Chapter Three: Biomechanical Attitude Adjustment
Katie stared at the plant, barely comprehending its offer. It wanted to teach her something, in the next— she checked the life support readout— two hours and fifty minutes, that would lead to them not dying in space in an escape pod which had, to Katie’s knowledge, no faster than light communications, no drive more advanced than a chemical rocket, literally zero atoms of anything more exotic than carbon, and almost no fuel?
“Uh, I guess?” she asked, raising her arms in a shrug. “It’s something to do while we both die? Why are you pretending to be… real? You’re meant to be a monster, you’re not meant to… I never thanked you for saving my life, but I don’t know why you did it. You say everyone else left, why didn’t you?”
“Because then you’d be dead, Katie,” Thatch said, voice soft and yet filling the interior of the pod. “I’m not about to let my mistake get somebody killed. Your ‘jump drive’ wasn’t suppressed because I wanted to get a good look at it. It’s my fault you’re here, if I hadn’t have asked to take a look then you’d be safely in processing right now. I have a moral duty to get you where you belong.”
Fuck. Fuck. It had an internally consistent worldview. Fuck! It had reasons behind its actions. Fuck!! It could hold a conversation about subatomic physics. Fuck. It was a person.
“Fuck,” she breathed.
“I’m guessing that’s a curse of some kind,” Thatch asked. “There are options, if you don’t want that. It’s… unlikely that you’ll be allowed to go free, after scuttling a ship to try to hurt us, but as far as I know I’m the only casualty, and if I say you’ll behave and you will, then you’ll get to pick some things. We have forms for this, you fill out what you like, what you need, what you don’t want, and they’ll find you somebody nice who wants the same things for you. There are some pets that’re basically the same as free range humans, except they always have a home to go back to and a friend who cares deeply for them. You… probably need to be on a shorter leash right now, but if you want to be free, I can guarantee you that there are Affini out there who want to help you get there. That’s literally all we want.”
Katie only stared, forehead only getting more creased as the barrage of confusion continued. What did ‘domesticate’ even mean, if it could mean anything? Did she have any other choice? Thatch might be lying, but what if she wasn’t? Katie didn’t want to be… property. She’d worked too hard to be her own person to give that up now, but maybe she could just… promise not to do it again? No, that was ridiculous. Maybe they’d give her a reduced sentence for good behaviour? Three years domestication and then she was free to go?
“Would I… could I ever go free? Would I be let go, if I wasn’t a threat and I didn’t want be there any more?”
“That’s… up to your owner, little Katie, and whether you still wanted it at the time. I wouldn’t hesitate to let you go, if it were me, though. Why would I want to keep something that wasn’t happy there?”
Katie just bit her lip and looked away. It was lying. They’d say anything to get her down one of their mines. Wouldn’t they?
“Okay, teach me,” Katie begrudgingly accepted. Staying in this pod was certain death. At least passage on the Ettle… The Affini Warship left her with a chance. More, if she could get this affini to explain parts of their technology.
The creature rose up, gentle nudges from vines pushing the densest nest of leaves and petals into about the center of the pod. She didn’t look like she’d be able to move if they weren’t in microgravity, but as it was, it took very little force to manouver. Thatch spent a moment clearing away a cloud of browned, curled up leaves to create a clear view of the pod wall, which was mostly bare, and then she… licked one of the leaves?
It stuck to the wall pretty easily after that, and the creature seemed content to repeat the process, vines slowly stretching out to grab leaves and place them on the wall in a pattern that only slowly started to take shape. It looked like their two ships, hanging above a line. Was that meant to be spacetime?
“So, normally, when you cuties build your little arches, you point where you want to go, make a hole, and fly. What we do is… why we have our diagrams the other way around. You haven’t figured out the fifth fundamental force yet, have you?”
A vine shot out to ruffle Katie’s hair. She cried out in complaint, trying to dislodge it and failing. If Katie didn’t know better she could have sworn the overgrown houseplant was trying to flirt with her, but that was ridiculous. They were either a ravenous monster that wouldn’t understand flirting in the first place, or a hyper-advanced precursor race that would know better than to waste time while their air ran out.
Either way, Katie might have found them less annoying when she thought they were going to eat her.
“So, what you did was pop spacetime! Don’t do that! It’s really bad! Spacetime is a shared resource and we all have to be pretty careful with it.” Thatch took a moment to tap Katie on the nose, vines coming in from all directions in a complex array of feints and teases to make it harder to dodge. “Thankfully, most of the time little holes like that close up of their own accord, but not before it sucks you in.” She placed a vine on one of the bigger leaves, that seemed to represent their ship, and on the biggest leaf, which was probably the El… Ettelium? The Affini ship. The cursed monster mimed screams and “oh nos!” as the two were sucked into the hole, grinning the whole while.
Oh god. It was flirting, wasn’t it?
“Then the hole closes behind us and both of us just drift for a million timeless years through subatomic foam until utterly random currents deliver us back up to the surface, with only a real-time second or two having passed. The Elettarium will have done better because its drive still works down there and it’s shielded against the temporal effects, but they’ll still be out here somewhere too, except they can get home.”
Thatch shrugged. “A long time ago we used this stuff to build warships, but it’s just so much hassle.”
“But you still can’t defend against it? The mighty Affini war fleet still has weaknesses?” Katie teased, though… if it were true and she could get that information to the rebellion, maybe it would make a difference.
Thatch, however, paused, and tilted her head with a wonderful facsimile of a frown. Her— No! The alien’s false face was just wood and leaves and thorns, there was no beauty to be found! “The… war fleet?” the affini asked, mouth twisting into an amused smirk. “Honey, the Elettarium is a scouting vessel. It doesn’t even have any guns, never mind dimensional anchors.”
“You… captured the Indomitable with a scout?” Katie asked, feeling her heart sinking down to her feet. That was one of their best ships. It had some of their latest technologies. They had railguns! They had a Jump Drive that could spool up in half the time of an older ship! A hull meters thick!
“We captured you cuties with our cargo chutes. Came straight out of subspace right on top of you, as soon as we got a ping off of your drive. A warship would’ve been much cleaner. You’d just have been floating unhappily along and then bam—”
Thatch grinned, and gave Katie an instant to prepare before vines came at her from every direction, and even though she was was ready for it, Katie still ended up with her hair ruffled. Thatch laughed with an honest glee as Katie managed to grab hold of two of the vines and pull them away.
Katie was going to die because this plant literally couldn’t stop flirting. This was worse than her nightmares. Could she go down the mines?
“Thatch!” she snapped. “We’re going to die in two and a half hours, please can you keep on topic?”
The plant paused, pouted, and rolled her eyes. “We came out at a random position in spacetime, sproutling. Spacetime gets all squeezed up by planets and stars and stuff, and it’s really very sparse out in the open, and so…?”
Thatch raised an eyebrow, smiling an infuriatingly patient smile. Was the creature somehow incapable of feeling the pressure of its own mortality? Or, for that matter, hers?
“Is this physics lesson going to help us? Thatch, we have nothing. We’re in a fucking stranded escape pod, we don’t even have oxygen. We can’t… do anything. We don’t have a jump drive. I know your fancy Affini ships probably all do, but this is just a tube we filled with air before we launched it. We’re practically ballistic, the rockets won’t get us between planets, never mind stars. We’re fucked.”
“I still don’t know that word,” Thatch admitted, “but that’s the wrong answer, I’m afraid, dear. We came out at a random position in spacetime. Spacetime gets squished by everything around it. It’s probably very likely that we’re near a gravity well. It may well be a planet. Probably several. All we need to do is find one that looks livable, and land.”
“Uhh,” Katie interjected. “This is an escape pod, we can’t de-orbit in this. We’d crash! Even if we didn’t, we’d just be stuck!”
Thatch’s face, which had managed to stay fairly somber for almost a minute, broke out into a wide grin. “You let me worry about that, flower—”
—“Katieflower, I just need you to be a good girl and put this ‘tube’ into a spin and watch for planets. Can you do that for me?”
Katie froze up in embarrassment for a moment, and then emitted a long frustrated groan, but after a moment of internal debate, she acquiesced. This was literally her only hope; she may as well die trying something. “Fine!”
The manual thruster controls were archaic. A pair of joysticks, one for rotation and one for directional thrust. A quick tap on the former sent the ship into a slow, lazy spin. Thatch winced as one of the walls came out to meet her, pinning her against it and scattering the carefully arranged leaf-art, and it became immediately obvious why she needed Katie to be the one doing the looking here. She wasn’t getting any stronger.
Katie crawled to the back end of the ship along handholds, to where the porthole was. She stared, not really expecting to see anything but a rapidly rotating starscape, except…
“There! That’s… no, no atmosphere. Oh, but… ugh, no, that looks like a gas giant. Oh! What about that one, it’s blue! And… it’s a bit far away, though. I’ll… hang on, I can put the nav computer into manual, too,” she claimed, then clambered over to it. The timing was a bit precise, because she had to hit the target lock button when the ship happened to be pointing towards the planet anyway, but after a few attempts it seemed to get a lock.
It claimed to need about a thousand meters per second more delta-v than they had to make a rendevous. Fuck.
“It’s too far away to reach orbit,” Katie said, feeling the fragile hope that Thatch had been building start to crumble. They might be two capable engineers, but they didn’t even have a space suit between them, never mind spare fuel. The Tyranny of the Rocket Equation struck again.
“I told you, leave that to me,” Thatch reminded her. “All we need is a little attitude adjustment.”
“Fucking excuse me?”
“I still don’t know that word, Katieflower. Attitude. Height above a planet.” A vine came out of nowhere to tap her on the nose.
“That’s altitude!” Katie complained, grabbing at the vine and holding it at arm’s length.
Thatch paused, looking momentarily baffled. “Huh. Your cute little language has a lot of words that sound very similar, doesn’t it? I suppose I should have expected a few mistakes, given I learned from a booklet written by one of our beloved cotyledons.”
“What’s a cotyledon?” Katie asked. It was pronounced like an English word, but not one familiar to her.
Thatch paused again, this time for longer, and carefully extracted her vine from Katie’s grasp, while using another to sneak up behind her and ruffle her hair. “Uh, they’re some of our happiest subjects. Don’t worry about that, we have more important concerns right now.”
This was getting infuriating. Katie batted the vine away, but the creature carried on talking regardless. “One of my legs had a biomechanical filter we could use, it should boost your fuel efficiency a few times. I think it’s outside, though. I certainly can’t feel it.”
“That’s a problem, then,” Katie admitted.
“Not at all, actually. If you can vent all the oxygen in here first, so we don’t get flung out into space, we’ll be fine,” Thatch claimed. Katie opened her mouth to make the obvious protest, only to find it had been a trap. The first two vines going for her hair had been feints. She’d felt good about fighting off the third, that had wanted to pinch her cheek. She completely missed the fourth, which came to rest around her mouth and nose, looping around the back of her head so it could squeeze tight enough to form a seal.
With a cry, Katie’s eyes went wide, as she involuntarily breathed in, and… ohhh. Her mouth felt sparkly. Her brain felt sparkly. The whole world was sparkles. This was weird. This was, oh. Katie giggled, shaking her head. Nuh-uh, this was how they sent her to the mines, she didn’t waaaant to go to the mines. Except, that thought wasn’t scary any more, it was funny. What would she be mining, Thatch had asked.
Well, scary plant monster, Katie had you figured out now. It was the bloody flirting mines, wasn’t it? Toiling day in day out to dig their insufferable attitude out of the dirt. She grinned over at the pretty flower like she’d just shared a joke and was awaiting a laugh, except she’d forgotten to actually say it.
Thatch, to her credit, slowly deflated. “Aw, dirt,” she swore, “You are… not gonna be thinking very hard for a while, are you, precious? That’s too bad. We have some pretty complicated engineering to do and I’d rather been counting on you having a clear head. My bad, I forgot how much of an effect our phytotoxin has on you cuties. Uh, well, okay! Think you can follow some simple instructions still?”
Man, Katie was gonna die! Her only hope had spent so much effort flirting she’d forgotten not to brainwash her. Katie found herself laughing, again. It was hilarious, even though she knew it shouldn’t be, but that just made it funnier. The look on Thatch’s face was one she’d remember for the rest of her life, which was just over two hours!