Chapter Eighteen: Equals, remember?
Leviathan dashed towards a flake of something much like algae, harvested from its old environment the day before and kept fresh. It didn’t need to know that. All it needed to know was that the Katie high above it had its best interests in mind.
A finger dangled into the tank. The fish swam over and spent a moment enjoying the novelty, before getting distracted by another flake of food and darting off. From there, it spotted a comfortable looking nook in its environment, formed from two rocks carefully carved to appear natural while having no danger of shifting or collapse. Leviathan nestled in the dark hole, where it could feel safe while it digested the meal.
Katie sat back, drying her fingers on the side of her top, and carefully lowered the tank back into the river’s rapid flow. The fish needed fresh water to be happy and, though this was imperfect, she was doing her best.
She sighed, a soft smile on her face. Today had been a good day. Thatch seemed to be standing a little taller, since their discussion a few days prior, and several more scouting trips had gradually raised their confidence in being able to pin down the source of their exotic signal.
By their best guess the signal couldn’t have been more than a couple of days of travel away at their top speed. It didn’t sit right with Katie. While admittedly the pair of them could reasonably move hundreds of kilometers in a day, it all felt too convenient. Being thrown to a random spot in the endless void and happening to stumble across signs of life on the same planet at all seemed unlikely. Within walking distance? Impossible.
Katie leaned backwards, putting her hands out behind her to support her own weight, and looked over towards her companion. Impossible things seemed to happen around Thatch a lot. Maybe this was just what life was meant to be? Not the endless suffering and pain of life under Terran rule, but something softer, more exciting, and more convenient. Katie smiled, softly.
Yeah, maybe things were going to be okay.
She pushed herself up and left Leviathan’s side, and as she rose she felt like she’d hit a wall. Her resolve faltered. Who was she kidding? She got one taste of kindness and now everything was going to be fine? Bullshit. The universe wasn’t like that. She…
Katie swore, quietly, under her breath. It wasn’t fair. Keeping her mood positive for a day seemed doable, but it always slipped back. It was like she had a cap on her happiness, but never got to know how close she was, and as soon as she reached it, no matter how good things were, her mood crashed. It had been easier to deal with back on the ship, where nobody had really cared when she’d retreated to her bunk. They hadn’t wanted to deal with her anyway.
Here she had to deal with the guilt of not being able to tell somebody that cared about her what was wrong, and having to tell them that they couldn’t help.
“Hey, I’m gonna go for a walk,” Katie called, trying to keep her voice steady. The affini nodded, and put her current project down. A little wooden container for their radio assembly, complete with a bundle of plantlife that she’d promised would act as a speaker that wouldn’t burn out after thirty seconds of use.
“Would you like company?” Thatch had such a welcoming smile. Katie wanted little more, but she wasn’t worth it right now.
Katie shook her head. That would rather defeat the point, wouldn’t it? She got a curious look, but little else by way of resistance.
“I understand. Please do not stray too far from the camp, and call if you need anything.”
She was so nice. This wasn’t fair. Katie turned and left, walking up the river, ruminating on how much of an ass she was being. As much as Thatch gave the impression of confidence Katie knew she was struggling too, and she couldn’t even make herself smile back?
The walk was calm enough. Katie had a sneaking suspicion that this planet was less serene than it seemed; that the dangerous kinds of life simply knew better than to threaten one of the universe’s apex predators. How wide did Thatch’s bubble of safety really extend?
Katie looked out at the river. Rapid flows met jagged rocks in a clash that she had no doubt would kill her. A thought intruded into her awareness. Jump. What would happen if she did? She didn’t want to—she wouldn’t—but she’d gotten so used to feeling like there was nothing she could do to put herself in danger that she couldn’t help but fixate on the what-if.
Katie felt her mouth going dry, as she stared. It would kill her. This was real danger. One wrong move and she could get hurt, or worse. Her breathing started to grow uneven, and she forced herself to step backwards. She stumbled, tripped, and slammed into one of the trees with a blow that knocked the air out of her lungs.
Jagged metal. Fearsome heat. The scream of her mistakes shredding the universe. A certainty of death. Trapped with a monster that wanted her dead.
Katie whimpered, hissing out Thatch’s name with a voice that failed to make a sound. She couldn’t breathe. She squeezed shut her eyes and tried to ground herself. It was a tree at her back. There was dirt under her feet. Nothing was on fire.
The rough pop, pop, pop of rivets cracking on a broken hull. A rush of speed as engines ignited. The scent of burning plantlife.
“Thatch?” She managed a whisper. Barely more than nothing, and nothing was all she got in return. She’d gone too far. Like she always did, letting herself drift away from anybody who might care about her, because the risk of rejection was too great. Better for her to do it to herself first.
She— No! Katie whimpered. She didn’t want to live like that any more. She didn’t know how to live any other way, but she knew who did. Unable, or unwilling, to open her eyes for fear of finding out it truly was the escape pod surrounding her still, Katie felt around for something—anything—until her fingers wrapped around a stick. She slammed it against the tree at her back as hard as she could and heard a snap.
“Please?” she whispered, still hardly able to breathe enough to keep herself conscious, never mind enough to attract attention.
A moment passed. Another. A third. Just as Katie was giving up hope, she felt warm fingers entangling with her own. She opened her eyes to find the worried gaze of her affini looking down upon her.
“Did something happen?” Thatch asked, down on one knee and still towering over her. Katie’s eyes flicked past, to the river. Sharp and dangerous and it couldn’t hurt her any more. Thatch’s other hand came up to her cheek to tilt her head back. “Eyes on me, please.”
Katie shook her head, flushed. “I— Eyes on you, yeah,” she agreed, nodding, voice barely above a whisper but getting louder. “Sorry. I meant… no, nothing happened.”
The plant’s expression barely changed, and yet Katie could sense the doubt. She shrugged. “I went for a walk because I was feeling bad and I didn’t want to upset you and got scared of my own shadow, that’s all. Please don’t leave me again.”
Thatch softened, concern giving way to compassion. She dropped out of her kneel into a cross-legged sitting position, back against the same tree as Katie, and patted her thigh. When Katie didn’t immediately respond, a leaf brushed against her shoulder, prompting her to topple sideways. Her weight went against Thatch, not the tree.
The affini did not point out that it was Katie who had left, and Katie was grateful for that. “This isn’t fair,” she whispered. Her lungs were recovering, but she dare not speak too loud. “You’re trying so hard to help me; why can’t I accept it? I want it to work, I just… Sometimes I feel like there’s a real me but she’s trapped in this dumb human body that doesn’t work right. Sometimes I get sad for no reason and I just have to… be sad, even if I have every reason to be happy. This is stupid. I hate it.”
Katie buried her face in Thatch’s lap. Gentle fingers stroked through her hair, and it was nice, but it wasn’t enough. It was surface-level comfort when the problem was that Katie was stuck in a body that didn’t work. “I will be here with you the whole way,” Thatch whispered back at her. “This will pass, and it will be okay.”
Katie groaned, shaking her head. “No,” she replied, feeling about as petulant as it sounded. “Be better. Fix it.”
The plant’s motions faltered. “I— I do not know what you need, Katie,” Thatch protested, fingers growing tighter against her scalp.
Katie was having none of it. “Yes you do. Do you want me to beg?”
A soft ripple ran through the affini’s structure. Shock? Surprise? Katie decided it was best not to think about it, when she knew she would interpret it, and everything else, in the worst possible light.
“I don’t know what I need. Please, let me know that I won’t have to feel like this for the rest of my life?”
Thatch was quiet.
Katie took in a deep breath to argue the point, and was suddenly overwhelmed by a gentle yet potent collection of scent that seemed to coat the insides of her mouth, all the way down her throat, into her lungs. It was surprising enough that her breath hitched, and she ended up taking another gasp.
The weight that had settled over her heart began to float away, suddenly rendered weightless. It was sudden enough that she found herself giggling, as a strange euphoria rushed in to fill the void where her existential dread had been a moment before.
She spent a moment trying to sit up. Her limbs didn’t work quite right, like they were running on a time delay. She asked something of them and they didn’t respond for half a second or so, by which time they were no longer in the right position any more. A few moments of flailing were enough to attract Thatch’s help. Katie felt a triplet of fingertips touch beneath her chin, and between them she was lifted up until her body could be draped across Thatch’s stomach, and her focus could be corralled and directed up to her affini. Her vision almost seemed to swim, like her mind could no longer keep track of her own peripheral vision. Her focus was sharp and her vision certain, yet anything she wasn’t directly focused on faded into a soup of colour and warmth.
“You won’t have to feel like that,” Thatch said. Her voice was deep, and it seemed to buzz through Katie from head to toe, leaving her vibrating in the same frequency for moments afterwards. “It’s nothing but faulty neurochemistry.”
Thatch leaned down until her head was barely a foot away, almost directly above Katie’s. Were it not for the fingers keeping her in place, Katie wouldn’t have been able to keep her head up, but Thatch wasn’t letting go. Katie’s lips parted, slightly, in a whimper. The plant continued. “Just a broken machine,” she whispered, “and one easily fixed. Remember what I am, Katie.”
The girl’s attention was transfixed. Just three points of contact consumed her senses. She knew her cheeks were aflame, so bright she worried it would scare her bubble of safety away, but there was nothing that could be done. Her focus, usually so scattershot, was all pointed in one direction and refused to change. “You’re a bioengineer,” she whispered. And Katie was broken biotech.
The plant smiled, expression more than a little indulgent. “Not quite what I was aiming for, but true enough. You don’t have to feel anything you don’t want to. Not around me.”
The fingers fell away. The tips of leaves brushed over her back, her shoulder, her cheek. With her reaction times slowed so far, she didn’t have a chance to choose not to follow Thatch’s suggestions. By the time she was aware of having received them, she was already leaning against the creature’s side with her head tucked under one arm. Thatch’s other hand brushed across her lips.
“I should give you the counteragent,” Thatch declared, sending a spike of panic through Katie’s calm.
“N—no, please,” she asked. “Don’t make me go back to that.”
Katie sensed discontent from above. Thatch shook her head. “You’ve told me that this should be down to my own judgment when you aren’t in your right mind. You’ll thank me for it later.”
Katie shook her head back. It was sloppy and slow, but she did it. “Please? I don’t want to go back. This should be both of our choices. Equals, remember?”
Thatch chuckled. With Katie nestled so close to her, she felt it more than heard it. Her eyes slipped closed as a deep warmth followed, and she sank into the closeness of their touch, rubbing her cheek against soft leaves with a dull smile on her face. She was surprised, when a single finger came up and tilted her chin towards the creature, so it could catch her whole attention and speak down to her.
“But we are not, are we, little Katieflower? Equal. Look at you. You cannot even keep your eyes open. Even if you wanted to escape my gaze, you couldn’t.” Thatch’s eyes seemed to glow, and the rest of her definitely did, pulling Katie’s attention upwards. It had already been more focused than anything she could usually achieve. Now she was entranced. Her mouth fell half-open, as her guardian extracted a soft sound of helpless protest. “If you want to be my equal, that means accepting that you’re in no state to make your own decisions.”
“No— state?” Katie breathed, managing to gulp the lump in her throat down.
Thatch shook her head. “None. That’s the problem, isn’t it, Katie? You can’t ask me to control how you feel and be an equal. It’s one or the other.”
Thatch’s thumb came up to brush across Katie’s lower lip. It quivered, parting easily, and her tongue came out to meet it. She gasped, and despite the insistence of Thatch’s gaze, managed to split her attention in two as she tasted the floral bliss. Leviathan had made the wrong choice here, but Katie was glad to get a chance to make up for the lost time.
Thatch pulled her thumb away. “Ah ah,” she warned, with a gentle shake of her head. “You have to ask before doing things like that.”
The broken machine whimpered. “Please?” she begged. Thatch looked momentarily surprised, eyebrows raising, before taking another look at Katie, analysing her from a new perspective, and then sagging.
“Oh. This is hitting you harder than I expected, hmn?”
Katie nodded rapidly. ‘Yes’ just seemed like the right answer. To this. To everything. To anything. Please.
“Ah, dirt,” her affini swore, scratching the back of her neck. “That was meant to be warning you off, I apologise.”
Katie shook her head. “Is— okay, please…?”
The rush of heat coming off of Thatch was enough to force a breeze on an otherwise still day. She shook her head and raised a sharp, needle-like thorn to Katie’s neck. “Don’t worry about a thing, flower,” she whispered, as she gently pressed it into Katie’s flesh.
She felt her head starting to clear up a moment later, with a whimper and a grumble. Thatch’s hand came up to brush against her cheek. “Partial counteragent only, as an apology. It will not be as effective, but you’ll be close enough to an equal. I promise you shall get the rest of the counteragent if we disagree on anything, so you can properly fight your corner.”