Chapter Thirty Two: Pet
Katie watched Leviathan darting around its expansive river, happily devouring the flakes of food she’d prepared for it. She could have compiled some, of course, but it somehow felt wrong to give her pet anything but the best care she could. Watching the fish always left Katie smiling, even when the rest of her mind didn’t want to shut up. It was something pure to focus her energy on that was always there for her.
It’d been weird seeing Cici up close again. Especially after that conversation.
The one Katie had been hoping to avoid. The bureaucrats standing over her and telling her that the forms required her to know something she simply didn’t know. That had been the fear, anyway. These bureaucrats weren’t faceless automatons, but they still wanted something Katie couldn’t give.
She did know one thing, thankfully. Katie let out a long sigh and flopped forward. She fell for just a moment too long and briefly worried that she might not be caught, but such a worry was ridiculous. Of course she was caught. A pair of vines carried her across her hab unit’s main room into the project space she and Thatch had been setting up and set her atop her plant’s shoulders.
“I am not sure you can rely on me catching you if I am not even in the same room, flower.” Most of Thatch’s focus was on whatever half-finished project was on the desk. Some delicate mess of plantlife pinned to a slab while she poked and prodded at it.
Katie shrugged. “I am.” Thatch had a confidence problem or two. That was fine, Katie could fix that. She crossed her legs, squeezing Thatch’s neck tight enough that she’d have been worried if the creature actually needed to breathe, and flumped forwards to sprawl out in her hair. “When’s our lunch date?”
“Not for another three hours yet. Do try to relax.”
Katie groaned. “How’m I meant to relax when they’re gonna ask me the question again, Thatch? I still won’t have an answer!” She spent a long moment curling one of the flower stems that made up Thatch’s hair around her finger, then repeated the question to which she had no answer with a vague flourish of her free hand. “What am I?”
What was she?
The problem, see, was one of paperwork. The Terran Accord no longer existed and all prior citizens had been automatically granted a new citizenship in the Terran Protectorate, an Affini-operated system of government that focused on running the prior Terran territory in an efficient and ruthlessly benevolent manner.
The Terran Accord had actually been a two-species civilisation. There were the humans, of course, but even before the Affini had arrived humanity had known it was not alone in the universe. About a hundred eighty lights off Sol lived another species that, once some initial language difficulties were out of the way, had identified themselves as the Rinans. Humanity being humanity, the weaker civilisation had obviously been shamelessly exploited.
Of course, when the Affini came along they’d put a stop to all that. The Terran Accord had been torn in two along species lines and then those two fledgling governments had individually negotiated surrender and thus had been immediately replaced by two new Affini-led civilisations, the Terran Protectorate and the Rinan Community. This was meant to only mean anything to the paperwork. It was supposed to be transparent, as everyone was simply automatically assigned citizenship where they should have it.
Except. Katie had been rather too busy being a rebel on the Indomitable to file her forms, so when the Terran Accord had stopped existing her files had entered a limbo state. By now, they were waiting for her to come along and sign on the dotted line to begin the absurd but apparently necessary process of transitioning her from the Terran Accord, to the Human branch of the Transitory Terran Territory Administration, to the Terran Protectorate, to the Affini Compact, and then finally surrendering citizenship altogether to become the legal property of one Thatch Aquae. Add to that a surprising number of forms that seemed only to attest that Katie was “exceptionally cute”, “a very good girl”, and that she would “be very well behaved and obedient for her owner” and the pile had almost been as tall as she was. Without the supplemental entries that defined all the terms in use.
Say one thing for the Affini, say they liked their paperwork.
Katie had held that pen above that line and suddenly a process that should have taken five minutes was still in conversation an hour later, at which point they’d had to break so the clerks could deal with Cici’s treaty. She knew it was dumb, but how was she meant to sign a document stating in hard legal terms that she was human, and thus eligible for that particular chain, when she wanted so very much to escape just that?
As an aside, it seemed inexplicable that Katie had gotten the word ‘floret’ in her name before Cici had, but surprisingly it was actually taking its time getting adopted.
“What are you?” Thatch echoed, pulling Katie’s attention back to reality. “I do not need you to be able to answer that question, Katie. We will find out together, and if that takes time, I do not mind.”
“Well, I do! I wanna be yours already.”
A vine wrapped tightly around her wrist and squeezed. “You are mine. That is not a choice made by recordkeepers, it is my choice and mine alone, and I say that you are mine.” Another vine slid up to wrap around Katie’s collar and pulled it a little tighter. The girl smiled as the pressure grew at her neck.
“I— Yes, Miss Aquae, of course, thank you. I am yours. I just want everybody else to recognise that too, I guess? The… machines still call me by my old name. If anyone looks up my files it’s going to say that I’m independent. The collar helps a lot, though, at least when I’m talking directly to people they can’t miss that I’m a pet, but…”
Katie didn’t need a mirror to imagine what she looked like. She was softer, calmer, slower. Her mannerisms had had the sharp edge stolen from them. Her eyes lacked the hardness. Her rebellious spirit had been broken. She was happier with herself than she’d ever been, in no small part because when she looked at her mind and body she saw Thatch’s guiding hand, but all the same, she still looked so…
The collar marked her as a pet. That helped. She at least no longer had to be a person, but everyone that saw her was still going to assume that she was a pet Terran. Worse, until she sorted out her paperwork then anybody who looked her up in the registry would be told she was an independent Terran, something which couldn’t be further from the truth.
Katie buried her face inside Thatch’s hair and breathed deep. It was a nice scent. Apparently it didn’t directly mess with her head, but Katie could have sworn otherwise. She could feel herself being relaxed like it was something being done to her. It helped to imagine it being so.
Thatch hummed. “We can likely get the clerks to update those things now and deal with the rest later. My people’s preoccupation with paperwork is not something done to limit or control you, Katie. A polite question is almost invariably all you will need to be granted an exception to any rule not set in place for safety.” The affini shrugged. “Personally, I do not expect that one floret’s paperwork being slightly incomplete would cause our civilisation to collapse, but perhaps this is why I am not a clerk.”
“One floret, no, but if you’re sloppy with even one in a billion of us then over tens of thousands of years and millions of species it would add up. As soon as there’s an expectation of sloppiness, then it starts being possible for one of us to fall through the cracks and not get optimal care, and you dorks won’t let that happen.” Katie paused, then laughed. “Sorry, I spent a while reading domestication literature before realising how much I needed you and I guess it kinda stuck in my head.”
Thatch emitted a thoughtful noise, then put down the tool she was using and focussed her attention more wholly on Katie. “But as you say, we have been collecting you for almost a hundred thousand years now with impeccable recordkeeping. You cannot be the first to not identify with your prior host species.”
Katie pushed herself up just enough to shake her head, before collapsing back once again. “Not even the first Terran! There was one on some resort world who got herself reclassified as some kind of accessibility tool, several who’ve argued that they were a sovereign species and so not subject to the ‘Human’ Domestication Treaty—mostly successfully, because of course you fine flowers wouldn’t let somebody suffer with independence just because they hadn’t signed a treaty—and stuff like that. Nothing I can find like me. I’m maybe just not good enough at looking, though, and I don’t even know where to start for non-humans.”
Katie lazily flopped a hand out to one side and Thatch quickly filled it with a vine. Katie guided them back out into the main room and took herself over to the platform mounted above the cave, where she could lie down on a comfortable surface and be at about head level with Thatch while her affini went about her day. Katie mostly just wanted to hug one of the pillows and watch Thatch do stuff.
“We can likely find some assistance for that part of the search, but bureaucratic precedent is really a problem for the clerks. They’ll find or make what they need to if we can tell them what it is we need them to do.”
“What do we need them to do?” Questions were so much easier when it wasn’t Katie who needed to answer them. Wasn’t that, like, the point of all this? Aliens flying in from beyond the stars and deeming Katie incapable of taking care of herself to their standards?
Thatch shrugged. She’d wandered off towards the kitchen area to grab a few pills from Katie’s bottles. Oh, it was time for her medication, wasn’t it? That probably explained at least some of Katie’s mood. “It is enough for me to know that you are mine. Species designation is hardly relevant given what I’m going to do to you. I may simply have them put you down as a ‘Katie’.”
“A katieflower, maybe?” Katie suggested.
Her protector considered it for a few moments while she waited for their small atomic compiler to finish synthesising a glass of water. Much to Katie’s horror she was starting to understand what June had meant when talking about the devices. Even the water it made was atomically perfect, with the exact right mineral distribution for Katie’s needs, and something about that perfection had stolen the soul right out of it. The water was fine, and more than fine if they were going to cook with it, but drinking it straight felt weird.
Maybe everybody was eccentric, Katie thought to herself, once they were freed from a system that demanded conformity on pain of starvation.
A finger against her jaw had her opening her mouth wide, and another stroking down her throat had her swallow. Eccentric or not, every little chance Katie got to follow an order felt satisfying in a way she didn’t dare try to describe for fear of underselling it. It wasn’t just satisfaction, it was purpose. It left a smile on her soul; the one on her face was just that bleeding through.
“A katieflower, maybe,” Thatch echoed. She paused, then spent a few moments prowling around the edges of the cave, taking in Katie from all available angles. “Yes, I think that fits. I do not think it would be right for you to pick something existing. You are one of our projects, darling. We’re working on you.”
Katie nodded, already feeling the knot in her chest starting to unwind. “We are. Could you maybe be a bit more aggressive with the medication? I think it was wearing off by the end there.”
“Of course. Are you feeling good now?”
Katie nodded, but something still felt off. The medication cleared her head and helped her feel like a version of herself that didn’t constantly chafe against the edges of her own mind, but was that the her she wanted to be or was that just inertia? It was easy to say that she wanted to be herself, but better because there really weren’t any choices involved in that.
Much harder to take the opportunity she had to truly remake herself and figure out what she could be, given the chance.
“Ugh, no, I’m still kind of stuck in my own head. Could I—”
Katie looked up sharply as a finger-snap rang out across the room. She could have sworn it hit her with a physical force, and before she was even aware she was moving she’d sat up on her chair to give Thatch her full attention. “Yes, Miss Aquae?”
Thatch flashed her a grin. “Good girl. I was hoping that would work.” She reached forward and scratched the bridge of Katie’s nose. “Very responsive. Still stuck?”
Katie blinked rapidly. “I, uh. Um… can’t remember what I was about to say, so I guess not?” Thatch didn’t reply with words, but instead took her hand and drew its fingers down Katie’s cheek. Katie took the offered contact, leaning her cheek into a comforting grip with a soft sigh.
Katie was already so high up in the room that, for once, she didn’t need to have her head tilted far to look straight into the gentle glow of Thatch’s eyes. She couldn’t help but imagine how she must look, with her own eyes so reflective it might appear that she too was glowing like a moon reflecting Thatch’s beautiful light.
Katie smiled up. “Yes?”
Thatch’s laughter was always so lovely to hear. It always had been, Katie was pretty sure, but she got to hear it more these days. Like most of her noises, it had a low rumbling undertone to it, but there was something carefree and open about the laughs, as if for just that moment, all the struggles of Thatch’s life were forgotten. Katie desperately wished to hear more of it. This laugh ended with an amused sigh.
“That was not a question; it was a description. You asked me what you are. You are not such a simple little thing that we can truly answer that in only one concept, but perhaps we can build it from many, and here is one: I have, willingly or not, bent you to my tune, but the enthusiasm to which you cling to your conception of the role is your contribution to this.”
Katie’s tongue darted out to dampen her lips. “Huh?”
Another laugh. Katie smiled. It hadn’t been meant as a joke, but that made the laugh all the better. If she brought joy to Thatch’s life just by being herself, then it almost felt like cheating.
Thatch reached out and flicked the tag on Katie’s collar. It jingled; Katie shivered. “I made you my pet. I told you what responsibilities I would be taking over you and what promises I was making. I did not tell you what your part in this meant. That came from you. Hence, I suggest that you are a pet. Not simply in the literal sense, but the sense that clearly this is something you have taken to with such success and energy that it must be some central facet of your existence. Perhaps the misery of your earlier life was in no small part because you were denied the opportunity to be yourself.”
Why was Katie blushing? Was that praise? It certainly felt like it. Should it? “I- Um, but, no, you—” Katie shivered, burying her head against Thatch’s hand. As ever, it was soft but it didn’t give in the slightest. “You’d say that about any floret, though!”
Thatch’s other hand came down to scratch behind her ear and, as a no doubt intentional side effect, hold her in place. “No, I would not. Even among volunteers, I am led to believe that most of the time they are asking to be taught how to be a pet. You needed some help, but I never taught you how to be a pet and yet you followed me across the galaxy simply because I was hurting and you needed to help. You are a pet, Katie. All I did was make you mine.”
Katie was a pet. She was more than that, too, but Thatch was right. Maybe trying to answer the question with a single, cohesive thought was simply an impossibility. Katie nodded as best she could between Thatch’s two hands. “Yeah, I- I am? I am. I am! Why is this a revelation? Why- Oh dirt, why am I crying?”
Why was she crying?
Thankfully, Thatch had learned about tissues since taking Katie in, and one was quickly dabbed against her eyes. Another found its way beneath her nose. “Blow.” Katie blew, and the tissue was quickly disposed of.
There was a surprising amount of paper used on this ship. All grown locally and recycled efficiently and Katie was definitely distracting herself with esoteria. She took a deep breath and looked up. “I feel ridiculous, I’m crying over being told I’m a pet when I’ve literally been wearing a collar for days but I guess it hadn’t really hit me properly? I… I never used to feel like I wanted this?”
Thatch raised an eyebrow. “No? No deep-seated longing to ignore the rest of the universe and focus on making just one person happy? No desire to throw off the shackles of ‘freedom’ and be a treasured, beloved possession? To let yourself be simplified so all the difficulty can go away and you can finally be yourself? Didn’t you feel all that for so long in a world that reviled it until you were so wrapped up in the denial you couldn’t find a way out?”
“Everybody feels like that!” Katie protested. Didn’t they?
Thatch’s quiet smile could have been infuriating, once, but for predictable reasons Katie no longer found proof that Thatch knew her better than she knew herself frustrating. Why would a pet mind their owner understanding them so deeply?
Katie tried not to think about whether she really had felt those things, or whether she was reinterpreting her past through her freshly skewed lens. It didn’t matter. She could be who she chose to be, and it was her story to tell. When Katie spoke of her childhood she brushed over the minor matter of having been brought up the wrong gender, so would it really be so bad to speak of her pre-domestication days while brushing over the minor matter of having the wrong level of independence?
Thatch finally rescued her from her self-imposed prison. “Pet.”
“Pet.” Katie smiled up at her caretaker, who returned it with one of her own. Or it was the other way around. Did it really matter? Whether the leash around her mind was taut or slack, Katie still followed Thatch’s lead.
“But the question then becomes, which kind of pet? You said some interesting things while we were designing that collar, pet.”
Oh no. What secrets had Katie given away? “Uhh,” she started, only to find a finger pressed against her lips.
“Shush, no words from you. Such a good girl. I showed you pictures of our collars, and you found them lacking. You have an image in your head of what it is you want. I do not need nearly as much sleep as you do, and so I have been free to do some research of my own.”
Oh no. Oh dirt. Thatch’s finger left her lips then returned with a vengeance, pressing between them with an inevitability. Katie couldn’t help but let it pass.
“I have some ideas. Would you like to talk about them?”
There was a freedom to those words that Katie recognised from Thatch’s laughter. Like her owner was managing to step above the muck that was living in reality and walk with Katie in the safe, clean world the Affini provided. It was one of those questions that Katie would have once called a ‘trick’. One answer would get her an honest conversation, but another? Well, Katie didn’t need to lie here.
She shook her head.
“Good girl. You don’t need to know, do you? You don’t need to think about it. Just let me handle all that for you.” Thatch gently pulled her finger free, spent a moment wiping it clean on Katie’s cheek, and then stepped back. She snapped her fingers and pointed at the ground before her.
Oh no. Oh dirt. Oh rot. When had Thatch gotten this hot? Katie opened her mouth but couldn’t manage more than a quiet mewl and received nothing more than an expectant look. It was like her caretaker had taken ahold of the strings wrapped around her heart and tugged, and Katie suddenly found herself wanting nothing more than to stand at her heel, right where she’d been told to be.
She stood and hurried towards the stairs only to find a vine wrapping around her collar and stopping her dead. Thankfully it distributed the force well enough that she didn’t choke, but the sensation was still very unpleasant. She looked back over at Thatch with alarm, in enough time to catch her wincing too.
Thatch raised a hand to her mouth and whispered. “You okay? I can be more gentle.”
Katie shook her head rapidly, prompting a grin that quickly melted back into the self-assured smirk of a Thatch deep in her flirting. A vine pressed down atop Katie’s head with enough force that she was pressed to her hands and knees.
Thatch said something that Katie didn’t quite catch. She opened her mouth to speak and got nothing but a vine pressing her tongue down against the floor of her mouth for her trouble. Thatch said… something again. Katie sort of recognised that, what was it? She tilted her head to one side in a silent question she hoped would be allowed.
Thatch spoke again, a whole sentence in which Katie didn’t catch a single word. Was she speaking affini? Katie recognised some of the sounds, maybe, but not well. Thatch spoke a single word, taking care to enunciate it slowly and clearly, but Katie still didn’t know it. She blinked half a dozen times in a row with a question she wasn’t going to be allowed to ask on her lips.
Thatch went down to one knee and patted the ground before her. That same word, repeated, with the same intentional clarity. She wanted Katie to come down to her, but Katie was— Oh. She wanted Katie to crawl down to her.
By the stars, the thought alone was humiliating. This wasn’t being taken care of, it was being reduced. Katie had chosen not to be human, but this was so much less than human. She was being treated like an animal. That knowledge did nothing to temper Katie’s deeply installed need to obey.
A vine came out of nowhere to gently strike Katie on the behind, pushing a yelp from between her lips. Her cheeks burned as she slowly made her way down the wooden staircase that lead to the hab’s surface. She was moving at a fraction of the speed she could have gone if she’d been walking. Every movement of her hands or knees had to be considered and careful to avoid slipping. More than that, she was taking most of her weight on her forearms and they were not used to it. Her hands were balled into loose fists so she could take most of the weight on the bottom of her palm, but by the time Katie reached the ground her arms were shivering from the strain.
She looked up. From this angle, the only reason she could see Thatch’s face at all was because her affini was down on one knee. She still towered above, feeling gargantuan in a way that was barely to do with their actual difference in height. Katie’s blush grew hotter. When had this inhuman alien’s intoxicating beauty started leaving her so hungry? Katie’s breaths were deep. She was already tired out. She paused, just for a moment, just to catch her breath, but Thatch repeated that word again.
Katie didn’t know what it meant, but she recognised the tone of voice was growing sterner. She hurried to continue. One hand before the other. One knee after the previous. She felt a tension rising with each awkward step forward taken, drilling in the humiliation and the, she supposed, dehumanisation of the act. It was embarrassing and beneath her and—
Katie’s movement paused for a moment as a full-body shiver ran down her back. With every step forward Katie felt a sense of pride rising, pushed down into her from the creature above. Every step took her closer, deeper into Thatch’s Aura of Pride, driving away the doubts and the fears. It was easy to lose herself in the act, focusing only on her obedient side-to-side sway as she crawled across the artificial dirt while her owner encouraged her with words Katie could not understand. All she could hear was a beautiful, alien song and the jingle of her own nametag.
Eventually, Katie reached the spot Thatch had tapped, coming to a stop at her feet. Wordless, voiceless appreciation bubbled up from somewhere deep within as Katie rubbed her head against Thatch’s shin. She tried to express her appreciation the only way she was apparently allowed. Katie felt a surge of inexplicable initiative that met her desperate need for submission and leaned down to plant a loving kiss against the leafy surface of a false foot. How did this feel so good?
Indulgent words spoken in a language Katie didn’t understand met a series of rough scritches over her scalp and under her chin. She let out soft gasps, feeling all tension melting away, unable to survive touch or contact. She was sober, but every brush of finger on skin still left her desperate for more. The drugs only enhanced what was already there.
Thatch was repeating a phrase over and over. It was a really pretty language, Katie thought. Elegant, flowing sounds that Katie’s vocal cords could not have reproduced spoken in a voice that was closer to song than speech. Katie didn’t understand the words but she could feel the pride radiating down upon her from above. It was hard not to feel it reflected within herself. Katie didn’t even try to fight it. It was nice.
After long moments of pampering Thatch pulled back and snapped her fingers again. As before, Katie felt a sharp tug on her attention, like her thoughts were all forcibly brought into alignment pointing towards her beautiful plant. What was that? She opened her mouth to speak and got out the ‘Y’ of ‘Yes, Miss Aquae?’ before remembering she’d been shushed. She cut it off there.
Thatch chuckled. A rapid stream of language Katie couldn’t possibly understand followed. It felt nice to hear, even if it was gibberish to her. A finger drew her chin up and then kept lifting until Katie had been raised to a kneeling position. Finally she could see Thatch’s amused face once again. She was enjoying this.
…so was Katie.
A hand against Katie’s jaw was enough of a prompt for Katie to open it. Two delicate fingers reached in and carefully teased out her tongue, and then a vine dropped one of the small berries Katie had liked so much planetside atop it.
Oh stars, Thatch had kept those? Katie snapped her jaw shut, intent on devouring it, but a finger got in the way and a sharply spoken word stopped her dead. Katie froze up, eyes going wide, glancing from side to side as if she expected to see something that would explain this to her. Katie didn’t know a word of Affini! Why was Thatch speaking to her in it? The berry’s juices alone tasted so good that Katie was salivating, but she wasn’t allowed to eat it? She whined, not understanding. Hadn’t she earned this? More than?
Her affini raised a set of fingers before Katie’s eyes, drawing in her unwavering focus. One by one, they folded down. Katie watched without comprehension until only the last few were left. She realised it was a countdown, with long seconds between each finger folding. Katie whimpered. The fruit on her tongue tasted so much it almost hurt to keep it in place.
Thatch carefully removed her other hand’s finger from Katie’s mouth, but kept the girl pinned under a sharp enough gaze that she didn’t dare close it.
Another word. A different one this time, spoken with a brighter tone and an expectant look. Katie took the risk and snapped her mouth closed, eagerly chewing the berry into delicious, sugary pulp. While she did, Thatch returned to pampering her with pets and scritches and kind, alien words. After a few moments, Katie swallowed down with one appreciative murmur, then smiled up with another.
Thatch gave her nose a gentle flick. “See? Just a pet, isn’t that right? So eager to let me do all your thinking, hmn?”
“Y—” Again, Katie realised she’d been shushed a moment too late. Hopefully a single syllable didn’t count as speech. Thatch’s hand came down to gently stroke Katie’s head, and she knew it was okay. How could she ever have wanted anything but to melt into this?
“There’s a good girl. Yes, I can tell that you like this, and this is with your head at its clearest. I have a lot to work with, here. Thank you for helping me figure out what you need. You can simply let all those silly thoughts drift away into my care.” The stroking was… nice. Thatch started at the top of Katie’s head and took her firm hand down to just above her butt, then returned to do the same all over again. It was cozy in a way Katie hadn’t expected. She looked up at her owner with a newfound appreciation, but a little apprehension.
Thatch smiled back down, indulgent to a fault. “Oh, I know, flower. It’s important to you that you get to think sometimes. It is important to me that you do, too. Your mind is beautiful, Katie, and I shall spend a very long time indeed getting to know your every aspect. However, I will tell you when you may think. Let yourself quieten down for me and act as your instincts instruct, safe in the knowledge that I will train you well. I shall take care of the rest.”
Thatch brought the back of her hand against Katie’s chin and lifted it higher, so they could stare into each other’s eyes. She spoke in a stage whisper. “Are you doing well, Katie? You seem to be enjoying this, but I do not want to risk having read your signals wrong.”
Katie nodded quickly, blinking rapidly as she tried to remember how to speak. “Ah- Um- I- Nn… Green?”
Thatch laughed and released her chin. “Good girl,” she whispered, with a gentle pat on the head and an intense burst of pride and love that Katie happily let wash over her.
Thatch raised her spare hand up to about Katie’s chest level, like she was asking for a handshake. “Now, give me one of those adorable little mewls and let’s teach you how to-” The next word was something in Affini. Katie didn’t know what it meant, but she was gathering that that was rather the point.
Katie let out a whimper, a nod, an adorable little mewl, and raised her hand to shake.