Chapter Nineteen: A Wonderful Floret
“I can’t believe how stupid that was,” Katie hissed, pressing a hand up against Thatch’s torso. It had a hole in it big enough to fit Katie’s whole hand. “We should have run!”
Thatch shrugged, wincing slightly as Katie put pressure on the wound. She handed Katie one of their containers of water, so she could start washing out the damaged material. “I must admit that that was the first actual fight I have ever been in. I shall defer to your tactical expertise.” Thatch smiled down, resting a hand on Katie’s shoulder while she worked. Her voice sounded surprisingly good given the circumstances. Part of the noise was spilling out through the hole, giving it a fuzzier air.
They were a few dozen kilometers away from the source of their mystery signal now, heading back towards camp, and Thatch had requested a moment to rest. Katie was unsurprised. She wouldn’t be in any state to move with that large a hole in her either.
After a few moments cleaning out the dirt and scraps of metal, Thatch began to unravel, vine by careful vine, checking to see which had been damaged in the altercation.
Katie shuffled away, putting her back to the corrugated metal of one of the crates Thatch had grabbed on their way out. The labeling was all in a language neither of them understood. Katie had had bigger concerns than asking what the affini’s goal was with them.
She watched as her affini picked herself apart and sectioned off the damaged stretches. Her protector usually only came apart when she wanted to exceed human limits and that was rarely slow. This was fascinating.
A week before, watching an affini unravel like this would have been terrifying, Katie thought. There was no sign of humanity in this. The tight lattice that usually formed Thatch’s limbs had been released, leaving her temporarily as a tangled nest. The dense collection around what Thatch had referred to as her core was unharmed, and out of that sprung a thick trunk-like collection of vines which then spread out in every direction like roots questing forth from a seed.
Thatch hung from a set of three trees and spent some time checking over herself. It seemed like painstaking work. Katie tried to count, knowing it was unlikely she’d get a better chance than this, but quickly lost track of which she’d seen before and which she hadn’t. At least dozens, maybe into the hundreds once the smaller vines were factored in?
After a few minutes all the damaged areas were held off to one side, separate. Despite having stood in the way of what had looked and sounded like a railgun shell, it was a surprisingly small collection. Thatch retracted the damaged pieces into her core and pulled the rest of herself back together with ease, becoming once again her familiar human self, standing tall.
Katie felt an unusual feeling fluttering through her stomach, and a strange warmth. She stared up at Thatch’s body. Inhuman. Powerful. Elegant. Even regal. Designed, but designed by someone that worked creativity into everything they did. There was nothing about Thatch’s form that was only practical. She was a work of art.
She had toes. Tightly wrapped plantlife formed ten little digits connected to two lovingly rendered feet, up two smooth, well-shaped legs, to a torso that Katie had gotten very familiar with. Soft in all the right places, firm in others, with a soft heat and astonishingly human shape. Katie tilted her head to one side, questioning. Had Thatch moved her leaves around? The blacks and purples still made up most of her body but now there was only the occasional flash of red. Her face was starting to regain some of the green tones it had once had, though for the moment it only had the lighter greens of growing leaves. Her hair still sported bright streaks of red, making it stand out.
With the dark colours painting her body it almost looked like Thatch was wearing a suit. In fact, the deeper purples seemed to be accentuating the black, to grant definition and shape to what had previously been somewhat of a speckled mess.
Katie whimpered, as the creature glanced down at her with bright blue eyes and extended a hand. Her fingers were another place where Thatch’s bright reds shone through, now emulating fingernails.
Katie took the hand. Powerful fingers entwined with her own and gently lifted her to her feet. Katie stumbled forward a little at the end, overbalancing, and fell halfway into Thatch’s body. She caught herself with a hand firmly placed against a leg. Thatch’s leafwork was smooth and soft but the vines beneath provided it an iron hardness. Taking Katie’s weight didn’t seem to faze the affini in the slightest.
The plant’s false skin felt less human than it looked. The leaves were smooth and soft, but Katie could feel where one ended and the next began. While they lay smooth they were all arranged in one direction, but if Katie ran her hand the wrong way that careful pattern was disrupted, like improperly stroked fur.
Perfection was broken. Katie had always known that Thatch could be hurt—it was how they’d met!—but all the while they’d been on this planet it had seemed like nothing could possibly best her; that the only threats to something like this were high-energy physics experiments or similar dramatic overkill.
Then she’d watched a railgun shell strike right through Thatch’s chest, exiting in a burst of sap and broken leaves. Thatch wasn’t invulnerable. She could be hurt by relatively mundane weaponry. Killed, probably.
Thatch’s other hand touched Katie’s cheek, tilting her head all the way up so Katie could notice the way the plant’s attention drilled down into her. Somehow, discovering vulnerability did nothing to make Thatch seem less of a titan. Katie had long since grown to assume Thatch could protect her from minor dangers, but as the limits of her capabilities grew clearer Katie was finding she had underestimated them.
The plant was still looking down at her. Katie stepped away, glancing down to hide her face. She took a quick gulp and laughed as naturally as she could manage on such short notice. “Your first fight, huh? Five minutes to recover from something that would kill a human dead? Is that something all of you can do?”
Thatch’s laughter was contagious even when she played as little as a single note. “As I understand it, training for combat involves learning how to do that on the fly. Five seconds to recover, perhaps. I am very much not that kind of affini, however.”
Katie blew out a breath, nodding. “I spent a lot of time thinking about how to kill you things,” she admitted, with a wry smile. “It’s weird that I’m glad that none of my plans would have worked, now.”
Thatch walked over to the containers she’d placed so carefully and knelt to lift them. “Do not sell yourself short, you came very close to succeeding with me.” After standing, she put together a familiar set of handholds and waited for Katie to climb aboard.
“I’m glad I didn’t,” Katie admitted, settling around Thatch’s neck, only a little breathless. She put out her hands and Thatch dutifully provided her with vines so she could guide their path. The crates provided some extra challenge. The bulk noticeably increased their inertia, making tight turns harder, and despite her strength Thatch couldn’t accelerate quite as quickly.
They were up to speed in only a few moments all the same. Thankfully, Katie was getting used to conversing in fits and starts between bursts of work so when Thatch felt ready to speak again it was no surprise. “I am glad that you did not too, flower. Things would not have gone so well for you if you had.”
Katie frowned. “Also, you’d be dead, and that would be sad,” she insisted, while at the same time pulling up on her vines. Thatch rose off of the ground. They continued on an upwards slope.
“Mmh,” the plant buzzed, while they broke through the canopy. A protective cocoon of plantlife kept Katie unscathed as they moved past the branches. She was inside of Thatch’s bubble of safety and no physical harm would befall her. Emotional harm, however, was apparently harder to protect against.
“And that would be sad.” Katie repeated herself, voice more insistent, gently tapping the back of her shoes against Thatch’s chest with each word. “You’re nice. The universe is better off for having you.”
The slow pulse of heat was a distinct, albeit inhuman, expression, though not one Katie entirely understood just yet. She smiled, leaning forward to drape herself over Thatch’s head. “They should just broadcast footage of you instead of the propaganda. Humans reading out creepy, obviously scripted messages is pretty unbelievable. I don’t think anybody could really believe that stuff, it makes you all seem like you’re perfect.”
Katie wrinkled her nose. They lost a bit of speed from being up on the treetops, without trunks to pull against so directly, but with the added inertia of the containers this was still faster. It was boring, though. “I like you better,” she admitted. “It’s the flaws that make something beautiful.”
Thatch’s chuckle filled Katie’s chest with music. Despite their incredible speed, when Katie spoke she had a steady voice, but only because her ride was being cushioned. Thatch had no such luxury and her voice didn’t get to be quite so steady yet somehow the emphasis always fell in the right place, like her speech or her laughter was just another part of the constant motion of her journey.
“Thank you, flower. I shall bear this in mind the next time they ask for volunteers.” Thatch’s voice was a drawl at the best of times, but Katie could recognise indulgence when she heard it. Her cheeks began to heat up. There had been a brief, wonderful period where the flirting had been at a low ebb. Clearly it was ramping back up. It felt less invasive now. Thatch knew what Katie did and didn’t want. There was a big difference between the flirting of an alien monster that had enslaved your race and that which came from a friend.
Katie could be insistent. “I’m sorry for trying to kill you, is what I’m saying.”
“I know. I never held it against you.”
Katie huffed, falling quiet. It was a comfortable silence. She looked out across the world. From her perspective here the forests seemed endless, but she was used to that. She wasn’t used to seeing the sky stretch above her. It was breathtaking. Clouds hung low, blocking the light of their star in large, wide shadows that slowly moved across the landscape. The clouds themselves rushed across the sky at a dramatic pace, shapes constantly shifting and curling. Maybe she’d have to get Thatch to bring her up here some time they weren’t working.
The journey home took a few hours and they took it in relative silence. It had been a while since either of them had gotten silence that lacked the oppressive undertone of things unsaid. With so little steering to do, Katie could watch the treetops rushing past and let herself sink into the gentle rhythm of what little motion Thatch let through. It was almost enough to rock her to sleep, but she was too proud to let herself fall unconscious here. Instead, she found herself leaning forward across the plant’s head, watching their progress one tree at a time.
Eventually they reached their camp, mostly just as they’d left it. There was a little scuffing around the fire, hinting that some of the planet’s wildlife had investigated but found nothing of value. Katie spent a few moments fussing over Leviathan, sprinkling a good meal’s worth of food into the tank, and sat there for a few minutes watching her pet dart around grabbing each morsel as it came. Pet care was calming in a way she hadn’t expected. Katie had thought that having another living creature dependent on her would be a strain. She couldn’t take care of herself, and yet taking care of this was something that seemed to call on different parts of her.
“What’s in the box?” Katie asked, eventually. She wandered back over and finally gave the crates the attention they deserved. Wrinkled metal in approximate cubes, labeled in an alien tongue, built from an alloy for which Katie had no name. This was alien. Truly alien. Thatch may break character often enough that nobody could miss her inhumanity, but she presented a relatable front that was missing entirely here.
“I believe it is likely electronic components, or at least materials to build them with, judging from the machinery set to extract from it. At very least we can empty them and use the crates themselves to build our beacon. I hope.”
Thatch moved over to inspect the box Katie was standing besides. She raised a thorn to a rivet near the top and carefully levered it out. She repeated the process until the lid could be pried free. Katie quickly scaled her friend’s back and took a seat around her neck again so she could gaze down upon their…
“This looks like a pile of junk.”
Thatch nodded, reaching in to grab something that looked like somebody had given up on building a circuit board halfway through, then melted the edges. She held it between two fingers, emitted a vaguely unsatisfied sound, and handed it to Katie.
“I must admit I had been hoping for something more directly useful, but hopefully we can salvage something. They had fairly advanced technology and hopefully we can find evidence of some degree of superluminal sophistication.”
Katie nodded. It made sense. “Anyone who could set up an outpost like that probably doesn’t plan to crawl back home at sublight.” Katie felt a gentle spike of excitement in the pit of her stomach. They could synthesise small amounts of a workable exotic matter mix, but Katie had to admit she thought Thatch’s estimate of two to three weeks for building a particle accelerator felt a little optimistic.
Maybe Thatch could build one that fast if she didn’t get distracted. Thatch getting through more than an hour without her focus being disrupted by something seemed to be a rarity. Katie had to admit that that thing was usually her.
Katie shuffled onto Thatch’s shoulder, and from there sat on the edge of the crate so she could reach in and inspect things herself. She held up what looked like an… electronic widget of some kind. Were those vacuum tubes? Technology that looked like it worked on principles Terra had left behind half a millennium ago met components Katie couldn’t even begin to theorise about. She was starting to understand some of what Thatch saw in other species.
Katie rummaged around for a few moments more. Most of this stuff looked like scrap, but it was scrap made of pieces they could learn something from. Katie flinched as her finger brushed against something cold, instinctively pulling back.
“I’m okay; I’m fine,” she promised, waving Thatch’s attention off. She went back to dig out what she’d touched.
“Does this look like an exotic matter valve to you?” Katie asked, holding up a thick tube of metal. The specific construction was alien to her, but Thatch had been teaching Katie the physics. Physics didn’t change between species, just the ways they built things to exploit it. One end of the tube was wide and dense, tapering down to a very thin exit that seemed to have mounting points surrounding it. In a human design, they’d have put electromagnets there, to suspend the exotic matter mix in space while it heated up.
Katie didn’t know what exactly this alien design required, but the fundamental operation of a Jump Drive couldn’t meaningfully change. You needed a soup of stuff the universe itself abhorred, harvested from processes on the edge of possibility. Humanity had used a specific blend of particles: some skimmed from the plasma of their nearest class-B star; some synthesised in ultra-high energy particle accelerators; and some stolen away from their virtual particle pairs in specifically constructed vacuum chambers. Fascinatingly, this was one area in which Affini technology did not outstrip Humanity’s. The blend the Affini used was almost devastatingly simple by comparison. Easier to harvest, less dangerous, and more effective. Humanity had simply missed the obvious improvements, or perhaps the patents granted on the processes had simply prevented the experimentation necessary to realise it could be done more simply.
Regardless, it all worked the same way. Sufficiently high concentrations of negative energy spiked a hole in spacetime which could be directed to form what Thatch had called a Cedrus-Veratrum Bridge. In human slang, a wormhole. Whatever approach this new species used the fundamental operation would be the same.
“It does.” One of Thatch’s hands found Katie’s and gave it a squeeze. “We are unlikely to be lucky enough that they use precisely a matter mix either of us are used to—”
Katie interrupted, providing enough enthusiasm for the both of them. “—but from what we’ve covered, I think I understand how to tweak the design to account for a different mix, and if we have the materials for it we could build something that we could adjust once we know what they do use!”
Thatch smiled. Katie could tell, somehow, even before looking. Some facet of body language that she hadn’t quite figured out, but that apparently her subconscious had. “And—”
Katie interrupted again. “—and we’ll definitely be able to send a big enough signal if we’re not having to synthesise this stuff one atom at a time!”
Thatch chuckled. A vine reached up to press against her lips, bringing Katie to silence.
“And it was all your doing. You found out they were here, and you built, mostly, the radio which found them. You noticed this. You have saved us weeks of effort here, Katie. You’ve done very well.” The plant’s hand raised to Katie’s head, giving her hair a brief ruffle, before letting Katie take it with her own hands to squeeze.
After a few moments Katie’s smile faded, slowly shifting to a frown. She waited patiently until Thatch’s vine moved away from her lips. “But, doesn’t this all seem very convenient to you, Thatch? We appear in a random place in the universe and it just happens to be right next to this place, which just happens to contain life smart enough to have at least basic hyperspace technology?”
Thatch shrugged. For a hyper-advanced space alien that should know better, was infuriatingly laid back about this. “I must admit, I cannot explain our fortune. One should not inspect a treasure horse in the mouth. Given the scale of the universe unlikely things do occur with surprising regularity.”
Katie shook her head. “No, unless you’re hiding a lot about how the universe works from me this is too much of a coincidence.”
A pair of vines came up behind Katie. One ruffled her hair while the other kept her from deflecting the first. “It may surprise you to learn that I have not yet taught you everything I know about the cosmos. We should have emerged at a random position and sometimes coincidences are simply coincidental.”
“No! I— We should have naturally drifted, but we’d be more likely to come out where spacetime was weakened, right?” Katie took advantage of her affini’s momentary pause to wrestle the vines away and then capitalised by leaning over and ruffling Thatch’s hair.
The affini made a face, accepting her treatment with a stoic suffering for a few short moments. After that her eyebrows raised a hair and Katie found herself stilled. So that was what an effective glare felt like. “Well, yes, but the chances of our jump coinciding with a sufficiently powerful disruption in spacetime here truly are astronomical; never mind that any civilisation capable of building those kinds of ships would long since have been detected by the advance scouts.”
“What if it wasn’t one jump? What if they were doing something stupid, like constantly sparking a beacon?”
Thatch’s expression darkened. Katie’s sixth sense pinned the emotion down as an intense kind of displeasure, and she found herself wanting to shy away, regardless of that it wasn’t directed of her. When Thatch did finally share a human expression, it barely carried a fraction of the same weight. Katie knew what lay underneath.
“Nobody would be that stupid. Even humanity wouldn’t have done that.” She sounded more hopeful than convinced. She glanced over to Katie, who got the sense that Thatch was looking for an affirmation.
Katie wanted to provide it, but she lacked the idealism her partner was looking for. “It’s a big universe, right? They might not even know they’re doing it. Everything there looked automated.”
Thatch seemed to curl in on herself for a moment. The gentle beat of her movements became sharp and punchy, and Katie felt herself getting worked up too. If Katie were right they’d have to stop it, wouldn’t they? They couldn’t just leave it like this. Katie had learned enough since Thatch had started teaching her to have some idea as to the consequences, even if she didn’t wholly understand the theory just yet.
“Dirt,” Thatch swore, face twisting in frustration. She deflated, losing a couple inches in a matter of moments. “I should have been thinking about this. I am sorry, I have been distracted.”
“Are we… in danger?” Katie asked. Thatch could protect her from a lot, but she knew from experience that things that poked holes in spacetime were on the short list of legitimate threats to her safety.
Thatch waved a hand, dismissing the concern, and then used it to give Katie’s a squeeze. “No, no, I would not expect so. We would be noticing stark effects if spacetime were going to fracture within weeks. We cannot leave this planet without fixing it, but I do not think this changes our plan. We call in help, make a more polite first contact, and inform this species that what they are doing has consequences.”
Katie found herself emulating deflation. She sagged a little, where she sat. Partially through relief, because she had no desire to die by having her chronology shattered. Partially because what Thatch suggested felt so… deeply insufficient.
“We have to do more than that,” she insisted. “They can’t know what they’re doing, or— if they do know, then that’s even worse. Humanity’s whole history is littered with people pointing out how much harm was being done, and then having that ignored in the name of profit.” Katie gritted her teeth. She carefully put the piece of alien technology in her lap back into the box, knowing that if she continued speaking she would be liable to break something.
“We do not know that this species behaves as humanity did, Katieflower. In all likelihood, the warning would be enough. We can be polite.”
Katie shook her head, hands gripping the side of the container, for want of something to break. “No, I— Humanity ignored warning after warning for centuries, Thatch! I can’t watch that happen all over again. There has to be something better in the universe than endless repetitions of stupid, self-destructive… destruction! We have to do more, and—”
Thatch pressed two fingers to Katie’s chin. She could feel the slight sharpness of the affini’s bright red ‘fingernails’ pressing against her skin, providing further incentive for her to look up into Thatch’s amused gaze. “‘Polite’ is a euphemism, Katie. They can render themselves domestic or be domesticated. There is no path forward that lets these mistakes continue. I am happy to see you coming around to our way of thinking, however.”
Katie fell into sharp silence, feeling a burning heat spread across her skin. Was that really what she was arguing for, here?
Katie groaned, falling backwards. She tumbled off of the container, but she had no doubt she would be caught. She kept groaning as Thatch carried her over to the river, and sat to one side of Leviathan’s tank.
Katie groaned louder, cutting her stars-damned weed off. She got to do that twice more before Thatch pressed a finger to her lips. Katie silenced herself.
“Now, Katie. As my equal partner you get a vote in this, just like I do.” Thatch was enjoying this. Katie could tell. “If you think that the correct fate for a species that clearly does not know how to take care of itself is to be given a guiding hand, then that is what we shall do.”
Katie set her jaw and glared up at the creature. Her glares were losing their efficacy. Katie knew that Thatch would stop if she used the right word, but since they’d codified a system Katie had lost the comfortable gray area in which she didn’t have to think too hard about what she really thought.
Now, when she glared, Thatch simply looked down with a twinkle in her eye and a smile because both of them were fully aware of what Katie wasn’t saying.
Thatch continued. “Of course, if you think that will not be necessary, then I shall take your lead. The Elettarium will arrive and learn of the decision already made by the local system board—you and I—and a course will be set.”
This wasn’t fair. “I… don’t know, Thatch. This is my first alien species. You don’t count. I can’t make a decision that big. What if they would be fine on their own? We learn their language, tell them what they’re doing wrong, and they thrive?”
Thatch chuckled. Why did Katie feel like she was playing an unwitting part in a pre-scored duet here? “Would Leviathan have thrived on its own, without your care and attention?”
Katie glanced towards the fish, happily exploring a brand new environment. It didn’t take her long to rearrange the pieces every morning, to ensure there was always something new, interesting, and safe to explore. A little effort for Katie went a long way for her pet.
“Yes,” she admitted. It was hard to avoid the subtext. “But not as well.”
Thatch’s fingers trailed up Katie’s side, gently drawing four parallel lines from her hip to her shoulder. “Was Humanity thriving on its own?”
Katie shook her head, trying to ignore the way Thatch’s touch made her feel. “No. Humanity was destroying itself.”
Those four fingers continued their journey, around Katie’s body and up to her chin, forcing her gaze to meet her affini’s. “How would you have voted on Humanity’s fate?”
Katie breathed out. Maybe if there wasn’t any oxygen left in her lungs, Thatch would let her stay quiet.
That wasn’t fair. Katie had given permission for Thatch to be pushy when it came to matters of safety and mental health. Katie knew her emotions were all tangled up here. It wasn’t Thatch’s fault that these questions were as hard as they were. Rationally, Katie knew that having answers teased out of her was helpful. Thatch was helping lead her to an answer that was right for her.
“I don’t know,” Katie admitted, after long moments of gentle silence. “I mean, they never would have gone quietly. The only options were a wide berth or… what you did. I just don’t know that I could have voted on it.”
That answer seemed to surprise Thatch. Questing fingers found Katie’s cheek and beat a short, soft rhythm into it with leafy fingertips. “You think that leaving humanity alone could have been a good option?”
Katie blinked, hard, and shook her head. “No! No, stars, no. But if I vote on that then I have to accept responsibility for what happens, right? Assuming it’s a real vote, not a Terran one. I can sit here and say that what happened to humanity is… good, kinda, but I don’t have to think about all the suffering that decision caused, because I didn’t make it.”
The plant seemed to consider that, letting out a curious hum. “But less suffering than the alternative would have been, no?”
“Yeah, but… Does that make it okay? Could you find somebody who would have been happy under Terran rule and isn’t under Affini rule and tell them that their happiness mattered less than everyone else’s?” Katie tried to drive her verbal parry in by sitting up, but she didn’t have the leverage for it. Thatch didn’t even need to stop her, she just let the vine Katie’s hand was pushing against go slack.
“No, I could not.”
Katie glanced up. Had she just won the argument?
The face that smiled down at her suggested otherwise. Thatch’s aura of smug only increased in intensity until Katie got it.
She groaned again. “Right, because there wouldn’t be one. I can’t tell if you’re being arrogant or honest.” She inspected her fellow castaway with a careful eye. Thatch’s smile had a slight edge to it, but the sparkle of her eyes seemed nothing but truthful. Katie listened to her heart, which surely she could trust. “I don’t think you’d be arrogant about this, so you probably believe that. Huh.”
Unable to sit up, the next best option was to surrender herself to the leafy embrace. Katie rolled over and shuffled around. She put her back against Thatch’s stomach, while pulling her legs up to her hers, and rested her head on the plant’s knee to gaze out across the river. Evening seemed to be arriving slowly, and the planet hadn’t really woken up yet.
“Did you get a vote?” Katie asked. “On humanity, I mean. Were you for or against?”
Katie’s eyes slid closed as two gentle hands began to explore her back, slowly teasing out the tension of the day. She gave an appreciate mumble and rolled a little further to the side to give Thatch easier access. The affini’s chuckles were getting more common, and each Katie heard felt like she was getting closer to being able to stitch together whatever song they hailed from.
“We only vote when the outcome is in question, little one,” Thatch explained. One hand still danced across her back, while the other slowly drew a makeshift comb through Katie’s hair. Their travels had resulted in more than a few knots, and there was plenty to fix. “Humanity’s fate was always fixed. All we had to decide was how it was to happen.”
Katie didn’t have much of a response to that. She kept her eyes closed, and squirmed a little until her position was comfortable enough she could remain there indefinitely, while the affini fussed over her, and tried to carefully work through her feelings. She had a lot of those. The Terran Accord had been her home, and talking to something that acted so callously when discussing it being torn apart was unsettling. At the same time, it hadn’t been a good home. In a lot of ways, Katie was glad that it was gone. It was still her home. Everyone she’d ever known had been from there. Every ship she’d ever flown on had been built by human hands. Every book she’d ever read, written with human fingers. Every song she’d ever danced to composed with human ears.
Everything was different now. Even if the rebellion somehow turned it around and won, the rat was out of the bag. The knowledge that a better world was possible wasn’t something that could be hidden. Hell, half of humanity would probably never function independently again. There wasn’t a Terran Accord left to save.
Katie whimpered, neck bending backwards so she could glance up at Thatch. Unusually, she didn’t see a smiling face looking down at her. Thatch seemed legitimately distracted for once. Her hands aimlessly brushed across Katie’s body, or through her hair, but her attention was elsewhere.
The soft orange light of an alien sunset splashed across her face. Shadows cast by the trees far above drew a sharp diagonal down the center, leaving part almost aglow with life, and part seeming… sad, in a way.
Katie realised after several moments of thought that her sixth sense was silent. She had to try to figure out what the creature was thinking the old fashioned way. With Katie so firmly in her grip, perhaps Thatch could finally let herself relax without needing to dedicate one eye to tracing Katie’s movements at all times?
It must have been a lot of effort, Katie thought. No matter how physically capable somebody was, they still needed time off. Katie had been getting that recently. Thatch hadn’t. She knew the plant was still having trouble sleeping, but if Katie woke in a panic she had somebody there to fix it and send her back to a dreamless sleep. Thatch didn’t.
“Hey,” she whispered, attracting her friend’s attention. “Credit for your thoughts?” Katie’s question attracted a confused glance. Thatch’s hands came to a pause, one resting at Katie’s hips and the other on a shoulder. “It’s a Terran expression, it means… I’ll pay you to tell me what you’re thinking? Wow, that’s kinda a shitty saying, actually. Can I just ask whether anything is up?”
“Hmmn. We’ll work the Terran out of you in time, I expect. You may ask, yes.”
For a moment, the conversation came to a pause, interrupted only by the gentle sound of rushing water and the softest wind curling between the trees of the forest. There was really only one reasonable response.
“Thatch, you’re flirting again.”
Katie felt a brief pulse of heat, and earned a sheepish grin and a quick brush of knuckles under her chin.
“I suppose I am, yes. I have internalised the ways of my people as you have yours. I shall not make you ask, this time, though I note you did not tell me to stop.”
Katie felt like she should come up with an argument against that. She couldn’t.
“Nothing is wrong, however. I was simply lost in thought. Are you getting bored? We have plenty to do if you wish to be more active. I suspected you would not remain distracted for long, but that is okay.”
Katie shook her head. “No, no. I don’t want to stop you from getting some time to rest. I could go spend some time with Leviathan, if you want to sit and think?”
Thatch shook her head, trailing a finger through Katie’s hair. “It is much too dangerous for you to do so unsupervised, but that is okay. I do not mind watching over you.”
“I could go for a walk, instead?”
Thatch laughed, not unkindly. She ruffled Katie’s hair with a slightly rough hand. “You know what happened last time you went off alone. Besides, I couldn’t relax if I didn’t know you were okay.”
Katie blew out a breath through her nose. “I could stay right here?”
“You’d get bored or restless.”
Katie wished she could disagree. “I could sleep? It isn’t fair for me to demand your attention all the time, Thatch.”
“If you slept now, you would not be tired at bedtime, and then you would get grumpy. It is fine, Katie. I am a big girl and I can handle this.”
The smaller girl sighed, and shrugged. “What if… you gave me something to make sure I was happy to stay here where you didn’t have to watch me?”
The plant’s low rumble reverberated from deep within, like feeling the startup sequence of a chemical rocket buzzing an entire hull. Vast, deep, but distant enough to be soft. “Do not do that for me, Katie. No, I think not.”
Katie nodded, but felt a strange weight settling over her heart. It was dumb, but she’d almost hoped that Thatch would go for that one.
And why not? It wasn’t like Thatch had ever done her any harm. Coming out of her warm chemical covering had been hard, but never so hard as that first time. They’d played it safer since then. Katie kept chasing the feeling of serenity she’d had then, but it wasn’t worth the consequences. What she’d experienced since had been softer. Easier to lose, but still nice in the moment.
“Maybe just a little? Something safe; something we’ve done before. The sap, maybe?”
Katie felt a brief moment of cold as Thatch’s hands left her, but they were only shifting their grip. They pulled Katie up vertical, sitting her on one knee, and then tilted her head up and to the side, so Thatch could be certain of her attention. “Are you feeling okay?” she asked. “Is your mood falling again?”
Katie shook her head, quickly. “No, no, I’m… I don’t want to say fine, but I’m stable? I’m doing okay, y’know, I’m not struggling. I’m fine.”
Thatch raised an eyebrow. The silence was withering.
“I’m fine, it’s just… y’know?”
“I do not know. I need you to be explicit here, flower.”
Katie glanced away, breathing out a heavy breath. As expected, a second later she was guided back to meeting Thatch’s gaze. “I’m… normal? Kind of feel like my heart wants to jump into my stomach and get digested, but I’m used to that. Basically the only time I haven’t felt that is with you. You can make it go away.”
Thatch nodded, carefully. “Yes, xenodrugs are good for tha—”
Katie shook her head, energetically enough that she actually managed to break Thatch’s grip and get out a proper shake, for once. “It’s not the drugs. You make me feel like there’s hope in my future. At least if I can convince myself that the rest of your species is anywhere near your level.”
Katie coughed, feeling an embarrassed hue that she had to worry would stain her clothing at this rate. “I would still like the drugs though.”
She didn’t get a response for long moments, while Thatch’s piercing eyes inspected her. It felt like the plant was drilling into her soul, if she had such a thing. Eventually, she got a few quiet nods.
“The rest of my species are better at this than I am.” Thatch’s tone was difficult to place. A mix of homesickness and nostalgia, perhaps? “Though I suppose you will be glad of that. I expect that if any other had found you, you wouldn’t still be talking about equality.”
Katie glanced away and this time Thatch let her. “Yeah. I’m glad that you’re the one that found me, Thatch. Us independent citizens need to stick together, right?”
Katie looked back up, with a tight smile. “So for tonight, maybe let’s both of us relax? Give me something I know, then you won’t need to worry about me for a while? Equals doesn’t have to mean we always keep the scales perfectly balanced. We can have some give and take, it’ll all balance out over time.”
The affini looked conflicted, for a few moments, but her unreadable expression gave way to a soft smile. “Is that how you ask, Katie? Say please.”
Katie rolled her eyes. “Give me the drugs, you flirtatious dork.”
She received a grin in response. “Of course, flower. How would you like it?”
She held out a hand, a short line of sap resting against the side of her pointing finger.
“You have enjoyed bathing with this, before?” Thatch asked. Katie leaned an inch or so forward. “Or perhaps we could try it as a massage?”
Katie reached forward and ate it. She scraped the smooth gel off of Thatch’s floral finger with a driven tongue and swallowed it in one brief burst of motion, then sat back, content, as she waited for it to hit.
“Or that works too.” Thatch let out a breath at the same time as Katie did, one mirroring the other. “Let’s make sure that you handle that okay, hmn? How are you feeling?”
“Normal, still,” Katie admitted. “My tongue is tingling a bit, but… maybe ingesting it doesn’t work very well?”
Thatch raised a finger and held it in front of Katie’s eyes. “Let’s find out, then. Can you watch my finger?”
Katie looked at it, and then followed as Thatch moved it side to side, then up and down. If this was a test of co-ordination, she was rocking it. The finger went left; she went left. The finger tilted to the side; she tilted to the side. Katie followed it, feeling a growing sense of pride at how well she was tracking. After a few seconds, or perhaps a few minutes, it started to get harder. Katie’s head wouldn’t move as quickly as she wanted. She still kept track of it, but it grew harder and harder, until finally she followed the finger all the way to the left, and then it changed direction and… Where was it? Katie looked around, but… where had it gone?
“I— huh?” she asked, looking up at Thatch, who was definitely paying attention to her now. Katie fought down a nervous laugh. Wow, she sure was spending time with a pretty alien. At some point the sun had really started to set, and now Katie could see deep oranges reflected in Thatch’s eyes. They seemed so endlessly deep. The colours mixed together like oil on canvas and Katie found she wanted nothing more than to study them all night long.
Thatch’s chuckle reverberated Katie’s soul. She had to have one, because how else could she feel a sensation so deeply? Her eyes seemed to close by themselves as it washed over her, seeming to fill her heart with the same gentle mirth Thatch was feeling. The weight was washed away.
“Take a deep breath, flower.”
Katie did. Why was Thatch paying so much attention to her? This was meant to be her time to relax. Katie should point that out. Katie could say something. She should. She felt words on her tongue, and yet felt like her soul was waiting on Thatch’s word to speak.
“Keep your eyes closed for me, hmn? Let’s get you good and relaxed. Another deep breath, please.”
Katie hadn’t realised she’d let the last one out but she took in another all the same.
“I’d like you to try to focus on me, okay? You’re metabolising a little piece of me. I’ve filtered anything harmful out of it but you know I wouldn’t do anything to hurt you, don’t you?”
“Mmhh,” Katie whispered, nodding. Just nodding was enough to fill her vision with flashes and waves of colour using her eyelids as a surface on which to draw.
“So neither will this. Everything you are feeling is just me. You are safe here. I want you to relax into me, can you do that? Don’t worry about sitting up. Just let me take care of that for you.”
Katie tried, but it felt unnatural. She wasn’t sure how to relax everything. She could let one shoulder drop but by the time she’d gotten to the other it had already tensed up again. Thatch seemed to notice. She brushed a couple of leaves down Katie’s shoulder, filling it with a deep, gentle warmth.
“Just this one shoulder, please. Feel the heat spreading through your arm, relaxing your muscles, taking away your control. You can feel it, can you not?”
Katie could feel it. Her shoulder was drooping. “Yeah,” she breathed, voice almost silent.
“Can you lift it?”
Katie could. After a moment, she let it drop.
Thatch smiled. Through closed eyes and more colours than Katie knew the names of, she could tell. It was like a scent on the air, though there was no smell. A sound, though her ears heard nothing. Just a sense divorced from a source.
Another set of leaves brushed down the same arm. The heat intensified. “Feel how much heavier it is now, mmh?” Thatch asked. “You can’t lift it. I’ll lift it for you, so you can see.”
Katie let out a soft gasp, head rolling backwards, as she felt powerful fingers wrapping around her wrist. She felt so small. Too small to contain the way Thatch’s touch made her feel. It filled her, leaving no room for anything else. Katie whimpered like the breath that escaped her lips was the only way the weight and the stress could find to escape her body. Thatch let her hand drop back into her lap and Katie could do nothing to lift it.
“Good girl,” her affini breathed. Katie shivered with every muscle she still had control over.
A pair of leaves gave the same treatment to Katie’s other arm, loosening the muscles there. She hardly needed her relaxation proven, but a gentle grip lifted her wrist all the same, then let it fall. It wasn’t like Katie could do anything to stop it. Her legs got the same treatment, with only gentle leaves filling her with so much heat she couldn’t hope to move.
Thatch leaned back. Katie had no choice but to follow. She wasn’t in control here. That was no different to any other day, really, was it? All wrapped up in gentle vines. Unable to hurt herself. All that had dropped was the illusion of control Thatch kindly granted her.
“Thank you for this,” Thatch rumbled, after a few moments of quiet. Katie nodded rapidly, and the resulting smear of colour and sensation sent her slowly toppling over to one side. She was guided down by leafy digits, but the merest touch had soft whimpers pressing out between her lips.
“Meant… relaxing,” Katie managed to insist, forcing the words through sluggish consciousness. She wasn’t that badly effected, she didn’t think, she just… couldn’t bring herself to move. Every time she felt, heard, or smelled Thatch’s presence her mind was sent into a spin. A two word sentence was an achievement, and her reward was a thumb brushed across her lips.
Katie managed to open her mouth, which must have surprised her plant. The thumb kept moving, only pausing when it reached the inside of Katie’s cheek, but by then it was far too late for Thatch. Katie closed her mouth and trapped her inside, greedily tasting that which she’d been denied. A two word sentence suddenly seemed hopelessly out of reach.
The affini emitted a soft laugh, and tried to remove her hand. Katie’s whine forced her to reconsider, leaving her with only one hand with which to spoil the flower on her lap. “This is relaxing.” Thatch’s hand stroked down Katie’s side. Her thumb gently fought Katie’s tongue for prime position, but for once that was a battlefield on which Katie seemed to be able to win. Every time the two brushed together was an explosion of flavour that only left her wanting more.
“I am grateful for you being so accommodating.” Vines slightly adjusted Katie’s position, putting her back as she had been, before she’d been made to sit. Head resting against one knee, legs tucked up at her stomach, made small and warm and safe.
Katie found herself following along with Thatch’s every word, and her every motion. She felt almost as if she could see them coming, given a moment’s warning in the gentle rhythm that surrounded her. Focusing on it all was impossible. Even choosing what to focus on was beyond her. The strongest sensation won. Where Thatch’s thumb strayed felt like fireworks in her mind and left her desperate.
Was this how Leviathan felt? Stuck in a cage, but so much better off for it. Hand-fed, but in exchange no longer needing to worry about nutrition or taste, because everything was provided and all needs were considered. Alternating between a deep hyperfocus when given something to do and a happy, spacey drift for the rest of the day, but always dancing to somebody else’s tune.
Katie felt Thatch’s words. In a swelling moment of her beat the vibrations grew, only spilling out as words once the moment was right. “I worry about you, sometimes, Katie,” she admitted. A sentence that could have been concerning, were it not for the hand sliding down her stomach. Were it not for the soft words spoken to a calming beat. A sentence to which she might have had a response, were it not for the simulated thumbnail being drawn along her teeth. “I wish that I could help you more.”
Katie wanted to say that she had helped plenty, but words were something that Thatch brought into her. She couldn’t make any of her own. That, too, could have been concerning, but it wasn’t. Katie was so relaxed she couldn’t even properly squirm, but she could wiggle her fingers, just a little, until she was given a vine to squeeze.
Katie felt a soft warmth pressing into her from all around, chasing away her emotions to bring about the next. Thatch was smiling. Katie could tell. It was as obvious as the setting sun. More, even, as she could feel it without opening her eyes. “The Affini in me wants to take a moment to try again at convincing you that you would be happiest as one of our pets. There are a thousand aboard the Elettarium alone who would gladly take you. You would make a wonderful floret.”
Katie would make a wonderful floret. Like this, all the time? Soft, warm, and happy?
“You wouldn’t mind. I could keep you like this, could I not? You’ve already given your equality away, simply hoping that I will return it. So trusting, already.” Thatch’s thumb suddenly gained the upper hand, as if all Katie’s prior victories had been a feint, and she found her tongue pinned to the bottom of her mouth. “You wouldn’t have to worry about a thing. You wouldn’t be able to worry about a thing. Many humans chose that life; there is no shame in it.” Katie whimpered, forced to taste something glorious, and gave Thatch’s vine a gentle, encouraging squeeze. She wouldn’t mind. There was no shame in it.
“But if you will allow me a moment to be selfish, I would hate to see your potential reduced so. You could be so much more than just one more floret on the adoption registers. I am glad that you do not want that.”
Katie didn’t want that.
“If you so chose, I would be honoured to help select a suitable caretaker for you, of course. My opinion on what you should do should not matter. It is your decision, but I believe that whatever you wish, it would be… nice, if I could help you get started on your new life. You would not need my assistance: there are far better candidates to help with any path you may wish to take from here, but…”
Thatch’s stroking slowed into motionless. She laughed, but it was a darker laugh and Katie’s mood followed. She felt a weight settling over her. It didn’t feel like hers did. There was a gravity to it that would take a lifetime to form.
“Forgive me, please, I have gotten sidetracked. Let us enjoy the moment.” Thatch carefully extracted her thumb from Katie’s mouth, prompting a firm squeeze on her vine, and then replaced it with a pair of fingers. The weight settled over Katie’s heart began to shift, as she found something more insistent that consumed her attention. With her lips wrapped around Thatch’s digits, they demanded every scrap of attention she might find to spare, locked in an endless battle as Katie tried to taste every inch of their floral flavour.
The rest of the universe could wait. Building their beacon could wait. Taking an evening to relax didn’t feel like it was delaying anything that mattered.