Chapter Four: Planetfall
Thatch Aquae, First Bloom, was a blooming idiot. On the one band, she’d gotten the human to help in under an hour, which was pretty good going, and then on the other band she’d forgotten that the stuff she needed to make pure, breathable oxygen had been in her other arm, and now her human assistant was so high on phytotoxins she was borderline useless.
“Katie,” Thatch snapped. “Eyes on me.”
Short, simple orders worked, at least for a little while. She’d start drifting after a few moments, but she was still a useful tool. The girl stopped giggling and looked towards Thatch’s face, expression a distant sort of quizzical, even if she was wordless for a multitude of reasons.
“Air vents. The button on that panel. Can you find it for me?”
Katie stared for another few moments, and then smiled lazily. Thatch sighed. This was going to be difficult.
Not because what they were doing was hard, but because Katie was incredibly distracting. How was she meant to save all their lives in these conditions? The girl was already playing with a vine, and did Thatch Aquae, confident, in-charge Affini engineer have the heart to take it away from her? No, she did not. She was just down a vine now. One of precious few.
Katie would be very mad at her when she woke up, but… this way, she would wake up.
“Katie! Be a good girl and find the button that vents the oxygen.” Thatch put on her firmest face. The response was… god, she was so cute. The poor thing was so starved for praise that what was given seemed to hit her like a trunk, if Thatch was getting the saying right. She did manage to make her way over to the right panel, but after that she slowed down.
“The one that vents the oxygen, pet.”
A long moment of thought followed, before a careful, yet sloppy, tap of one of the buttons. A yellow one marked with… oh, it was meant to be a gust of wind. Thatch had been seeing it as a sideways tree, no wonder she hadn’t found the button herself. The pod filled with the sound of hissing, that gradually decreased to nothing as Katie happily watched all the air in the room vanish into space.
That put them on a very different kind of timer. Keeping a whole human breathing, just by herself, was not exactly a small ask for Thatch. Doing it while actively dying and without half of her tools was… well, there wasn’t much time for flirting right now.
“Oh, good girl! Such a clever Katie you are!”
There was always time for some flirting. The noise would vibrate along her little air hose, and vibrate around Katie’s skull, so it’d be fuzzy, but she’d hear. It wasn’t like she’d have many other thoughts in that poor head.
Oh, twigs and clods, humans couldn’t survive in a vacuum, could they? Thatch hoped she still had enough plantmass to make all this work. She shot forward, wrapping Katie tight in a cocoon of leaves and vines, tight enough to be nearly airtight. That ‘nearly’ was going to make things a lot harder, though. Thanks to her floral origin, Thatch naturally produced oxygen, and thanks to her hailing from a society that loved emphasising its strong points, she was capable of producing a pretty decent amount of it. Not enough to keep Katie alive for long.
“Now, I need you to be very careful and make sure you keep those vines tight against your face, and I’m just going to go look outside.”
Thatch carefully manouvered herself to the door, and struck the obvious “Open” button. The pod lights turned off. She turned them back on, and tried the second most obvious button, and that one did the trick. It was strangely morose, looking out at a collection of stuff that used to be her, but wasn’t any more. That had been an arm. That was one of her favourite flowers, now squashed beyond survival. That had been a treasured momento of her visit to Sigma Theta station, where they specialised in biomechanical augmentation.
aannnd that was a leg, slowly drifting away. Thatch grabbed for it, missed, and grabbed again. She caught it by the tip of her vine, but it slipped free, sent out of reach. She swore, and strained forward, but it was simply too far. The ship was still slowly spinning, and it’d taken some of that momentum with it. She just needed another foot to reach it, and…
Thatch Aquae, First Bloom, utter moron, let go of the shuttle so she could reach out that extra foot, and put her life in the hands of a human being who, right now, was not capable of stringing together a coherent sentence.
“Okay, pull me back in!” she called, hoping that her voice would reach all the way down her vine, through a deeply empty head, and somehow spur an action. “Katie, precious, I need you to pull!” She could pull herself, but then it was almost certain she’d yank the mask off of the girl’s face, and Thatch was not willing to risk her life here.
Root damnit. Thatch knew exactly what was happening, here. She was getting trained into giving this human exactly what she wanted, but this wasn’t her! She didn’t want a dependent. She didn’t want to be slowed down and she certainly didn’t feel ready. She was only a hundred and three years old, she couldn’t be in charge of something this precious and fragile! She swore to the stars above and the roots below, if Katie ended up bonding and she was saddled with a pet, she’d… She’d… take good care of her and set her free once she was ready?
Thatch groaned. That could take years. Katie was cute, don’t get her wrong, but she had things to do! She couldn’t spend all her time doting on one particular human. Early domestication was the most exciting phase, where you got to learn all about how to keep some new species happy, and where there was a flurry of innovations to be made in figuring out how to better coexist. Wasting time on just one was… unthinkable. Yet, she could feel herself getting tied up in this one’s affairs, and light knew what effect all this would be having when Katie finally woke up.
“Katieflower! If you pull me in, I’ll give you headpats!”
That did the trick. Thatch felt herself being slowly reeled in, and soon she could grab onto the spinning pod herself and move the rest of the way. As soon as she was back inside, she hit the button that closed the outer door and hoped that her oxygen production would create enough pressure quickly enough for them to survive beyond the next ten minutes.
“Good girl!” she cooed, collapsing into Katie’s lap, feeling exhausted. She knew that wasn’t a good sign, but she was surprisingly comfortable, and it took all of Thatch’s willpower to not simply melt into a frenzy of cuddles and not-strictly-medicinally-necessary dosing. Which didn’t mean that she didn’t waste a good five minutes stroking the girl’s head, while carefully balancing the oxygen/toxin mix she got to breathe. There was something incredibly calming about stealing away all that nervous energy and all those worries and letting her experience a moment of tranquility.
Except that they had things to do. Pressure in the room had been steadily rising over those minutes, as Thatch’s lost air gathered in the room. It didn’t feel thick enough for Katie to survive in it, but maybe she could have the cocoon relaxed, so she could make herself useful. Or, at least, so Thatch could make her useful.
“Katieflower, precious? I need you to do something for me, okay? I’ll… let you keep playing with my vines if you can be a good girl and do this one little thing for me. I need you to open up that maintenance panel, unhook the fuel pipe, and stick this thing in between the pipe and the tank.” Thatch raised the biomechanical fuel filter, which via a complicated process that Katie certainly would not understand right now, should give them a boost. It had been used to purify some of her favourite drugs, once, but this was an emergency.
It would have been nice to explain it. The look on the girl’s face as she’d started to understand their earlier discussion, even if it was simplified, had been a delight. The expression that Thatch got this time was still delightful, but she found herself missing the girl’s thoughts. One reason among many she’d make a terrible caretaker, she supposed.
The girl seemed to be getting the hang of following instructions, which did not mean that she was really understanding what she was doing. Thatch didn’t have the strength or dexterity to install anything herself, but she could offer a guiding vine, gently pressing one side of her wrist or the other to steer her into place, and between the two of them they managed to get everything secured.
This was exhausting. Thatch was already starting to feel light-headed from the strain, never mind the stint in hard vacuum, and they had so much left to do. This really was the perfect example of why she didn’t want to get too close to a human. The efficient thing to do would be to pull the straps around Katie, then do the same for herself, and here she was tickling under the girl’s chin just to watch the way she squirmed. How was she meant to get any work done like this?
Assuming that she got out of this, Thatch could expect to live about as long as she wanted to stick around. There would be time for pets later, after she’d made a name for herself. After she’d contributed.
Thatch’s frustrated growl was apparently loud enough to draw the girl’s attention, because she had to spend a few moments soothing her afterwards, wasting yet more time.
The Affini ‘Compact’ had a thousand thousand thousand worlds across a dozen galaxies. They encompassed more species and sub-species than Thatch could ever hope to count. They had saved more cuties than an individual could imagine, and at this point in their existence, there was nothing to do any more. Poor Katie was worried about working in a mine, but the truth was that Thatch would gladly spend some time digging out raw materials if it meant she got to feel like she’d earned her place here. Instead, she flitted from ship to ship, always a little too late to make any real contributions. Always being told that there wasn’t really any need for her, and she should find a hobby, get a pet, and relax for a few hundred years.
Even on the Elettarium! Surely, she had thought, a small vessel on the forefront of Affini space would have need of an educated engineer. Surely they would face some new problem that she could solve. Yet half the population of that ‘small’ scouting ship was there recreationally. The Elettarium had ice cream bars, five separate kilometer-wide recreational parks, and every single Affini on board spent as much time fussing over their new pets as they did anything else, except for Thatch and a couple of others who claimed to simply not have found the right match yet.
There was absolutely nothing that needed doing. Thatch had finally convinced the others to let her take a look at a human drive design in-situ, but she suspected that they’d been humouring her. It wasn’t like they didn’t have hundreds of Terran ships just lying around in their shipbreaking yards.
Look where that had gotten her.
Thatch finished fiddling with the straps, to make sure Katie was comfortable, and took a moment to prepare herself. Her leaves curled inwards. She was a little worried that this next stage would get them killed, but she could at least be useful in one way here, and give the human some confidence.
“Katieflower, petal? I’m going to turn the engine on, now. Everything will get very heavy for a little while, but I’m here, and I’ll keep you safe, okay?”
Thatch couldn’t fight off a towel right now. How was she meant to keep this thing safe? She’d just have to figure it out on the way, she supposed, and hit the ignition switch.
The pod’s thrusters roared into life, a tank full of chemicals being fed into a biomechanical engine, enriched, and then trickle-fed into the Terran design for optimal efficiency. Both of its passengers found themselves flattened against their seats, straining against a moderately high-G burn. Thatch kept her eyes on the nav computer’s readout, silently begging it to not show any divergence from the route. Katie was squeezing—tightly, mind—the end of a vine and receiving all the comforting strokes that were available.
The whole journey took about an hour, slowly crawling towards a planet at painfully sub-light speeds. Thatch kept finding herself almost dropping off, having to force herself to stay awake, or, alarmingly, fighting the urge to give in and fall unconcious. It was only Katie’s wellbeing that kept her focussed, but the oxygen mix was getting dangerously thin.
As the minutes crawled on, Thatch was terrified she’d miscalculated, and that they were simply going to slingshot around the planet and go back the other way. When she finally felt the telltale shaking of atmosphere, she laughed in joy. They weren’t going to die. All she had to figure out now was which button switched this craft to atmospheric mode, and they’d be fine.
Thatch started hitting buttons at random. One of them had to be it. She was just misunderstanding the symbols. Nobody would build an escape pod that couldn’t enter an atmosphere, that would be incredibly unsafe. The Terrans were kinda dumb, but…
Oh rot and ruin, Katie had tried to warn her about this, hadn’t she?
Both of them yelped at the same time, as something broke off of the pod and sent it into a wild spin. They were crashing. They were crashing! This was… exciting, actually! If Thatch didn’t do something, they were both going to die! The next minute and a half would, quite literally, have the most impact of anything she’d ever done.
Thatch cackled, unbuckling her straps and pulling herself over to give Katie a quick kiss on the forehead, then undid her straps too, and pulled the poor girl into the center of the ship. Thatch used her vines to stablise the two in the center of the pod as it span around them, insulating Katie from the chaos to give her a few blissful moments of silence, so that they could talk.
“Okay, love, we’re going to do something very exciting in a moment, but I want you to know that you’re going to be okay. I’ll take care of everything, alright? You don’t need to worry about any of it. Once we land, though, I’m going to need you to plant me, alright? Just… take the round bit and stick it into the dirt. Add some water, if you can? Can you do that for me?”
What was she saying? Katie was barely capable of forming memories at all, right now. For all Thatch knew, her core would end up lying hibernating in some barren corner of this nowhere planet forever, but at least Katie would survive. She had to, Thatch had promised. All she had to do now was figure out how to keep that promise, which certainly had a clarifying effect on her thinking.
The ship was breaking apart. It wouldn’t even reach the ground at this rate. In fact, it seemed likely that—
A panel broke off, and the air suddenly rushing in broke Thatch’s grip and flung the two of them out of the ship, sending them flailing in freefall. Thatch screamed, eyes wide, but… No, Katie seemed serene. She wasn’t worried, and why wasn’t she worried? Thatch Aquae, capable Affini rescuer, was here, and so no harm would come to her.
Thatch took a deep breath of thin, cold atmosphere. All she had to do was live up to that image in her human’s head.
The. The human’s head. She was not bonding!
Thatch let her head unwind, reclaiming all the vines she could, giving herself a little more to work with. She wrapped the girl in a thicker protective cocoon and positioned herself beneath, so she’d take the force of landing. She spread her vines out wide, trying to catch as much air as possible, and it burned. They were in freefall. They were de-orbiting without a ship. This was insane. A healthy Affini, on their own, could absolutely survive this. Her? With a human?
Thatch cackled again, which set Katie off in turn. This was absurd. She was going to die. She was… no, focus. She was going to save the life of this innocent flower, and if that was the sum total of her existence, then let that be worth it.
They plummeted, human and Affini both, through a rapidly thickening atmosphere. The pod was just rubble before long, but they persevered. In the final moments before they hit the ground, Thatch pulled in all the vines that weren’t keeping Katie tightly secured and wound them into the biggest spring she could make, hoping to absorb the last of their kinetic energy and give Katie the soft landing she deserved.
They hit hard. Thatch blacked out.