Chapter Twelve: Metal
Katie took a deep breath through the mask of leaves tied around her mouth, shifted her stance, and lifted the pickaxe.
It crashed down against the rock again, this time breaking a chunk off. Breathing hard, she forced aching muscles to respond, bringing the heavy instrument back up to shoulder level, so she could put her whole body into the swing.
The rock she was hammering at cracked into a dozen pieces. Katie let the tool fall, and went down to one knee, sifting through the rubble until she found her prize. Another little nugget of metal fit to sit atop her little pile of similar nuggets. They wouldn’t be much use like this, but with a bit of time in a kiln and some careful working, they aught to make passable makeshift wiring.
The nugget made a much quieter clink as it settled atop the ones beneath. Katie raised the pickaxe again. It was heavy, and her muscles were straining just to lift it.
She’d been trapped on an empty planet for a couple of days now, and she didn’t want to be here any longer than she had to be. She had a stomach full of passable food and and comfortable place to sleep, and even a mentor teaching her how to survive, but what she didn’t have was a tangible sense of physical progress.
With metal, she could make wires. With wires and one of those vegetables, she could probably extract some electricity, and failing that, they had a river to build a generator on. With that, they could… make some basic lighting? It wasn’t really necessary, now that they’d discovered her companion could glow like a bulb on demand. A radio? There was very unlikely anything to pick up. A transmitter of some kind would be needed, though. The hard part of getting themselves rescued was going to be opening enough of a hole in spacetime to put a message through, but they’d still need something to actually send that message.
“Katie, darling, are you still in there?” A voice called, as melodious as ever. Thatch Aquae, Second Bloom, not that Katie wholly understood the implications of the latter part. Why encode how many times you’d gotten hurt into your name? Was it thrill-seeking, or social shaming? Had Thatch gained or lost standing here?
“Uh—” Clink!— “huh,” she called back.
“This really is not necessary, you know,” the affini complained, needing to hunch down just to fit inside of the cave. “I am already in the process of growing the right kind of fine vines to serve as electrical conduits. In a day we shall have as much as we could want.”
Thatch didn’t understand. There was an irony to the creature attempting to stop her from mining, though admittedly she had supported the endevour enough to build Katie the pick. A wooden handle tied to a wooden head, tipped with something sharp and hard. Probably not actually diamond, but some kind of gemstone.
“I—” Clink!— “know. Wanna—” Clink!— “do something. Feeling—” Clink!— “restless. Can’t just sit around and—” Clink!— “wait.”
Katie moved to swing the pick again, but a gentle vine wrapped around it, another around her wrist, carefully but firmly removing the tool from her grip. “We can find you other things to do that won’t risk doing as much harm to your body. Please remember that I need my student to be capable of very precise actions, and exacerbating your injury will not help.”
Katie grumbled. In some ways, this was like being back at school. Power-tripping professors making her wait around with nothing to do. Admittedly, there were good reasons here, but still. “Ugh. Yes, Miss Aquae,” she groaned, briefly imagining the affini in a scholar’s robe, like some of her old tutors. At least Thatch actually knew what she was talking about, sometimes.
Thatch visibly winced, the edges of her body almost seeming to wilt. “Please do not call me that, Katie. ‘Thatch’ is fine, but if you really need an honourific then perhaps ‘Guide’ or ‘Mentor’ would be more appropriate?”
Katie busied herself picking up the handful of little nuggets she’d gathered. She’d ridden Thatch upriver until they’d found somewhere that looked promising, and thankfully it was much easier to find surface metals on a wholly pre-industrial planet.
“They hardly roll off the tongue, do they?” Katie complained. She didn’t understand why she was being so snippy today. The first couple of days she’d hoped that the action and adventure of everything would convince her brain to forget that she wasn’t happy, but apparently today was one of those days where everything anyone did or said was annoying.
Thatch had been accommodating, if confused, by Katie’s sudden urge to get away from the camp and do something physical, at least so far. “Unfortunately, a significant amount of the time it takes my people to learn a new language is taken up by finding the good terms of address and appropriating them for ourselves. For a relationship between equals, we are cursed to be oblique.”
It was entirely unclear whether this was a joke or not, and Katie wasn’t in the mood to ask. Once Katie had the metals all safely wrapped up, she left the cave. The sunlight was blinding after so long in the dark, but if she squinted, Katie could mostly avoid stumbling over the rocks scattered around the area.
Ugh. Why was she like this? Thatch was just trying to help. Katie wished she could point to something specific that had her mood so sour, but in all honesty their situation seemed to be a clear improvement over cowering in a rebel cruiser. The food still wasn’t great, but at least she no longer had to pay for it. She still didn’t have any humans to talk to, though she had some companionship now.
Katie looked out over the river. They were miles up from their campsite here, and there were some clear differences. A new species of fish was hanging around. These didn’t leap out of the water, but they were much more friendly than the predators back at camp. The water flow was slower—there were a few tributaries adding pressure a little downstream—and so things were calm enough that if Katie sat and dangled a finger into the water, she quickly got colourful triangles coming to taste the salts on her hand.
Even those chromatic beauties didn’t do much to improve Katie’s mood.
Thatch emerged from the cave, carrying another few nuggets for Katie’s pile, with the pickaxe hanging from her waist. It looked comically small on her, but it was heavy enough that Katie appreciated not having to lift it. Quietly, the affini moved to sit at Katie’s side, making her own offering to the fishes.
They were a little interested in the novelty, but soon drifted back towards Katie, who had the tastier digits. One small victory for her.
“I am somewhat at a loss, Katie,” Thatch admitted. “I know what would help the humans in our care if they expressed your symptoms, but I have neither the ingredients nor your permission to see if it would help you, too.”
Katie snorted. The movement was a little too aggressive, and ended up shifting her fingers, sending the fish running to safety. Katie sighed, but left her hand in place, hoping they would return. “More drugs?”
Thatch shrugged, retrieving her own fingers and replacing them with a root. The fish weren’t interested in that either, but so far Thatch had only tasted any of the kind of food Katie ate while she was cooking, and claimed to get no nutrition out of it, so seemed to truly survive off of water and dirt. “Partially. Drugs alone cannot make something truly happy.”
“At least, not without them losing part of themselves. We are caretakers, Katie, and ruthless ones. We will use whatever we have to to make the universe happy.”
Katie rolled her eyes, focusing on the water. One brave fish was returning. A shining blue, with an orange stripe running around its body, around the middle. It gave Katie’s finger a careful inspection. “What a crock. You can’t just make people be happy for no reason and pretend it’s real.”
Often, when confronted with the obvious contradictions of her race, Thatch fell quiet. Katie knew better than to think she was making progress convincing Thatch away from their cause, as she never seemed to grow less certain they were doing the right thing, but at very least she would learn what Katie didn’t want. Maybe, when they got back, that would help her navigate their culture well enough to avoid finding herself in another trap of circumstance.
“Why are you sad, Katie?” Thatch asked, not needing much of a pause at all, this time.
Why was she sad? Rationally, life was looking up for her, though perhaps it was simply depressing that being stranded with only a houseplant for company was an upgrade. That didn’t feel right, though. She was learning about things she’d always been enthusiastic about; learning how to be useful even in a hyper-advanced civilisation. If Thatch’s claims were true, she’d never worry about affording a meal again, and a bed of vines and leaves here was likely to be the worst night’s sleep she’d ever have from this point on—and even that was better than her bunk back on the ship had been.
Katie was silent for long moments. The river’s gentle flow provided a peaceful soundtrack to her misery. “I don’t know.” She looked away from the fishes, away from Thatch, away from everything. Her heart felt like it was in her stomach and it hurt to breathe and there was no reason for it. “It just happens sometimes. Human bodies are kinda shit, and I’m stuck with one. Sometimes something just goes wrong and I spend the day miserable, but I’ll be better tomorrow, probably. I usually am. I’m sorry you have to deal with me.”
Thatch’s still-damp finger drew a diagonal line down Katie’s cheek, and then, hesitantly, balled into a fist and lightly tapped her on the shoulder. That got a weak laugh. The affini was trying to act human, even if she wasn’t very good at it. That made two of them.
“Why is that real, then, Katie? You speak as if what is making you sad is not truly you. It is ‘your body’, but not truly what you see as yourself?” Katie glanced back towards her companion, but couldn’t stand to maintain eye contact. Thatch seemed concerned and Katie wished she didn’t have to be. Katie would be fine, she just needed time. She could be miserable for a while. She was used to it.
The bravest fish had found success, and the more cowardly ones were deep in envy. A pair of green swimmers moved towards the blue one—one from each side—and tried to nudge it away, so they could taste the oils and salts of a humanoid finger. Katie frowned, slowly moving her hand to protect her favourite.
“It doesn’t feel like me,” she admitted. “Nothing is different between today and yesterday, really, and I was enthusiastic yesterday. You’re a good mentor, once you get the flirting out of your system.”
Thatch paused, making a few experimental noises before seemingly deciding to ignore the claim entirely. “…regardless, if I could take that sadness away, would that not then make you more you?”
It was too fucking early in the morning for philosophy and these jealous fish wouldn’t leave the brave one alone. Katie slipped another hand into the water to shield it, but the green ones were relentless, nipping at fins and scales.
“I don’t even know what I am, Thatch; you’re asking me questions I can’t answer. Why don’t you make yourself useful and help me keep this fish safe?”
“The green one?” asked the plant. It made sense she would have an affinity for green things, Katie supposed.
“No, the orange one. The green ones are jerks.”
Thatch hummed in consideration, before reaching inside of herself and pulling out one of their containers of water. Katie hadn’t thought that bringing them would be necessary, given that they were next to a clean river, but her companion had insisted. The contents were dumped out, and in one smooth motion Thatch snatched the orange fish and its environment right out of the water, barely ruffling its fins. She handed it over to Katie.
“There, a pet. Perhaps focusing on keeping this creature safe and healthy will give you a way to feel useful while your body is misbehaving.” The plant shooed away the green fish, though now that their victim had vanished they’d lost interest in Katie’s hand regardless. She rose, extending a vine to help Katie up too. Katie accepted, because getting up without spilling her container would have been a challenge.
“I don’t think I’m stable enough to take care of a pet, Thatch. I don’t want anything dependent on me, I can’t even deal with myself half the time.” The plant ignored her and turned to leave. “Thatch? Hey, get back here!”
Thatch paused, but only to extend a series of vines in a staircase pattern, giving Katie an easy walk up to her shoulders. “While I am not familiar with this exact species, I would expect that taking it out of flowing water for an extended period will not be good for it. Come, you can build it a more suitable home back at camp.”
Katie tried to argue, or at least tried to come up with a plausible argument, for why she couldn’t do this. She obviously had the time. Even once they could really get started on their project, there would be a lot of waiting and rest. She didn’t want to hurt the fish, but Katie suspected that if she were doing that bad a job, Thatch would take over. That, at least, gave her a safety net. She couldn’t screw up so badly something died.
Begrudging, Katie stepped up the ascending cascade of plantlife until she could take her place sitting around Thatch’s neck. She had the affini fairly well trained now, but with one hand clutching her new pet, she could only use the one vine for steering. It felt a little less precise, but Thatch was very good at being responsive, and they were soon roaring through the forest again.
With the wind in Katie’s hair, it was hard not to feel something. Thatch handled better than any ship Katie had had occasion to fly. Shifts in Katie’s balance resulted in slight course changes, such that half the time piloting could be done almost subconsciously, leaning around trees and rocks. The one vine Katie had a good grasp on let her make more aggressive changes to their travel.
Still. Existence was frustrating. Katie wanted to feel alive. She leaned left, hard, while pulling the vine along with. Thatch, to her credit, immediately pulled to the side, even leaning herself so that the centrifugal force of the turn kept Katie, and her pet, safely in place. They shot out over the river, and once Thatch was unable to grab ahold of any trees, their speed did begin to drop. Vines still pierced the water, anchoring to the riverbed to keep them moving, but it wasn’t… fast. Katie wanted fast. She wanted the wind in her hair. The mist in her face. Something physical. Adrenaline. Excitement.
“Can you do the, uh, the fish people thing?” Katie asked. Last time she’d come face to face with Thatch’s alternate form, it had been intimidating, but maybe that was the kind of energy she was looking for. Thatch lifted a hand and wiggled it, expressing uncertainty, and Katie did feel a flush of pride. She’d taught Thatch that.
“I am not sure I can provide as smooth a journey for you,” Thatch admitted. “It is much easier to absorb shocks with my vines than it would be in the water. If you can keep a tight grip on your pet, and keep the container firmly closed, however, I would be willing to try.”
Katie peeked inside of the water container. Her orange fish seemed perfectly content so far, exploring its new environment. Katie experimentally moved it around, and the water seemed to keep it well insulated, like the interface tank of a gunship keeping its little pilot insulated from the forces around it.
Katie nodded, folding shut the little flap that sealed the container. The wooden clasping mechanism Thatch had devised was sturdy enough, but Katie kept her hand over it regardless. A pair of vines lifted her into the air while Thatch twisted beneath, shedding humanity to take on a form that was clearly a dominant force. The vines lowered her down, until she was sitting on Thatch’s… back? Body? The part just short of the beast’s head. With her vines drawn tight, Thatch looked every bit the sleek predator, aside from the twin additions of a seatbelt to keep Katie steady and the control vine to make this something other than a theme park ride.
“I shall defer to your guidance on our course, Katie. Please be careful.”
Katie took a deep breath, grasping the vine with curious fingers, and slowly pushed forward. They took off at a steady pace, and Katie spent a few minutes steering them around in wide circles. She knew that she couldn’t actually come to harm here, but it still felt like a bad idea to just take off without having some appreciation for what this body could actually do. Thatch spent half her time in bipedal form cheating, simply using vines for everything and ignoring the limits of the human body, but here? This was something real. Somewhere out in the universe, something really moved like this.
Katie pushed forward, and they started to pick up speed. Thatch cut through the water with terrifying efficiency, sending white sheets of foam off to each side. There was less to avoid than in the forest, but the river was still dotted with rocks and the occasional fallen tree, and so there was plenty to dodge and a seemingly endless amount of extra speed to gain.
By the time they reached their campsite they were moving at an incredible rate. Katie pressed on regardless, speeding up, and leaving their home in the metaphorical dust. They needed to explore anyway, and the adrenaline felt good when it was something she was in control of. Better, with the safety net of knowing that even if she screwed up nothing truly bad would happen.
The pair of them were still figuring out how to coexist, but progress was being made. Sometimes that was intangible, like Thatch learning how to deal with a mood swing, and sometimes it was very much the opposite, like Katie learning when to yank up on the vine to get a really high leap out of the water to clear a tree without Thatch needing to take over and prevent them from barreling straight into it.
After… a little while, Katie noticed something odd glinting a little way further downstream. By the time she’d taken note they were almost upon it. She hauled back on the vine and braced herself for whatever that instruction would get interpreted as.
Thatch leaped up out of the water, physically throwing Katie off of herself into the air. For a brief, terrifying instant she was airborne and ballistic, before a pair of vines hauled her back in to Thatch’s waiting, humanoid arms while a dozen vines behind her braced to bring them to a hard stop. Katie squeezed shut her eyes, trying to ignore the not-so-distant memory of slamming into a bulkhead. She could see what she was slamming into and it was not metal. She gritted her teeth, forcing the sensation down, only semi-successfully. There was something that needed processing, there.
“What’s wrong?” Thatch asked, looking down with alarm. Katie rapidly glanced around, suddenly very conscious that she may have reacted to nothing at all. After a few moments of looking, she spotted the glint, still a little ways downstream of them, and pointed.
“That… seems unusual,” Thatch replied, sentence growing less certain with each short word. There was a square of something that looked metallic sticking out of the undergrowth. Thatch’s vines made for a smooth journey over to the riverside, and they walked from there, cautiously approaching.
Katie knelt beside it, and pushed back the plantlife.
“Well, shit,” she breathed. “That’s not Terran.”
Hiding within the bush was a broken scrap of metal, with torn up edges and lettering evident across it. Maybe half an inch thick and around a foot across in the other directions. Not English, and judging from Thatch’s curiosity, not Affini either. It looked like part of a hull, or part of casing, that had been torn apart, but there was no chance it was a natural occurrence. What looked like rivets joined two pieces together. It was clearly machined. Katie carefully lifted it in her free hand.
“This feels lightweight,” she guessed. “Can’t be iron or steel. This is aeroframe grade. Maybe even spacefaring, a satellite or something.” Katie paused, cheeks flushing, realising where she was and who she was with. “Uh, at least by Terran standards. I guess that probably doesn’t generalise.”
Thatch shook her head. “Early technology tends to take similar paths. Physics imposes the same constraints on us all. May I…?” she asked, holding out a hand. Katie passed it over. Thatch took it, pressing her thumb into the metal until it began to deform. “It is fairly strong for this weight, by usual early civilisation standards. It is unlikely this kind of alloy would be naturally produced, and we have yet to find any evidence of intelligent life here that could have built it. I think you may be right; this is likely to be a visitor to this place, just as we are.”
They stood quietly, thinking through the implications of that. Without the constant motion and excitement of travel, though, Katie was quickly distracted by a chill in the air and an emptiness in her stomach. Her clothing was soaked through, and it didn’t take long before she was shivering. That caught Thatch’s attention, and the two of them silently agreed that the way home should be very much less exciting than the way here had been.
As Katie settled into place around her steed’s neck, she let out a deep breath. “I think we should build that radio.”
Thatch only answered with a rapid takeoff, heading upriver at a more reasonable, but still rapid, clip.