35. How To Make Friends and Influence Katies

by anna//bool

Tags: #cw:noncon #D/s #dom:female #Human_Domestication_Guide #petplay #slow_burn #sub:female #anxiety #dom:imperialism #dom:internalized_imperialism #dom:plant #drugs #f/f #hurt/comfort #hypnotic_voice #nonbinary_character #ownership_dynamics #panic_attacks #pov:bottom #pov:multiple #pov:top #scifi #sub:the_horror_of_existence_in_a_caring_universe #transgender_characters

Chapter Thirty Five: How To Make Friends and Influence Katies

Check, check, check.

Of the twelve pens that had been with them at the start of the day only three remained at its end. The finest writing implements known to this universe had broken themselves on the horror of Affini xenobureaucratic theory.

It was absurd, but it was done. Thatch’s darling Katieflower had her life mapped out in detail enough to please the clerks. Thatch found herself almost disinterested in the paperwork, but, well. She was making an effort, wasn’t she?

Thatch stretched out, letting her form dissolve into vines so numerous that even she lost count. Somehow, every single one of them hurt, ached, or shivered. She would have preferred to just let Cici shoot her again, but this mattered to Katie.

Speaking of. The delightful little thing had been sleeping soundly, curled up in Thatch’s lap for the last three blooms—or however long the paperwork had taken, anyway—but the stretching had been enough to wake her. Katie blinked slowly, then lifted her head off of Thatch’s thigh and glanced around before finally making the connection and looking up. Her face melted into a soft smile.

“Hey,” she whispered, doing a little stretch of her own. She straightened her arms and legs, arched her back, and squirmed while pulling the most satisfied little expression Thatch had ever seen.

Roots, but the thing was cute. Thatch spent a few moments gently playing with one of the girl’s hands, folding down each adorable little finger in turn, then reversing the process. Precious beyond belief. Tiny and soft, but smart enough to understand all the things Thatch wanted to give to her and willful enough to let Thatch feel safe doing it.

“Good evening, flower,” Thatch replied, eventually. Katie grinned back, then gestured her head over to the side. What was she— Oh.

Thatch glanced up to find the clerks waiting patiently.

Ah—as Katie had been so kind as to teach her—fuck. She’d become just like everybody else. Thatch sighed, put one hand atop Katie’s head so she could absent-mindedly keep the girl entertained, and returned her attention to the matter at hand. “Apologies. What’s left?”

The Spectrum Jelly shone to a staccato beat. It was fast, conversational chromaticity that Thatch found herself unable to fully comprehend. She got maybe one in every five words. It wasn’t a fair comparison, of course, she hadn’t had a conversation partner in fifty years and even then it had been Caeca flashing slow and simple in a different dialect, and with a very different body shape.

Montsechia translated. “We’re all done with your floret there,” she confirmed. Thatch had caught enough of what her floret had been saying to know what was coming. Heck. “Now we do have a few things to talk to regarding you, Ms. Aquae. Of course we wouldn’t brush the dust off of our regular archeobureaucracy hats without talking to you about it, but we are willing to do so if you can give us some pointers.”

“Uh,” Thatch faltered. “Is it important?”

The clerk nodded firmly. “Less important than Katie’s is, certainly, but it’s important that you get the care you need as well. Your records are very incomplete, but it doesn’t look like you’ve been attending your medical checkups?” After spending half the day listening to Montsechia speak in doting, lilting tones it felt strange indeed to hear her speaking to an equal, but that was how these things went, wasn’t it?

Thatch didn’t begrudge her that. She was hardly above the behaviour herself. Katie had spoken of biological heritage and Thatch supposed that this was hers. Perhaps the only thing that Affini bioengineering hadn’t changed about their bodies over the years was the instinctive response they felt to the adorable creatures of the universe. In a sense, she and Katie were more equals than they might think. Both of them simply responded to their incentives. How much faster could Affini progress have gone if the universe’s greatest scientists, engineers, and thinkers didn’t spend most of their time focused on individual sophonts?

Thatch sighed and nodded, putting her attention back onto the clerk. Time to deal with an equal. “I am a capable biologist in my own right, Montsechia. My body is operating well within the acceptable bounds laid out in current medical guidance, though I am aggressively cycling out the transplanted life from my time stranded to ensure this remains true for my entire bloom.”

The clerk spent a moment fussing over her Wing, arranging things such that the floret could curl up safely against her lap, just as Katie was curled up against Thatch’s. A conversation just between the adults in the room, then. “You know that checkups are for more than just physical health, Thatch. I can’t make you go, but I can strongly recommend that you attend.”

“I… There are many aboard this vessel with greater needs than mine. I do not wish to take more from them than I must.”

Montsechia reached a vine out across the table. After a moment, Thatch took it in one of her own, and the clerk continued. “I don’t really know you, Thatch, but nobody here does. I don’t know why you’re where you are, but people who don’t need to go to their checkups don’t have the kind of breakdowns you had.”

Thatch winced, and glanced down to make sure Katie was safely asleep. Thankfully, the girl seemed to have fallen back into slumber quickly, curled up on the chair by Thatch’s side with her head sandwiched between a thigh and a hand.

Montsechia’s vine, and voice, grew firmer. “You haven’t told your floret?”

“I wasn’t— It hasn’t come up,” Thatch admitted. She looked away. Both of them knew that wasn’t how this worked. If Thatch didn’t want it coming up and Katie didn’t know to push then it would take a lot of willpower to defeat that subconscious urge. Every affini was fully aware of the responsibility that their positions demanded. One couldn’t keep an intelligent and once-independent creature as a pet without putting their needs first in every respect. Thatch didn’t know if she could accept that responsibility all of the time. She felt the everpresent Affini need to take care of something, but there was a difference between the fantasy and the reality. If she accepted that level of control and responsibility then her mistakes would resonate. She could hurt more than just herself.

“I can’t make you attend for your own sake, Thatch, but you know that if this ends up harming that floret of yours then the vote will be fast and decisive and you will end up attending your checkups.” Thatch wilted. It was about as close to a direct threat as one could get. Montsechia was correct, of course, if any harm came to Katie then it would not be difficult to get a binding vote held on whether Thatch would attend. It was one thing to passively avoid something uncomfortable, but quite unthinkable to go against the results of a vote. Thatch may sometimes feel like a bad Affini, but she was still Affini.

“It will not,” Thatch replied, firmly. “Katie is fully capable of standing up for herself and would not allow me to bring her to harm.”

Montsechia raised an eyebrow. How strange, Thatch thought, that even in a conversation between affini alone, they still adopted the mannerisms of the local species. They had a whole universe to pull from, here. Thatch shuffled some leaves around, covering the remaining bioluminescent bulbs that still remained on her body with different stacks of leaves. She lacked any blues, but the light was naturally a little blue, so she had access to a few different shades. Not enough to speak with any nuance, but enough. Promise. Pet mine taken well care of. Take good care of me, too, Thatch flashed. She wasn’t hugely confident in her wording,

Montsechia’s other eyebrow rose to meet the first. “Well, aren’t you full of surprises? I didn’t realise we had anybody else aboard who’d been around those parts. Not that I have, my darling Wing found me here.”

Hmn. A long-range scout was an odd place for an independent jelly to find herself. Thatch glanced over at the sleeping floret, wondering if they might have more in common than Thatch had first thought. What had she been running from?

“A few years, a lifetime ago,” Thatch replied, eventually.

There was a tightness in Thatch’s core. She’d gotten so used to hiding herself from others that even giving out such a small fact stung. She regretted it immediately. This was so much easier with Katie. Katie was trusted, safe. Even before the girl had been hers she’d still been those things. Thatch could give her secrets away without worrying they’d be used against her. How could she trust anybody else on that level?

The bureaucrat glanced away for a moment, piecing together the obvious implication. “Ah! With first contact, then? A complicated time. Humanity has been my first and it is not as smooth as I had expected. Speaking to independents among our ward species did not quite prepare me for how ferals would behave.” Montsechia’s gaze grew a little darker for a moment.

“A little after that,” Thatch admitted. This was getting closer than she’d like to why she’d been running. She looked down at the innocent creature in her lap. ‘Innocent’. Guilty of plenty. There was a whole section of Katie’s paperwork stack that indirectly detailed the harms she had been forced to commit under the authority of the Terran Accord. Calling her innocent, as if she were unblemished by the hard truths of the universe, was unfair. Katie could be forgiven.

Thatch could not.

The girl in her lap stirred. Perhaps she was responding to the shift in Thatch’s mood, perhaps it was simple chance. Either way, Thatch took the opportunity for distraction. The floret’s eyes fluttered half open, lips quivering with gentle, half-formed words that Thatch silenced with a series of gentle strokes from the top of her head down to the small of her back. “Shh, it’s okay. Stay asleep for me now, please.”

Katie squirmed, perhaps working out a little discomfort, before shuffling closer, wrapping her arms and legs around Thatch’s limb and closing her eyes yet again.

Katie didn’t want Thatch running any more. She’d said as much, albeit with different words. They could have gone to a shuttle and flown off into the void together, but what kind of life would that be for a floret? Thatch didn’t know that she could handle existing inside such a grand civilisation, but Katie wanted better for her than endless escape. Katie wouldn’t let her run any longer. To keep Katie happy, Thatch had to figure out how to stay happy too.

Perhaps the next step on that journey was to start treating the Elettarium as a home, not just a temporary hideout. Its crew as people, not things to be avoided at all costs. Thatch spent a moment working up the courage to speak. “I was brought in to assist with the cotyledon program,” Thatch admitted. “Shortly after first contact. One of the complicated cases, back while we were still figuring out how to safely entwine hausteria with a homogeneous nervous system.”

The clerk’s expression softened. The rest of the story didn’t really need to be told. The Spectrum Jellies were a recent enough acquisition that there simply wasn’t time for both a happy ending and Thatch to have made her way over to the Terran front. One floret by a hundred and four was rare. Two was unheard of.

“Ah. I’m sorry. Those we could not help weigh the heaviest on us, hmn?” Montsechia’s vine curled deeper down Thatch’s. She almost sounded as if she understood, but surely not.

Surely not.

“Have you…?” Thatch wasn’t sure how to speak the question. Any way she worded it felt insufficient.

“I have lived for almost nine blooms, each and every one a natural ending. I do not think anybody reaches that without finding somebody they could not help. I am sorry you found that so early in your own journey.”

Thatch pointed her gaze firmly towards the desk. It was hard not to feel like a child sometimes. By affini social norms she was decades beyond adolescence, but a decade was very short indeed for a species that would never die. “Thank you.” She paused for a long breath, not for the breath itself, but so she could watch the gentle smile on Katie’s sleeping face as the scents washed over her.

Without that small, fragile creature Thatch would probably have been back in Affini space by now. Find some other small, out of the way ship to spool her hab onto, somewhere new to hide out until her fellow citizens got a little too close and she had to run again. Thatch—big, strong affini that she appeared to be—nonetheless found herself drawing a kind of strength she sorely lacked from her ‘weaker’ floret. Without that strength, she could never have continued her sentence.

“I did not expect anybody else to understand.”

Montsechia’s smile grew warmer, and her vine squeezed with a momentary pulse of heat. “The very young never do, dear. Your story is, like everyone’s, unique, but you are not alone. Believe me, I have seen the paperwork. We take care of the universe, but we must take care of each other, too. We—”

Wing’s pad buzzed, drawing both of their attentions to it. Thatch glanced down. Priority Incident: Medical bay six engaged emergency shutoff; feralist crew is panicking. Requesting xenodiplomacy support.

Thatch slid it over. “Dirt,” Montsechia swore, reaching over with a vine to tap her floret awake. “I suppose here’s our unforeseen disaster,” she continued, speaking both verbally and chromatically now that Wing was awake. “I apologise, Thatch, but I really must attend to this. Message me some time, hmn? Oh, and actually—”

Montsechia trailed a second vine over to Katie and tapped her on the head a few times. The girl woke up, glancing around until she spotted the clerk looking down at her. “Your owner here needs to attend her regular medical checkups, floret. Ensure it happens.”

Katie blinked. After a moment, she looked up at Thatch in silent question. Reluctantly, Thatch nodded, and Katie’s gaze returned back to Montsechia. “Yes, Miss Vidalii!”

“Good girl.” The potato slices were long gone by this point, but aboard an Affini vessel the headpats never ran dry.

The clerks were gone soon afterwards, carrying their mountain of paper as they hurried towards the nearest magrail station. Whatever had called them away was thankfully none of Thatch’s concern. All she had to worry about was the darling climbing up her torso to sit atop her shoulder.

“Hey.” Katie was a little breathless, having climbed with little explicit assistance. She would have had it in an instant had she asked, of course, but Thatch suspected it was that knowledge that had enabled her to do without.

“Hey yourself.” Thatch leaned back against her seat, reaching up to gently play with Katie’s toes. So much like fingers, on this species, but stubbier. It was very strange. Not not cute, but Thatch had to admit she was biased. She wiggled each in turn until one of them forced a laugh from her Katie.

“What are you doing?” Katie asked, once she’d pushed the laugh down.

“I believe the technical term is doting. Is it unpleasant?”

Katie shook her head. “Stars, no, but I am kinda ticklish there.”

“Hmn.” Thatch drew a vine across the skin, and Katie almost lost her balance between the giggles. Another pair of vines kept her safely in place. “I shall have to investigate this phenomenon further. For now, it is getting late, though you have spent much of the day asleep. How are you feeling?”

Katie raised a hand and waggled it from side to side. “I’ve only just woken up, I’m fine. You?”

“I am exhausted,” Thatch admitted. “Planetfall was less effort than Affini bureaucracy, and at least that was over quickly. It is done, at least, the clerks are content and your paperwork is all caught up.”

The precious floret hugged a vine close and nodded. “Thank you, I really appreciate the effort. I’d be fine to stay out, but I think you should get home, so, wanna head back?”

“I really do.” Thatch stood, stretched again, and then spent a moment sorting the debris of their meals and drinks into a careful pile which she carried over to set gently beside the hab unit running the cafe, where a sleeping Angel lay curled in somebody’s lap. They gave a grateful wave with one of their vines, but remained in place watching the stars. Judging by the way the affini in question appeared to glow and float an inch off of the ground, Thatch assumed they were an item.

It was a sign of how truly tired she was that she didn’t want to figure out how the affini had done it.

Katie took the vine she had been holding and pushed it forward. Thatch was so used to the treatment that she took a step forward on instinct, but after a whole day of dealing with Affini excess Thatch figured she deserved a little indulgence. The vine curled back around Katie’s torso and lowered her to the ground.

“Huh? What’s up, Th—”

Thatch snapped her fingers. Watching Katie’s expression crash into the sound was a delight. She really was going to make an exceptional floret, just as Thatch had suspected. The girl’s demeanour snapped in an instant. Her slouch straightened up, her eyes lost most of that tightly controlled light Thatch still allowed her, and then, on the very next beat of Thatch’s endless song came Katie’s part of the verse.

“Yes, Miss Aquae?”

“Down, girl.”

Katie blinked for a moment, then her knees buckled, dropping her to all fours in but a handful of moments. Thatch grinned, knowing the floret wouldn’t be able to look up sharply enough to see her breaking character. That was a lot faster than she’d reacted the last time, even if there was still a way to go. Mixing Terran and Affini training techniques seemed to be paying off. Speaking the command words in Thatch’s native tongue had the advantage of nice clean associations in the girl’s mind, as it was the only context in which she heard them and so wouldn’t have to pause to determine intent, at least once she’d really gotten used to it.

Of course, it wouldn’t be nearly as effective without Katie’s efforts. She was a natural at this, now that she’d helped Thatch surgically strip her of the resistance that had been hurting her so. ‘Broken’ had such negative connotations, but how could anybody look at any creature this beautiful and think it anything but fixed?

Thatch could see how that could be enough for so many of her people. Katie really was beautiful like this. If she could just rid herself of that niggling worry in the back of her head that this could all come crashing to disaster, then maybe it could be enough for Thatch too, but until then, she would simply have to ensure she knew Katie on such a fundamental level that there was nothing left that could do her harm that Thatch could not fix.

Thatch slipped a vine into the ring hanging down from Katie’s collar and set off home. “Heel,” she spoke, again in the affini dialect she’d grown up with. Not a command Katie knew yet, but a sharp tug on the leash got her moving all the same. Thatch needed to apply constant force to keep her in the right position, but that was okay. After a few moments of walking, she kneeled and slipped a treat into Katie’s mouth, along with a finger to remind her not to eat it without permission.

There was something intensely relaxing about doting on the thing like this. Thatch could just focus herself down to a fine point and know that any effort she expended here would be appreciated and enjoyed for years to come. Besides, Katie was too stars-damned cute not to. She sat there with a berry on her tongue, looking up with curiosity, a little confusion, and the first embers of the desperation that Thatch actually wanted.

Thatch removed the finger. The collar sitting tight around Katie’s neck was more than simple decoration; it was a project. A physical manifestation of what the pair of them could achieve together. Thatch alone never would have seen far enough outside of her own head to realise the possibilities, but Katie coming in with a fresh perspective and endless enthusiasm had breathed new life into Thatch’s faltering dreams.

Like many projects, it would not be done in a day. Thatch reached one hand into her chest, where she kept a small collection of essentials, and pulled out a handheld electrolytic hook, one of the tools she’d used to build the collar in the first place. With one vine she gently levered a section of Katie’s collar away from the skin and with another she tilted the girl’s head up to look towards her. The girl whimpered, unable to speak around the berry, but unable to keep her mind quiet alone.

There were a lot of tradeoffs involved in any delicate work of biotechnology, and this was no different. On the inside of the collar lay a complicated weave of functional foliage, operating everything from how it interfaced with Katie’s spinal column to the specifics of what pieces of Thatch’s beat would get amplified and which would not, how responsive that was to quick changes, and so on.

Thatch stared down into her pet’s eyes for a few moments, watching their surface carefully. The sharp, curious gaze she loved so much stared up at her, with all the micro-adjustments of her eye following Thatch’s rhythm with perfection, but without much detail.

There were many words for the concepts involved in the more subtle facets of domestication theory, but translations into human tongues were not easy. It was a complicated set of ideas that they often had no direct mapping for. Some liked ‘calibration’ for this, but Thatch liked ‘attunement’. Put a creature in a room with an affini they’d never met for an hour, and when they left that creature would probably have subconsciously attuned to the affini’s rhythm on a basic level. None of the details, but the really high level stuff. It wasn’t an effect that would last, nor would it have much meaningful effect in most.

The more time spent and the more active effort expended, the deeper that would go. The natural biological rhythms of an affini body were endlessly complex, but fractal. The higher layers could be understood and largely replicated without needing to dive deeper, but any intelligent creature would naturally find themselves drawn further in. They were patterns that demanded to be understood while never having an end to their depth. Katie was, at this point, so attuned that her heart would not know how to beat were it not for Thatch’s guiding song, but she could always go deeper. Every extra level understood would have her piecing together more and more detail from Thatch’s thoughts and feelings.

Thatch placed the electrolytic hook against the collar’s biotechnological weave and kept staring down into Katie’s eyes. As she shifted the hook, disrupting, remaking, and tuning the connections, she watched the way Katie’s gaze wavered. Sharp comprehension sharpened further, but Thatch quickly snuffed that out with an indulgent smile. “Do not worry yourself, pet.”

The hook shifted, and the comprehension began to fade. “Yes, that’s my good girl. No worries. No thoughts at all, really. Let me take you down to instinct, here.”

Katie managed a quiet gasp as the comprehension drained from her vision, replaced with a deeper adherence to the silent song that ruled her life.

Too much amplification and Katie would start getting overwhelmed. Too little and she wouldn’t be able to keep her mind silent. Too fast a response time and feelings would flash by too quickly for Katie to grasp, but too slow and she would miss things. Thatch tuned her pet moment by moment, watching the look in her eyes to determine her progress while speaking constant words of praise and encouragement. Sharpness softened; comprehension was replaced with the dumb adoration of a pet; confusion with soft contentment; and desperation flared as her mind emptied to make room for the sweet-tasting juices of the berry.

Thatch let Katie’s chin drop. “Such a good girl,” she spoke, taking a moment to scratch beneath the girl’s chin while she stowed her tool away. Like everything she’d been saying, it was in Affini, or at least the dialect Thatch had grown up with. Katie was in no state to understand speech either way, but like this her poor mind would be spared the stress of trying.

“Eat.” As Thatch spoke, she tried to imagine a strong, sharp sense of permission and gratitude for just a moment and hoped that Katie would pick up on it. Bodily rhythms were just another form of communication, really. A subconscious one for most, but talking all the same. Speaking with vocalised words was still new to Thatch, and Spectrum Chromaticity had never been something she’d gotten entirely comfortable with, but the whole-body vibrations of the Xa’a-ackétøth had been familiar for almost a century and this wasn’t really so different.

It’d turned the serpents to mush, too.

Katie was done with her treat in moments. They were small berries, intentionally so. Thatch plucked another from the transplanted material she had curled around her core, ready for the next cycle.

“Sit.” Katie knew that one. No treat just for that, just a few moments of gentle stroking and another burst of good feeling. “Heel.” Thatch started walking, with another tug on the leash to get Katie moving. After a few moments she seemed to get the picture, and so Thatch stopped and delivered another treat, paired with another blast of sharp permission and gratitude, and then verbal permission to eat.

At the slow speed of a few meters per minute, they had plenty of time to repeat the cycle as they made their way home. After five, Katie stopped needing a tug on the leash to start. After twenty, the sharp emotional click started to generate some of the excitement of a treat all by itself. After thirty, Thatch could walk slowly with her vine slack, Katie crawling at her heel like the very good girl that she was without needing much correction at all beyond the occasional reminder to heel when it looked like something was distracting her.

After a while, their journey gained speed. Thatch could only walk as fast as Katie could crawl, but the corrections became rarer, and so they had more time to actually move. The Elettarium was as populated as ever. It was late enough that the lights had started shifting down to an early evening twilight. Those still wandering were mostly focussed on one another, with only the occasional wave or smile in Thatch’s direction, or an adoring gasp from afar as they spotted the well-behaved pet strutting at her owner’s heel, bathing in the knowledge she was doing right. Katie was usually good at returning quiet greetings, but she was rather too focussed on her instructions to notice the world around her and so Thatch had to do that part herself.

It was inevitable that somebody would take a closer interest eventually. Thatch had barely avoided outside attention when she’d been alone, but she had to admit that Katie was simply too cute not to adore and could hardly hold an urge to do just that against anybody.

“Ho!” called a voice, waving over from the other side of the path. The pair of affini glanced around to make sure they wouldn’t get in the way, and then walked over. They had a creature of their own on a leash, though it was leaping between the trees and plants that lined the path. “Remember us?”

The shuttle pilots that had picked them up on Dirt? The specifics escaped her, but Thatch nodded. “I am afraid I do not recall your names, it was a complicated day.”

One pointed at the other. “Zona.” The other way around. “Xylem.” Both pointed up at their creature, currently climbing up the tallest tree in the area, and spoke at the same time. “Lily.”

Thatch named herself and Katie. Unfortunately, Katie tried to wander off to investigate Lily, and while in principle Thatch had no objection to that it was hardly good training to allow it. She pulled the girl back into place and repeated the command to heel, and then after Katie had stayed in place for a few moments delivered another treat and another emotional snap.

Xylem grinned down at the inhuman, and then back up at Thatch. “Nonfloret, huh?”

“She made a very compelling case for why I should change her mind.”

Zona nodded, going down to one knee to be closer to Katie’s level. “I’m glad she came to her senses. Lucky you, Thatch,” she said, glancing up. “Feralists make the most devoted little things, don’t they? Is she okay to touch?”

Thatch shook her head. “I do not think we are there with her training yet, and I would rather not wake her up. We are trying something a little different, and it is still in the uncertain stages. I am not sure whether she ever truly believed in feralism, however, she was simply misguided and lost.”

“Isn’t that— Oh dear,” Xylem paused, reaching out a vine a moment too late to prevent Lily from dashing up to Katie’s side and staring.

“Woah! Cool? Is that—” Lily slipped a finger beneath Katie’s collar and took a peek. Katie began to blink rapidly. The gem set into her collar shifted hue, away from Thatch’s gentle green/blue towards a warmer tinge, signaling elevating stress levels. “That’s so cool! How does it work?”

Thatch reached down and picked Katie up, hauling her into a one-handed embrace against her own chest. The other finger reached under her chin to tap the gem, shutting off the glow entirely. Katie’s eyes sharpened back up over long moments. “Aw, that felt nice,” she protested, gently. “At least until- oh, um.”

Katie squirmed around until she could look over at Lily, who was now in one of her own owners’ arms getting her own comfort. “Hey. I’m sorry, I just… I wasn’t expecting to see a Rinan. I checked the registry a little while back and I don’t think you were on it and— Oh! It’s you three, I’m sorry. Last time we met was kind of a lot, I wasn’t processing much, but it’s good to see you again!”

Xylem was busy carrying her floret, but Zona interjected with an answer. “We’re technically not crew, we mostly live in our own shuttle. Also, we haven’t been on board for a little while, we stayed behind on ‘Dirt’ to make sure we’d wrapped up Cici’s friends and our shuttle needed a few days to get out this far to meet back up. I… hope that Lily isn’t a problem?” The last words were spoken cautiously, as though she was worried she would need to navigate a difficult situation. The momentary glance up at Thatch was an unmistakable negotiation on which of them would step in if this devolved into disagreement.

“What?” Katie asked. “Oh, um, stars, no! I’m not a racist, I just… Humanity hasn’t been good to me either and my collar is really cool and I just wasn’t expecting to have to deal with, y’know. I’m sorry about what humanity tried to do to your people, Lily.”

Lily flailed to no clear benefit until Xylem rotated her upright. “Not your fault! Humans sucked, but Zona says they’re nice now and I don’t think you’re one anyway? You don’t smell like a human! Hey, do you wanna see my room back home? Xylem’s helping me build a rocket!”

Lily’s enthusiasm seemed catching, at least for Katie. The conversation quickly dived into the kind of deep technical detail that Thatch wasn’t enough of a xenohistorian to understand, and by silent agreement both Thatch and Xylem let their florets back down onto the ground. Thatch kept half her attention on Katie, just as she imagined half of the others’ attentions would be on Lily.

As the pair talked, they all continued on their journey. The Varie family hadn’t been going anywhere in specific, so they could all head off in the same direction.

“Heel,” Thatch ordered, just as she had been the whole journey. It was a practiced action now, starting to walk and ordering Katie close. To her delight, even without the collar active Katie immediately snapped to her side, walking while keeping pace without really seeming to notice exactly what she was doing. A quick snap of emotion put a bounce in the girl’s step and hopefully reinforced all the positive associations she had with following the instruction.

“That’s an unusual style of training,” Zona noted, speaking in the local Affini dialect. “Something you’re bringing in from elsewhere?”

Ah, good. Personal questions. Just what Thatch needed.

Ugh. Thatch reached down to gently stroke Katie’s head, soothing her. The girl had been interrupted midsentence, noticing the sudden turn in her mood and immediately shifting focus back to Thatch. She was right to do so, Thatch’s emotions didn’t match the moment. This wasn’t an interrogation. Not every conversation was speeding the countdown until Thatch had to run again. If she was staying here, then she really had to figure out how to talk to people.

At least there was one topic on which Thatch knew she could be confident. “It was Katie’s idea, actually. Old Terran techniques cleaned up and modernised some. There’s some prior art, but we’re making it our own. I’m finding that it’s difficult to make work without creating sharp divisions between headspaces, but there is clearly some bleedover,” Thatch explained, gesturing at the floret following at her heel. They kept the shop talk in Affini to avoid spoiling the illusion for the two florets. Katie knew the details, but that didn’t mean she wanted to be reminded of them when she could simply live them. “It wouldn’t be healthy to treat her like that all the time, so we’re experimenting with altered states of consciousness.”

“Most use xenodrugs for that,” Xylem noted. The two florets were chattering quietly between themselves, with the rise and fall in the cadences of their conversation naturally happening to align with their respective owners’ so nobody spoke over one another despite the multiple overlapping conversations.

Thatch shrugged. “We like to tinker. She’s mostly on a medicinal blend, and we’re working up her tolerances.”

Zona took a moment to scratch behind one of Lily’s wide ears. “Understandable! Our Lily here used to have a lot of trouble focusing on the details, so we switch between something that helps her think and something that helps her relax, and fiddle from there. Finding Lily out here really was a gift, we were starting to lose hope we’d find somebody who could fit into our lives.”

Xylem laughed. “Little did we guess that we’d be found by somebody who wanted to fit us into theirs. Our little Lilypad is going on the space adventure she always wanted to, we just do our scouting around that.”

While the people talked of pets, the pets were busy with subatomic physics. They lacked the depth of understanding that any affini interested in the topic would have, but they made up for it with their seemingly boundless enthusiasm.

Maybe Thatch had simply been looking at this civilisation wrong. It was a conclusion that was getting harder to avoid. On her own, all her knowledge and capability had amounted to nothing but unhappiness and regret. Maybe her fellow affini weren’t just taking pets because they were bored. Maybe the pets weren’t slowing them down at all. Thatch glanced down at hers with a gentle smile. She felt a burning need to give this one the universe, and a fledgling hope that between them they might actually be able to make it happen. Maybe the pets weren’t a reward for contributing to their great project. Maybe they were the project.

“—so if you build a lattice with that, you can keep most of the hypermetric shock outside, I think! The Terrans didn’t do it like that ‘cos it’s expensive, but we could do it right!” Katie seemed energised by the whole conversation, and Thatch found that energy catching. Sure, helping to hand-build a rocket that merged Terran-level technology with Affini-level sensibility wasn’t going to change the world by itself, but she had proof that the ’lower’ races still brought a much-needed injection of novelty and fresh perspective into their lives. Thatch ran a gentle finger along Katie’s collar, something she never could have built alone.

The affini side of the conversation stayed light. The two Varies talked about their time on Dirt, spawning a short discussion on how best to cook with Dirt-native ingredients that Thatch found herself actually quite enthusiastic about. Thatch discussed a little of her early years on Xa’aat, spiraling off into a few side discussions about the serpents themselves and considerations for caretaking of aquatic species, and by the time they arrived at Katie’s habitation unit Thatch felt an energy in her core that nobody but Katie had managed to inspire in decades.

Katie and Thatch waved the trio off, traded promises that they’d meet again soon, stepped inside the hab, closed the door, and collapsed into each other.

“I think that was literally all my social energy for today,” Katie admitted. “Do you wanna curl up in bed and watch old cartoons with me? Some of the floret cuts are actually really good.”

“Stars, yes.”

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