“So I can just wrap the wire around this?”
Katie held up a short, plump stick for inspection and received a nod. She coiled her hard-won metal wiring around it, keeping each loop right next to the one before it. This represented days of time and effort. She still had a couple of scuffs on her palm from the mining, and Thatch had a little burn on one of her vines from the processing. If Katie ruined it now, it would be a real setback.
She glanced up at the affini sitting to her side, looking for a moment of affirmation. Of course she wasn’t going to ruin it. If she were doing anything wrong, Thatch would stop her before any real harm was done. Katie carefully curled the wire again and again around the stick, forming a little inductor coil.
The weather had turned again, though not as poorly as the previous day’s storm. Thatch had thrown together a makeshift windbreak to keep the worst of it away from them, but Katie didn’t mind the light sprinkling of rain that still managed to find them. The canopy high above kept the worst of it away, directing what could have been torrential down the sides of trees and directly into their root systems. It still made for a dramatic evening, with little by way of insect life daring to brave the winds, save for the gently buzzing pinpricks of light that hid behind the windbreak with them.
“Are you sure the antenna will be okay?” Katie asked, glancing up the side of one of those trees. A long, hair-thick vine that Thatch promised was a good electrical conduit wove up one of the massive trees surrounding them, poking up out into the empty air far above them with a few meters of metal cabling to act as a more reactive antenna. Would it stay standing in this kind of weather?
“Assuming it is not struck by lightning, it would take more than these winds to break it,” the affini promised, brushing a few leaves up Katie’s back. Now that her clothes were getting a daily wash and were no longer so filthy they functioned as impromptu armour plating even the lightest touches transmitted well. Katie shivered and nodded, smiling up at her companion.
“Gotcha, Teach!” She put the finishing touches on her inductor and shuffled closer to the tree to start wiring it in. Thatch raised a few vines to hold the other end of the conductive vine around the tree down, and point out the best place to insert the metal piece of their makeshift system. She was getting good at making use of her new array of colours. Black vines held the wire down, while the attention-grabbing red one was what pointed out what to do.
“Teach?” Thatch sounded more than a little skeptical. Katie didn’t need to glance back to intuit the questioning look on her face. She jabbed one end of the metal wire into a vine on one side, and then into another vine on the other, and then rested the coil carefully on the ground.
Katie shrugged. “I feel like you should have some kind of title here. Thatch is a cute enough name, but a girl needs some variety, right?”
Katie was starting to think of Thatch as somewhat of a high-end speaker system wrapped up in an impractical number of vines. It made sense, sure, they needed to be able to speak every language from every species and having a voicebox as limited as the human design would quickly falter, but Katie couldn’t help but think that it defeated the point of taking such obviously human form when Thatch didn’t even bother making sure her noises were anything that Katie could begin to reproduce. She buzzed, in what sounded more like a frequency sweep than any reasonable voice.
Katie turned. “Okay, I’m getting pretty good at interpreting you, but what was that?”
Thatch glanced up, with two of the conductive wires leading into her chest. “Calibration.” Even the simplest radio design needed some way to output what they were picking up, but when Thatch had told Katie not to worry about it, she hadn’t expected this.
Katie glanced over to Thatch’s hands, which were busying themselves swapping wires around over the simple tuning circuit Katie had put together. It would have been nice to have a dial to tune resistance, but the best they could do was manually jump wires around to approximate what they were looking for.
“You’re weird, hon.” Katie stood up, taking the moment to stretch. They’d been at this for a few hours by now, and she was getting stiff. She found herself looking out over the sky above the river. The planet was all lit up, so she couldn’t see as much of the endless void as she was used to, but it was still beautiful.
“Do you really think we’ll pick anything up, Thatch?” Katie asked, after a few moments of relative quiet. The radio had been her idea and while she’d certainly contributed her fair share, she would still feel bad if it led to nothing and all the affini’s efforts had been wasted. It was deeply unfair how many materials the plant could simply grow, but it was still surely energy expenditure they could have been putting into something else.
The sky was bright and present in a way that it simply hadn’t been whenever Katie had had the bad luck to spend time on a Terran world, where industrial lighting invariably drained the sky of its stars entirely. Could there really be anything but them here?
Thatch caught Katie’s attention with a gentle rustling down the arm. She hurried over, taking a seat next to the plant and looked up with a smile. “I hope we do,” Katie admitted, “but how weird would it be if we randomly landed somewhere inhabited?”
The plant nodded, opening her mouth to speak. Her lips moved, but nothing came out. After a moment, she paused, frowned, and moved one of the wires. She tried again. “It would be extremely unusual, I have to admit, but perhaps the universe simply wishes us to survive.”
Katie paused, taking a closer look at her companion. She raised her eyebrows. “Is this spirituality I hear? Faith in a higher power?”
Thatch blew out a little air, face flowing into a small smile. She shook her head. “Hardly, the Affini ourselves are the highest power we have yet to meet and, frankly, were we to discover an intelligence behind the suffering of this universe it would be on the fast track for class-Os.”
Katie glanced down at her hands. Thatch had given her a brief rundown of their classification system for chemical compounds over dinner the night before, once Katie had started coming down from her own chemically induced haze. The O ones were the scariest. Total rewiring of how a sapient brain experienced pleasure and suffering, to ensure an endless supply of the first and an impossibility of the second. It was discomforting to hear them spoken of so irreverently.
Thatch paused, noticing Katie’s quiet, and laid a vine around her shoulders in comfort. The girl lifted her own chin, with a quick smile. She may not have been comfortable with Thatch’s culture, but the same was very much true the other way around, and they were figuring out how to make do.
Satisfied that Katie’s mood hadn’t been too far thrown, the affini continued. “Even we do not know everything, Katie. Sometimes one simply has to accept that some things are up to chance, though of course we do our best to insulate our wards from such things. Now, it was likely inadvisable for me to section off my vocal system like this, so I would rather have this done quickly. Can I trust you to manage exploring the electromagnetic frequency for me, ‘student’? I will not be able to touch the rest of the circuit if I am to also speak it.”
Student. Katie cursed the way the Affini had taken all the good words for themselves. She wrinkled her nose. “Okay, no, that makes me feel like a kid again, maybe we don’t use those titles.”
Thatch’s mouth twisted to the side in thought. “Katie is also a cute enough name for me.”
Katie looked away, towards the source of the rain, in the hope that the gentle splashes would cool off her cheeks before Thatch noticed. “I liked Katieflower,” she admitted. “It’s a bit of a mouthful, but it’s… cool to hear somebody riffing on my real name. I haven’t gotten that much. It feels more like it’s ours than some prepackaged term.”
The wind swelled for a few moments, making it hard to converse. The windbreak strained, scaring off a lot of the insects that had been using it as cover, but it didn’t take long for Thatch to shore it up. The campfire almost went out, but thankfully the windbreak could be adjusted to cover it, and the flames soon recovered.
“Is that not a pet name?” Thatch asked, genuine uncertainty echoing in her cadence. Katie took a moment to think about it, and then shook her head with a small shrug.
“I don’t think so, or at least, not how I meant it. It’s weird for somebody who doesn’t even know you to call you cutesy names, but you’re getting to know me now. It’s not the same thing. I just wish I had something to call you back that wasn’t super awkward or, y’know.”
Her imperialist conqueror smirked. “Domestic?”
Katie grinned, and spoke her first words through a laugh. “Sure, let’s go with that. ‘Thatch’ is good, and so long as it’s safe for you to do so, let’s see what we can pick up?”
“It is safe, flower.” Thatch paused, and glanced up at the sky. “Assuming I am not struck by lightning.”
The two of them spent a moment carefully considering the clouds. After a few seconds, Katie blew out air and spoke. “Let’s be quick about it, then.”
Thatch connected a wire and began to hiss. Katie couldn’t help but waste a moment looking at the creature’s leaves, all vibrating in place in an unusual pattern. What did it say about the past few days that this wasn’t the weirdest thing she’d done recently? Katie started swapping wires around while the two of them paid attention to any changes in the pattern, until…
The hiss stopped, replaced by a firm staccato beat. Not music, but a pattern all the same. All four eyebrows rose to the heavens as Katie tweaked a few other wires to zero in on the frequency.
They needed to write this down! Katie hurried over to the small stack of slabs Thatch kept for writing. She grabbed a blank one and her own thorn tool. She moved back over, stepping a little carefully, as she knew Thatch likely couldn’t catch her without disrupting their delicate balance of Terran and Affini technologies.
She started trying to chip in the pattern. It was somewhat like morse code, the old encoding mechanism that still saw some use on broken ships that couldn’t signal any better than on or off, but only really in that it shared that common technical limitation. The pattern itself was utterly unrecognisable, but after a few iterations, Katie was fairly confident she had it written down.
She reached over to unhook a wire, and Thatch twitched and slumped, making a loud noise not unlike a whole-body cough. She opened her mouth to speak and couldn’t produce more than a whisper. Katie carefully put the tablet down and moved over, putting her ear to Thatch’s chest. She knew where the sounds really came from, after all.
“It appears that did more damage than I had been hoping,” Thatch whispered, voice sounding strained even at her slight volume. “Perhaps this is why I was so often told not to do this kind of thing by my own tutors.”
Katie placed a finger over Thatch’s mouth, hoping the cultural iconography would translate well enough. “Shh. You okay?”
Thatch nodded firmly, though didn’t try to speak. She pointed at their makeshift radio and shook her head, then back at herself with a second nod.
Katie pulled a face. “Sorry. Will it get better?”
The plant nodded again. A soft tap on the back of one of Katie’s shoulders had her turning around, and then a leaf’s brush across her upper arm sent her to retrieve the tablet, so they could inspect it. Katie brought it back and held it out for Thatch to take, then settled herself in the creature’s lap before holding out a hand to take it back.
“This way we can both see it,” she explained, holding it in a position that was comfortable for her and trusting that the creature watching over her would have a good view too. Katie found herself smiling, knowing Thatch would be doing the same.
Though unable to speak, Thatch was still a great help when it came to cleaning up the pattern. Stark red vines pointed to different sections, helping Katie figure out where the repetition started, so they could extract just the piece that meant something.
Katie stared down at it, carving little doodles into the side of the page with her ‘pen’. “It’s too short to be a very complicated message, I think.”
A brief sense of approval came down from above. Katie glanced upwards, momentarily concerned that she was putting far too much faith in her inexplicable sixth sense, but Thatch was smiling down at her. “Okay, cool.” She nodded, mostly to herself, and looked back down. “It isn’t simple enough to just be an emergency beacon, though, probably? Back in the Terran civilian fleet, we used ‘SOS’, which stands for ‘Ship Outside Safety’, so that it was easy to broadcast and hear.”
Katie felt a hand gently grasp her wrist and hold it still. Katie glanced down, and only then noticed that she’d been about to nibble on the end of the thorn. She winced. With one hand holding the tablet and the other fixed in place, she didn’t have many good options for a quick signal of gratitude. She made do by leaning slightly to the side and gently tapping her nose against Thatch’s forearm, whispering a quick “thanks.”
Thatch let go, and Katie made sure to keep an eye on what she was doing with the sharp blade.
She let out a deep breath. “I’m making a lot of assumptions here, but you aren’t stopping me, so I’m going to assume I’m on the right track and keep going.” Thatch rested an encouraging hand atop Katie’s head. Without the ability to speak, they really had no option but to communicate through touch. “If my information theory lectures still have any value here, I’ve got to guess that this is a code rather than language. I doubt we’ll be able to understand it, but whoever is broadcasting this must be doing so for a reason. We could… Do you think we could build something to tell us how strong a signal is? We could triangulate in on it?”
This wasn’t really Katie’s area, but in the last months of her part of the rebellion, when things had started getting really stretched thin, stuff like roles and responsibilities had started breaking down. Nobody else knew how to keep a manual Jump Drive running like Katie did, but basically every other role on the ship had just been a desperate mix of whoever was free at the time. It was hard not to pick up a few skills in that kind of environment.
Thatch was nodding, but a soft gust of scent attracted Katie’s attention, and she glanced to the side, back across the river. It was getting late. Hmn, she wouldn’t want to forget her medication, would she?
“It’s getting late, maybe we worry about that tomorrow? We’ve been busy today, maybe we could eat, do meds and hygiene stuff, then get an early bed? I could tell you about that time I faced down a pirate queen!”
As evening turned to night, the pair went through what was fast becoming a ritual. They cleaned up after themselves, making sure that they left their campsite as clean as it had been that morning, or preferably cleaner. Katie took a few minutes to check up on Leviathan, ensuring they seemed happy and well fed. She and Thatch spent a little while after that transplanting little pieces of the local environment into the tank, creating an enjoyable place for the little fish to explore.
Thatch felt like an idiot. Eighty years of experience in one form of bioengineering or another and she chose now, the first time she was more than ten minutes away from a well stocked medical facility, to start ignoring the rules? No matter how good you were at altering your own biology, you didn’t experiment on yourself. Thatch knew she had been lucky to only burn out the more sensitive parts of her vocal apparatus. She should have waited the few days necessary to build something properly, but she’d seen the look on Katie’s face as they’d been putting the radio together. The poor girl really needed to see her efforts pay off for once. Thatch’s damaged pieces would grow back, and it likely wouldn’t take that long, but this was going to make co-operating with her poor companion rather more difficult.
Katie walked from the fishtank over to the fire with a yawn on her lips, to where Thatch was busy distracting herself by stirring soup. “Meds time, maybe?” she asked. As always, Katie raised her voice a little when she thought she was starting a conversation, as if she expected that she had less than Thatch’s full attention at any given point.
Thatch opened her mouth to reply, out of habit, but there was still little sound to be had. Idiot. She instead moved over to sit next to one of their seating stones, and patted it. At least she had the poor flower learning how to take care of herself now. If Thatch returned to the Elettarium with a dirty, malnourished creature then Katie might be whisked away to be domesticated for her own good. If Thatch could teach her how to take care of her own basic necessities, however, maybe the others would agree that she could be happy on her own.
Katie skipped over to sit on the very edge of the seat, leaning most of her body weight against Thatch’s side. A careful vine adjusted her position, helping her find a more ergonomic posture. A hand against the back of her head helped keep her from slipping. It was late, and given that they hadn’t built a bed yet Katie seemed to be getting so used to sleeping in Thatch’s vines that she started getting sleepy whenever they were close in the evenings.
Probably that was a habit Thatch should correct, but it wasn’t like it would be a problem once they got back to Compact space and Katie could get more suited accommodations.
Thatch extended a now-familiar bundle of flowers from the arm that wasn’t holding Katie in place and held them out for her. Katie sat for a moment with her eyes locked onto the colourful leaves, waiting patiently. Thatch was incapable of guiding her through the process by voice, unfortunately. Hopefully she could enable some meager communication with body language alone.
She didn’t have any free hands, so instead Thatch guided a small vine to catch Katie’s attention with a gentle touch. The girl glanced up with a quick smile. She did seem to get a lot out of knowing she was properly medicated, though Thatch wished she had the ingredients to build something better. This regimen barely counted as class-G, though it was at least far more potent than anything Terran science could have been providing her.
Thatch nodded down towards her arm, carefully managing her bioluminescent pods to draw the girl’s attention back down, and then prompted her forward with a quick brush of leaves. Katie leaned into the flowers and Thatch let her own rhythms rise, prompting Katie to breathe in.
Thatch would usually spend this time making sure Katie was okay. She had described a lot of discomfort with medical care, and the last thing Thatch wanted was to make Katie feel like her bravery wasn’t appreciated. This would all be so much harder if Katie wasn’t as adept at handling her fears. Lacking voice, Thatch did her best to express her gratitude by stroking a gentle hand through her hair.
She smiled down at the creature. There was something therapeutic about getting to provide for her needs. While Thatch still felt like an emotional wreck half the time, she hadn’t felt useless in days. It was exhilarating.
She let her rhythms fall. Katie was clearly paying very close attention, because she let out her breath immediately, and after a moment to recover, they began the process again.
Hadn’t that always been Thatch’s problem, though? So desperate to help that she—
Yellow. Definitely yellow. Thatch tried to cut off that particular line of introspection and focused her attention on Katie. Thankfully, her little Katieflower had been getting used to people—or at least one person—very quickly, and Thatch no longer needed to move her with brute force now that they’d developed the vocabulary by which she could ask. Thatch brushed a vine across Katie’s side, letting her know that Thatch was ready if she wanted to shift back to the side. The drugs always left her a little hazy anyway, though Thatch hadn’t managed to pin down why exactly. There weren’t any active ingredients that should cause it.
Katie slumped to the side immediately, keeping her nose firmly among the flowers. Not really necessary, given that she was still holding her breath, and this was the second half of the dose. Thatch took a moment to fold away her equipment and adjusted her own position, so she could use both hands to keep Katie stimulated and prevent her from falling asleep, despite the comfort.
While she let Katie recover from her ordeal, Thatch looked down, watching her little chest rise and fall, and the way her tiny fingers twitched sometimes, when she had nothing to do with them. She was so fragile and precious. She wanted to be free, and Thatch wanted to give Katie everything that she wanted… but this was a creature made to be someone’s. Gentle, kind, endlessly responsive and caring, empathetic to a fault and in need of so much fixing. Even without her voice, Thatch knew that she could have her. In minutes. Tear down Katie’s fragile mind and start to build something better from the ground up. It would be easy, she’d just have to—
Red. Definitely red. Thatch forced her gaze away, to the stars. They were a long way from home, and Katie was counting on her to get them back. She had real problems enough without imagining more. Thatch had often found herself wishing for a more practical purpose, but whenever one had presented itself, she’d only screwed it up, hadn’t she? Katie would be better off far away from her. Thatch’s soft smile fell away as she felt dull fear settling over her core. If she screwed up here, she had no backup. No alternative options. Nobody to mitigate it. If she couldn’t get Katie home safely, then maybe it would be best if she just stayed here on the rotten planet Dirt.
Thatch twitched as she felt Katie’s fingers brushing against her cheek. She glanced down to find a concerned face. Thatch cursed inwardly, wondering what she’d done to tip the little creature off. She gave a soft smile, but as always, Katie saw right through her.
“Feeling rough?” Katie hadn’t sat up, she was simply craning her neck up at an uncomfortable angle. Thatch leaned back, cradling Katie’s body with an arm, so that she at least wouldn’t hurt herself staring. She shrugged. She couldn’t talk about this stuff at the best of times, never mind when she literally couldn’t talk.
Katie nodded, shuffling around until she could stare at Thatch more directly, now practically draping herself across the affini’s stomach.
“I’d ask if you wanted to talk about it, but that might be in poor taste.”
Thatch’s smile grew a little more honest. She could still laugh, too, it was only the fine leaves that controlled detail that were burned out. Simple movement of air was fine. She nodded, and pressed a few fingers against Katie’s cheek in a wordless display of gratitude. The girl leaned into it, closing her eyes for a few brief moments.
How could Thatch possibly not break something so delicate as this?
“Don’t think I don’t notice this stuff, hon. I know I’m kind of the default choice, given that there’s nobody else here who speaks our— well, I guess my— language, but you know I’m here if you need to talk, right?”
Thatch stared out into the void.
She felt Katie rummaging around for a moment, until she found a vine and wrapped it around her hand.
“Squeeze, please.” It made sense that the poor thing wanted comfort, so Thatch squeezed. “Thank you. Stop squeezing or freeze up if you want me to stop, yeah?”
Thatch felt the ex-Terran slip down her body, finding a comfortable spot that neither of them needed to put effort in to maintain. She continued. “You’ve helped me a lot,” Katie admitted. “Just having somebody who’s willing to talk to me like an equal, and… admittedly, somebody who actually calls me out on my shit. I’m… not used to anybody being willing to pay that much attention to me. It’s nice.”
Thatch kept holding her hand, but couldn’t quite bring herself to look down at her. This was wrong. A hundred years of soaking up the values of her culture screamed at her. The Affini shielded their wards from the dangers of the universe; the risks of uncertainty; and the trauma of doubt. She could damage Katie by being too honest, here, if she interpreted Thatch’s weakness as being representative of a structure that truly could provide a certainty Thatch couldn’t. A certainty that would benefit her to no end.
“We’re not so different, are we?”
Katie was looking up at her with a mixture of concern and care, and Thatch couldn’t handle it. She dared not look directly down, fearing that seeing Katie out of more than the edge of her vision would be too much. The vine curling around Katie’s hand squeezed tighter.
“So let me in, Thatch. There’s nobody here but us. Let me help, please? You said you expected me to be forceful if you weren’t taking care of yourself, and you aren’t, so this is me being pushy. I know you can’t exactly tell me right now, and that’s okay, I just want to make sure you know I’m here.”
The vine tightened further, and Thatch caught a glimmer of a wince. She looked down, just to check that she hadn’t used too much force.
Katie’s eyes caught her own. The only pain in them was sympathetic.
“You don’t have to be alone. Let me be here?”
Knowing the damage she might be doing, but craving the understanding more, she slowly nodded her head, keeping her gaze on Katie. She could feel a tension building across her body, but it didn’t last. She didn’t have anything that could force a brief amnesia anyway. She couldn’t undo this. The damage was done.
The girl didn’t recoil in horror, or get uncomfortable with Thatch’s touch. She leaned down and rested her chin against a leafy chest, and used her free hand to push one of Thatch’s back down on top of her head.
How was Thatch meant to respond? In a year’s time, Katie would most likely be a happy citizen of the Affini Compact, or, if she met the right person, an even happier floret. Thatch didn’t want to do anything to damage her chances. She’d done okay by herself for decades, she could handle continuing on alone. She could—
Thatch whipped out a vine to grab Katie’s wrist, preventing her from scratching herself on a thorn again. She frowned down at the girl, who must have been doing it intentionally, only to see a patient smile.
“You’re always paying so much attention to me, even when you seem so far away. I can try to return the favour, okay? Trust me, Thatch, please. Let me take care of you, too?”
Something deep inside broke, and Thatch could no longer stand the light or the noise. She knew that if this conversation continued she would do something she would come to regret. She glanced up at the night sky for just an instant. It was late enough to bring the day to a sharp close. She was too weak to do what she knew she should do, but if she indulged herself in only a little way, it would sate that need, wouldn’t it? In a few moments of frantic movement she wrapped Katie up in dexterous vines—making sure to keep the one around her hand firmly, but gently, in place—and carried the two of them over to where Katie had usually slept. A storm of smaller tentacles pushed open buttons, pulled down zippers, and unhooked clasps. It wasn’t healthy for Katie to sleep in the same clothes she’d been wearing all day and Thatch waited just long enough to feel an affirming squeeze from Katie’s hand before tearing them all away, leaving them in a folded pile. Thatch had spent her nights a few feet away until now, even if Katie had usually used her foliage as a blanket, but not tonight.
The vines around Katie retracted, letting her sink back into Thatch’s grip. They could forget propriety for just one night. Thatch took enough of her bipedal form to wrap Katie in powerful arms and tuck her beneath a sharp chin, burying the girl’s face in her chest. Held so close, Thatch could drink in every part of the girl’s own rhythm. Her breaths, her heartbeat, the tiny twitches of a body that couldn’t quite stay completely still and the soft gasps of warm contact.
Thatch hadn’t the will to finish putting herself together. She was just a tangle of vines and leaves and flowers and she wove every one around Katie’s limbs, around her torso and chest, even one or two around the girl’s neck, in as total an embrace as she could manage. She caught the heat that radiated away, tasted the moisture of every patch of exposed skin, felt every tiny hair and all the many beautiful imperfections of a damaged form. She savoured the sensation of soft skin. Enjoyed the shivers that ran down Katie’s back as a fine web brushed across her, pulling tight. She longed for more of the quiet, distant moans of a much needed hug.
Thatch would let the girl move. If she wanted. Desperately, she hoped she wouldn’t have to. Thatch wanted the warmth and the companionship, for tonight. A few short hours of being able to pretend she had something—anything—to call her own.
Just for tonight.
She couldn’t express her gratitude with words, but perhaps Katie would still get the idea.
She felt a quick squeeze against the vine around Katie’s palm, and quickly squeezed back.
“Shall I take this as a yes?” Katie asked, through a quiet laugh. Thatch curled around her more tightly with a small nod. She wrapped her sheet of foliage around them, protecting both from the lights, the sounds, and the falling rain, and brought both of them down into a dreamless sleep.