Chapter Eleven: Stone Soup
Katie looked down at a carefully arranged pile of sticks, leaves, and logs in the middle of their small clearing. It looked suspiciously like Thatch knew what she was doing, though Katie was hesitant to grant that honour. How much of this knowledge was stuff the affini had simply learned in the abstract, from books or… however the Affini collected their knowledge? A hundred years old or not, surely she’d never actually constructed a campfire out of wood.
Katie looked down at the two rocks Thatch had provided. One was a rough thing that seemed to want to crumble already; the other had more of a golden sheen. Thatch stood several feet away. Further away than she needed to.
“And I just hit these together?” Katie asked, miming bashing the two into one another.
Thatch shook her head, and sent a pair of vines the long way around, staying far away from the firepit. “More like this, I believe.” She gently grasped Katie’s wrists in a soft grip and moved them together at an angle, though stopped short of actually striking. The vines retreated, giving Katie the space to try it for real.
The collision produced a small shower of sparks. Both jumped back in surprise, but Katie crept forward again, kneeling by the pile of wood, and struck the two rocks against each other once more. The sparks blanketed the dead material, collecting over it for a moment… but fizzled. Katie tried again, and this time one of the dry leaves caught. It took long seconds, but the leaf burned up, short and bright, and just long enough for one of the smaller twigs to catch.
The flames danced after that. They jumped from twig to stick to branch to log. Heat rose steadily, and Katie let her eyes slide closed, sitting backwards, enjoying the flickering warmth licking her skin. Apparently Thatch did know what she was doing, here.
Katie opened one eye, to find her companion staring at the flames, frozen in place. She pushed herself up onto her feet and hurried over, standing between Thatch and the firepit.
“Hey, eyes on me, right?” Katie said. She watched for a response, eyes flickering over leaves and roots, and then finally the face. The bright green glow of Thatch’s eyes shifted, focusing, and Katie nodded, raising a hand to a purple cheek flecked with strikes of vivid red so that they could turn around without breaking that focus. “You’re okay. It’s not gonna hurt you. It isn’t like the ship, where everything was falling apart, you have everything here well under control.”
Thatch took a deep breath, or whatever the simulated equivalent of that was. Air rushed through her body. She nodded. “I do. I think I am okay, now. Thank you. I expect I will get more used to this soon.”
Katie nodded. “Do you want to get closer? It’s quite pretty, close up. Perfectly safe. You did everything right, I think, there’s nothing around it to burn except what we want it to be burning. C’mon, I’ll keep you safe.” Katie extended a hand; Thatch took it, and the two of them moved closer to the flame.
“It might be nice to get something to sit on,” Katie noted, guiding them both to a spot a couple feet away from the flames, where they could rest on the dirt. Katie was aware of how worried Thatch had seemed, and refused to let go of the creature’s hand as they took their place. Given the sheer scale of the affini, keeping hold of a hand practically necessitated leaning against her side, but Thatch didn’t seem to complain about that, and if it brought comfort, then so be it.
They sat in near-silence for long moments. Occasionally, one of the burning logs would crack or pop, and though Thatch didn’t obviously seem to respond, the momentary rush of heat suggested she wasn’t entirely unfazed. Katie waggled the hand back and forth a few inches, partially as a reminder she was there, and partially to check that the vines hadn’t frozen up again. They hadn’t. Whatever was going on in Thatch’s head, she was still making the apparently conscious decision to let her body be moved.
Over the minutes, an invisible tension in the air seemed to go slack. When it was all-but gone, Thatch waggled her hand back. A leaf brushed against Katie’s cheek, and the girl looked up, to find Thatch’s attention had shifted onto her.
“Thank you. I appreciate this. I would like your permission to express my affection in a way you are comfortable with.” Thatch was clearly holding herself back, fighting against her cultural imperatives. That had been part of the agreement. No pet names, and apparently by inference, a minimum of physical messing, though the Affini seemed incapable of wholly avoiding that.
“Among humans,” Katie replied, with half a grin, “it is customary to express affection through hugs. Gosh, I can tell you learned English from a book, Thatch. I wonder if I can teach you any of my bad habits before we leave, like—”
Katie’s words were cut off by a sudden “oof,” as she found herself squeezed against the plant’s side in a powerful single-arm hug. She could breathe—just about—but talking was an impossibility. How much of Thatch’s understanding of human bodies was as abstract as her understanding of the firepit? Did she just know how much force they could handle, but lacked the visceral knowledge of first hand experience? Katie flailed for a moment, then gently pushed back against the arm until the force relented. After a moment to breathe, she pulled back in on it until it was comfortable.
That was, as it happened, still too tight to speak.
The snaps and crackles of their flame drew attention still, but neither seemed to find it alarming. A few insects found the commotion intriguing, and flew to investigate, perhaps wondering what a bright point of light was doing here in the middle of the day. Thankfully, the heat stopped them short of leaping between the logs.
The morning was firmly in progress, and the planet was going back to sleep. The plants were dim; the insects few; the sounds of the forest at a low ebb. A soft breeze flowed in from upriver, bringing with it cool, humid air, and for a few soft minutes the only sounds around were the rustling of leaves and the irregular rhythm of a controlled flame.
Katie’s stomach rumbled, adding an unwelcome third instrument to what had been a pleasant duet.
Thatch’s arm went slack. “Okay, I think that is quite enough of that. You had something you were going to talk to me about, and I have a meal to prepare. How about you sit right there and get comfortable and I shall make you a nice breakfast?”
Thatch began to rise, but Katie was too clever for her, and grabbed the arm that still draped over her shoulder tightly, forcing Thatch to lift her as well. She shook her head. “I can contribute. If we’re cooking I want to do my part. What’re we making?”
Thatch emitted a low rumble. One of the mannerisms Katie hadn’t quite figured out yet, but apparently not a negative one. One of the ways in which the plant, rampant imperialist or not, was beautiful was the way in which she was a garden unto herself. The compressed weave of her arm parted, letting a vine slide out, bringing with it a small collection of weird looking items.
Unlike the fruits of the day before, these were darker colours. Less attractive by far. About half were deep purple oblate spheroids, with a small root system that had merged with Thatch’s natural biology. The others were more of a rounded rectangle in unappealing brown, four or five to a twisted vine that terminated somewhere within Thatch’s interior.
Katie couldn’t help but grumble. Female-cut engineering overalls didn’t even get pockets, and here Thatch was operating as a walking pantry.
“I do not expect you will enjoy the taste of these, but sufficient care and attention should soften the sharp edges. We have clean, fresh water, and—thanks to you—we now have heat. There are plenty of rocks of useful shapes around the riverbed, so I believe we should be able to construct a reasonably inflammable container, albeit one we’ll need to be careful with. The ingredients will need preparation, additionally. Which would you like to handle, Katie?”
The affini paused, with a gentle smile on her face, awaiting a decision. Katie considered it, though in truth it was not a hard choice. She only had the one set of clothes, and going diving in such a fast-moving river seemed dangerous. “I can handle preparation. What needs doing?”
Thatch twisted a few of each ingredient off and handed the small pile over. “We shall need these washed and the outer layer removed. Ah, hmn, you’ll need a tool for that, I suppose—” Thatch’s eyes flicked up and to the right in an unusually human expression. A moment later, one of her smaller vines poked out from a wrist, tying around itself a few times. The end result looked much like a handle, though all that was at the end was a jagged looking thorn. With a pained expression, Thatch grabbed onto the handle and the vine connecting it to her and pulled them apart, then handed the tool over. “Please be careful with this, you have experience with how sharp these are. It should remain sharp by itself for a few days, though after that you’ll likely need another.”
Katie took the tool. Almost on instinct, she raised a finger to press against the tip, to test the edge, only to find another vine had gotten in the way. Katie glanced up to find the vine’s origin raising an eyebrow down at her. “Doesn’t that hurt?” Katie asked.
“Yes, but not as much as it would to see you injure yourself. Please be careful. I am trusting you, here.” Thatch retracted the vine, though still watched closely to make sure Katie didn’t jab herself anyway. She didn’t; Katie tested the tool on one of the vegetables cradled in her arm. It sunk right in, without much by way of resistance. Good enough.
She made her way over to the river. The bank varied in height, mostly being a few feet above the water level, but perhaps a minute’s walk downstream led her to an area where the water and ground almost met. Perfect for cleaning. Thatch followed, fishing out a wide rock with a flat top, which she spent a few moments fussing over before placing at the side of the river. Somewhere to put the ingredients, Katie supposed.
The girl sat cross legged on the bank. The river was fast enough here that the irregular spray often caught her, but it was closer to a cooling mist than real water, and a few minutes by the fire would dry her well, she suspected. She shot her companion a smile, but was immediately distracted as the affini took a running jump into the water.
Though Katie had perhaps gotten used to Thatch assuming her bipedal form, she was not used to the shapeshifter in general. Midway through the ten foot high leap, Thatch’s body untangled, pausing at the apex as an unordered mess of red, black, purple, and green. It was a moment that seemed to stretch into ten, but couldn’t truly have lasted beyond an instant.
On the way back down, her shape refined, becoming long and pointed, like a three meter long arrow falling from the sky. She crashed through the water’s surface with barely a splash, and even the wave caused by so much displaced water was quickly lost within the fierce current. Katie leaned forward, breath half held, as she waited for the re-emergence.
It didn’t take long. Something more serpentine than human slithered through the water, breaking through the surface in a shower of mist as it hunted. The river’s flow was far beyond anything Katie expected she could survive within, but this creature looked at home here.
Katie took a deep breath. No wonder Thatch didn’t try too hard to maintain human mannerisms, when being human was clearly so limiting. She forced her attention back down to her hands, lowering the vegetables into the water to rub and clean them, before taking her tool and scraping the skin away. It cut easily, and the work wasn’t hard, but it was difficult not to feel inferior. While Thatch cut through the water like a mythical monster, Katie cut vegetables.
Was that discouraging, or was it a sign that the cosmos had so much more to offer than the Terran Accord ever could have? Katie watched the blurred shape beneath the waves turn a hundred degrees in the blink of an eye, spearing out towards something Katie couldn’t spot. She thought of the frozen biped staring into a flame.
This wasn’t a mythical beast. As capable as one, perhaps, but what happened when all that potential got wrapped up into something as fragile as a living creature? Give humanity this power and they’d wipe themselves out within the decade, and while the Affini Compact had clearly outlasted that, it evidently wasn’t because they were without flaw.
Katie watched scraps of food waste float down the river, serene for just a moment until the currents pulled them towards the chaos and scattered them. Something would find them and feast, Katie hoped. A far cry from waste disposal in the Accord, where anything which could be burned for power would be, and to hell with the consequences.
It couldn’t have taken more than half an hour to get the vegetables clean and skinned, even being careful with the ‘knife’, so Katie sat back and watched her partner’s progress. The serpent darted all over the riverbed, occasionally breaking the water to deposit a stone, rock, or gemstone on the side. Thatch caught useful detritus as it moved past her, and dug through the riverbed to extract valuable pieces, though she always seemed to do it carefully, and always rearranged what she wasn’t taking to avoid leaving gaps or breaking habitats.
After no more than ten minutes of that, Thatch’s sleek head broke out of the water by Katie’s seating position. Six gently glowing eyes fixed on her, blinking at irregular intervals. Rivulets of water ran down her surface, black skin freckled with purple dots. The jaw opened, revealing thorns that Katie knew were sharp interleaved in a jaw that she suspected could have bitten her in half. “Food prepared?” Thatch asked.
Katie’s surprise was made evident. A slight lean away, eyebrows rising, eyes left a little wider. She knew this creature, but the sudden attention of a predator was something that set off alarm bells deep within her biological heritage. Useless, in this context, but loud, paired with adrenaline and cortisol to force her into a state of stress, so she was ready to fight.
Katie took in a sharp breath, and that was all it took to attract Thatch’s concern. A vine streaked out of the water to gently press against her cheek. “Is all well? I hope this arrangement of myself is not distressing to you.”
It was still Thatch. The voice was different, the edges of words seeming sharper. Sibilant, even. Despite that, the important matters held. The tone was caring and the cadence was calming. The way Thatch’s head tilted a few degrees as she spoke was exactly the same between this and her bipedal shape. It was the same creature, clearly, and all the guff in Katie’s head was nothing but leftover biological waste from a million years of evolving in a totally different context.
Katie nodded, forcing herself to pay attention to Thatch’s body. “You surprised me, is all. That’s… Do you practice these?”
The serpent nodded, six sharp eyes staying fixed on Katie’s two. “Of course,” Thatch admitted. “I know some Affini do this recreationally, to make themselves unique, but this is simply a prior species. Aquatic predators, the, ah… I don’t think you’ll be able to pronounce this one either, the Xa’a-ackétøth. A lovely species. They used to be very dangerous. They’d almost destroyed themselves and their many worlds by the time we came across them. Surprising even us, they shut down their war engines and surrendered immediately as soon as we offered them a place under our wing, metaphorically speaking.”
Thatch paused, and… frowned? It was hard to tell, the face wasn’t very expressive, or at least Katie couldn’t read the expressions. “Literally speaking, also, at the time.”
Katie nodded, movement slow and gentle, as if she were trying to avoid making any sudden movements. She caught herself a moment later and nodded properly. “How many of those do you have in you?” she asked. “And can you carry this rock? It’s a bit heavy for me.” Katie extended an arm towards the pile of prepared vegetables, and one of Thatch’s vines stretched out to lift it.
Katie pushed herself up to her feet and began to walk back towards their camp, such as it was. Her knife was carefully strapped to her leg with one of the few concessions to practicality her uniform possessed. Thatch was carrying quite a lot, once she picked up her own pile of materials, but she had little trouble swimming upriver and holding a conversation even so.
“Three and… a half?” Thatch swam at the side of the river, looking as casual as if the water were still. Katie glanced over to make sure she wasn’t cheating, finding handholds with underwater vines. She wasn’t. “This one; my more human form shares a lot of similarities with another bipedal shape; and a kind of flightless bird. I did have that last one capable of flight for a while, but it was more technology than biology and was far too much hassle to maintain.”
Katie walked on the other side of the boundary, where soft dirt caressed her boots and her single shape was incapable of even carrying the fruits of her own labour without risking ruination. “You must live such interesting lives,” she admitted, glancing away, only to have her attention drawn back by a low chuckle.
“We are so bored that we change our shapes to match everyone we meet. The universe is a vast expanse of monotony, Katie. You are the only interesting things outside of the Compact. Life is unique, surprising, and joyful. Why do you think our culture prioritises you so?”
Katie looked away again. It seemed incomprehensible. How could humanity possibly be of enough use to justify so much effort? Realistically speaking, the Indomitable could have been left well enough alone, and they would eventually have run out of food and died in space. They weren’t a threat. Hunting them down was pointless effort. How could they possibly be worth it?
The camp wasn’t far, and so it didn’t take long to reach it. Katie hurried on ahead to dry herself by the flames. With hardly more than a splash, Thatch emerged from the water, and was halfway to human form before Katie had even managed to turn, somehow without dropping the food. She strode over, busying herself with organising the spoils and gathering further from the environment at a dizzying pace.
Within the minute, sticks and branches had been pruned and cut to size, tied together with some length of entwined fiber, and arranged to create a harness that sat over the firepit. Vine and leaf and plantlife mixed with stone to create a vaguely misshapen pot. Greenery to lash it all together and give the natural materials structure enough to be useful, so that the rocks could achieve things neither side of the construction could manage alone.
Thatch dipped the construction in the river, then hung the pot over the fire. Flames licked the thin stone bottom, but nothing caught alight. They both let out a breath they hadn’t realised they’d been holding.
“Should I cut these into pieces?” Katie asked, gesturing to the vegetables. “They’re probably a little too large to eat straight.”
Thatch’s face was much easier to read while she was putting effort into making it human. A moment of hesitation, followed by the realisation that Katie’s mouth was not large enough to eat a whole vegetable. She handed the stone platter over with a nod. “Do. We have some time before the water is boiling. Tell me about your dream while you are, though please do not lose your focus on the cutting edge.”
Katie nodded. Having something to busy her hands tended to help while she was trying to explain something difficult. Despite the firmness of the ingredients, Thatch’s thorn still sliced through it like it was hot syntharine.
“I dreamed about some old cargo ship I used to crew on,” she started. “It wasn’t a great experience, the operator was a jerk. Tried to abandon me on some ass-end of nowhere spaceport to avoid paying my last cheque. Asshole.” Chop, chop, chop. Thatch seemed to be keeping one eye on the fire and one eye on the cutting.
“Jump engineer’s the best job I’ve ever had. I was lucky to get into school for it. Most couldn’t, but my parents still talked to me back then—assholes—and they pulled some strings. I thought I was getting some real social mobility, y’know? Skilled work, something that was hard to replace. It’s not easy to maintain or run one of those things and learning about it was meant to be a ticket to a better life.”
Chop. Chop. Chop. Katie’s cuts came in time with her words.
“’course, as soon as I graduated, better designs started appearing that were easier to run. I got stuck on the shitty ships that couldn’t afford to upgrade, and then a year or so back the Cosmic Navy started drafting anyone with skills and they still used manual operated units, so they could squeeze a little extra out of them.”
“I think you taught me more about how those things actually work than two and a half years of school did. I don’t know anything—” Chop— “about this. I know how to use—” Chop— “a few specific models and nothing about how they work, really. It feels bad. I don’t know how often I came close to dying because they chose to teach me a user manual instead of the fucking physi—”
No chop. Katie looked down at the knife, with its tip precariously close to her own finger and the blade half an inch deep in one of Thatch’s vines. Katie winced, freezing in place while Thatch moved over. The creature sat beside her and gently reached out to take the tool away from her. Thatch took a moment to rearrange them, shifting Katie around to her other side with a fast, but comfortable, motion so she was kept away from the cutting area.
“They made no choice, Katie.” Thatch kept her eyes on her work. “I do not believe that humanity understood the underlying principles any better than you did. You are right to worry, any design which crashes back into real-space as violently as yours is flirting with disaster.” Chopchopchopchop.
Katie sagged. “Those newer designs?” she asked, holding out a little hope, at least.
“I believe they simply automated what you were doing and added a little redundancy to the components which failed most often. I remember reading a syndicated article from one of our shipbreaking outposts that was simply horrified at the risks humanity had been subjecting itself to.” Thatch didn’t look up. She had good knife etiquette, and presumably didn’t want a second injured vine. The one Katie had cut seemed to have been safely stowed away, hopefully where it could be healed.
“Oh. I didn’t know that. They replaced me for nothing?”
Thatch looked up. The knife fell silent, carefully placed against the stone surface of the cutting board. The hand that had been holding it came up to Katie’s cheek in a firm hold. “They were fools. Would you like to know how the physics really works?”
Katie nodded, fast but small movements, looking up into Thatch’s eyes. They didn’t look predatory like this, though Katie acknowledged that they were the same eyes, if fewer.
“Then, if you’re careful and good at following instructions, let’s treat our extended stay here as an opportunity for education. We will need to build something using the same principles if we’re to signal the Elettarium for rescue. I mean careful, however.” A vine raised the knife into Katie’s line of sight. “This is a dangerous tool, but it is entirely tame by comparison to even the simplest superluminal beacon. With this, you could hurt yourself. With that, you could do lasting harm to this entire ecosystem. Can I trust you to be careful, Katie?”
Katie nodded more rapidly, feeling a soft flush on her cheeks. Excitement. Like her first day of university, before she’d figured out it was all a sham. Like her first jump, before she’d realised the next hundred would be the same thing over and over and none of them would take her where she wanted to go.
Thatch smiled, taking a moment to ruffle Katie’s hair before cutting the last few slices and dumping the ingredients into the now-boiling water, followed by a few twists of some smaller plants. “Then I’ll teach you more about hyperspace theory than any human has ever known, and you’ll build us a beacon that rescues the both of us. It will be tricky, and we will need materials that are likely to be hard to synthesise, but I expect you shall have us home and safe before long.”
Katie took a deep breath, nodding one last time. Thatch wasn’t a god, and neither was she, but Katie knew she’d always been more capable than the Terran Accord would have room for, and if she played her cards right, maybe she could prove to these invaders that she could be useful.