Chapter Seventeen: We Need To Talk About The Cotyledon
Katie skipped across consciousness like a stone flying across a lake. Time and again, waking just enough to realise that it was morning, and that she really should get up. Time and again, finding herself pulled back down into slumber the moment she became aware of her surroundings. It was like trying to fight past the event horizon of a black hole. No matter how much she might want to wake…
Her body tingled from head to toe, feeling as if she were floating in an open ocean. No part of her was touching anything hard, or was anything less than perfectly suspended. She could hardly be sure that she wasn’t dreaming, but her dreams were nightmares and those seemed to be leaving her alone for the moment. Why would she want to wake, actually? She could sleep here forever.
Like any stone skipping, however, each leap was lower. Eventually, the threat of consciousness loomed large. Katie tried to fight it, wanting little more than to stay in her sleeping prison of warmth and comfort, but it was a losing battle. Light and heat willed her to wake. She refused, but it was insistent.
She shifted position slightly, and her body involuntarily let out a little whimper.
“Good morning, Katie.” The voice surrounded her, quiet chords chiming in her ears, and finally Katie had a reason to let herself wake up.
“Ughh,” she breathed. “Wake… no. Sleep? Please?”
She heard rustling from all around her and cursed sunlight burned through her eyelids. She hissed, and a moment of movement more brought the light down to a tolerable level. She forced open her eyes and found herself cocooned, with a small gap off to one side through which a fraction of the day’s fury could reflect. It would have to do.
She glanced around and saw nothing but plantlife. Even when she looked down, at herself, it was just the tangled shades of foliage all the way down. She raised a hand to herself. Speckled black, flecked with splashes of red. She curled her hand into a fist and it moved easily enough, but…
“Uhhh,” she droned. “I think I’m still sleeping.”
Indeed, if she pinched herself, she felt nothing, though the the flora around her did flinch. She felt a flush of heat rolling through her, though it felt like it was being delivered straight to her skin, not truly coming from within.
“Ah, no, I— Let’s get you dressed, perhaps.” Thatch’s voice was sounding much better. A little quiet, still, but singing its usual song. All across Katie’s body, her ‘skin’ began to slither, curling away to reveal the delicate network of vines and roots that had actually formed it. She gasped in surprise as humid air hit her dry, exposed body. It felt cold, despite the height of the sun, and air pressure alone could hardly make up for what she’d gotten used to.
The cocoon slowly opened, letting Katie get used to the light, while Thatch handed her one item of clothing at a time. It was good that she had something to focus on, because otherwise she might be thinking about what had just happened, and that absolutely couldn’t be allowed. Thatch was just a friend. They were stuck on a planet together and needed to huddle for warmth, that was all. It was reasonable. Not only was Thatch a friend, she was a space alien with a wholly different outlook on life. The only unreasonable thing here was Katie’s burning cheeks.
“Brefast,” she declared, striding over to the soup and reaching out to grab the lid. A vine caught her wrist. She glanced back to watch Thatch reform as she moved between them, shifting seamlessly from the disorganised mess she had been into the elegant creature Katie was coming to know.
“It’s hot, flower, do be careful.” Thatch’s vine lingered a moment longer than it needed to. That didn’t mean anything. Katie nodded rapidly, letting her hand fall away so Thatch could take care of it.
While the walking plant prepared their morning meal, Katie sat on one of their rocks and spent a few moments trying to massage feeling and warmth back into her arms. Her fingers did little to sate the electric tingling that danced across her skin, demanding something more, but at least working some heat back into herself helped.
“So.” Katie coughed, attracting a glance. “Do we need to talk about last night?” She knew what that would have meant with a human, but Thatch wasn’t a human. Katie was extremely aware that she’d encouraged it.
The flora winced, and had the good sense to appear sheepish, and shrugged. She handed Katie a bowl of soup and one of their makeshift wooden spoons.
“I apologise if I overstepped, I—”
“No! No, it was… I didn’t mind—”
“But I did not ask if I could—”
“And I didn’t stop you—”
“That is not how that wo—”
“Thatch. Was nice.”
Thatch stared down at the soup. Several of the currently dim biolumenescent flowers dotting her body started to curl open, showing their hexagonal leaves. After a few moments, she looked back towards the once-a-Terran.
“You offered comfort in a time of need, and I am very grateful. Thank you.” The affini seemed reluctant to admit it. Katie nodded, mostly to herself. Comfort in a time of need. She could understand that. It was probably a good thing. What that sort of thing usually meant with a human was… Katie had never found herself comfortable with the things that unclothed humans did behind closed doors.
“Of course, any time,” Katie readily agreed. “I meant what I said, I’m here for you.”
She glanced down at her steaming bowl of soup and took a careful spoonful, wary of the heat. It was a little below scalding, but good. She gave Thatch a quick smile and continued eating, pulling the solid pieces out one by one.
“I do not know that I am going to find things very easy to talk about, however,” Thatch admitted. “And if we wish to find the source of that signal then we have a busy day ahead of us. It may please you to learn that I think I have finished developing a method to filter the undesirable active agents out of my sap, so I no longer need to be directly involved in your daily routine.”
That was good. It was a good thing. Katie nodded. “That’s a good thing.” When Thatch offered her the makeshift toothbrush, and a little container of what she could only assume was clean, safe sap, she took them gratefully. Gladly. Happily. Without complaint. It was a good thing.
It only took Katie a few minutes to fish out all the solid chunks from her breakfast. She handed the bowl over to her companion—who slipped a deep-purple root inside with an appreciative hum—and set off down the river. She could spend a few minutes brushing her teeth here, but without Thatch’s help she’d need a calmer section of river to bathe. Given they’d likely need to be travelling quite far today, that didn’t seem like too difficult an ask.
Katie spent a few moments inspecting the sap. It didn’t look any different. She squeezed a drop out onto the little tool Thatch had built for her. A carved wooden handle met a head of plantlife with firm little growths that seemed to function just fine as bristles. She extended a careful tongue to tap against the drop.
Katie let her eyes slide shut. It was delicious, still. She could feel herself relaxing just from the taste, but after a few moments of careful introspection she was pretty sure it wasn’t actually messing with her head, but just reminding her of the times before. Regardless, Katie stuck the brush into her mouth and tried to do a good job. She suspected that Thatch would be checking up on her before long.
It was hard to focus on actually giving every tooth the attention it deserved, when the act of scrubbing was enough to fill her head with such a familiar taste and aroma. Katie first tried to count where she’d gotten to, but quickly lost track. Going from one side to the other, one tooth at a time, worked better, but when she reached the middle she lost track of which direction she’d been moving.
This was ridiculous. She wasn’t incapable. She’d spent half of yesterday building circuits with only a little guidance on how to integrate it with Thatch’s organic technology. She wasn’t an idiot, and even the hypercompetent plant didn’t make her feel like one.
After a few minutes of trying, Thatch came to check up on her. Katie harboured a secret suspicion that she’d been watched the whole time, and this was actually a reaction to her starting to express frustration, but she couldn’t prove that. As Thatch drew close, Katie silently handed the brush over and waited until Thatch’s fingers pressed into the muscles of her jaw, guiding her mouth open so she could spend a few moments cleaning up what Katie had failed to catch.
“You’ll get it down in no time,” Thatch promised, resting a hand on Katie’s head for a few moments with an encouraging squeeze. It at least didn’t take her long to finish up. “Spit and rinse now.”
Katie’s cheeks still burned, if less than they had at first. Should she be worried that she was getting used to this? Thatch handed her a container of water, and Katie at least managed to do that part, earning herself another moment of warm contact that banished the lingering tingling that suffused her skin, at least in that area.
They were in a hurry today, however. A leaf drawn up Katie’s bicep attracted attention to Thatch’s outstretched hand, which she took with her own as they made their way back to camp. Did the overgrown houseplant expect that she’d get lost on the way?
…Admittedly, that wasn’t that much worse than failing to brush her own teeth. Katie wished she could blame chemicals for that, but she was as sober as she’d ever been and her focus skipping away from routine chores was unfortunately commonplace. There was a reason she’d forgotten to do them so often even before getting stranded.
“The further away we get, the better our triangulation attempt will be,” Thatch spoke, as they approached their campsite. “We can hardly leave Leviathan uncared for, but if we use this as one of our points, then perhaps we could head upriver in the morning and downriver in the afternoon and see if we get anything useful? We could swim?”
Once they reached the camp, a gentle vine prodded Katie forward, sending her to collect the leafy backpack they’d made for her after enough complaints about her lack of pockets. Thatch could carry enough food and water for the both of them, but Katie felt it was better if she carried her own supplies. More fair that way. It also meant she could bring the important pieces of their radio setup. They’d have to get high above the trees to pick anything up. The little luminescent plant they had it wired to wouldn’t give them any audio, but as far as estimates of signal strength went it would have to do.
She realised, as she was climbing up Thatch’s back, that the affini would be taking the weight either way, but it was too late to change her approach now. “I can’t hold a conversation on the water,” Katie admitted. “Let’s stay on land for now.”
Thatch hesitated, confidence faltering. Katie installed herself around the creature’s neck and folded her arms over its head. “You promised, Thatch. Still, you do know you’re in charge here, right? Just tell me what you need me to do and I’ll do it, no questions or complaints. It’s your call.”
The affini rumbled, but did eventually raise two bright red vines for Katie to grab onto. She did, but didn’t begin guiding them forward straight away. “I mean it, Thatch. I’m not going to get upset if you need to stop. I’ll do whatever you want me to, here.”
Thatch started moving forward by herself, but Katie pulled back on the reigns and brought them back to a stop. The plant emitted a soft whine, but acquiesced. “Alright. We shall talk, but we have much distance to cover, and I need something else to focus on.”
Satisfied, Katie let them go. First at a walking pace, and then a run, and then a sprint. As Katie got used to the movements again, they went faster. The sprint gave out to a fury of vibrant lines striking out at the trees around, carrying them across the land at dizzying speeds in a mixture of tangled biologies.
They couldn’t quite match the speeds Thatch was capable of in the water, where they didn’t have to dodge around trees, but there were plenty of improvements to be found here too. Katie knew that she wasn’t really in control. If she missed something they needed to avoid, Thatch still avoided it. If she missed a twig at eye height that would have scratched her, it was never allowed to still be in place by the time Katie reached it. For all the fury, she moved in a bubble of safety that couldn’t be breached.
She could shrink it, though. Left to her own devices, Thatch seemed to provide an almost comical margin for error, given her obvious precision. Trees were skirted by whole meters, twigs were removed long before Katie had a chance to duck. They could hardly be said to be moving slowly, but they certainly could be moving faster.
Katie joined in with the movements, leaning and ducking and using her guiding vines to trim away some of that margin of error in exchange for speed. Every extra meter they reached would improve their results. Every extra scrap of speed she managed to tease out of Thatch’s hesitance was a real benefit she was bringing to the both of them.
Once they got into the rhythm of things, it felt safe enough to talk. “So, what’s up, Thatch?” Katie asked, as they ducked around a tree tightly enough that she could have reached out and touched it.
Probably Katie should give them a little more room for mistakes if they were talking about something heavy. She gave the next tree a wider pass.
“You are,” Thatch admitted. Her shoulders were still in place, so Katie could have a seat, but the rest of her was simply action and movement, barely even perceptible as vines any more. “In a sense. I find myself uncertain around you. I do not know what it is that you need, and where I was sure, you have left me doubting whether it would truly be best for you.”
Katie felt her heart threatening to skip out. A mere handful of days ago, the thought of a weed expressing doubt at their own arrogance would have had her over the moon, but now? It felt like a hollow victory if it came at the expense of Thatch’s happiness.
“You’ve helped me so much already,” Katie insisted. “I don’t know what things you haven’t done, but everything you have? You’ve helped. Before you came along I didn’t think I’d live to see out the year. When I first met you I doubted I’d live to see the end of the week. I think since then you’ve taught me that I hadn’t really been living at all, but… I think you’re helping me want to bloom.”
Thatch was silent—or as silent as they could be, at what must have been approaching the speeds of a small aircraft. Long moments passed.
“I…” Katie felt the vines under her hands growing stiff, and glanced up in alarm at the tree they would surely meet if Thatch went ballistic. She gave both vines a gentle squeeze and leaned sharply to one side, and they skirted past it with an inch to spare. “I’ll break you,” Thatch breathed.
It took a few moments to get them back on course, and Katie decided to give them an even larger bubble of safety for a while. Speed didn’t mean much if she ended up accidentally convincing Thatch that she was right.
“You’ve been nothing but accommodating,” Katie insisted, guiding them through a small clearing. They interrupted a small herd of the giant hogs as they went, but the predators on this planet couldn’t hope to pierce the bubble any more than anything else. “You aren’t going to break me.”
They ran out of ground. With the forest so thick, they had under a second of warning before shooting off of the cliff fast enough that even Thatch couldn’t reach back and rescue them. Katie glanced down at the dramatic fall beneath them, and shuffled forward a little to make sure she was holding tight.
“Oh, dirt and stars,” Thatch swore, looking around for a handhold that wasn’t there. “See, I’ve gotten distracted and put both of us in danger!”
They were falling at a terrifying rate, plummeting through the sky towards a canopy that was now far below them. Katie’s hair streamed behind her. The air was moving so fast it was difficult just to take a breath.
“Have some confidence in yourself!” Katie called, over the roaring wind. “Are you going to let anything happen to me, Thatch?”
“I— No, but—”
“Then catch us!”
They crashed into the trees in a storm of broken twigs and shattered branches, each impact robbing them of some of their speed. They still hit the ground hard enough to send up a plume of dirt.
With the very last of their kinetic energy, Katie stumbled forward, out of her perch, but did not quite trip or fall. She turned with a smile and offered a hand to help Thatch up.
“See? Not a scratch on me. You’ll— Oof, are you okay?”
Thatch grumbled, raising a pair of fingers to wipe some softly green sap off of the leaves on her face. “It looks worse than it is,” she admitted, pulling herself up to her full height with a pair of vines attached to nearby trees. “But I do seem to be acquiring a habit of injuring myself, so perhaps I should be more careful.”
Katie nodded firmly. “Are you okay to keep going?”
The plant scooped her up and set her in place, and they were back at full speed in a minute or so.
Katie tried to pick their conversation back up. “You’ve never hurt me. Why do you think you will?”
Thatch was moving a little more conservatively than before. It didn’t impact their speed all that much, but she seemed to be making sure she had one vine on a solid mount at any given time, instead of simply flinging them faster and faster.
“You are fragile.” Even at these speeds, Katie could tell when the thing was misleading her. She let go of one of her steering vines for a moment to tap Thatch atop the head.
“Compared to you, sure, you dork. That’s not the kind of fragile we’re talking about here.”
“You are already hurt.”
Katie nodded. “Granted, and you’re helping with that, not adding to it.”
“Your needs are unique and individual.”
Katie rolled her eyes. She didn’t even bother to duck to avoid a sharp looking set of branches in her direct path. A sharp crack was the only sign Katie needed that the danger had been dealt with. “Don’t make me repeat one of your speeches back to you, hon. We’re all unique and individual, right?”
Katie could feel a tension rising within her noble steed. She wouldn’t have had the bravery to continue, but Thatch hadn’t called upon her to stop, and a gentle squeeze upon a vine earned her one in return.
Katie squeezed tighter still, and got a tighter response. Hell. She had to ask the question, didn’t she? The one that’d been in the back of her mind since the day they’d gotten here, when Thatch had first locked up.
“What was their name?”
Katie braced as she was brought to a sudden stop. Fire against her face; steel against her back. Oxygen burning up. A broken vessel cracking around her.
Katie gasped, stumbling out of Thatch’s grip as they slammed to a halt about as fast as a human body could handle. The affini wasn’t looking at her. Katie spent a moment catching her breath and trying to focus away from the panic. She had stuff to deal with now, damn it, brain!
She took a step closer to Thatch, but a firm vine blocked her path. She took it in a gentle hand and moved it aside. Her next step was blocked too, and the one after, but step by step, Katie cleared the way, until she could wrap her arms as far around Thatch’s stomach as she could manage.
“Caeca.” Thatch’s voice was barely a whisper, hardly audible over the ambient sounds of a silent forest. “Her name was Caeca.”
Katie gently pulled the affini down, until she was sitting in the undergrowth and Katie could take a place on her lap. A few moments of shuffling and tugging gave Thatch a Katie to hold on to, for support.
“Tell me about her?”
Thatch let out a soft sigh, with a gentle smile. “She was so excited to meet me. I her, as well, if I am being honest. The true name of their species is not something we can reproduce in an audible tongue, but the best translation I have for you is Spectrum Jellies.”
As she spoke, Thatch brought together a confluence of vegetation, showing Katie a rough outline of an aquatic jellyfish, complete with half a dozen little trailing tentacles.
“We could only talk in the crudest gestures and expressions at first, but over time I started to pick up a little of her language and she began to pick up a little of mine, at least of the written form. All of us there collaborated on learning these things, this was very much a collaboration between our two species, but it still took time. I did not mind. She had a razor sharp wit and an intelligence that never stopped being mesmerising.”
Thatch sighed, and the vines before them fell away. Her arms grew tighter around Katie’s body.
“And she was dying.”
The affini stared up into the sky for long moments. Katie wrapped her hands around one of Thatch’s and gave her a gentle squeeze, but no words. Now wasn’t the time for pressure. A minute passed, or more, before there was another sound.
“Something degenerative in her body. Her mind was unaffected, but she hurt more every day. After a few months, it started getting worse. Their medical technology could do nothing for her. That was the whole reason why she had volunteered to be one of the first of our new wards to be fully domesticated, because it would save her. We had said that we could save her. Told her not to worry, and that everything would be okay.”
Thatch fell quiet again. Katie wasn’t sure what to do, beyond sitting and listening, and so she sat, and she listened.
“She was not to be mine, at first. I was a neutral party, there to keep her alive and nothing more. Brought in despite my age because of a natural aptitude with exactly the kind of bioengineering she needed. The only way to stop her body from collapsing was to strengthen every part of it at once, otherwise all I would have achieved was causing something else to fail. I took a piece of myself and worked on it for weeks, producing a seed. A new version of our Haustoric Implant, that would merge with her body and keep her alive for the rest of a long, happy life.”
Thatch closed her hand around Katie’s and held it close to the girl’s chest. Katie had to ask. “Did it work?”
“In a sense, yes. Implantation went flawlessly. Thanks to her translucence, we could watch it grow in real time. The next few turnings of their world were a blur. She was not to be mine, but she chose me regardless, and I her. We had the paperwork. The clerks made it a work of art. Delicate Affini script with letters that glowed with their own translation in Caeca’s tongue. We would have signed it… but her body was rejecting the implant. The two were fighting, and she was too weak to win. The only way for it to save her life was for it to take over entirely and her beautiful mind couldn’t take the strain.”
Their hands dropped into Katie’s lap, with a sense of finality.
Katie breathed out. “Fuck. Did you get to say goodbye?”
Thatch emitted a dark laugh, and shook her head. “She’s still there, in a facility set up to care for those who needed to be put on class-Os. By the time I knew I would have to say goodbye it was too late. She was not truly there.”
Katie let out a ragged breath, feeling a tear rolling down her face. They were quiet together for long moments, before Katie finally found the words. “So she’s happy, then, at least?”
“Endlessly,” Thatch breathed. “But only that. I ruined her. I made a cotyledon out of her. She was beautiful and we were going to visit every star in the sodding sky and I broke her so badly nobody can bring her back.”
“Did you have a choice, Thatch? One that wasn’t simply letting her die? What would have happened to her if you hadn’t done those things?” Katie dare not look up at her companion, for fear of damaging the gentle aura of stillness around them. It felt as if puncturing their bubble of safety could have Thatch unable to speak of this ever again.
Katie didn’t get an answer for long moments. Only the slow rhythm of Thatch’s heat let her know that she was still there. Only the wind slowly moving around them provided any sound at all.
It took long enough that Katie was about to try to prompt a response herself before Thatch next spoke.
“No. No, I did not.”
Katie nodded, pulling Thatch’s hand back up to her chest and pressing it against her heart. “Could anybody else have done better?”
“I… would like to think so, yes. I do not want to imagine the same fate befalling any other. But… I think that there were none who could certainly have prevailed who were close enough to try before she passed away.”
Katie took a long breath, then let out a sigh. “But you still feel responsible?”
“I failed her. I took the promise my people had made—that she would be okay—and I made it a lie. Surely you can see how that is wrong, Katie? Surely you look upon the promises made by my people and now know them to be false. That we have dismantled your civilisation based on trickery. If one of us can be a failure, then there are surely more. I am an existential threat to our entire way of life.”
Katie couldn’t hold in the laugh. She regretted it an instant later, but what was done was done. She could only continue. She turned herself around, kneeling in Thatch’s lap so she could speak straight to her face.
“By the stars, the arrogance in that sentiment,” Katie breathed, jabbing a finger into the affini’s chest. “You are not gods. You’re blaming yourself for not saving every single sapient life in the universe? Get over yourself, Thatch. You did everything you could and it didn’t work? That’s life. You can’t be perfect. You can’t never screw up. I fucking knew that propaganda was bullshit, because you make yourselves seem flawless and inevitable and in control of absolutely everything.”
Katie drove the finger in deeper. “And you’re not.”
And deeper. “You’re just people. Flawed, imperfect people doing their best in a hostile universe and stop beating yourself up over that.”
Thatch had been curling into herself the whole conversation, losing height until the two of them were face to face, on the same level. She looked away, unwilling to meet Katie’s eyes. “It could have been you,” she whimpered. “If we were five years later and you got unlucky, it could have been you withering away in a medical facility. It could have been you that didn’t get saved. Nobody’s opinion matters here but Caeca’s and she can’t give it to me.”
Katie sighed, exploiting Thatch’s diminutive stature to wrap her in a tight hug. “Can I forgive you? As the closest we have to her position here, I think she’d forgive you. You tried, and you made her last days happy. Why would she want you to suffer for that?”
Thatch’s weave was tightening up. She managed a hiss. “She does not want anything now. She does not want to see the stars. She does not want to learn to speak. She wants for nothing. She is the worst version of herself and I can never make up for that which I have done.”
Katie let out a whimper, burying her head in her affini’s shoulder. “I wouldn’t be here at all without you. Does that count for nothing?”
A vine lifted her chin, to meet a pair of concerned eyes and a softer voice. “Of course it does, flower. You are the first good thing that has happened to me in fifty years.”
Katie sniffed. “But my opinion doesn’t count, next to Caeca’s?”
“I— I do not know. I have spent so long… I am sorry, I do not wish to make you feel unimportant.”
Katie interrupted. “You ass,” she laughed, through tears. “You total ass. I’ve been unimportant my whole life and you’re the first person who’s ever made me feel like I matter. I… You make me feel like I’m worth something. You make me feel good. I don’t want to lose that.”
Thatch’s face wavered, in an inhuman expression that Katie could, nontheless, understand as a deep hesitation.
“Katie,” she eventually spoke, taking Katie’s hand in one of hers and gently moving it away. “I can’t keep you. I’m not ready for a pe—”
“—Damn right you can’t keep me, you butt. Equals, remember? I’m not looking for a perfect guardian. I don’t care if you’re flawed. And, for the record? If this is as bad as the skeletons in your closet get, then maybe you guys should be in charge. Trying your best and failing is a hell of a lot better than what humanity was up to.”
Thatch let out a long breath, and stared down at the ground. “Thank you. I haven’t told anybody this before. It… helped, perhaps.” Katie lifted her head back up, though she had to use both hands to do it, and left a short kiss on Thatch’s forehead.
“Of course it did, dummy. You’re the one who keeps talking about how sapient life is what matters most, right? Come down out of your ivory tower and talk to us, sometimes, yeah? We matter.”
The affini smiled, raising a hand to brush against Katie’s cheek. “You matter more than anything. Thank you.”
The girl flushed, and turned away. “Right! Ready to get going again, maybe? We can still get a little further out before we need to turn back.”