Chapter Thirty Three: Vae victis
“When did you get this smooth?”
Katie casually wandered down one of the Elettarium’s many quiet dirt pathways, fingers casually entwined with the absolute nightmare of a plant she was now bound to for life. Her other hand clasped a bottle of water that she was rapidly emptying. Thankfully the bottle was topped by a small valve that required a little suction to open, because otherwise Katie would have spilled half the contents on the floor already. She was exhausted. Who would ever have guessed that crawling around on the floor would be that tiring?
Thatch waved her spare hand in the air in some vague, indecipherable gesture. “Perhaps it is you who is different, Katie. I have brought your soul into step with mine and so it may come as no surprise that you find yourself enamoured.”
Katie offered her dork the remains of her water bottle. The valve was designed to also allow small vines entry, apparently, as that was just what Thatch did with a quiet word of thanks.
“Nah, you’re way more confident these days.” Katie gave her plant’s hand a squeeze. While she did, she couldn’t help but look around. The ship was populated but quiet, as it so often was. A dozen or so groups trod their same path. Mostly pairs, mostly of one affini and one terran, but hardly exclusively so. Some larger groups, some non-humans, Katie wanted to spend more time getting to know some of the non-Terrans aboard the ship, because… who wouldn’t? The affini were great, but they were bombastic in a way Katie could never hope to match. They would carry her when she stumbled, but perhaps Katie could keep up with a different species by herself.
Thatch laughed, giving Katie’s hand a quick squeeze back. “Yes, well. I have you to thank for that, Katie. You are bringing out a side of me I had given up on, and I am quite grateful.”
“Quite,” Katie mirrored, before leaning into her plant’s side with rolled eyes. “You dork. How long had you been waiting to do that?”
“A handful of days?” Thatch shrugged. “Ever since I met you? A hundred and four years?”
Katie frowned, stopping where she stood. Thatch continued on a step before noticing Katie had fallen behind, then turned and knelt to bring herself closer to the girl’s level. “Is something wrong, darling?”
“A hundred and four? You were a hundred and three when we met.”
Thatch’s eyes narrowed slightly as she tilted her head in confusion. “Y- Yes? Time has passed since then, Katie. I will continue getting older just as you do. Is this… confusing to you?”
“No, you ass.” Katie fixed her plant with a flat stare. “I mean, you’ve had a birthday?”
Thatch seemed taken aback. “A birth…? Katie, we do not reproduce like you do, I was uplifted from—”
“That’s not what I mean, hon,” Katie interrupted. “The anniversary of you starting to exist! It’s a big deal! It’s worth celebrating!”
Thatch blinked repeatedly, then scratched just behind Katie’s ear with a low chuckle. “Terran years are very short, pet, and we rarely measure with them. We could certainly celebrate your birthday, though, if you would like.”
“No, I wanna celebrate yours! When was it?”
Thatch glanced away, pulling a face that Katie guessed was meant to emulate the sort of face humans tended to pull when deep in thought. It looked very silly, and Katie laughed at it, earning herself a raised eyebrow. “A week or two past, perhaps? The concept of time as you know it is complicated, flower, which is why we usually measure our age by Bloom.”
Katie realised she was pulling her own version of the thinking face a moment later, when Thatch laughed. Katie blushed. She had long since lost the ability to silence the affini with one of her own looks. “But you’re a second Bloom and I know you didn’t get there the slow way. Also, sorry again for trying to kill you, I guess.”
Thatch ruffled her hair. “My dangerous rebel.”
Katie nodded with sharp, rapid nods. “Yours.”
“Good girl. You are correct, of course, but it is a lot less common for most of us to suffer so much damage that we are forced to regrow early than it is for us to spend time in a universe that cannot keep a straight clock. Besides, physical trauma averages out; time dilation does not, and so we long since decided that it was best to abandon any pretense at non-local time synchronisation and simply use what we have.” The problem with having first fallen for this adorable softie through her love of teaching was that Katie was, apparently, entirely incapable of stopping her halfway through a speech about literally anything. Roots, Katie wanted to take notes even though this was a distraction from her actual point.
Apparently she really did love this plant, even though she was an adorable dork. “Okay, fine, but that doesn’t get you out of celebrating your birthday. Do you at least know what day it was in, like, your own frame of reference?”
Thatch opened her mouth to respond, but after a moment simply went with a shrug. “There is a margin of error,” she admitted. “I did not keep as impeccable records for myself as perhaps I should during some of my travels.” A pair of vines came up to grab Katie under the armpits and lift her onto Thatch’s shoulders so they could keep walking and still make their meeting.
Katie rolled her eyes. “Hmn. Okay, well, a week or two ago was about when you took me in, so let’s just say I was a birthday present and we can bake a cake later?” Katie felt the low rumble of Thatch’s dubiousness buzz through her body. “C’mon? Pretty please? Please, Miss Aquae, light of my life?”
“Okay, okay, enough.” Thatch chuckled. “You have far too much power. We shall bake me a cake and I shall consider whether I was wise to let you think for this meeting.”
Katie felt her cheeks warm just a little bit. Mostly, she felt really happy. Also, she was kinda high, which was still a novel experience but would apparently keep her bureaucratic anxiety down. Probably Katie should consider the ethics of attempting to sign away her independence while her mind was being altered by chemicals, her collar, and Thatch’s cadence, but she already knew she’d come down on the side of it being okay. She wasn’t capable of deciding otherwise any more.
They reached the set location of their meeting a few minutes in advance of the scheduled time and headed towards one of the larger tables. The hostess was already skipping over, tiny wings bouncing behind her. It’d just seemed appropriate to Katie to have this meeting at Angel’s Delight, the first place that Thatch and her had eaten on board.
“Hey!! What can I get you?” Angel asked, then paused. She slowly tilted her head to one side and leaned forward, looking into Katie’s eyes for a few moments with a surprisingly piercing gaze. “Ohmygoddess, congratulations!” she exclaimed. “I just know you two will be soooo happy together!”
The angel glanced over at Thatch. “May I touch your floret, Miss?”
“Uh, hang on,” Katie interjected.
Thatch, however, nodded. “Certainly, go ahead. She really likes chin scratches.”
Katie’s head snapped around to stare up at Thatch. “Wait, but— O-oh!” Katie’s words died in her throat, eyes rolling up as Angel’s nails raked across her skin, slowly drawing her head around to face the delighted waitress. Maybe it was the drugs, maybe it was having spent the last few hours with barely a thought in her head, but Katie felt herself sinking into a quiet, fuzzy headspace more with every scratch.
The floret was saying something, but it was so hard to focus and harder still just to hear over the sound of Katie’s own quiet whimpers. Maybe she could have fought her way back to rationality if she’d really, really tried, but it felt so good not to. Warm fingers against smooth skin robbed her of her thoughts, but it wasn’t a heist she could find it in herself to stop.
Katie felt her knees buckle, dropping her to all fours. There was a moment’s interruption in the petting, long enough to start to pull together some kind of thought process before a gentle hand came to rest atop her head and squashed it all back down. There was speech. Words. Communication. Even something Katie might have been able to understand if she could focus on it, yet she felt so serene that trying at all was just out of reach. The hand on her head massaged her scalp with slow, gentle movements and everything seemed far too nice to want to change anything at all.
A sound snapped through the sluggish silence of Katie’s mind. Thatch’s voice. Sharp. Katie blinked rapidly, looking around to find her affini had already moved over to the table and taken a seat. Thatch repeated the sound with an impatient tinge at the edges of her voice and Katie finally recognised it as one of the Affini words Thatch had been using back home. Katie hurried over, scampering on all fours to reach her plant’s side to sit, chin up, attentive and adoring.
A smirk and a raised eyebrow from above broke the mood enough for Katie to realise what she’d just done. Her cheeks burned as conscious thought flooded back. “Thatch!” she hissed, voice kept quiet. “We’re in public!”
“And that public finds you very cute,” the plant replied, gesturing over to one of the other tables. The human sat at it had her hands clutched against her heart, the affini had partially melted, and there was one species Katie didn’t recognise with mannerisms that, nonetheless, screamed either gentle adoration or predatory delight. Probably the former.
Huh. Maybe it was just the drugs squashing her anxiety, but it actually felt pretty okay to be the center of attention here. Maybe Thatch was right. Maybe she was just more comfortable like this? Katie flashed a grateful smile over at the other table then returned her attention to the one who mattered most here. “Okay, yeah, I… but I’ve gotta be able to think for this meeting, right?”
Thatch shrugged, then patted her lap. “Up, girl.”
“You nightmare,” Katie protested, with a whimper. The gentle ‘threat’ of another scritch sent to steal away her thoughts was enough of an incentive to get Katie climbing up onto Thatch’s knee, though in fairness that was exactly where she wanted to be.
“We do not normally require florets to think at all, and I believe I know what it is you wish. If you would rather spend this meeting quietly curled up on my lap then that can certainly be arranged.”
Katie bit her lip. Lightly, as she knew she wouldn’t be allowed to do any damage to herself. Was that a tempting offer? In some ways, it really was, but another part of Katie worried that she was diving in dangerously fast. She could easily see how people could lose themselves to this. How they could sink into a thoughtless bliss and never want to resurface, and never have to resurface.
But no. Thatch didn’t want that for her. Katie wasn’t sure what she wanted yet, but diving too deep into the first thing that seemed to really work seemed like a great recipe for getting burned. “I think I’d rather do this myself, if that’s okay? Besides, I think you’d need some support.”
“Mmh, then I suppose I should really—” Thatch reached a finger underneath Katie’s chin and tapped the glowing orb on her collar. Katie flinched, emitting a sharp gasp as something that had loomed so large she’d missed it entirely released its grip on her mind. Her sense of balance frazzled out and Katie was only prevented from tumbling to the ground by Thatch’s generosity. “There we go. Good girl, eyes on me, please. Let’s get that attention sharpened back up.”
Katie looked up. Wow, her plant was really pretty and super cute and kinda hot and… Katie could cut the adoration loop there. She wasn’t on a very intense dosage of anything, now that she stopped to think about it, just a mild sedative to keep the anxiety down. Katie blinked rapidly. How had she managed to forget what they’d built her collar for? “Woah, that was more intense than I’d expected it to be. Is that why I felt so comfortable?”
“Not at all.” Thatch ran a firm hand through Katie’s hair. It felt as delightful as ever, though Katie found she could resist the gentle pull that wanted to drag her down into… what? The soft, slow, fuzzy headspace she’d spent the morning exploring? Calling it a ‘head’ space hardly felt appropriate given how empty her head had felt. More of a ‘pet’ space, really. A petspace. Thatch spotted her confusion, and with a quick pulse of heat and light drew Katie’s attention up into her eyes. “You remember when we were designing the collar, don’t you, girl?”
Oh. Huh. Katie did, at least once she’d been reminded. Fascinating. “I… do, but… uh… Oh!” She perked up, shuffling around so she could kneel on Thatch’s lap and look into her partner’s eyes more comfortably. “I was right!” she declared.
The gem was exactly what Katie had thought it was, but she’d managed to trick herself into not thinking about the details too hard. Katie’s sixth sense, the barely-conscious feeling in her head that was her mind’s best attempt to understand the emotional link she held with Thatch, was just the exposed surface of a deeper iceberg. Its influence was subtle and probably would have remained unnoticeable, but when faced with a device that could record and replicate the complex dance of resonance and rhythm that underpinned it all Katie had been inspired towards science. An hour or so of Thatch trying to figure out how to record a specific subconscious influence, a little amplification, and Katie had managed to build something that convinced her to forget she’d built it. To her surprise, as a side effect it seemed to make the rest of Thatch’s subconscious influence hit twice as hard.
“You were,” Thatch agreed. “This is legitimately fascinating. With a little more refinement I think we could make something truly wondrous with this. Thank you.”
Katie tilted her head to one side.
Thatch glanced away. What was that feeling Katie was mirroring? Without the collar amplifying the subconscious aspects of her sixth sense, Thatch felt almost distant. Katie could still feel her as well as she ever had before, but now it felt like hearing somebody through tinny speakers. She could hear the words, but she’d gotten used to a higher fidelity.
Embarrassment, maybe? Something awkward-adjacent. Katie’s fingertips itched, finding herself wanting to reach up and tap the gem on her collar. Turn it back on. Deepen the connection. Sink into Thatch’s presence and let herself become a conduit for the song. She balled her hands into gentle fists and gave her head a gentle shake. She should stay clear-headed.
“What’s up, hon?” Katie asked. She didn’t need a biotechnological connection to her best friend to figure out what was on her mind. She could just ask.
“I have spent a significant fraction of the last thirty years trying and failing to produce anything of worth for this civilisation.” Thatch’s latticework rustled with the force of air being pulled through. She returned her gaze to Katie. “You have been mine for fewer than two weeks and I feel more hope that we could achieve that together than I have at any point alone. Do not misunderstand, the phenomena we are playing with are well understood in principle, but we are early into our explorations of creatures sharing your phenotype and we could, perhaps, make a small but real contribution to the future of the Terran people.” The awkwardness had gradually shrunk back as Thatch had continued speaking, slowly replaced by a growing enthusiasm that Katie recognised from her own studies.
Under Thatch’s guiding hand, Katie had learned a great many new and exciting things, but of course none of that had been new to the plant herself. This seemed like it was.
Thatch’s words faltered. “If- If we were to keep investigating it, of course, which you are not required to do. It would be a lot of effort for no guaranteed result and you still need to acclimatise to your new life.”
“Hon.” Katie smiled up. “Is this something that’s important to you?”
“I…” Thatch shifted her position, sending Katie falling forward into her chest where she could be held like some kind of living plush animal. “I think so. I feel as though I have such a debt to this society in which we live that I have contributed nothing back to.”
“Wasn’t it you who said the concept of debt was barbaric?” Katie had to speak directly into Thatch’s chest to talk, but if she was honest with herself, it was far from the first time and far from the weirdest way she’d spoken to the alien. “Way back, you told me there weren’t any requirements to live here. Were you misleading me?”
Thatch’s grip grew a little tighter. “Flower, no. Of course not. You will never be asked to justify your existence here. You deserve your place simply by the incomparable value that all life in this universe holds.”
“I was talking about you, Miss.”
Thatch shut up. The emotion that drilled down into Katie was definitely embarrassment. Even at a lower fidelity, it was still obvious if the volume was turned up high enough.
“Also, you are my place, and so if you ever had to justify your existence here that would affect me too. But that won’t happen, because you have incomparable value too.” Having difficult conversations had always been a staple of their relationship, but there was something special about getting to do it while Katie was curled up on her owner’s lap with a hand stroking through her hair.
She could see how, for many, being a pet would make it harder to really push at their owner’s fragile points, but Katie found the opposite to be true. She was providing comfort and certainty even as they approached difficult topics, and that meant she could feel safe prodding harder. She knew she’d be there to clean up the mess.
Thatch’s hand curled, gently gripping Katie’s hair. Her other arm pressed tight enough that Katie would have struggled to speak. “You are not wrong, flower. Nobody will ever ask me to justify my place here either. If we were to retreat to our home and only ever leave for light social engagements and parties then we would, I suspect, be joining a significant proportion of our culture.”
But. The but was unsaid, but it didn’t need to be said. But Caeca. But Thatch felt that she had blood on her hands and was starting from less than nothing. But Thatch thought that she had been a negative influence on the universe to date and yearned to fix that. It was deeply unfair to herself and probably all kinds of emotionally unhealthy, but it was also exactly the kind of deep-seated trauma that Katie wasn’t sure she could fix in five minutes before a dinner-date with a pair of bureaucracy kinksters.
Katie was honestly unsure she could fix it at all. She wasn’t a space therapist.
There probably were space therapists, right? Katie made a mental note to look that up later and felt a quiet rush of euphoria at the knowledge she probably would actually remember. She hadn’t even realised how much her head needed to be brought under control, but her mix of medication had her feeling like a new and upgraded Katie just by itself. It was a start.
“Good. You’re special and unique. I guess if we’re already going to make me a project, though, we may as well be scientific about it?” Katie paused. She didn’t know how to feel about the request. She knew that she would gladly do anything that would make Thatch happy, but was this even a healthy thing to pursue? “Is that taking all the romance out of it? I think you burned any kind of dominant mood out of my head, sorry, could I get you to say it?”
Thatch laughed, then spent a moment rearranging Katie so she was free to look away. Only then did she place a finger beneath the girl’s chin to lock her in place. “I told you that I was going to tear your precious mind into pieces and put you back together how I wanted. I’ll do it again and again until I understand you so deeply you can be a case study in malleable flesh. My plans haven’t changed just because you were too enthralled to run.”
“All that has changed is that I will have you beg for every cut.”
Katie didn’t need her collar’s higher intensity to feel the words drill through her. They were enough alone. She’d been ready for it and she still couldn’t manage more than a blush and a silent whimper. She thought that she understood the reality of what she’d agreed to, but the fantasy that Thatch provided left her breathless all the same.
Katie jumped in surprise as something unexpected entered the edge of her vision. A rounded, white rectangle with some words scrawled over it.
I hope we’re not interrupting anything, it said, in words that glimmered with colour and light.
Right. They were here for a meeting. So much for Katie’s plan to be capable of thinking. “Uhh,” she whimpered, looking behind her to find the two clerks towering above. At least that proved that Katie felt small for reasons entirely unrelated to physical height, because even Wing seemed to tower despite her relatively diminutive stature.
Katie’s attempts to speak were stifled further as the affini clerk reached forward and scratched the top of her head. “Apologies for the delay. There was a little trouble while bringing your former crewmates out of stasis, but all is stable for the moment and we should not be needed. Ready to finish up your paperwork, Katie? If we’re all ready then it shouldn’t take too long.”
The cafe’s tacky Terran aesthetic was very much a lie. The tables were constructed from some kind of composite material that felt like cheap plastic but actually seemed stronger than the Indomitable’s hull by volume. They were casual marvels of engineering prowess and more than proof enough that the other species of this universe existed to be pets, in Katie’s potentially biased opinion.
The table groaned as Montsechia dropped onto it a stack of paperwork that was at least a Katie tall. “There we go. Not much at all. Have you already ordered? We may want snacks. Katie, as the only one of us here who has ever experienced this style of Terran cuisine, do you have any recommendations?” Montsechia smiled down at her, twirling a pen in a hand that changed and shifted as needed to keep the tool in motion.
“Uh, I’m not sure I’ve ever—”
Wing held up a finger, scribbled for a moment, and then flipped over her pad. November 18th, 2548, Cheesy’s Cheesehouse, Luhman 16 1 Orbital, Luhman 16.
Katie squinted. Yeah, she had been in that region of space around then, she thought, but she didn’t remember…
Montsechia put a finger to the tower of paperwork, drew it down about halfway, and then pulled out a single sheet of paper. She handed it to Katie. Documentation on the visit, collating records of the credits transfer that had paid for it, the purchase orders that had originally acquired the ingredients as well as the origins of those ingredients, stills from surveillance cameras in the Cheesehouse as well as a wide array of other supporting records from the cafe. Including, as it happened, her order.
Katie glanced at the pile of papers with a dawning horror. “When Rosaceae said you’d collated all my files, is this what she meant?” She’d expected governmental records, certainly. Maybe some stuff from old ship rosters, and what few official medical records would exist, but not this.
“We regret that it is not more complete, but you spent much of your time traveling aboard vessels which were less than rigorous about their record keeping and we are only hobbyist neoxenoveterinary archeobureaucrats. Still, Wing and I spent a few delightful evenings pulling your life back together.” The plant smiled, the jellyfish glowed, and both seemed to think this was some kind of reasonable hobby. Katie couldn’t help but laugh quietly as she felt a gentle bemusement radiating down on her. A quiet joke shared just between owner and pet.
But… here it was. Katie’s life down on paper. Even a— Katie glanced down at the paper— thirteen minute, forty second stop at a cheap cafe for synthfries and a horseburger apparently earned a sheet summarising it with half a dozen separate identifiers that Katie assumed linked off to the full detail on their computer systems. They literally knew more about her than she knew herself.
Was this… it? Katie’s life to date. Nearly thirty years of struggle, toil, and stress, and her life reduced down to little more than an ordered sequence of receipts? She would have thought that a pile of papers as tall as her was excessive once, but Katie was surrounded by giants and she felt very, very small.
Katie handed the page in her hands back to the clerk, who filed it back into the middle. “I… guess whatever equivalent they have of synthfries and horseburger, then.”
“Oh, it will have to be some other kind of burger; even synthetic, they wouldn’t serve anything poisonous here.”
Katie shrugged. Whatever was good. She couldn’t tear her eyes off of the paperwork stack. It felt like such a loss to discover only now that her life to date had been so futile. There had been so much wasted time. So much of her life she could never get back that had been pointless struggle. It reframed everything.
Katie felt the gentle touch of leaves brushing across her shoulder, and rolled over without really thinking about it. She rested her cheek against Thatch’s chest and hugged the offered arm. Katie could feel her plant above speaking, carrying on the conversation so Katie could have a quiet few moments while a gentle hand stroked down her back. The wordless offer remained. She didn’t need to think. This was the last hurrah for her political and social independence, and wouldn’t it be fitting for her only to be present in principle?
The reality of her position hadn’t really hit Katie until she’d seen it laid out bare in black and white. Katie wasn’t small; she was microscopic. A speck in the greater cosmos. Even Thatch, gargantuan as she seemed, was. Even this ship was. Her basic story had played out a trillion trillion times and it would be played out a quadrillion quadrillion more. On a universal scale, what could be big enough to matter?
Easy question. The Affini Compact in aggregate was big enough to matter. These creatures weren’t just saving her. They were saving everyone. They were making a better universe.
Angel scurried over with a little bowl of steaming potato slices and a tray of what looked very much like burgers, also steaming. She was happy to do it just for the joy of seeing it done. She, too, was an insignificant speck making an insignificant contribution but in that moment she represented something far greater to Katie. Everyone could do this. Every otherwise insignificant sophont could make their own infinitesimal contribution to the better universe that was the Affini’s civilisation-wide gigaproject and the aggregation of that effort was anything but insignificant when multiplied by the uncountable diversity of life that stood to benefit.
Life in the Terran Accord had felt pointless because it largely had been. Exploiting the universe just to eat, even though there would have been enough for everyone if those at the top had simply shared that which they didn’t even need. Here was different. Here, if Katie could make even the smallest imaginable improvement it would be reflected on trillions of lives. If she could help to save even a second along somebody else’s route to leaving their futile origins behind she would have helped, just a little bit, to bring that better universe into existence. If everybody helped just a little bit, then that dream could be a reality.
Katie tugged on Thatch’s arm and a friendly vine came over to lift her chin so she could face her owner with a newfound resolve. Katie whispered, speaking just to her plant. It was a fantasy to imagine that her universe could actually shrink down to only focus on this one single creature, no matter how beautiful she was. Katie could do better than that. She could let what was important to Thatch be important to her and she could do her part building everyone’s better reality. “Thatch, I wanna help. Even a little. I don’t want that—” She gestured over to the paperwork— “to be all I do for the universe. I want to help make it better, like you’re doing. I know I’m just a pet, but maybe I can be useful to you, still?”
Katie could recognise pride even at low levels. It was one of her favourite emotions to feel impressed upon her from above. The rush of pride she felt after asking was loud, clear, and immediate, joined with a firm hand placed atop her head to hold her close. “Yes. You can. Thank you. I appreciate this more than I can say.”
“Not more than I can feel.”