Chapter Twenty Three: Greetings From Your New Shipmates
Katie didn’t talk much on the journey.
With this many occupants the shuttle was left more than a little cramped. The insides were spartan, with most of the shuttle comprised of large open space. It lacked even a separate cargo area; their stuff was just piled up at the back end where the force of acceleration would press it into the wall.
Katie rested on one of the seats that stood along each side of the vehicle. Strangely, there was no standardisation between them. There were six in all and each was a different height, material, and design. Katie wanted to shrink into a corner and vanish, but there was nowhere to hide. Just a plain, practical shuttle taking her away from the beautiful vistas of planet Dirt towards a no-doubt plain, practical starship. They didn’t even have a set of matching chairs. Katie had spent most of her adult life aboard ramshackle ships where nothing quite matched and nothing quite worked and the thought of being dragged onto another was crushing.
Katie pushed a tall chair with a firm woven seat next to the short, cushioned construction that Thatch rested atop. The height differential was novel, even useful. Katie could lean against Thatch’s arm and rest her head on a shoulder. It was nice.
There were no windows through which to look, yet she could practically feel the planet far beneath abandoning them.
The two new affini sat up front. One seemed to be piloting the vessel while the other fussed over Cici and Lily. Katie had immediately lost track of which affini was which. It wasn’t that they looked the same, really: If she paid attention to the details she could tell that they had a lot of differences, but in a lot of respects one very tall plantoid looked very much like the next very tall plantoid, and the ways in which they distinguished themselves from each other paled in comparison to the way they were different from Katie.
“What’s going to happen now?” Katie asked, quietly enough that she expected and hoped only Thatch would hear. She didn’t trust the other two to give her a straight answer.
The affini— No.
Thatch. Thatch couldn’t be the affini any longer. There were more of them now. Thatch cupped Katie’s cheek with her opposite hand and held her with a gentle grip. “That has become somewhat out of our hands, and this is an unusual situation in many respects. We will arrive shortly and I expect somebody will want to have a conversation with us. Where we go from there is likely to be one of the topics of that conversation.”
Katie tried to bring a little moisture back into her bone-dry mouth but found that she couldn’t quite manage to swallow. “Oh.”
She hugged closer to Thatch’s arm. She’d grown so used to her friend being in control of everything around them that being torn out of that bubble of safety left her feeling cold and afraid. She looked up at Thatch to find a slightly distant expression pointed at the opposite wall. Her affini’s focus was at least partially elsewhere.
Katie shrank against the arm, hooking her own under it so she could hug in close. The two of them were being taken into the unknown.
There were no timepieces in sight. Katie had gotten used to planning her day by the movement of the sun or the natural rhythms of the planet. Neither of those were present here and she found herself with no idea how long the journey was really taking. Neither she nor Thatch seemed to feel like talking, and so the ship was filled with barely intelligible chatter from up front.
Eventually the shuttle changed heading. Katie looked up, lifting her head from Thatch’s shoulder. The view out of the cockpit window was nothing but ship. Katie fumbled around for a moment, grabbing Thatch’s hand and pulling her forward so she could see their approach.
They were heading into one of the docking bays at the base of the ship. The flower petals at its rear rotated just to the left of them at an agonisingly slow speed. The tips might be turning fast enough to disrupt the clouds, but the bases of the multi-kilometer objects were barely in motion at all. Up close they looked even bigger than they had from afar. Katie looked away. Whatever part of her head that was capable of being awed by such things just wasn’t engaging any more. She didn’t know if it was the anxiety of not knowing what was coming or if her ability to appreciate the grandeur had simply topped out. Either way she glossed over the scale.
She looked towards the docking bay. The shuttle slowed as it came in for landing. The details blurred past. The complexity and artistry of it had stopped registering and Katie hadn’t even stepped foot aboard yet.
Katie’s knees almost buckled as the shuttle came down, landing hard. Thatch’s grip kept her steady. Both of them shot a look at the pilot.
Zona winced, glancing back. “Sorry about that, I haven’t done this in gravity before. Still, any landing you can talk away from, right?” She laughed. Katie didn’t.
The tap of a button opened up the shuttle’s wide door. Katie took a breath and coughed, instinctively raising a hand to cover her mouth. She remembered what ship air felt like. Dry, sharp, and with an acrid tang. It would burn her throat and sting her eyes. She was used to it, but that didn’t mean she wanted it back.
To her surprise, the air that came rushing in wasn’t that. It stank of plantlife, but not unpleasantly so. Intellectually, Katie knew that the scents of Dirt had probably been less pleasant than this was, but Dirt was home and this was not. The last of her familiar air rushed out of the shuttle, lost forever. Doubtless it would be collected and recycled and cleansed. Made identical to all the rest of the air on board this flying prison.
Katie felt a hand at her back. She relaxed into it, knowing it was Thatch’s by instinctive feel, as they left the shuttle. The step out was about three feet too tall for Katie to take comfortably, but Thatch was there to lift her out. Her first step on this alien vessel. The surface beneath her feet was a metal grate, thick hexagonal lattice in fractal form. The hexagons got more densely nested towards the center of the grate, but around the edges the holes were inches wide. Large enough to fit a vine, Katie guessed, while leaving the center of the walkway dense enough for a human to walk upon.
Katie’s eyes slid over everything, not really taking any of it in. She’d been woken up halfway through the night, taken from her home, shown more impossible things than she had previously dared imagine, and her energy was really starting to crash. The ship’s lighting dug into her eyes and the sounds wormed into her brain. There were others here, too. Plants, humans, other creatures that Katie hadn’t the mental energy to process. Katie shied closer to her friend. If her affini’s bubble of safety was shrunken, then Katie would stick closer.
After a few seconds of walking they drew to a stop. Katie tried to force herself to focus on the creature before her. Another cursed plant. She was… green? A kind of splotchy green with patches of much lighter colour seemingly at random. Leaves. Vines. Katie had seen it all before. She glanced towards Thatch, to try to see how she was taking this and hopefully get a hint as to what was going on.
“It’s good to see you again, Thatch,” the newcomer spoke, attracting Katie’s attention. “Good thinking getting our attention like that, it would have taken us a little while to find you otherwise.” The intruder paused, glancing theatrically up and down Thatch’s body. “I don’t think you always looked like this, did you?” She extended a leafy vine, which Thatch took with one of her own brilliant red streaks.
Katie looked back to Thatch to catch her shaking her head. “It is good to see you again too, Rosaceae.” She raised one of her black and purple arms and set the little bulbs aglow as a brief demonstration, fingers wiggling. Katie clung a little closer, gentle lights twinkling in her eyes. “Most of this body was harvested from the planet beneath; I needed to rebloom in a hurry. The beacon, however, was largely Katie’s work.” Thatch glanced down towards the girl.
Katie froze as she became the center of attention yet again. ‘Rosaceae’ looked down at her with a gentle smile and the part of Katie’s brain responsible for keeping her safe from predators went into meltdown.
Thatch was one thing. Thatch was a person that Katie had come to know, and even like. Katie could even be said to be coming around to some of the ways Thatch thought about the world, even the ones that were distasteful on the surface. Katie had expected that others of her kind would be, if not friends, then at least recognisable as people.
This was not that. Katie wasn’t interfacing with a person here. She was engaging with a culture, with a civilisation. Processes, traditions, rituals. She could speak openly to Thatch because, to Thatch, Katie was a person. To this newcomer she was a statistic, about to get sorted into an inescapable category.
Katie tried to take a step back, but found a hand in her way. “Rosa is nice, Katie,” Thatch insisted. “She wouldn’t hurt a fly. Say hello.” The hand stayed in place, providing some small comfort.
Katie looked up. Her brain screamed at her that the only reasonable thing to do was to run far, far away and hope this thing wasn’t interested enough in eating her to follow, but she tried to ignore that. Rosa wouldn’t hurt a fly. This was just her dumb brain firing off at nothing. Human biological inheritance and nothing more. Everything was fine. There was nothing to worry about.
“I… Hello,” Katie said, through dry lips.
The predatory plant’s smile widened a little further. It reached out a facsimile of a hand and gently pushed up Katie’s chin, forcing their gazes to meet. It shifted Katie’s face from side to side with quick movements of the thumb. Inspecting her. Its gaze was piercing, as though it could see her darkest secrets and wanted to devour every and every one. It lowered itself down to one knee, bringing Katie’s face of flesh and bone within the range of its mockery of teeth and jaws.
“Cuter than you looked in the pictures. Katie Sahas, right? We collated all your files. We’ll need to run some tests and ask you some questions to get all your details updated, but that won’t take long and you can have a caretaker with you while it happens if you wish. I assume you’ll be staying with Thatch here?” Its smile grew particularly indulgent, and the eyes momentarily stopped pinning Katie to the grating long enough to glance over at Thatch for conformation. Katie didn’t understand all the subtext in what ‘Rosa’ was saying, but she could guess at the gist of it.
This was the moment she’d been waiting for, wasn’t it? She wasn’t arriving in this world as some helpless pawn. She’d proven herself worthy, hadn’t she? They’d respect that, wouldn’t they? They had to. Katie couldn’t go back to being a nobody. She cleared her throat.
“I… was told I could have my own space,” Katie ventured, reluctantly drawing attention back to herself. Was this the point where all those promises came crashing down? She played along or they threw her in their mines? She wouldn’t forgive herself if she didn’t at least try. “It doesn’t have to be much! Just… I’ve never had anywhere that’s mine and it sounded nice.”
Rosa’s smile grew a little wider. Its thumb brushed across Katie’s cheek, transforming the girl’s stomach into a heavy ball of butterflies. She dare not ask this creature to stop. She didn’t know what would be offensive. She didn’t know what would cause it to stop pretending at politeness and truly become one of the beasts that had devoured Terran civilisation. Yet, if Katie didn’t assert herself as something that demanded respect and independence, she had no doubt that they would take away both.
Uncomfortably sharp nails raked softly over Katie’s skin. That subtext was clear. They had options other than being gentle that Katie couldn’t hope to fight. “Our habitation units have plenty of room for cute little things like you. I’m sure that whoever you end up with will give you your own space, if you behave yourself. If Thatch has promised that and you go with her, then I imagine she will hold to her word. If you would rather be assigned a different caretaker, then we can list that request on your file, assuming Thatch here agrees.”
Katie whimpered. She wanted to look back at her affini, for advice or for simple reassurance that it was okay for her to push, but this beast’s ostensibly gentle grip held her fast. This wasn’t going how she wanted at all. She was getting pulled along by the tides of change and she wasn’t strong enough to reach the shore.
Part of Katie felt like she should just nod. She was in the lion’s den here. The more attention she drew to herself the more likely they would grow tired and just eat her up. Another, more sober part knew that if she nodded here she would never be able to stop. She’d lose everything she’d fought so hard to gain. Katie tried to steel her nerves, working up the courage to put her hand inside the metaphorical jaws.
As brave as Katie was, her captor beat her to speaking. “I wouldn’t worry about finding somebody willing to grant it, Katie, if you can be this cute all the time. You’re sure to find a home, though it may take a few days. We are short on people who don’t already have a ward, though you’ll go to the front of the list as most of the other crew from that little Terran ship of ours are still in stasis. A cute and lively little human like you is sure to—”
Katie pulled herself out of the foul grip and stumbled a half step back. “I’m not that! Stop talking! You— You can’t— Thatch said you wouldn’t force anything on me that I didn’t want, and I… I want my own space! I don’t want to request it, even from Thatch, I want it to be mine. I don’t want it to be something anyone can take from me. I’m not yours to control! Thatch said I was a free—”
The titan of vine and bark casually reached forward, placing a single finger against Katie’s jaw. Her chin strained upwards until she could no longer open her mouth to speak, or hardly even to breathe. Katie’s words died in a helpless tremour. The touch was hard in a way that Thatch had never been. The new affini’s expression lost its playful edge, and Katie realised she had made a mistake. The politeness was for those who complied. These creatures couldn’t be bargained with. She could be nothing more than a novel toy to things this powerful. “Free Terran, perhaps? Yes, we know just what to do with ‘Free Terrans’ around here. We—”
No! Katie wouldn’t let it end like this! She growled, fumbling at her hips for her tools. Each one had a distinct shape so that she could grab them by feel. The cold wood gave her strength. Her welding torch aught to be hot enough to take advantage of the only weakness she’d discovered in these things. She grabbed for it, hoping to bring it up to the thing’s false wrist. She’d free herself one way or another.
Katie didn’t even get close. Obviously she wasn’t going to get close. Before she’d even unhooked the torch there was a vine around her wrist holding it tight. It squeezed, gently, with a familiar feel and a familiar throbbing heat. Katie let her fingers go slack as Thatch knelt beside her and gently removed Rosa’s finger. Katie let out a soft whimper, using her free hand to massage her jaw and neck.
Thatch joined Katie in looking at Rosa’s surprised expression, though the two affini were both on about the same level now and both towered over Katie, even kneeling. “I am willing to stake my reputation on Miss. Sahas here harbouring no feralist ideologies, Rosaceae. If you had let her finish, Katie would have explained that she holds no love for Terran culture nor the Human race and wishes to secede from both. You will treat her with the dignity and respect befitting an independent sophont requesting citizenship aboard the vessel you head and she will be a delightful friend to many aboard.” Thatch’s grip was unwavering, at least on Rosa. On Katie, it was soft and no longer restricted her motions at all. She glanced up at Thatch’s face and found the butterflies in her stomach all set loose.
Her affini’s jaw was set and her eyes were fixed, but there was no anger here. She exuded certainty and confidence, but expressed it like this was the most natural thing in the world. This wasn’t a disagreement. She was simply explaining how things were to be. There were only a few hints as to internal turmoil. Vines snaked down her back, curling through the metal of the grating beneath their feet with a tense grip, ensuring stability and leverage. Katie’s implacable sixth sense resonated with anxiety. Barely hints at all, but Katie could tell that Thatch was less confident than she appeared.
Rosa, it seemed, could not. She gently retrieved her hand, though remained in a kneeling position. “I’m sorry, Thatch, Katie. I misunderstood the nature of your relationship, it seems. It seems unusual, but the last couple of years have convinced me that it is better to take everyone as they come and figure out how to accommodate that. Katie, I would like to earn your forgiveness and perhaps the first step can be being direct. You are, human or not, prior crew on a captured feralist vessel. It is general practice—and, in fact, a guarantee in our Treaty—to assign any new rescues a caretaker to be responsible for them and we do not usually allow exceptions to this rule. Perhaps, in cases where that caretaker vouches for the stability, behaviour, and independence of their ward, they could, maybe, graduate to becoming an independent citizen. As apology for my behaviour we can assign Thatch as your caretaker, she can vouch for you, we’ll move directly to the next stage.”
Rosa paused, eyes drilling down into Katie for several long moments as if trying to discern the hidden truths of her soul. It was an intense gaze, but finally Katie felt as if she was being engaged with as a person in her own right, not just property-to-be. “If you would like that, Katie?”
Katie glanced back at Thatch, who gave a small nod. The vine at Katie’s wrist squeezed for but a moment. Katie forwarded on the nod to Rosa. “I want my own space. I don’t know what you have available, anything will do, but—”
Rosa raised a finger. Requesting an interruption, this time. Katie didn’t know if it was a request she could refuse, but she didn’t feel the need to test that. “You will need to talk to the habitation engineers for that, which we can organise as part of the general checkup and introduction that I would very strongly recommend you undergo. We are currently very far away from Compact space and this is not a very large ship, so I’m afraid we have some significant resource limitations at the moment, but I imagine we can meet your needs. A prospective citizen in need of housing takes priority over most non-emergency tasks, and I don’t expect there’s anybody around here who would mind their low-priority requests getting bumped for this.”
Katie twisted her hand around to take hold of the vine Thatch still had around her wrist. “Can I bring Thatch with me?” she asked. The last thing she wanted was to walk into the jaws of the beast alone. She’d already nearly screwed up badly enough once.
Rosaceae glanced up towards Katie’s lifeline for a moment, and then nodded. “I suspect she’ll want a medical checkup too, and the botanical gardens are typically off-limits to non-affini citizens for their own safety, so you will need to part ways at some point. Additionally, I do need to talk to her about what happened and unfortunately that isn’t a conversation you can be part of.” Katie’s grip tightened. Rosa smiled down at her. “However, that can be another time. For now, if you’ll follow my darling flore—”
Rosa glanced to the side, paused, and shook her head. “Hmn, apologies, I’m used to having more assistance than this. Come, we don’t have much of an induction center, but we can make do. There was another one of you, wasn’t there?” Rosaceae looked around for a moment before spotting Cici and the Varies. “Oh! Hmn, that’s a little outside of Glochi’s area.” Rosa waved a vine over towards the shuttle pilots and called over. “Could I get you two to take that one… somewhere? Maybe Ined’s division? They can probably figure out how to do a full medical. Message me if anything goes wrong?”
After receiving a pair of enthusiastic nods, Rosa led the way. Katie recognised that what was going on around her was probably very impressive and probably she needed to understand it for her own safety, but everything she looked at just filled her with the same foreboding dread. People who set foot on Affini vessels were never seen again. It was a rule. It had already been made crystal clear that her freedom here was contingent on parts of Affini culture that Katie couldn’t even begin to understand.
For all Katie knew, doing or saying anything could get that freedom taken away. She couldn’t rely on Thatch to catch her every mistake because she was surrounded by creatures who could pounce on those mistakes with the same speed. Katie had very little time to understand the rules of a game she was already playing, and one bad move could leave her like the rest of the Indomitable’s crew. Trapped in stasis awaiting annihilation.
They walked through the expansive docking bay. Katie tried not to figure out whether the entire Indomitable would have fit inside. She had to hurry just to keep up with the two affini, and by the time they came to a stop she was starting to feel out of breath. Their journey was far from over. Thatch reached over and hit a button set into one of the walls, and that wall split in half.
Katie whimpered. The part of her brain that was capable of being impressed by a twenty foot door appearing out of nowhere wasn’t responding, but the part of her brain responsible for getting terrified by things obviously more dangerous than herself was going haywire.
The two affini stepped through the door into some kind of pod. Katie felt a gentle tug against her wrist and stumbled forward. The doors slid closed behind her and she felt a powerful, smooth acceleration almost knock her off of her feet. Again, a helpful vine kept her steady, but it was difficult not to recognise that this place was not meant for her. She couldn’t even have reached the button to open the doors, nor was she certain she could have stood alone.
Every second took her further from the world she had known and brought her further into one that felt dangerous and hostile.
There were still no timepieces. The view outside of the pod was overwhelming enough that Katie’s mind refused to parse the shapes and colours into anything meaningful. Katie looked out at it, but she didn’t comprehend. It was just a sea of visual noise.
After an indeterminable amount of time, the pod slowed to a stop and the doors opened back up. Thatch stepped out and Katie followed. Rosaceae said something that Katie didn’t understand, and then she was gone.
If they were on Dirt still, Katie wouldn’t have thought twice before falling to the side and letting Thatch catch her, but here? They weren’t alone. Her eyes refused to pick out any of the details of who was around them and who was watching. Katie recognised that she should probably be concerned, but instead she just kept walking forwards at Thatch’s side until they entered a smaller building.
Katie felt a tight pressure somewhat lifting off of her chest as doors slid closed behind her. No windows, just four walls. They were tall walls, to be sure, but the space was bounded. Finite. Katie could try to take it all in without getting immediately overwhelmed.
She took a deep breath. Okay. Four walls. They were a sterile kind of white, well lit, with many many pictures of alien creatures hanging in various places with no clear pattern. Maybe twenty or so dotted around the room, with some larger posters between them offering what looked like detailed breakdowns of various pieces of technology, plant, or animal life? It was hard to be sure. One looked like a vial of something thick and viscous, another was some sort of many-legged insect, a third was a wristband of sorts. Katie didn’t understand, but neither did the posters threaten to jump out at her with drug-laden needles.
Walls okay. Katie could handle walls. She looked up. The ceiling was far above her, inset with dozens upon dozens of soft points of light that gave the room an even, clean illumination. It was an almost unreal mood as shadows found nowhere to hide. It nearly seemed like there was starfield above them, but the lights glowed a steady, unchanging off-white. Bearable. Understandable.
Down. The floor beneath their feet. Green, with a gentle texture somewhere between carpet and grass. Thatch stood upon it, as did the one other occupant of the room, as did various pieces of equipment. Katie, curiously, did not. She blinked a few times, and then looked up.
At some point, Thatch had plucked her off of the ground and was looking at her with concern clear in the purple and red flecks of her wide eyes. Even Katie’s sixth sense wasn’t working properly right now, she realised, as she tried to interpret her plant’s expression and found everything muddied. It was getting lost in the white noise that was everything else on her every sense.
“Are you okay, Katie?” she asked, one floral finger brushing across Katie’s forehead to steer the hair out of her eyes. “You have been atypically quiet for our entire journey. I would like you to tell me how you are feeling.”
Katie could only shrug, and barely that. She hadn’t been able to ask for help, but being faced by a direct question she found she the strength. “This is all a lot. I don’t know if I can do this. I’m tired and scared and I can’t make any mistakes or everyone is going to turn on me and stop pretending to be polite and this isn’t my world, I don’t know anything here, I don’t know what’s going to get me locked away and what’s going to get me what I need and—”
Thatch silenced her with a look, then glanced away for a moment, towards the other figure in the room. They traded a few rapid-fire bursts of speech. Katie didn’t understand the words being spoken, but she understood the way that Thatch was saying them, and she didn’t sound agitated. She was just updating the other. The stranger stepped away, slipping through a door Katie hadn’t noticed, and left her finally alone in a bubble of safety.
Katie didn’t waste any time. She didn’t know when they’d be coming back. For all she knew, this could be the very last quiet moment. She buried her head into Thatch’s chest and tried her best not to cry, unsuccessfully. The one familiar thing in this entire cursed vessel ran her fingers through Katie’s hair and held her close until the tears started to slow.
“Nobody is going to turn on you, flower. Nobody here wants anything but the best for you.” One of Thatch’s arms was busy holding Katie in place, but the other was free to drift. Each touch pushed the stress and the panic away, replacing it with a gentle comfort. At first, it was a contest, but soon there was nowhere left for stress to hide, and it escaped in quiet gasps and whimpers. Out into the air, where it would be lost for good.
Katie pushed her face deeper into Thatch’s foliage. A leaf threatened to enter Katie’s mouth, but a soft nibble was enough to get Thatch to move it. “But what they think is the best for me, right? That ‘Rosa’ was seconds away from turning on me, I could tell!”
Katie had never in her life been without ambient sounds. There wasn’t a Terran ship or station that didn’t groan with the effort of its own existence. The thrum of a reactor meant heat and power. The hiss of gas meant oxygen. The rattle of fluids meant that nothing was about to overheat. Things were never silent. Silence was death.
The room was silent, save for the barely perceptible duet of her own heartbeat meeting Thatch’s symphony. The ground didn’t vibrate. The lights didn’t flicker in time with the slightly irregular hum of a reactor two years past its service date. Everything was still. Everything was quiet. Even Thatch didn’t respond with words, but with simple presence and pressure.
No timepieces. Katie didn’t know how long she was there. Her only metronome was the regular, reliable beat of Thatch’s body.
Eventually, Katie worked up the energy to extract her face from the forest. She looked up at the patient expression of her protector. It was a little bittersweet. Now they were here, Thatch had a life to return to, and Katie had one to build. They wouldn’t be spending every waking minute together any more. Already, Thatch’s todo list grew, filling with entries that Katie couldn’t be a part of. Already, Katie’s tasks piled up, forming towers of things Thatch could be of no help with.
“I’m sorry,” Katie whispered. Everything still felt like too much, but at least she wasn’t facing it alone. “I think I’m okay now. I really just want to sleep. I think I’ll be okay after I sleep. I don’t know what’s going on. Can you… tell me what they’re gonna do?”
Thatch sat herself down against the grassy carpet and leaned into one corner. She lowered Katie down into her lap to free up a hand, then pointed towards one of the larger objects in the room. Katie would have mistaken it for an oversized potted plant, had she not seen Thatch’s biotechnology at work in their beacon. The question was wordless, more a feeling than a sound.
“Some kind of machine?” Katie ventured. “The vines around the outside don’t seem to connect to anything, so I guess they’re just a protective casing?” Thatch’s finger shifted slightly while her other hand gently tilted Katie’s head, drawing her attention to a set of transparent flowers at about her head level. They had sharp needles set into their centers, but no obvious contents.
Katie’s first thought was to shy away. Some kind of machine to pump her full of drugs and puppet her into doing their bidding? Her second thought was the realisation that that was absurd. Thatch wouldn’t have needed a machine to do that. Probably this was for something else. “Some kind of blood scanner?” she ventured. If the sharp needles weren’t for inserting something, then there was only so many things to take from her.
Thatch scratched under her chin. “Very good, Katie. It is a little more than that, but you have the right idea. The needles bisect a major artery and check over your blood to make sure you’re getting what you need. In fact, come on, I know how these work.”
A gentle hand at Katie’s back slowly pushed her up onto her feet, and then towards the machine. Katie realised that the smaller plant in front of it was meant for sitting about a second after Thatch had placed her atop it. It squirmed for a moment, adjusting until it was, by far, the most comfortable thing Katie had ever sat upon, save for Thatch herself. The sharp flowers extended on their own, but seemed to need an operator to actually insert them.
Thatch raised Katie’s chin with one of the smallest of her vines, and carefully inserted the two flowers into the side of her neck. Katie stiffened, feeling a moment’s chill as her blood flow was redirected, stealing it away towards this machine. The transparent flowers filled with a dark red, first down one, and then a moment later, up the other. The chill faded away as her blood was returned, apparently intact.
Thatch spent a moment checking over the needles. “Now, there should be a terminal around here somewhere,” she muttered, before spotting something lying on a desk at the far side of the room and snapping it up with a rapid red streak. She tapped a button on the vaguely rectangular object which must have measured some thirty inches across, and Katie felt her remaining panic sinking away. She smiled up at her pretty plant with an increasingly distant expression. She was so… big. Tall. No wonder half of her flirting was just commentary on their relative heights. Thatch was so big, Katie realised, as if for the first time, as if it was a revelation.
So big. Katie could just get lost in there. How was something so small as her meant to navigate this universe alone? It was just right for her to be at one of these creatures’ heels.
Katie stared for what could have been hours with a dull smile on her face before Thatch noticed, swore, and tapped another button.
Katie’s head quickly cleared. She blinked rapidly, raising a hand to rub her forehead as her consciousness came rushing back, filling her with the usual cacophony of anxieties and worries.
“Apologies, apparently the standard program here is configured to pacify. I suppose they have been dealing with a lot of ferals recently, but such an opinionated default should really be more explicit.” Katie could sense Thatch’s gentle displeasure for the moment it lasted. Her plant turned the device around to Katie to show her a vast array of graphs. Most of them were paired with little red styling, and a symbol that was unmistakably a warning sign, though not a Terran design. “As you can see, your levels are not quite nominal, though are actually much better than I had feared in many areas. Far better than the average new intake.”
Thatch seemed strangely pleased by that, as she scrolled through the infinite sequence of graphs and charts for Katie to see. Her affini turned the tablet back to herself and stared at it for a moment, then made a few rapid taps. “However, you are running very low on many of the important neurotransmitters; I believe your dopamine production may be broken; and you need a lot of zinc. On the plus side, most of your hormone levels are appropriate and most micronutrients are not too far out of their ranges, though I suspect a medical professional may disagree with me on that. Do you mind if I adjust these, flower?”
Katie wasn’t sure exactly what that meant, but she shook her head anyway. “Go ahead.” It had been a long time since Thatch had asked for permission to do anything that wasn’t obviously beneficial and Katie didn’t need the explanation to assume this would be the same. She was still interested, however. “Could you tell me what you’re doing?”
Thatch nodded, then began a rapid sequence of taps with a quartet of minor vines. “Then we will start with the basics. Nutrients, neurotransmitters, and niche needs. Roll back your biological clock to match ship time, get your hormone levels exactly where I want them, make sure that brain is ticking along like it should be. Simple tune-ups.”
Katie felt the changes immediately as the looming specter of sleep simply vanished, as did her hunger and, curiously, a craving for synthveg rations. Her earlier fears didn’t vanish, but she suddenly felt as if she could handle what came her way. The difference was so clear as to be striking.
Katie tilted her head to one side, watching Thatch work. Half a dozen vines danced across a device held in one hand. Thatch’s focus seemed absolute and Katie imagined she could feel every brief stroke of growth on graphs down to her soul. It seemed like a poor idea to interrupt if her affini were busy analysing and altering her blood composition, so Katie simply watched. Eventually, Thatch looked up with a gentle smile. “The main function of this machine is to adjust your various values so we can monitor the effects in real time. Most of this can be automatic: the machine will tweak values, detect the response and then figure out what your ideal composition should be, though I will admit I have this on manual. I would rather ensure your needs are met myself. The results then get placed on your file to ensure your nutritional needs are met, alongside recommended medications. Now, we won’t get things quite perfect without constant real-time monitoring but we should be able to get them much better than they have been.”
The device pinged. Thatch turned it around to show Katie an endless stream of graphs with little smiley faces next to them. “There we are, much better.” Thatch turned the device back to herself. For a moment, Katie felt a chill in the air, coinciding with a slight contraction of Thatch’s leaves.
Katie frowned. “What’s up?” she asked, seeming to startle the plant.
“Nothing, do not worry yourself about it. It will sort itself out.” She made a quick series of taps, then paused. “Actually, forget I said anything.” She tapped the screen.
Katie did feel much better for Thatch’s guiding hand over her inner workings. She smiled, taking a deep breath of sweet smelling air with lungs that suddenly didn’t seem to complain about it. She was neither too warm nor too cold. Her head felt clearer than it had in years.
She could think. She had thought that she could think, before, but now she was realising that she’d been tricked by her fallible human shell. It was like her body had never been able to run the real Katie, up until this very moment. For the first time in her life, Katie felt what it was like to actually exist, seemingly unburdened by failing human flesh.
“Will I stay like this?” Katie asked, fingers brushing against the bright red stems mediating her bloodstream.
Thatch shrugged. “I suspect you will settle into a middle ground of sorts. This machine is making constant adjustments to maintain my specified requirements but even without that, better nutrition and medication should keep you close enough. Of course, should you at any point find somebody you wish to adopt you, their haustorium could be programmed to maintain this with similar perfection, at least when combined with a good diet. Not that maintaining that would be any of your concern.”
Thatch reached over and pulled out one of the flowers, then carefully dabbed away the tiny spot of blood left behind. A few moments later the other was removed, once both had gone dry. It didn’t take long for Katie to notice her mind starting to cloud once again. Much less than it had been before Thatch had done her work, certainly, but it still hurt to know she could be so much more and to have that be taken away.
Katie took a deep breath. If this was the best she could get without having to become some random xeno’s pet, then so be it. Thatch had described their ‘hausteria’ to her before, the operative component of the Haustoric Implant. Katie tried to imagine something grown from Rosa or Xylem curling its foul way around her bones and shivered.
No thank you. This would do. “Then what’s next?” Katie asked.
“Next is the parts I am not so familiar with,” Thatch admitted. “May I call through somebody who is?”
Katie reached over and grabbed onto a vine, before pulling it over to herself. She nodded. It wrapped around her wrist with a comforting warmth, and then Thatch spoke in the soft song of her native tongue, inviting another of her kind.
This affini burst in with a pirouette and a smile, earning a surprised half-step backwards from Thatch and a cautious lean away from Katie. “Miss Sahas, I believe? I am Glochi Opun, Twentieth Bloom, he/him, and I’ll be handling your induction today.” It spoke in a gruff, tremourous voice and moved with such an obvious beat that Katie could almost hear it. A deeper voice than Thatch’s, sung to a slower, calmer tune. Less catchy, but pleasant enough.
He stood perhaps a little taller than Thatch did, with the tops of his triplet antennae almost scraping the ceiling. He moved with an easy grace, but the foliage hanging off of him was browned and stiff and the vines beneath were all dark. No fresh growths to be seen. He smiled with a disarming weight.
Katie did some quick mathematics in her head, feeling a gentle warmth spread through her as her mind did what she asked of it so much more easily than she was used to. Thatch had suggested an average lifespan of about three hundred years between blooms, which put this creature’s birth somewhat before the Bronze age.
Katie gaped. She had thought Thatch old, but this single individual’s cradle predated the cradles of human civilisation. And he was smiling at her like she could possibly be worth his attention, possibly have even the slightest novelty to him.
“How?” Katie asked, voice barely at a whisper. She had lived for just under thirty years and the weight of existence already pressed down hard. How could anybody go for so long?
Glochi’s smile never wavered. “As your caretaker here has already dealt with the physical component, all you really need me for is a brief psychological examination, and then we can get you on your way. Don’t worry, Miss Sahas, I’ve done this a few times before and we’ll get you processed in no time.” He turned his gaze to Thatch. “I assume you’re the one we’ve all been in a twist looking for, then. Good to finally meet you! May I have that device back, and may I continue with your floret’s examination?”
Thatch handed over the tablet. “She is not—”
Katie interrupted. “Not that!” she insisted. “You must be thousands of years old! How can you just stand there and smile?”
Glochi chuckled, glancing down at his panel and hooking a vine into some kind of control assembly at its side. “Remind me, how long is a year?”
Katie blinked rapidly. “Uh… a year has three hundred sixty five days, a day is twenty four hours, an hour is sixty minutes, and a minute is sixty seconds.”
The doctor’s smile grew a little kinder. Katie found the sense of endless patience almost overwhelming. If he had lived this long, then how could one more conversation do him any harm? “And how long is a second, Miss Sahas? You’ll have to forgive me, one gets stuck in their ways eventually.”
Katie bit her lip for a moment. How was she meant to explain this? She looked up to Thatch, who lay a hand on her shoulder with a gentle squeeze. Katie relaxed into it, feeling a clarity in her sixth sense that only really came from close contact. “It’s about—” She clicked her fingers, paused for a second, and clicked again. Just about half of a period of rising heat from Thatch’s fingers.
Glochi spent a moment in thought. “Five thousand, six hundred and thirty… two, then, in Terran years. I suppose my experience is a little different to yours, but now that you’re here I do hope you’ll start to see the beauty of reality for yourself. There is so much to see that it takes a long time indeed before there are no surprises left. Speaking of, I have some questions, but we’ll usually do this with some assistance. Do you mind if I put you to sleep? Your partner will be here to oversee, of course.”
Katie glanced over at Thatch, who gave an approving nod. If this was how this was normally done, then who was Katie to say otherwise. Katie passed the nod forward, and Glochi raised some kind of thin metal disc up to one temple and affixed it in place.
“Now, can I get you to be a good girl and count back from ten for me?” He raised a lollipop in one hand and gently waggled it. “You’ll get a treat afterwards if you can make it to one.”
Katie pulled a face, but nodded. She had to remind herself that in this culture, that wasn’t meant to be demeaning. Or, at least, not the bad kind of demeaning. “Ten,” she started. With her mind this sharp, Katie had no doubt she could make it. She’d prove she was worthy of their respect.
Glochi’s smile grew apologetic for a moment. His vine twitched to one side, and Katie felt her consciousness snap. Speaking was impossible. Wanting to speak was impossible. Remembering she’d ever wanted it? Impossible. She was left a vessel waiting to be filled as the doctor brought a strange visor down to cover her eyes.
You’ll forgive me the joke, little one. The treat was never conditional. Now, let’s get your records all up to date and I’ll let you get on with learning to appreciate the universe, floret.