Chapter Two: Nobody’s Coming to Save Us
Thatch Aquae, First Bloom, was not having a very good day. She hadn’t even really wanted to be there in the first place. Don’t get her roots in a tangle, she was as enthusiastic about keeping cuties like Katie safe as the next Affini, but she preferred to be in more of a supporting role. It was one thing to actually venture into a ship and save all the needy sapients within, but a 0.1% improvement in efficiency for the Haustoric Implant would make a much bigger difference overall, and there were a hundred thousand others who liked to get more hands on.
Not that Thatch had succeeded at either. At the sproutly young age of a hundred and three, Thatch spent a lot of time feeling like she was surrounded by wise old geniuses, each and every one of them a font of stories and wonders. She’d only travelled to the front of the human expedition because there was simply no room to grow closer in to the core. When she’d heard that they’d identified a new species that needed caring for, that had seemed like her time to make a name for herself.
She really wasn’t built for this. She knew that humans responded well to a firm hand and confidence, and she’d played with a fair few aboard the Elettarium, but this was her first meeting with a feral one. Further, that had just never been her. It was fun to pet-sit for an afternoon or a weekend, to play with some cutie’s head until they couldn’t remember their own name, but doing it full time? Training one from the start? It was… a lot of responsibility. It demanded a lot of time.
Easier to work with machines. Safer. Except, that’s exactly why she was in this mess to begin with. All she’d wanted to do was get a good look at a nice, big, human-built Superlight Drive. Figure out which design they were using and see if it had any weaknesses. If she could shut them down, or better yet, figure out how to ping them at faster-than-lightspeed, then they’d be able to reach every rebel ship in hours. She’d make a real difference. They didn’t know why they were fighting. All they needed was a hug and some reassurances and they’d come around, but for that they needed to be found.
It had been a calculated risk, Thatch maintained, but… clod, she wasn’t great at maths.
Everything hurt. The parts that didn’t hurt were the ones that weren’t there any more. She’d lost most of her left arm. A heartbreaking collection of flowers she’d gathered from all across this galaxy, on her journey here. The legs didn’t seem to be doing great, either. She could feel the toxic shock in her leaves already, and the tips were starting to wilt. She was dying. As irreversible as whatever poor deluded Katie had done to that beautiful drive; it was just down to biology now.
She didn’t have to die, of course. Affini physiology was ninety nine percent throwaway. All her vines could be grown again. Most of the flowers had been transplants anyway. Leaves were meant to curl up and fall off sometimes, and her coat of leaves did so more often than most. It was just easier to shed her outer layer than to put on a radiation suit every time she needed to tinker with a reactor.
Thatch was no stranger to regrowth, but this wasn’t that. She’d lost too much at once and her body was shutting down. She couldn’t rescue any of it, the toxicity was much too high already. A good doctor could, but she didn’t have a good doctor. She just had her.
That left one option. Abandon everything but her central core and start fresh. It was a scary idea. She liked her body. She’d been working on it and improving it for a century, and starting again was… intimidating. She had no idea what else she would lose, either. Would she even be the same person on the other side?
Even that wouldn’t be easy. She had no water and no nutrients. She could rig the radio to broadcast continuously, and have her core go into hibernation, but Katie would die within hours, and…
Dirt. Thatch really didn’t have time to sit here feeling sorry for herself, did she?
“Okay,” she said, forcing her eyes to open and trailing a vine over to poor Katie’s face. It touched against her chin, gentle enough to draw attention, but little enough to not scare the poor thing, before slowly pulling her head around. “Tell me about yourself, flowe—”
“Katie. My name is Katie,” the girl insisted, giving the vine a good squeeze. Thatch couldn’t have overpowered her if she’d tried, but she really wasn’t the dominant sort to begin with.
“Katie, sorry. No pet names, even though they really are the most efficient way to avoid having to pause just to gush about how cute you are,” Thatch said, with a smile. The girl’s face went through a dozen emotions at once, before finally settling on staring towards the wall with a rising blush.
“No, come on, look at me. Katie, I need your help, okay? You’re the big, strong, human rebel who knows how to work one of your little space warping machines, right?”
“It’s called a Jump Drive,” she said, still refusing to look.
Thatch frowned at that, though. “But it doesn’t… jump. You use an exotic matter mix to punch a hole through into subspace, right? Push the hull through a transal funnel before it collapses and get squeezed out the other side? It’s cute, I haven’t seen another species figure out how to do it without an external stabliser.”
That got Katie’s attention. Atta girl, Thatch didn’t need drugs to catch a cutie’s eye.
“We call it a quantum arch,” Katie admitted. “Going up instead of down, but… those terms don’t really mean anything in hyperspace, I don’t think, it’s just how we do the diagrams. And, um, that’s what the hull is for, it’s laced with a… we call it a Quantum Faraday Cage, but it’s a mesh of magnetic tubing that insulates us.”
Thatch grinned, eyes sparkling. Oh, this was much better than getting to inspect it first hand. Not just the technology, but the cultural context, too! Their understanding was fraught with oversimplifications and errors, but there were still ships in the Affini fleet that operated on similar principles, albeit with vastly improved performance and safety. Admittedly those ships were antiques, maintained by history buffs who thought it was a reasonable idea to fly to war in something a sufficiently determined human battleship might actually be able to scratch, but still, it was something to bond over. This would be easier if she hadn’t just lost most of her good drugs in a temporospatial claudication, but if she couldn’t convince a hostile enemy combatant to save her life in the next three hours armed with nothing but her wits and charm then… well, she’d feel awful about failing poor Katie, for one thing.
“There’s a good girl,” she quipped, then abused the way Katie’s brain ground to a halt to steamroll on. "So I think I can guess what happened, and the good news is that we aren’t going to wait for the Elettarium to come get us, because they’re probably also very confused as to how they ended up randomly halfway across the galaxy and they can’t be that far away from us. They’re never gonna find us, though, we’re going to have to do that ourselves.
“So, Katie Sahas, capable human rebel and mistress of subatomic forces. You got us here, do you want me to teach you how to get us back?”