Chapter Twenty Two: A Beginning
There were metal shavings everywhere. There was a twig inside of Katie’s bed. The whole area around the no-longer-a-beacon was peppered with destruction save for a thin cone immediately behind where Thatch had stood, which had kept the various creatures under her care from being harmed. Leviathan probably hadn’t even noticed.
Katie had badgered her affini friend until she’d finally given in and let her help, and so was busying herself gathering the shattered shards of rock and broken twig. Cici seemed very engaged with its current task, slowly rolling over the local area with some kind of electromagnet charged so that it could siphon up all the shards of metal too small for Thatch to efficiently gather herself.
Even between them it still took through until evening to clean up their mess. A thick tension hung in the air. Katie remembered the old days, back when the Terran Accord had seemed like this endless power that had always been and would always be. Appointments. Meetings. Schedules. Simply knowing she had somewhere to be later in a day would have often wrecked the start, because she couldn’t settle and she couldn’t focus.
This was like that. She had somewhere to be. She wasn’t sure she wanted to go and she didn’t know when she would be called upon. It reminded her of the last time she’d felt the same aimless dread.
17:28, June 16th, 2554. The fall of Terra. Or at least, when Katie had learned of it. The mess hall of a small space station hanging above Struve 2398 B 1. The system’s binary stars cast harsh, long shadows through tiny dotted windows in a cramped room filled with dirty, desperate people. Katie had been just another face in the crowd, jostling to see the text coming in over a small vid-screen embedded in one wall.
Breaking news: Terran Accord dissolved after government surrenders to xeno threat.
The world had stopped turning then, too. Katie had known that everything had just changed, but not when the effects would hit. It hadn’t been for hours until soldiers from the Indomitable, which had been docked at the same station for refueling, came recruiting. Katie had taken the out and tried to hold back the change.
She’d failed. Now that change was coming for her and she had no alternatives left to seek. Katie sighed, looking out over the early evening twinkle of the planet Dirt. Over time she’d grown to appreciate the life of this world. Insects too small to see at a distance whirled through the air, giving the impression of a light show dancing on no strings at all set to a breathtaking backdrop of glimmering stars above and glittering plantlife beneath.
How could anything else possibly compete with this?
After a moment, Thatch stepped up beside her. Katie felt it, more than heard it. The creature had an aura around her or something. Despite her comical size, Thatch still moved near-silently when she wished to; but she could never catch Katie unawares. They didn’t speak.
What was there left to say?
The wind picked up. A slow roll over all that Katie could see, knocking the insects around and setting the trees swaying like a wave of invisible force jostling all but the stars. Her heart skipped a beat, but… it was just wind. Katie looked over at her companion, who stood beside her. She spared a glance for Cici, who had the slowest and least engaging job of any of them but who seemed entirely content to perform it.
“I think I’m going to miss this place,” Katie admitted. She’d never felt such warmth or comfort, save for here. Never seen such beauty. “I saw some old photographs once. Terra used to be beautiful, did you know? Six or seven hundred years ago. I’ve… only ever seen anything like this in pictures, and those are so easy to fake. This…” Katie waved a hand at everything. “This is real.”
She really didn’t want to go back to another cramped starship. Katie knew the Affini built them better, but just like with the Jump Drives they had the same fundamental constraints. The tyranny of the rocket cared not for their pleas, it would restrain them all. Thatch said that she would get her own space, and even that was hardly believable. Individual bunks were unimaginable luxury compared to what she was used to, but…
Now that Katie had experienced life on the ground, how was she meant to go back? How could it possibly compare to a planetside seat overlooking all of creation?
Thatch held out a hand. Katie took it, and got a gentle squeeze along with. She gave one back. Their sun was setting, perhaps for the last time.
Katie felt a series of vines curl around her, gently taking her weight. A silent question answered silently. They rose into the air, carried from tree to tree as they climbed above the canopy to rest several meters above it on a trio of lines that kept them steady and safe.
The vines holding Katie still uncurled, letting her lean back into Thatch’s lap unrestricted. She glanced down and stiffened, hit with an immediate sense of vertigo. They were… very high up and nothing held Katie in place. She stared, for a second, before a vine gently lifted her head back up towards the horizon.
Thatch mumbled, speaking softly. “I have you. Do not mistake your freedom here for danger. There is nothing you should concern yourself with.” Katie glanced upwards. Thatch was leaning slightly back with her hands held together, fingers entwined across her chest a foot or two higher than Katie’s head. She seemed focused on the rest of the world. Katie could hardly blame her. It was beautiful.
“Do you ever get intrusive thoughts, Thatch? You look at something that could do you harm and your brain butts in with a big what-if? What if I jumped?” Katie tried to keep her focus on the horizon, but she knew what was beneath. It called to her, and she hated that. She didn’t want to fall. Maybe her brain was seeking novelty; maybe the part of her that was supposed to warn her off of danger was simply horribly miscalibrated; or maybe Katie simply had a burning need to prove to herself she was right to fear the dangers of the world.
Thatch didn’t take her eyes off of the horizon. She shrugged, though Katie mostly felt that through the shifting weave of her artificial body. “No. I know what would happen if I jumped. If I see something that could do harm, I fix it. Why don’t you jump, Katie?”
The girl frowned, very carefully clambering around so she could sit up, facing Thatch. She had to crane her neck quite aggressively to see the plant, but as Thatch was leaning back, the angle wasn’t too bad. Her affini looked down, a soft smile taking her face. Katie couldn’t help but smile back, regardless of how she was feeling.
“Because that’d be stupid, I’d get hurt.” Was Thatch really so unused to danger that she couldn’t even relate to it? She knew exactly how fragile Katie was. It was obvious in her every movement. Thatch could have snapped her in half if she hadn’t.
The creature looked down at her, a little puzzled. One of Thatch’s hands came forward to brush against Katie’s chin, and the girl leaned into it practically on instinct. She felt strong fingers cup her face and started to relax into them. Safe. “Of course you would not be hurt, flower. Why would I let that happen? Jump.”
Katie groaned. She tried to glance down but Thatch wouldn’t let her. “No, Thatch, that’s dumb, why would I—”
Thatch slipped her thumb into Katie’s mouth, cutting her off mid-word. Katie emitted a surprised squeak. The false floral digit slowly brushed over the front of Katie’s teeth, between the enamel and her upper lip, growing slick with her saliva and leaving a dull tingle in its wake. Katie was sober and yet Thatch’s touch never felt just normal. The electric sharpness was everpresent. Chemicals just made Katie into a better conductor.
“Because you’re safe. Do you trust me, flower?” The thumb slipped lower, around to the side of Katie’s jaw and down her cheek, meeting a finger on the outside in a gentle pinch. Katie could only nod, and even then only so much as her skin was elastic. “Then jump,” Thatch whispered, letting go. With her hand still in place, there was only one direction Katie could jump.
She fell backwards. For a moment, she was weightless. Wind rushed through her hair. She couldn’t see the ground below, but she knew it would be rushing up to meet her. She knew the canopy would be there to break her fall a little, and so she might survive, but bones would break.
But she couldn’t see any of that. Highlighted against the starfield far far above were the much brighter glowing points of Thatch Aquae smiling down at her.
The intrusive thought in her head went silent. It was getting what it wished. It got to find out what happened if Katie jumped, but she found that the reality held much less danger than her fantasy had threatened. Katie smiled back up, still plummeting through the air.
A vine rushed down to meet her. For an instant it matched her speed, carefully wrapping around every limb, cushioning her neck, and supporting her body, and then Katie felt a gentle deceleration. By the time she paused, she had the canopy at her back and the whole universe before her. The whole universe, and Thatch shining brighter than any of it.
Rather than lifting Katie back up Thatch dropped down to meet her. She seemed to enter her own freefall, though Katie was held so steady she could barely tell the origin of the vine holding her so tight was moving. Thatch didn’t bother with a slow deceleration and instead simply landed on the canopy with a sudden stop. She walked across it in a mockery of human locomotion, not even disturbing the leaves beneath that couldn’t possibly have supported her weight. She offered Katie another hand. It was gratefully taken.
This time when Katie ended up in the plant’s lap she reached up to move Thatch’s hands down to rest over her chest, instead. “Thank you,” Katie said, after a moment. Looking down held little fear now, and she looked away of her own volition. Up towards the stars. “This really is beautiful.”
The night sky wasn’t wholly bereft of clouds, but what was there was was thin and wispy. They moved quickly, in constant motion, never really blocking the view for long. The stars flickered down at them, brilliant pinprick spots of every colour. Vast nebulae added splashes of texture, like the artist behind reality had grown bored with tiny details and simply smeared their cosmic paint across reality with an incomprehensible brush.
The planet itself was hardly less impressive. Clouds of insects moved in intricate formation, taking their own shapes with lights so bright they left a short trail in Katie’s eyes. She watched them swirling, with the shape they made changing constantly while the points of light inside churned with an inner chaos that, combined with the momentary afterimage, made the swarm seem almost solid. The river far beneath roared with action, hiding aquatic life simply going about its natural existence.
Nothing here was a show being put on for them. Nothing here was done for anybody. It simply was. The insects didn’t swirl to gain power. The universe wasn’t there for profit. Existence was so much bigger than Katie had ever imagined it could have been.
She pointed over at one of the clouds of flying light. “That one looks like the escape shuttle we got here on,” she suggested. It would only be true for an instant, of course. The change was constant.
The air in Katie’s lungs vibrated with the force of Thatch’s low mirth. With her body held firmly against the affini’s stomach, every buzz and motion was felt. She knew every breath intimately, and it was Thatch’s heat that drove away the chill of unbroken wind. Every word was a full-body experience. “Is this the famed pattern-matching instinct of your people, Katie?” Thatch gave a brief squeeze as she asked.
Katie didn’t like that idea.
“I guess,” she admitted, most of the enthusiasm dropping out of her voice. “Biological inheritance and all that.” Her eyes strayed from the shape, suddenly a lot less interested in divining patterns.
There was no perceptible change in the air, yet Katie felt something shift a moment before Thatch lifted one hand to rest against her head. “You sound uncertain. Do you doubt that you share a common heritage? I must admit, I had thought Terran science understood the nature of reproduction.”
Katie shook her head, a little stiff. A little small. “No, I… Obviously I’m a human. I’m human. My parents were humans and theirs and theirs and I’m nothing but their genes spliced together with a sprinkle of entropy to keep things interesting.”
“Hmnn.” It was odd, Katie reflected, that she was learning how to interpret Thatch’s noises as much by feel as sound. The alien was pretending to look like her, but it was an imperfect reproduction. Between her atypical method of speech and her sheer size, even the simple act of talking took on meaningfully different properties. Thatch literally shook the world with every sound. “A less nuanced understanding than I had hoped, then.”
Katie snorted. “Am I wrong? I learned about this stuff in school.”
A chuckle, this time. Light and airy. “Flower, you knew far more of subatomic particles and fundamental forces than you do biology, and I have not had opportunity to teach you about my area of expertise. You are not wrong in the same sense that you were not wrong that you would fall if you jumped. You have the most basic fact, but none of the context.” The hand on Katie’s head lowered, pressing something to her mouth. Katie’s lips parted on instinct. Her tongue tasted the sweet sugar and instinctively reached forward for more.
Her teeth slowly sheared through the soft flesh of the sweet berry, letting the even sweeter juices flood her senses. Katie let out a soft moan, tongue wrapping around the broken piece of berry.
Thatch continued. “You do not have to be anything you do not wish to be. An accident of birth does not define you any more than it does me. It can be useful to have a name for yourself, but nobody has any right to impose that upon you. At least, not unless you choose to let somebody else define your rights.”
Katie nodded, mumbling softly as a line of sweet red juice rolled down her chin. Thatch caught it on the edge of a finger and delivered it to Katie’s waiting tongue.
“Humanity had a vested interest in ensuring you were stuck in its clutches. I promise that the Affini have no such ulterior motive. We are quite clear about what we want.”
The berry was all gone. Katie’s tongue explored her mouth, searching for any remaining scraps, but of course there was nothing. All gone. She belatedly realised that Thatch had just bribed her into being quiet and not interrupting, but her indignation died in her throat as another berry was brought to her lips.
She felt the soft, pitted surface against the skin of her lips and reached forward to take another bite. To her dismay, her teeth only found a finger.
“Nuh-uh, Katie. Be polite and continue our conversation, now. I know this is hard for you to talk about, so give me one good, well thought out response, and then you get a treat.” Thatch held the berry frustratingly close. So close Katie could smell it. So close she could possibly dart forward and get it; but she had no doubt that the plant’s reaction time would beat hers.
“Thatch, you’re flirting!” Katie complained, reaching out for the berry. A vine gently wrapped around her wrist and kept her from quite making it. She could almost get a fingertip to brush the surface… but anything more was quite impossible.
Thatch let Katie test the restrictions for a few more moments before it became obvious that the berry may as well be a mile away for all Katie could reach it. “I am doing no such thing, Katie. I am helping you work through a difficult set of emotions on which you have repeatedly expressed uncertainty. You respond well to this particular fruit and I suspect that you would appreciate some comfort food after a difficult conversation. Speak.”
Hell. Katie muttered something about self-important xenos and then slumped backwards into her important xeno’s arms. “That’s silly, though. I can’t not be human. That’s just… a fact? I’m an engineer, or… sort of, I mean, not compared to yo—”
Thatch placed a finger over Katie’s mouth, pulling her into silence. “Quiet. You’re an engineer. Continue.” The finger left, but stayed threateningly close.
“Ngh. I’m an engineer,” Katie admitted, “I have to live in reality? I can’t just… make something up? Like, it’s a nice idea, don’t get me wrong, but it’d be like pretending I don’t have two arms or that I can see infrared. I just… can’t. I am human. I can’t change that. Please can I have the berry?” Katie reached out to take it, but the vine still didn’t let her get close. She gave a small grunt of frustration as she reached for it, then glared up at her tormentor. Her expression twisted into a plea over a scant few heartbeats, and only then did she get her treat.
Thatch still held Katie’s hand away, but did lift the sweet thing up to the girl’s mouth. Another vine held her head in place, forcing her to strain forward to try to reach it. The tip of her tongue found the squishy exterior and Thatch finally moved it forward. The spongy texture left slick juices on Katie’s lips. She whimpered. Collected the juices with her tongue and swallowed. This was flirting, but to voice the complaint she would need to be capable of speech.
She could only get close enough to bite a few millimeters at a time. Katie savoured her meal because she had no other choice. She would get no more until she’d properly enjoyed the last bite.
“Do you know what a species is, Katie? Do not worry yourself over the answer, as I already know what you could say. Humanity decided to divide life up by what could breed with what. If two things could, together, produce a third, then those two things are the same ‘species’.”
Thatch’s spare hand slowly drummed a pattern into Katie’s chest with idle fingers. The girl was held loosely, but she knew better than to struggle. “You believe that your humanity is fact simply because the culture from which you originate imposed that identity upon you. There is no universal truth backing that definition. Between them an insect and a flower conspire to spread pollen and seeds, and create new insects and flowers both. Are they then the same species? Were I to clone you and charge the Katiepair with producing another little Katie for me, could you? If I selected two humans at random and asked them to adhere to this definition of theirs and create for me another little human, even they would succeed less than half of the time.”
Thatch pulled the half-eaten berry back. Her spare hand shifted, lifting up to rest against Katie’s neck where she could lift the girl’s chin with an outstretched thumb. Thatch held the berry above and watched the sweet juices gather against the bottom, swell, and drip down onto Katie’s fruit-soaked lips. A tongue snapped out a moment later, seeking its flavour.
Thatch continued, as if this were a reasonable way of holding a conversation. “It is a bad system of categorisation that was imposed upon you by a culture which is no longer permitted to influence your life. It is no more a fact than many other things humanity once believed before we taught them the error of their ways.”
Katie whimpered. “But then what does being human even mean? How can humanity have been anything? Where do you come fro—”
Another drop of juice fell, splashing against Katie’s upper lip. Thatch’s helpful thumb wiped it off of her skin, collecting it. It took its place a little beyond Katie’s lips, but well within range of a hungry tongue. Katie’s distraction was complete.
“It is a choice. Nothing more, nothing less. ‘Humanity’,” Thatch said, ensuring that the tone of her voice made it clear she was using the term with some whimsy, “is made up of those who wish to be in it. Why else would it have put such effort into convincing you you had no choice? If you truly had not then it would not have mattered whether you allowed yourself to want to leave it.”
A finger pressed against Katie’s cheek, where the muscle that worked her jaw sat. Drawing from memory, Katie opened her mouth, and the next droplet of juice landed directly on her tongue. She shivered, fingers curling, as the flavour struck.
“As for where I come from, I am Affini. That is a choice that I have made. Uplifted into sapience in one of our stellar gardens, I raised myself from the dirt and decided on the principles by which I was to live my life. Being part of the Affini Compact is a privilege, not a requirement of my existence, and it is a privilege which will be extended to you too.”
Thatch dropped the berry. She shifted Katie’s head a few degrees to make sure the girl caught it, and then released her so she could chew at her leisure. The inhuman pulled her legs up to her stomach and rolled onto her side, resting one ear against Thatch’s lower chest as she looked out across the cosmos. After long moments the treat was gone, but the consequences yet echoed.
“I don’t think I want to be human.” Katie admitted. “I know I don’t want to be Terran, but I don’t think I want to be human either. I don’t know what I want to be instead. I just… I want to get to decide that for myself.” Katie took a deep breath, and set her jaw. "I do get to decide that for myself.
One of Thatch’s hands was, unsurprisingly, sticky, so she used the other alone to stroke Katie’s hair while they watched the last embers of the day fizzle out and gazed out across infinity together. Katie slipped into slumber within minutes.
Katie woke with a start, jumping to a seated position. She started to overbalance and so threw out a hand to catch herself, only to find her fingers grasping empty air. Oh shi—
Thatch caught her and pulled her back upright. “What’s wrong, Katieflower? Bad dream again?”
Katie shook her head, rapidly. She put a hand to her heart. “Didn’t you feel that?”
“Feel what?” Thatch asked, looking down with a soft shade of confusion. She brushed the back of her knuckles down Katie’s neck, as she often did when Katie woke up in a panic, but this was not that.
“The— The kick in your lungs from… No, I guess you don’t really have lungs, huh, but!” Katie struggled up onto her feet and then started climbing up her guardian. For a moment, Thatch tried to stop her, but Katie was insistent enough that she managed to pull out a few handholds and get herself into position sitting around Thatch’s neck. She yanked out a vine from one shoulder to use as a control, and pulled them up and around, so they could look to the skies.
“There!” she cried, pointing out at what could almost have been just another one of a trillion stars. Almost. This one was falling. The unmistakable burning cone of something hitting atmosphere at irresponsible speeds glowed around it, bright enough to leave a glowing mark on Katie’s vision.
Movement from the planet beneath caught her attention. From this perspective they could see for miles. The soft cloud of insects and glowing plantlife that blanketed the top of the canopy was scattering, starting from a point far distant but approaching at rapid speed. Katie tightened her grip.
A nightmare crash of sound and wind struck. Even Thatch began to topple for a brief, terrifying instant, but another vine quickly extended brought them back to stability. It sounded like a tremendous, distant explosion, but it had reached down from above. The planet’s wildlife had no ability to understand what was happening here. Katie had scant extra perspective. The sound grew quieter over long moments, but whatever had just arrived seemed to see no reason to hide.
As the falling star plummeted it grew larger. No longer a star, it was… a ship. It was impossible to tell how far away it truly was, but even at a dizzying height it was quickly growing to a gargantuan size. Thatch took Katie’s shaking hand and held it tight.
The Affini Compact had arrived. Planet Dirt reeled.
The great vehicle left a shockwave in the air behind it. First a bright orange as the air striking its surface grew so hot as to glow, but soon fading to a soft white as a city’s worth of mass forced its way through an atmosphere which could not help but get in its way. The ship didn’t care. It fell regardless.
Katie squeezed Thatch’s hand and hung on tight. Thatch sometimes made her feel small, but never insignificant. Never afraid. This was not like that. The change she’d been resisting for years was here and she felt tiny.
One end of the ship was a nose piece, or a bud. A rounded cone, but on incalculable scale. The other end was like a flower with a wide central base bordered by a dozen or more massive leaf-like structures that span around the middle piece. They could have been whole kilometers long each. Between the two ends was a strange pair of curves, both hanging down towards the ground. It seemed wasteful, but Katie could not help but look up at it in awe, struck wordless.
This was a chariot of the Gods.
It grew so large in the sky that Katie worried it would crash against the ground, but she soon spotted hundreds of jets from beneath slowing it. The outer hull was criss-crossed with an intricate design, artistry that linked every one of the thrusters and hundreds more points besides with lines and patterns. The hull was a brilliant white—though the bottom side of it was now caked with ash from the descent—with patterns rendered in gleaming gold. The whole thing was illuminated, as if by an unseen source. Even in the depths of night it was as clear as day.
The upwards thrusters flared. As the shockwave lost its strength, streaks of light shot out of the two sides of the flower’s base. Four bright lines pierced the sky in two opposite directions. Four more a few seconds after, and the ship was so close now that Katie could see that these were smaller vessels leaving the larger carrier. Another four. Another. Each moved in a parabola, inheriting the rushing momentum of its mothership, but quickly stablising as they raced away.
After the first few moments of flight each took a slightly different angle, heading out to break the horizon in every direction.
The single Affini vessel was making its presence known. The thrusters flared yet brighter as it forced itself to a halt at what must still have been ten kilometers up and hung in the air on impossible engines. The great flower at its back slowly turned in utter defiance of physical plausibility.
“Holy shit,” Katie breathed. She knew this ship. She’d only seen it for bare instants in the grainy, failing footage of the Indomitable’s external cameras, but this wasn’t the kind of ship that she could ever forget. “The Elettarium, I assume?” she asked, voice barely above a whisper.
In a single moment, Katie understood from where her friend’s unshakable confidence had arisen. Of course they were going to be rescued. To think that they could have escaped the Affini’s grasp had been nothing but naivety.
This ship made even the best of the Terran fleet look like a child’s toy. It was large to the point of absurdity. It hung in the air like it didn’t belong because it did not. It was alien in every sense of the word.
Thatch’s sticky hand ruffled Katie’s hair. “This is the Affini Light Scout Elettarium. It is not quite the smallest general-purpose vehicle in our local group, but it is close.”
There were whimpers from Katie above and Cici below. The machine had to strain its sensors to point them in the right direction, though Katie couldn’t begin to imagine what this would look like to it. At least Katie had seen it once before. “How much bigger do they get?” Katie asked, uncertain if she truly wanted to know. Her voice wavered. Some deep animal fear screamed for her to whisper, lest she catch its attention. Absurd. As if she could escape their gaze no matter how she tried. “Could this even land without destroying everything?”
Thatch gave an appreciative hum. “Very clever, flower. No, it could not, the smaller vessels there—” Thatch pointed out at the streaks. Most of them were almost over the horizon now, moving with terrifying speed. One seemed to be heading in their direction, though not quite directly— “are the ones that will actually land. The Elettarium itself is actually on the larger end for ships that can safely enter atmosphere without doing the environment harm, though even there it simply has to hover in place.”
Without doing the environment harm. The clarification was striking. This ship wasn’t limited by resources or engineering knowledge but by physical limits on what the universe around it could take. Now that it had stopped moving it hung in the air, silent. With a surface lit by no clear source it looked as if it had simply been poorly pasted into a photograph, except Katie was seeing it with her own two eyes.
“Humanity never stood a chance, did it?” Katie had maintained a deep-seated assumption that Terra, given time, could have figured out a way to fight these things. That assumption was breaking. The year and change of her life spent on board the Indomitable suddenly seemed utterly futile. She had thought that at very least she had been holding back an inevitable future, but it was hard to escape the conclusion that she hadn’t even done that.
The only thing that had kept the Indomitable free all that time was that ships like this just had higher priorities. She hadn’t been holding back the tide. She’d just been waiting for her turn.
Thatch took a deep breath and Katie felt the warmth of her smile. “Not even slightly,” she stated, with a kind of pride in her voice. “Like I said. Humanity’s fate was never in question. We just had to decide how it was to happen.”
The smaller vessel heading vaguely in their direction made a sharp turn, now pointing directly at them.
“Ah, looks like they have noticed us.” Thatch lowered them to the ground and gestured at… everything. “We will clean up before we leave. Katie, take the bed and our dividers. Cici, would you please put out the fire and clean up the ashes? I could deconstruct Leviathan’s tank.”
Katie looked up with a start. She was already losing so much, she couldn’t lose that too. “Hey, no, I’m not leaving them behind. Leave the tank alone, we can bring it, right?”
Thatch grinned back at her. “Good instincts, Katie. Leviathan shall make a fine floret for you.”
The quiet roar of a ship forcing itself through atmosphere unwilling or unable to get out of its way in time grew louder over long minutes as the trio pulled their camp apart, sorting everything they couldn’t simply give back to the environment into piles and boxes for transport. Before long, the shuttle arrived, coming to a halt in the air just over the river.
At maybe five meters across and ten long, it was hardly as imposing as the Elettarium itself. The design bore many similarities, with a brilliant white shell that seemed to glow in the darkness inlaid with fine golden lines. At this distance, Katie could see that the patterns were fractal, getting ever more intricate the closer she looked, seemingly without end. The shape was more conventional, though, essentially a rounded box with a curved nose cone section to help it cut through the air. Four points on the bottom thrummed with energy, presumably keeping the vessel afloat. At this distance the engine noise was actually audible. A deep beat that seemed to pulse in time to Katie’s frantic heart.
It sank through the air, angled such that the edges of the ship would only just barely clip the sides of the canopy, until it came to a standstill a meter or two off of the ground. The hull parted, revealing a door.
From it emerged monsters. Katie grew tense, taking a step back. These were the beasts that had enslaved Terra. The demons who had taken her ship. The imperialists who wanted her and all others under their leafy thumbs. Conquerors. Nightmares wearing human form. Evil.
“Ho!” one of them called, hopping out of the ship and walking towards them. Katie took another step back, behind Thatch’s leg. Thatch wouldn’t let them take her. “It’s good to see you…” The cosmic horror glanced at some kind of slate it carried. “Thatch? You do not look like the pictures.”
“It has been a long journey,” Thatch admitted. “I apologise, I do not know your names.”
“Zona,” one creature said, pointing at the other.
That one continued the sentence pointing at the other, “and Xylem.” The second paused for a moment, reaching a vine into the ship. “And this is our darling Lily,” it declared.
It brought out some kind of alien creature. Maybe three feet tall and undeniably rotund, it was covered in a dark brown fur with a short snout and wide, black, eyes that frequently blinked. It looked around with rapid twitches of its head, taking in the whole environment one short blink at a time. It wore what looked like a snugly fitting suit in pastel colours covered in dozens of tiny little pockets, with a pair of something like welding goggles that looked big enough to fit Katie hanging around its neck. It was deeply alien, but reminded Katie of some kind of mix between a squirrel and a sugar glider, though that didn’t quite fit. Something about it felt familiar, but maybe that was just her over-active pattern matching instinct. Katie tried not to think about it.
The second affini—Zona—brought it the nook of one arm and scratched under its snout with her free hand. All that curious energy vanished in an instant, stolen away by its alien master and replaced with a squirming sluggishness. It seemed pretty out of it, happily making entertained noises as Zona tickled with vines, now barely cognizant of their situation.
Only the monsters got to have agency here. Katie felt a little sick, watching what had clearly been an intelligent creature brought so low.
Movement from the side caught Katie’s attention as Cici rolled forward. “Hello. — I! Am! Cici! — Greetings. Hello. Hi.” The machine buzzed with a high-pitched whine which only got worse as Xylem knelt down in front of it and laid a hand against its shell.
“By the stars, are you mechanical?” they asked. Cici’s status lights flickered rapidly through different shades of green for several moments, before it finished the difficult processing on its nuanced answer.
Xylem looked up at Thatch. “These being the new species we don’t have emergency codes for, then? Fascinating. Oh, the xenobiologists will be heartbroken, but the mech. engineers will love these—” Xylem turned their attention back to Cici, working a vine or two into the holes in its chassis so it could be lifted safely— “utter cuties!”
Cici’s whine left the range of human hearing, and Katie relaxed somewhat. The others winced, but put up with it.
Thatch put a hand on Katie’s shoulder and ushered her out. A vine prodding her on the back made the expectation clear, but she suddenly found herself the center of attention.
They towered over her. Katie shook her head rapidly. These things would eat her. They’d put her to work in their mines. They’d turn her into a spaced-out waste like Lily there. She tried to step back. Thatch didn’t let her at first, but she relented and Katie gratefully stumbled backwards. She tripped, but there was already a vine behind her anyway, so it didn’t go very far. She peeked out at the monsters from between Thatch’s legs.
“And who’s that cute little human?” one of the conquerors demanded to know. “Will you be taking her, or do we still have a chance?”
Taking. Katie stiffened, heart pounding. How could she fight these? Fire worked, didn’t it? She had her welding tool.
“The shy one is Katie Sahas, independent sophont,” Thatch insisted. “Nonhuman, nonfloret.”
The pair grew quiet, glancing at one another. Xylem scratched their false forehead while Zona wrinkled her crooked mockery of a human nose. “Wasn’t she on the feralist ship? Independence isn’t usually good for those.”
Zona stopped showering the alien Lily with affection, and its curiosity seemed to start returning. A vine snaked out of the monstrosity and hooked into a small ring at Lily’s neck, hanging off of what looked very much like a collar. The creature was released, and leaped away from its captor, trailing a vine behind it. Katie knew how long those vines were, but no matter how long it was, it was still a leash.
Thatch spoke up, insistent. “Katie is an exception. She has been demonstratably well behaved and I believe she will thrive as an independent citizen.”
Katie could feel the tension in Thatch’s vines. Nervousness? Fear? Mere hours before, the idea of Thatch being afraid of anything had been absurd, but now an impossible starship hung in the skies of Dirt and they were horribly outnumbered. If the invaders took issue could Thatch actually keep her safe? Had Katie shattered the sphere of safety she’d come to rely on the moment she’d let these creatures know where they were?
The two new affini shrugged. “Cool,” one said, while the other knelt to meet Katie’s gaze through Thatch’s legs. It smiled, holding out a hand. It took a moment to glance up at Thatch with some kind of unspoken question, and Thatch handed over one of the berries that Katie liked.
“Hey, Katie,” Zona said, voice quiet. Xylem was busy exploring Cici—to much delight from the machine, and with much effort put into keeping Lily from crawling inside its chassis—and it was left up to Katie to handle this one. It held out the food. As if Katie could be tempted out simply with a tasty snack!
Her stomach rumbled, but she was an intelligent, sapient creature. She couldn’t be tricked into being comfortable when she wasn’t.
“Not all that used to people yet, huh? That’s okay.” Zona lowered itself further until it was sitting on the ground. Strangely, it was significantly shorter than Thatch was, perhaps ‘only’ eight or nine feet in total. Sitting, it was actually shorter than Katie was at her full height. It smiled. “Well, my name is Zona Varie. My partner over there is Xylem Varie. Both of us use she/her pronouns because we like the aesthetic, and I’d love to get to know you a little.”
Katie shied back, moving behind one leg. It felt ridiculous, but there was some animal fear demanding she stay out of sight. An instinct bred a million years ago to protect her from threats recognising these creatures as the apex predators of the universe.
“Why, so you can take your ‘chance’?” Katie shot back. They’d talked over her. They hadn’t even looked at her while discussing her fate.
Zona’s laugh was nothing like Thatch’s. Thatch had a low, almost gravelly tone with an intense music to it. Zona’s voice was much lighter, and whatever song they sung was utterly incomprehensible to Katie. Just noise. “Not at all. I’m sorry for our assumption. Humans rescued from rebel ships almost universally need a guiding hand to help them learn how to be happy, but as you aren’t a rescued human I don’t think that’ll be a problem, yeah?”
Katie poked her head out. “Equals?”
Zona smiled, raising the hand that held the berry again. “Equals. It’s customary to give new friends a gift in some cultures. You have brought your fine company, and I have this small fruit. Fair exchange?”
Katie glanced up at her affini, who was smiling down at her. Thatch nodded, and Katie carefully moved forward. She reached out for the fruit and grabbed it, eating it before anybody could take it away from her.
A smile spread out over her face. It was a good berry. She muttered thanks, and Zona raised its hand to just above her head. Katie glanced up at it, wary, for a moment. She quickly shook her head, not really expecting her wish to be respected, but the hand went away regardless.
“Thank you, Katie. Perhaps we could talk a little aboard our shuttle? I expect the captain would like to talk to you and Thatch—” Zona glanced sideways, considering and then apparently writing off Cici as a source of information. Given that it didn’t seem verbal right now, that didn’t seem unfair— “about those little machines, and about your experiences, but Xylem and I are happy to listen to anything you’d like to tell us and will happily answer any questions you have in exchange.”
She looked up at Thatch and extended a vine. Thatch met it with one of hers in a firm grip. “Is everybody ready to leave? We’d be happy to bring you back out here later if you forgot anything, of course, I expect we’ll probably all be hanging around out here for a little while. There’s a lot to catalogue here.”
Thatch nodded, then spent a few moments staring up at the ship high above. She almost seemed as intimidated as Katie had been, but quickly glanced away. “We are ready. There are piles over there of personal affects for myself and Katie, and then another for processed materials. If we could get those cleaned and separated and then return them to the environment here, I believe we would be appreciative.” Thatch flashed a smile down Katie’s way. “We also have one aquatic nonsapient coming with us, so if we can make use of the shuttle’s atomic compiler to maintain a fresh water supply then that will ensure all of us are adequately cared for.”
None of the requests seemed objectionable. The three affini lifted the piles of stuff onto the ship in very short order, and then the two newcomers climbed aboard, Cici in tow. Lily’s leash was pulled taut, and she leaped back into the ship from halfway up a nearby tree. Thatch glanced down at Katie and extended a hand, which Katie took and then used to help her get started climbing. Once she was in her place around the plant’s neck, she guided the two of them into the shuttle.
With one vine still trailing down to the dirt, Katie paused, looking back. All sign of their presence here had been scrubbed clean. She blinked back tears and forced herself to look away.
“Goodbye, Dirt,” she breathed, and lifted Thatch’s final vine from the surface.