Chapter Thirty One: The Collar Itself Incites to Deeds of Obedience
“Oh, the oceans were vast, yes. Relatively clean, as well, though we still improved that after we arrived.” Thatch ran a pair of fingers through Katie’s hair. Even biting her lip, Katie struggled to hold her hand steady. “Their world was mostly ocean. Like Terra, I suppose, but the Spectrum Jellies were not so arrogant as to insist on living on what little land was available.”
They had some affini-scale furniture now. It would have been easy to get something delivered, but it had been more fun for Katie to figure out how ask the botanical gardens to grow them a tree and send them the wood, and then use that to build something appropriate. She had Thatch’s help, obviously, as oversight and protection, but it was Katie’s project. She’d drawn up the design, she’d done the construction, and she’d gotten the praise.
She couldn’t have done it without Thatch, of course. Being confident in a design was easy when Katie knew that any errors she made would be pointed out and she’d be taught how to correct them. Even while slightly inebriated it was easy to swing a hammer when a misjudged swing would get gently guided back on target. Staying focused was easy when it was for Thatch, and relaxing afterwards was… well, she had no choice about that one.
Katie knelt before the armchair she’d built—and more relevantly, and reverently, the plant sitting atop it—holding a small pair of scissors. “Huh. So, like, can you breathe underwater? How does that even work?”
Katie raised the scissors to a vine and very carefully positioned them against the stem of one of Thatch’s drooping leaves.
A browning leaf tumbled through the air. Katie caught and dropped it into a bowl set just to her side, then spent a moment cleaning up the area and smoothing out the remaining stem. The whole point of this was to get Thatch looking sharp and well-groomed.
“I cannot truly be said to breathe at all,” Thatch admitted. “At least not for survival. It is nice to feel air moving past my core, I must admit, but it is an indulgence. It is still a novelty.” She took a deep breath and smiled. Katie smiled too, and almost fumbled her scissors. Thatch’s scent was subtle and delightful, and it had a way of filling the room for a few moments whenever her plant found excuse to ‘breathe’ heavily enough. “Besides, you enjoy it.”
Stars, she was so pretty. Katie smiled up, slowly lowering her hands down to her knees without really thinking about it. The way Thatch’s face moved when she talked was Katie’s current object of adoration. Katie knew the face wasn’t ‘real’. It was a construct built from a hundred separate pieces. That didn’t make it less pretty. If anything it made it more beautiful as the artistry evident in every motion had been intentionally crafted.
Katie was getting stuck in a loop again. That kept happening. As soon as she was anything but completely clear-headed she seemed to lose the ability to break out of her adoration entirely, though Katie had to admit that it was hard enough when she was thinking clearly. That might just be a sign that she didn’t actually want to look away.
Thatch brought a hand down and spent a moment rubbing two fingers behind one of Katie’s ears. She gasped, feeling a deep heat spreading through her body, and flopped forwards into the waiting hand. It was a potent reminder that Katie wasn’t clear-headed. A significant fraction of floret culture seemed to focus on chemical alteration specifically—though as Katie knew it was hardly the only tool in the Affini’s collective toolbox—and Katie had far less experience under the influence than her peers.
That wasn’t a problem, per-se, but Katie’s desire to stay unaltered had vanished before they’d even returned to the ship. It was nice when it was being done by Thatch. Besides, it would be harder to tear her mind apart safely if she wasn’t used to the tools.
Katie whimpered. “Are you sure this is gentle?” She felt every subtle pet and stroke right down to the soul. They scattered her thoughts and left her sinking into a warm honey haze.
“I am. This is the standard class-A/C blend given to independent Terrans who are either interested in domestication, or who we need to be interested in domestication. I could break down the exact components again if you wished, but in summary it is a targeted enhancement to the usual responses to intimate touch in your progenitor species.”
Katie arched her back, mouth forced open to release a stuttered whimper as a vine traced up her spine. “N— no, it’s enough that you know it, I just-” She bit her lip and stifled another soft groan. “It gets stronger than this?”
Thatch laughed. Even that made Katie feel fuzzy inside. That would be the… class-Cs, she thought? Intensified bonding response, as if she needed help with that. Or maybe she did! Who was Katie to say? All she knew was this seemed to be elevating her feelings from the kind of love that would inspire her to a lifetime of dedication to the kind of love that made thinking of anything else at all almost impossible. Dirt, but Katie had had the details explained to her and she was still struggling to piece it together. She wanted her soul back just so she could give it away all over again, now that she understood how much more she was getting in that trade than she’d given.
“You are still capable of speech, so yes. I suspect this might be a good baseline for you, once you’re used to it, but stronger blends could make a fine treat.”
A good baseline? Katie could barely think! It wasn’t unpleasant, quite the opposite. She just couldn’t think. She hardly noticed the effects when not in direct contact, at least, beyond a pleasant fuzz around the edges of her mind and a minor hesitance in her movements. She could get used to this. Maybe. If she had to spend the rest of her life in a blissed-out haze, would that really be so bad? At least once things were stable. She could figure out how to resist it for now.
She hadn’t yet. A finger against her chin was enough to blank out her thoughts, leaving her staring up with a whimper on her lips and love in her eyes.
“Be polite and continue what we were doing, pet.”
Ah. Ah, an order, yes. That was exactly what Katie needed to simplify the chemical havoc playing out in her mind. Though Katie was little but a storm on the ocean of need within, the gravity of Thatch’s words was enough to shift the tide. They simply operated on different scales. Katie was desperate to follow the instruction. Surprisingly, this particular chemical blend didn’t really seem to affect the intensity. Katie’s deep-seated desire to obey came from within, apparently.
“A—Aah, uhm, yes, I-” Katie took a deep breath. Was letting her near scissors really a good idea? She knew she wouldn’t actually be allowed to do anything dangerous with them. Still, she set her mind to the task and tried to keep her hand steady as she moved to the next drooping leaf in Thatch’s coat. The plantlife her affini had harvested from Dirt’s surface wasn’t as hardy as her own natural growths and so apparently she was intentionally trying to cycle them out. Katie didn’t mind getting to prune. It sure as heck wasn’t something she’d pictured ever doing with her life, but it was nice.
“Okay. Okay, okay, I can… yeah,” Katie breathed and snipped. “Uh… breathing, right. That’s novel for you? I guess you… didn’t look like this before, huh.” Katie paused and looked up to inspect Thatch’s body, wondering what else it could have looked like. They’d spent enough time on the water that Katie had gotten used to that gorgeous serpentine look, and— Katie was looping again, whoops. It wasn’t Katie’s fault that her plant was so danged pretty, was it?
It kind of was. Katie felt a weird kind of pride at that. She’d picked this one out of countless others. She had good taste.
Thatch gave her a few… seconds? Minutes? Hours? Probably seconds. It wasn’t easy to be sure. It could have been hours. Snapped fingers brought her back to the present, at least for the moment. Katie blushed, with a sheepish grin and a snip. “Sorry, I started thinking about the shape you… wore? Took? The body you did while we were swimming.”
“Ah, an artifact of my youth,” Thatch admitted. “I was actually primarily aquatic until recently. That one is modeled off of one of the Xa’a-ackétøth subtypes, though a little larger than they were—”
“—and I was much the same when I flew out to assist with Cacea’s people. I never got the time to finish a form dedicated to her, unfortunately. I came specifically to assist with some difficulties in the Cotyledon program, not generally as part of first contact, and so things were… a little rushed.”
Thatch emitted a small sigh, but this was progress and they both knew it. Katie gave her leg a quick hug that turned into a longer hug as the gentle warmth overtook her and, nggggrph.
It wasn’t Katie’s fault that Thatch was so darned soft, or that she felt so nice to rub against. Katie was left to indulge herself for some utterly undecipherable amount of time. It was hard to get frustrated at it when it felt so good. Impossible, once Katie started feeling Thatch’s pride and amusement soaking into her. Back on Dirt, many of their conversations had been a little halting, as they talked while they worked or walked, and thankfully that translated well to trying to hold a discussion in which Katie drifted off every few minutes. Mostly.
Another finger snap. Katie sat up straight, moving in a sudden shock. “Uh, um, right, yes. What were we talking about?”
“Me, pet.” Thatch smiled down at her and Katie deliberately looked away, because she knew she’d get stuck again if she didn’t. “But we will get back to me.” A single finger under Katie’s chin pulled her gaze back towards Thatch’s gleaming eyes.
Katie gritted her teeth. She could handle this. All she had to do was keep her focus on anything else. How hard could that be? Her mouth fell half-open, breathing growing heavy, uneven. She tried to ball her hands into fists, but they wouldn’t quite respond.
A whimper wafted out into the air and it took Katie a second to realise that it was hers. She just had to- just- Just had to keep her head. Thatch wasn’t even doing anything. Just smiling. Smiling down at her with that wonderful grin she wore when she was having fun. Dirt below but she was pretty, and- Katie’s hands twitched, pulling tighter for a moment before falling slack.
She could feel the blush spreading across her cheeks. Katie stared up, gathered all her strength of will, and managed one last quiet gasp before she was lost entirely.
Chop, chop, chop.
The Elettarium’s botanical gardens grew a staggering array of fruits, vegetables, and those beyond that Katie lacked a system of classification for sourced from all across the universe. It was comical decadence, especially when compared to what they were doing with them.
Chop chop chop. From the Hurkin, sweet little round blue things; from a gas giant two galaxies away came something that could best be described as a spice; from Terra came the humble potato; and then a half dozen other ingredients from a half dozen other places. Each ended up chopped into little squares a centimetre to each side and dumped unceremoniously into a pot of boiling water.
Thatch looked relieved to no longer need to be doing this with a real flame. The false firepit in the kitchen had much the same aesthetic, but apparently real fires weren’t allowed without very good reason. Katie supposed it made sense to be careful about that kind of stuff on a spaceship that seemed to be largely flammable. The ship had its own bubble of safety, in a sense, reinforcing Thatch’s own.
As was traditional by this point, Katie handled preparing the food—with some help—while Thatch kept a watchful eye over the meal itself and handled the various additives she liked to supply.
After a little while of quiet companionship, Katie had a thought. “Hey Thatch, when I went out to eat with the clerk it kinda just seemed like they’d thrown some tables up outside their home and were just, like, cooking in there, does that happen a lot?” Katie carefully removed the outer layer of a potato. There was a vine lovingly draped around her neck that Katie figured was mostly there so Thatch could be close enough to stop any little accidents with the knife, but it was an appreciated presence for many reasons.
Katie did kinda miss the stronger drugs, but apparently Thatch had an appointment later and so Katie needed to be a little more sober. Well, she’d handled that for most of her life to date, so how hard could it be?
Thatch’s vine shifted on her shoulders and it didn’t immediately drop Katie into open adoration, which felt a little weird but did make it easier to hold a conversation. “Constantly. This is a small ship, but in practice vessels like this tend to find an equilibrium. If the citizens of a ship have a need, it is likely that one of them will be interested enough to want to fill it, with the exception of true specialty roles. I believe your vet moved here specifically to fill the position, for example, rather than one of the existing citizenry learning the necessary detail. The same goes for food. We can likely find somebody who knows how to make anything you want, and if we can’t then perhaps we could fill that gap.”
“But… why?” Katie asked. “I couldn’t give them anything for it.”
Thatch raised an eyebrow.
“…you couldn’t give them anything for it, Miss.” Katie smiled as Thatch’s protective vine took a moment to ruffle her hair. “So why would they do it? They must have better stuff to do.”
“Well, think about it. How would you feel about sharing this soup with others?”
Katie looked down at the potato in her hand, then spent a few moments cutting out a brown bit. “Well… the ingredients came from the gardens, which are shared; the pot was compiled, and so I guess using a shared resource; and the water is ship water too. You made this knife, and though you gave it to me I guess in a way it’s made out of Dirt, really. The recipe isn’t ours, but it’d be nice to show people our take on it?”
“What would you ask in return?” Thatch asked, dipping a spoon into the pot and giving it a stir.
Katie shrugged. “I’m just a pet, I don’t have to worry about that any more, right? What would you ask in return?”
“The only things of any true value are time and experience. Our guests would be giving us their time, and providing us with their experience of our work, and so it would be quite wrong to ask for yet more. The old Terran concept of debt was quite barbaric. They do it for the sheer joy of getting to help those around them.”
Katie looked down at her potato, now freshly peeled, and placed it upon the pile of other such things. “Huh. Would it be okay if we did that some time?”
“I shall return in around two or three hours. Be good, Katie.”
The hab door slid shut, and Katie was alone.
This was fine. Katie could do this. Katie was… if not technically an independent adult any more, still surely capable of spending an afternoon by herself. She had food, she had snacks, she had more entertainment than she could get through in a lifetime. She had no responsibilities and nothing she had to do, save for that single requirement to be good.
This was fine. She could… read a book? Watch a show? One of the jump engineers Katie had accosted several short days ago, in what seemed now like another life, had sent a greeting message that among other things linked off to the comedy show xey did with xyr own floret. Katie could check that out.
Or music, maybe? How hard could it be to pick an album?
Katie soon discovered that it was very hard. There may have been more genres listed than Terra had songs. Literature was no easier, with a thousand years of Terran history joined by the percent of a percent of a percent of the full affini library that had been translated into something Katie could read to form an utterly impenetrable list of titles. It wasn’t like Katie could even focus on the good stuff, because they had everything. Katie could pick something at random and it would certainly be the best thing she’d ever read. The choice was overwhelming.
This was ridiculous. The UI on Katie’s communicator had a ‘Need some help??’ button in the corner but all pressing it achieved was getting a cutesy voice to tell her she didn’t have any default filters set up and she should ask her owner, and Thatch wasn’t there. That was the problem.
This was ridiculous! Katie had survived existence for nearly thirty years, she wasn’t about to be undone by an overgrown media library. She could… make something with her hands? Yeah, that sounded good. She had plenty of experience with that. Katie skipped over to the little workbench they’d set up in what had previously been the spare room and grabbed one of her tools from the rack.
It sure did look sharp. She could handle that. She stared at the blade. She didn’t even know what she was making. That was fine. She could figure something out. She should be able to do this. She should want to be able to do this. She’d been on her own for her entire life and how the fuck could she not handle this
this was so much easier than her old life had been and she was standing here staring at a knife realising she didn’t trust herself to use it and how absurd was that
katie put the tool back on the rack with a shivering hand and turned away
she could do this.
Katie could do this. One afternoon on her own. She could handle that. This wasn’t a challenge. She was a brave, capable sophont who could take care of herself. She had to be. She’d been that all her life and almost a week ago she’d been very brave indeed, and she could do that today too. She was still the brave, capable Katie she’d always been.
she was not
katie wasn’t herself any more? katie knew she wasn’t who she used to be and she didn’t want to be but she had no idea who she was now not yet and who was she and how was she meant to handle this and
She was- she didn’t know. It was so easy to get lost in Thatch’s energy that Katie hadn’t had to sit down and think since they’d gotten back. Now she had the time alone she found she had no idea where to start. All she knew is that she had a head full of the memories of a person she no longer was and she reached for aspects of herself on instinct only to find they were no longer there and she wasn’t brave and capable she was a fucking pet and-
The floret made her way into the main room, grabbed her communicator, and retreated to the depths of the cozy cave where the beanbag chairs were kept. She wiggled one of the petals and it opened her chat history with Thatch. Obviously a floret’s handheld communicator needed one-button access to that. Katie was grateful. She didn’t feel up to a complicated interface just then. Thank the affini for English/Floret translations.
katieflower: heyyyy Thatch could U put some music on? its too quiet in here
katieflower: also tbh im havng kind of a ruff time picking wat 2 do, got any ideas??
After a moment sound appeared from somewhere inexplicable. It kind of sounded like it just appeared in the air, which for all Katie knew may well be true. She closed her eyes and listened for a few moments. Definitely not Terran. Calm, calming. Katie didn’t recognise the instruments, but she was pretty sure the singing voice was some kind of Affini. Katie felt her racing heart start to slow almost immediately.
The little typing indicator was a flower repeatedly blooming and curling back up. Somehow it still reminded Katie of Thatch. She smiled. Between the music and the slightest scrap of Thatch’s presence, Katie’s head was starting to clear. It was easy to be brave and capable when it was for her.
aquaetor: Done. This is one of my favourites; it is an old Affini piece centering on rebirth. I suppose the closest translation for the name would be “The Universe in Everbloom” and I could translate the singing for you when I return if you’d like :::)
aquaetor: As for a task, hm. If you are struggling, perhaps spend some time investigating the Records to determine whether any other Terran citizens have seceded from the Accord.
katieflower: okay,, would You mind being a bit forceful about it? i think that could-
aquaetor: Go do as you were told to, pet.
katieflower: yes mISs Aquae! thank you
Katie held her communicator up for Thatch to see. She felt a gentle tension in her chest, and had the fingers on her spare hand crossed. Katie knew that if Thatch said no she would probably become okay with it pretty quickly, but while the verdict was up in the air she got to hope.
“I had not planned for this,” Thatch admitted, peering at the biotechnological screen. “I must admit that I had expected you to be against the idea, and so had not brought it up.”
The thought was a little discomforting. Katie was still getting to understand who she was now, and apparently Thatch had the same problem. Katie’s hand wavered. The screen dropped a few inches. It wasn’t a great feeling, to not live up to Thatch’s expectations. It hadn’t been for a long time, but it was different now that she was property. Katie had bought herself relief from the expectations of the rest of the universe by putting it all in the loving vines of one she trusted above all, and failing that felt… awful.
“Hey now.” Thatch went down to one knee and lifted Katie’s head back up to look at her. “I did not say it was displeasing; I said it was surprising. Surprises are not bad. We are still exploring one another and we both have each other’s permission to get these things wrong sometimes, understand?”
Katie took a deep breath and nodded. Thatch’s fingers couldn’t help but draw a soft smile from her. “Yeah, I guess. Thank you. You’ve only left me alone a couple of times but I really don’t like it. I used to be a lot more of a loner, and I think I still am, just… you don’t count. I need you, and, um, I was reading about domestication procedure—at least what’s been translated—and it seems like most florets get a collar, at least at first.”
“It’s usually a necessity.” Thatch scratched the top of her head with a hand. She was picking up the odd casual Terran expression, it seemed. “Mostly for medical and positional tracking, and emergency chemical assistance. I am not sure you are in need of any of those. So long as you are getting regular medication your body is stable and I do not think you have any medical needs we would need remote emergency dosages for. I assume this is not you suggesting that you are a flight risk?”
Katie laughed. “I haven’t even left the hab in a week, no, I’m not about to run away. But, um, in old Terran culture they put collars on their own pets as a kind of identification and that sounds nice? I think I need something like that. Maybe one or two things are worth salvaging, and it might help quieten down that bit of my brain that wakes up when you aren’t around.”
Whenever Thatch was near Katie was continuously subjected to at least a low level of having her emotional state manipulated. That might be part of why being alone felt so fucking quiet, now that she considered it. Usually Katie let it wash over her, providing more of a subconscious guidance, but the cocktail of feeling wavered a little towards the negative side and attracted her more specific attention.
Katie tilted her head with a minor frown, and Thatch’s composure cracked a little. She rested a gentle hand atop Katie’s head. “I am sorry, Katie. Are you not feeling enough like a pet? I feel as if I underprepared for all this.”
“To be fair, hon, you didn’t prepare for this at all. I kind of dropped it on you. But… I don’t think that’s it? I feel so much like a pet that it hurts when you aren’t around. I don’t wanna do anything but curl up on the sofa and wait for you to get back but I’m too nervous to actually do it and… it’d be nice to not put that pressure on you? That isn’t your fault, this is surprising to me too. When I asked you to, y’know… break me, I kinda assumed I’d just want whatever you wanted.”
Thatch laughed. “You have never been that straightforward, Katieflower. Thank you for telling me.” She gestured towards the subtle black loop shown on the communicator. “I am not letting you wear that. You are no struggling rebel and the only place you are likely to run to is my heel. Come, we have a project.”
“Lift your chin.”
Katie lifted her chin. A vine carefully moved her hair out of the way while Thatch brought the ring of woven plantlife around Katie’s neck and pressed the two ends together for a moment. When she released, the band was sealed.
Katie’s eyes tried to roll up into the back of her head. She let out a gasp that was stifled halfway through, feeling as if needles of sharp fire were pressed into her neck. Unseeing eyes stared at the ceiling while her teeth ground together. For a moment, the only sounds in the hab were gentle whimpers. The gem set as the collar’s centerpiece flickered into life. Katie felt her knees buckle, suddenly snapped back into awareness.
She was caught. Obviously. She leaned into her affini’s embrace with a warm, soft feeling of pressure against her neck. Tight enough that it wouldn’t move and it would be impossible to forget that it was there, but not so tight that it would chafe.
From the Affini, they’d taken the basic building materials and some core functionality. The band itself was largely supple leaf-wrapped wood all sampled from Thatch’s own material. Tightly woven biotechnology would broadcast Katie’s location and emotional state at all times, ensuring Thatch would never be unaware of her. From Terra, they’d borrowed some of the aesthetic. Katie’s collar was a little thicker than the standard affini design with a small metal nametag hanging from the front.
The tag was the only compiled material in the whole collar, though they’d engraved it themselves. Katie Aquae, Second Floret adorned the front in stylised print while the back was patterned with the emergency signal they’d sent to escape Dirt: a series of emissions that would get Katie rescued from anywhere in the galaxy. A reminder of how inescapable the loving vines of her owner really were.
Katie’s fingers tucked underneath the loop. There was just enough room for them and they pulled the collar about as tight as she could handle. She clutched it tight and gave it a testing yank, as hard as she could. Nothing gave. The second yank was just for the sense of comfort. The collar wasn’t coming off.
“Thank you,” Katie whispered, burying her head in Thatch’s stomach and accepting all manner of pets and strokes.
The best part of all was the little gemstone that the tag hung down off of. Thatch had explained it as being a kind of emotional transmitter, something which could detect, record, and replay the subtleties of resonance that bound Katie to her owner so tightly. It glowed the same gentle blue/green as Thatch’s eyes and Katie felt herself wrapped in an emotional blanket of love, comfort, and warmth.
Of course, that was actual Thatch. The gem wasn’t powerful enough to not be drowned out while the real thing was around.
Katie nodded rapidly. The tag jingled as it swung.
“Do you think you’ll feel more comfortable when I have to leave you alone, now? Understand, additionally, that while you are very welcome to be a dedicated housepet I have no wish to keep you in here permanently if you do not desire that. Would you feel more comfortable wandering the ship again, with this?”
Katie nodded again, then paused. “I… think so. Maybe I could take somebody up on their offer of hanging out? You’ll have to come with me, though.”
“Wasn’t the point of this to help you feel more comfortable while I am away?” Thatch raised an eyebrow, scratching under Katie’s chin for a few moments until it became clear the girl was entirely incapable of responding. Thatch kept scratching for a moment longer before permitting the response.
“Only a little! I don’t want to be away from you even if it doesn’t make me anxious. Besides, it’s for your benefit, I need to get you some friends.”
“I- I have friends.” There was a pause, during which Thatch shrunk several inches. “I had friends,” she admitted. “I suppose they probably do not remember me now. The others aboard ship are all quite happy as they are, Katie, I do not wish to disturb that.”
“Okay, so, two things.” Katie spent a moment insistently tugging Thatch’s hand down to her collar, then worked her fingers beneath it. Much better. Katie sighed happily. “First: I’m your friend. We were friends before we were this and we’re still friends now. Best friends forever, okay? Second: shut up, you’re coming.”
“Am I suddenly not in charge here, pet?”
“Not when it comes to this, no, Miss Aquae. If I’m going to dedicate myself to you then I’m going to do it properly and you aren’t going to stop me because you know I’m doing the right thing and you’re very proud of me. I can tell.”
Thatch emitted some low grumble, but Katie could tell she’d already given in. “You are doing the right thing, and I am very proud of you.”
“Thank you, Thatch! I should probably get some clothes for going outside, though. There are, um, floret fashion magazines available and it looks like—”
“Nonsense, I shall not have you wear something somebody else designed. Come, we have a project.”