaze soft. Talking about it might actually help.
“Yeah, okay,” Katie accepted. “I kinda want to talk to you about some of it anyway.” She’d had more important things to think about, but the brief conversation they’d had the day before about the physics of faster than light travel had clearly rattled Katie, if the dream was anything to go by. How could she know so little about her life’s work?
Thatch nodded, with a smile. “But, ah, before that I need your help with something. I’ve gathered some wood and rocks, and we can make a fire, if you can light it. I believe I’ve located the right types of rock, with which you can make a spark.”
Thatch spoke with a little more hesitation in her voice than usual. Katie didn’t think she would have noticed, if she hadn’t seen how Thatch behaved under stress the day before. Katie’s eyes flicked over the creature’s body, noting the way the precise pattern of plantlife was squeezing in a little tighter than normal. Almost quivering, if Katie tried to apply a human mannerism to it. Thatch’s face betrayed little of it, but her voice and her body gave the impression of reluctance, even worry.
Katie looked the affini in the eye with a curious frown, shuffling around until she could sit up straight, and tilted her head to one side, questioning. “Why do you need me for that? You’re stronger than me, faster, why don’t you do it?”
Again, no response on the face. Thatch maintained her air of effortless confidence in every human respect, but it was still incredibly transparent. Katie had only known her a day, and Thatch’s trick had fallen flat.
“I might simply be looking for ways for you to make yourself useful.” Thatch had a wry smile on her face and a dry drawl on her lips, and her body gave away that it was all lies.
Katie reached up and ruffled the thing’s hair. She had to practically stand to reach, but it was worth it to see surprise breaking through the facade. “You might, but you’re not,” Katie agreed. “Talk to me. Bad dreams for you too?”
Thatch finally let the frown that had been struggling to get out show. She huffed, but that wasn’t really human either. The air seemed to move through her whole body, rather than just her lungs, giving Katie the impression of a much larger sound than it otherwise should have been. She still wasn’t scared of this thing, though, or at least nowhere near as much as she had been before they’d met. Thatch was like her, even if she refused to admit it.
“The fire,” Thatch admitted, voice quiet. Her tangled weave hugged in tighter, cutting an inch off of her height. “Back on the ship. I couldn’t sleep, the scene just kept replaying in my head. Did you know—” Thatch split a hole in her torso, revealing the tangled mass of green vines that seemed to be where the rest of her emerged. It rotated in place, until Katie could see an area that had been scarred by flame— “I was so distracted yesterday that I didn’t stop to properly check myself over until you had gone to sleep, at which point I found this.”
The parting in Thatch’s torso closed back up. Vines in two perpendicular directions pulled tight against each other in what looked like a sturdy weave. Certainly Katie didn’t expect she’d be able to get it open herself, nor had she seen anything else on this planet that could.
“I nearly died on board that ship, Katie. I did lose half my mass, and had to abandon the rest. I had not… planned to bloom again for a long, long time, and everything feels wrong. I am clumsy. I am not put together right and I do not move the same way that I used to. I wanted you to wake up to a freshly cooked meal, but I held the rocks and…”
Thatch shook her head, shifting her shoulders in an approximate shrug. “I know that it could not really hurt me, but I just… remember the way half my body went dead in an instant.”
“Shit,” Katie breathed. “I’m sorry. I… understand, I think. I didn’t get that badly hurt, but I don’t think I’ll ever forget the heat or the sound. It feels wrong to apologise, because I meant to hurt you, and if I was in the same situation again with what I know now, I can’t say… It felt like it was you or me, right?”
Thatch shook her head, waving her hand dismissively. “You did not do this to me; I did this to me.”
“Uh, I was the one who scuttled the ship, Thatch.” Clearly the flora was used to taking responsibility for things that weren’t her fault, but this one was something Katie had done herself, with her own hands and her own skills.
“And I was the one who let you, Katie,” the plant shot back, voice infuriatingly even.
Katie bared her teeth, reaching up to yank off another small leaf from the side of Thatch’s arm. The transplanted parts didn’t seem any stronger than the original plantlife, at least. The affini winced, either in pain or a reasonable facsimile, as Katie tore the leaf in half in front of her face. “Will you let me apologise for that? I swear, you fucking weed, let me take responsibility, yeah? You can’t be responsible for literally everything that happens around you, it isn’t healthy.”
Two of Thatch’s stronger vines came in from each side, to wrap around Katie’s wrists and hold them apart and away from anything fragile. The girl glared, and continued regardless. “It isn’t healthy, Thatch. You’re not a god. You’re a sapient creature just like me who’s scared of fire and pretends to be less of an emotional wreck than she is.”
Thatch was frozen up. Even the small amount of flex that Katie’s struggles usually bought her had vanished. Was Thatch normally pretending to be weaker than she was, on top of everything else? Katie growled, utterly failing to squirm out of the iron grip, and continued. “Stop beating yourself up and let yourself be helped, already, okay? You’re allowed to screw up.”
Thatch met Katie’s growl with one of her own. Much deeper, much louder. It buzzed the air. Katie could feel it in her chest. Against her hair. This thing was not just like her in a lot of ways that didn’t matter, and Katie was gambling that she was in the way that did.
“You do not know me,” Thatch hissed. “I am not like you, little human. We can work together, but do not presume to—”
Katie shook her head, interrupting. Her voice was shaking and unsteady, but then, she would freely admit she wasn’t as good as Thatch at acting. “Thatch, please. Eyes on me, please focus. Equals, r-remember? And… Please less ‘human’?”
For a brief, tense moment, Katie worried that she’d pushed too far… and then Thatch’s shoulders sagged, and she was lowered to the ground.
Thatch didn’t so much turn away as her entire body flowed to the opposite side of the clearing. No footsteps, just a mess of vines shifting away in the blink of an eye. She collapsed into a tangle that buzzed for a few short moments before starting to speak.
Her voice was a little different like this. A little higher pitched. A slight echo. Still recognisably Thatch, with the same intonations and the same unsung rhythm backing every word. “Sorry,” she said. “Sorry. I am sorry. I panicked and… that was not okay. I am meant to be in control,” she said, holding up a flower in rough approximation of a hand to forestall the obvious response. “But I am not. My body is not moving right and I can not make myself light that fire; I could not sleep; and I thought that I could at least claim responsibility over the unknowing actions of a ward, and that would help. I can not make mistakes, Katie. The consequences are too great.”
Katie was still breathing hard, adrenaline only very slowly draining away. She idly rubbed the skin on her wrists, where the vines had grabbed her. It didn’t hurt, but there was still a leftover tingling, something warm and gentle. That had been what had given it all away. It had still been a gentle touch, despite everything.
Katie walked over to the crumpled pile of plant and spent a moment rearranging to make a little divot, into which she promptly sat. “Yeah,” she finally replied, word short and a little harder than she’d intended. “Yeah, I’ve done that too,” she admitted. “Not— Not exactly that. I can’t do the things that you can do, but I have panicked and lashed out because somebody doesn’t know when to shut up and leave me alone.”
Katie lay back. Even as a formless pile of greenery, Thatch still had a comfortable warmth and a gentle scent. She could feel it through her whole body when Thatch spoke this way, and the sounds came out a little muffled. Half of it felt like it was just vibrations rattling her skull. “Mmmmh,” Thatch thrummed, as magnificent as any Jump Drive. “And how did you deal with that, Katie?”
The girl laughed. “I learned how to poke holes in spacetime and ran. I’m not a good example to learn from.”
Thatch rumbled again. Maybe a groan, maybe a laugh? It was hard to tell. “I can help you with that,” she said, voice slightly discordant, but… was this sarcasm again? The difference was barely perceptible at the best of times, but Katie was learning.
“With the running, or the holes?”
“Yes. I am supposed to be able to make you the best version of yourself, Katie. That is the whole point of my being here, to help. Except that if I had not gotten involved you would likely be much happier.”
Katie rested a hand on one of the vines. She had no idea if it was sensitive enough to feel anything, but hopefully it was the thought that counted. “And who makes you the best that you can be? You? You obviously can’t take care of yourself alone, Thatch. I think I need you to help me survive here, but I don’t get anything out of the green saviour routine, so how about we drop it and take care of each other? I’ll set the fire going, we can talk about dreams, and then we’ll sit down and figure out a plan for the day, yeah?”
Thatch’s body pulled in tighter for a moment, but soon after she buzzed an affirmative, wordless sound. Katie could feel Thatch’s heat rise and fall with a gentle rhythm, in time with her own breaths. Did it serve the same purpose?
“Okay,” Katie breathed, voice quiet, though given the two of them were entwined it seemed unlikely she could speak quietly enough Thatch wouldn’t hear even if she’d tried. “I had some friends once who struggled with anxiety attacks.” Katie ignored the complaint from beneath. “Breathing exercises helped them, sometimes. I don’t know if you really breathe, but you must have some rhythms, and can we try slowing those down?”
After a few moments of quiet, Thatch began to reform. A vine or three held Katie in her prior position while the creature rebuilt itself underneath, only to finally let her fall back into place once she was sitting in Thatch’s lap, leaning back against their torso.
Katie closed her eyes, taking a deeper breath, letting the last of her adrenaline drain away while Thatch’s arms came around to wrap around her chest. Her scent was all the stronger in the moments after such rapid movement, body warmed through the rush of exertion, soft vines leaving tingles in their wake.
Katie felt air moving against the back of her head as Thatch spoke. “Yes, let’s.”
Katie nodded. “Then, please close your eyes, and follow along with me. Breathe in, or whatever you’re going to do, and hold it there.”
The soft heat radiating out of Thatch’s warm vines, and especially the area around the central core Katie had seen earlier, grew stronger. Katie let her head fall back, resting against soft foliage, while the warmth suffused her. With her eyes closed and a comfortable weight over her chest, she had to fight against a rising urge to yawn, but thankfully only for a few moments.
Katie was very aware that she was simply repackaging Thatch’s guidance from the night before, but she also understood how difficult it could be to take your own advice. If laundering it so Thatch didn’t realise it was hers helped, then Katie would happily be unoriginal.
Whatever it was that Thatch was doing was as obvious as breathing, or more, this close up. The heat fell away, leaving Katie cold. Subconsciously, she pressed a little closer into Thatch’s soft weave. “Let’s do that a few more times, yeah?” Katie asked. “Slow ‘breaths’, or whatever.”
She couldn’t see Thatch’s response, but she could feel the slight movement of a nod, before the heat rose again. Katie let her head turn, resting her cheek against a set of leaves, concentrating on the slow ripples of warmth rolling out of her companion. The heat faded, drawing Katie closer in, and then rose again, filling her. More up and down than in and out, but it was easy for Katie to match her own breathing to it. Each cycle, breathing in as the heat rose, feeling comfort and breathing a sweet scent, and then breathing out as it fell, emptying herself of warmth and air.
The next thing Katie knew, there was a vine against her chin, tilting her head up to look at what seemed to be an amused smirk. Not that Katie could trust the expressions on Thatch’s face, given how much control she had over them. The real secrets lay elsewhere.
“Napping, Katie?” she asked.
Thatch’s heavy arms remained protectively crossed, holding Katie down. A moment’s squirming didn’t find escape, and the vine kept her from looking away. Katie felt her cheeks flush. She didn’t want Thatch thinking she was lazy, she was as willing to work for their survival as anyone would be!
“Didn’t— Maybe didn’t sleep enough?” she asked, sentence ending with a hopeful lilt. Thatch seemed to consider it for a few moments, before letting Katie look away, to hide her embarrassment. Katie managed to squirm out from underneath Thatch’s arms, or more likely, she was released from them.
Humiliating. She’d only just gotten up, and was already being lulled back to sleep? They had a whole day in front of them yet, and Katie intended to prove that she could be useful.
Without looking back, Katie kneeled to inspect the firepit Thatch had already built. How hard could starting a fire be, really? She heard the creature behind her rising, with a repetitive sound that could have been a chuckle, or a cough. Perhaps holding her ‘breath’, whatever that process was, was more challenging for an affini than a humanoid?
Katie struggled to imagine anything being a challenge for Thatch.