Chapter Thirty Six: Slipping
“Stop fucking around, Jack,” the man spat. One of the officers. He had the top few buttons of his uniform undone and a stick up his ass. One of the type that thought shouting at a problem would make it go away, and if anybody told him different he’d just shout louder.
Katie raised her hands in frustration, then let them fall. They were thirteen months into this fucking rebellion and everyone just kept wanting more and more. “Sir, do you know what happens if the exotic matter feed backflows?”
“I know what happens if those fucking xenos find us, recruit! We are jumping in one hour and if you can’t make that happen then you won’t be coming with us, do you understand?” the officer snarled. He hadn’t even been that high up, before the war. Some disgraced captain placed on desk duty, now in charge of one of humanity’s biggest war machines.
“Yes sir!” Fuck.
Fuck. Katie fucking hated hierarchy. She’d had such fire once, back when she was young enough to still believe the lies. If she worked hard she could be anything she wanted. She could change the universe. She could be happy. That’d been beaten out of her long ago and now the universe was getting devoured by killer plants in gargantuan ships. Now she didn’t even dare correct her own name. There was nothing to be gained in provoking him. If she gave him what he wanted maybe he’d go away.
Now all she had to do was figure out how to repair a cracked fuel line on a jump drive that was still on a cooldown cycle. Would they actually space her if she couldn’t manage it? Probably not: nobody else could keep the drive running, but that was a lot to bet on a ‘probably’.
Besides. Maybe the man was right. The enemy was out there and maybe if everyone pulled together then the killer plants could still be turned back. They could still save truth, justice, and the Terran way.
Katie sighed, grabbed her wrench, and did what had to be done. With bare minutes to spare and a little bit of elbow grease she managed to fix the crack. Her hands shook as she worked the drive’s controls, terrified that her hacked together repairs would falter or fail. They held. She felt the kick in her chest bursting out from the reaction chamber as the exotic matter mix stabbed a hole through spacetime and the electromagnet array guided that hole in the right direction.
The klaxon of battle a moment later confirmed they’d reached their destination. All around her the ship came to life. She heard the rising hum of a reactor shifting to unsustainable output along with the echoing clangs of slugs loading into the dozens of point defense cannons mounted along the hull. The real star of the show, though, was the railgun.
Two long spokes ran throughout the entire ship. The edges of a barrel hundreds of meters long lay barely beneath Katie’s feet. That was why Indomitable’s reactor was half again as large as most other ships this scale. The Catastrophe class was well named. If there was one in local space you did what it said or the results would be catastrophic.
Katie could feel the hypercapacitors charging. They gave the air a metallic tang and fuzzed her hair. She could feel the latent energy dancing on her skin. This could not possibly be healthy but no Terran Cosmic Navy battlecruiser had ever been built to keep anybody healthy.
“Brace, brace!” came the call over the tinny intercom. Katie kicked off of one wall and sailed through the air for a moment, landing on the far side of the room to brace against one of the handholds. Electric power sparked through the air as she reached to touch it, burning her finger. She had to grit her teeth just to handle the pain of holding onto an electrical ground while the ship’s weaponry forced a charge upon her.
The railgun fired. The whole ship recoiled, slamming Katie into the wall hard enough to knock the breath from her body. The lights flickered and died and for a moment all was silent. Even life support faltered. The only light in the room was the battery-backed temperature readout of the rapidly heating exotic matter containment unit. Katie felt her heart start to sink. Either power came back on within the next twenty seconds or it wouldn’t matter if they’d hit. A containment breach would kill them all anyway.
It took fifteen seconds. The lights returned one by one and the emergency beeping of the EMCU silenced. Finally, the radio hissed back into life.
“Direct hit! Xeno ship is down, repeat, xeno ship is down!”
Katie’s eyes snapped open. She was breathing heavily, body trapped in a panic her sleeping mind hadn’t noticed until the dissonance had grown so great it forced her awake. Her imagination clung tightly to the dream’s imagery, pushing visions of a shattered affini ship to her attention. It was the Elettarium, of course. The only Affini vessel Katie knew in enough detail to imagine.
Shattered arcs spun freely on nothing but leftover momentum. Fore and aft drifted apart in a cloud of the dead. Kilometer-scale leaves twirled away into the shadowy depths. Her little haven in an uncaring universe torn apart and broken through the ignorance of Terran anger.
Katie shook her head quickly, squeezing shut her eyes. It wasn’t real. It wasn’t-
There was a soft groan from all around her, followed by a gentle shift of weight on the bed that almost sent the girl tumbling to the side. “Are you alright, Katie?”
Thatch. Thatch thatch thatch thatch. Katie spent a moment frantically searching around trying to spot her saviour, but found only that their bedroom was covered in an evenly spaced wild splatter of vines, leaves, and bark. Maybe most of it was concentrated on the unreasonably large bed, if Katie was generous with her counting—which when it came to Thatch, she was—but plenty draped over the side to cover the floor. One had somehow managed to get wedged in the bedroom door, keeping it open just a crack. Another was somehow draped over the frame of the room’s full height window into space. Uncountably many curled around Katie’s body.
Her memories of the night before were just a vague cloud of happiness now they’d reached the morning, but apparently they’d made a mess in the process.
Katie shrugged, then selected a thick vine near herself to hug close. It squirmed in her grip, pulsing with a gentle heat that provided both comfort and clarity to her panicking mind She nodded twice then unceremoniously buried her face in some random pile of leaves. “I’m okay. I’m good. Just nightmare.”
“Mmh. Tell me about it.” Thatch’s voice was like a salve. That deep-seated need to obey was almost manageable when Katie was at her best, becoming ‘merely’ the strongest incentive she’d ever felt. When she wasn’t quite so sober, had the collar turned on, was already tangled up in the creature, or was otherwise at a disadvantage—such as when just having woken up from a nightmare—it was quite irresistible. She was at a disadvantage most of the time, if Katie was honest.
“Yes, Miss Aquae!” Katie chirped, leaning into the urges she felt that pressed her towards politeness, respect, and deference. It was comfortable. It reminded her of what she wasn’t. The things she was no longer capable of. Her nightmare could never be reality now. She could never use her knowledge to cause harm again. “I dreamed I was back on the Indomitable, before I met you, but… it wasn’t what really happened. It was… I think we won? Or at least, we achieved something. I was getting yelled at by the old captain, which, that’s realistic, but I managed to fix something I wouldn’t really have been able to fix back then and we jumped and ambushed the Elettarium and—” Katie took a deep breath and shivered. An image of all the ship’s beauty scattered to the void forced itself to the front of her mind unbidden. “Thatch, what would have actually happened if we’d managed to get off a railgun slug in the right direction? If we hit a weak point? If I’d done everything right back when I had no idea what right was?”
The plantmass surrounding Katie softly buzzed, drawing out a gentle gasp from between surprised lips. She felt it all over her body like it was her own skin. Katie glanced down and— Oh. Was she still dreaming? She looked down at a version of herself but floral. Katie blinked a few times, lifting her arm,a and flexed her hand. It moved like she did but rendered in black and red leaf with dozens of delicate vines beneath forming the actual structure. It seemed a little thicker than her actual hand, but only just.
Katie stared, moving her fingers back and forth just to watch the way they bent.
Inhuman. Strange butterflies danced in the pit of Katie’s stomach. Surely this was just another dream. This wasn’t what things were really like.
Katie was beautiful. She glanced down to find her entire form painted by the same brush like she were some diminutive affini herself. Instead of fragile human skin grown by chance she wore delicate vinework built by an artist. She was like Thatch herself, in a way. Less imposing. Cuter.
Thatch pulled the girl’s attention back to the present with the first syllable of her first word. “—looked into that, actually. A Terran vessel of the same class did manage to ambush a small transport, much like the kind we rode up to the Elettarium in. The official report listed as casualties… ah, let’s see… Maybe I can get it up on the screen.” Thatch paused, then spoke in a louder voice, presumably directed towards the hab unit’s voice control. “Hab, please bring up the report on the Unsinkable incident.”
The machine spoke back in a sickly-sweet tone: “You got it, sweet pea! A cute lil’ thing like you can get anything your owner is happy to give you!” The room’s lights took on a shimmering pink glow for a moment.
Katie couldn’t help but laugh. She was pretty sure she’d screwed up the language selection when she’d switched things back to English/Floret.
Thatch rolled her eyes, or— Katie blinked. Katie didn’t even know where Thatch’s eyes were right then but she still got the sense with the same kind of intensity as if she’d watched it happen. Neat. “Are you sure there are not configuration values you have missed, Katie?” Thatch asked.
Katie shrugged. “I think a bunch of settings went away after we updated my paperwork. Uh, including access to all the owner-level stuff.”
Thatch chuckled. “Which I also do not have access to, as this is your unit, I see. I suppose our trajectory has been somewhat unusual. I shall put up with this for now. Anyway, here it is.” Thatch quoted: “Even though the Terran ‘weapons’ are super cute and incredibly harmless, they sometimes build them really big!! This one fired chunks of metal almost as heavy as the shuttle, so when they crashed into each other, the shuttle was thrown around a bit!! One of the florets aboard got a bit upset when their favourite plushie lost one of its eyes, but otherwise everyone was okay!!!! (The plushie was repaired, and the shuttle then turned around and its crew captured the Terran ship’s crew and they’re all very good florets now: everyone was okay!!!!!!)”
Katie wrinkled her nose, staring at the screen with a tilted head. “Do you ever feel like Terrans get a little infantilised in these reports?”
The vine stuck in the door tugged itself free and vwipped through the air to brush against Katie’s cheek, then pinned her to the bed while Thatch pulled herself together. In a display of control that Katie fully recognised she was biologically hardwired to find very impressive that vine turned out to be the tip of Thatch’s little finger, which held Katie down with a force she couldn’t hope to overcome.
Katie found it very impressive.
Her dork’s other hand came up to brush Katie’s hair out of her face, then tickled one cheek with a knuckle. “Of course, my precious little pet, you are far more noteworthy. Call up the Indomitable incident for me, won’t you?”
Katie whimpered. This wasn’t fair. She squirmed left, right, and any other direction she could think of, but one little finger against her chest kept her pinned in a way she simply couldn’t overcome. She was pretty sure that any chemical inebriation from the night before would have faded by now yet the fractional contact still demanded her full attention. She could hardly focus at all, but she had an order. “Ah— I— H- hab, bring up the r-report on the Indomitable incident?”
There was a moment’s pause while the machines processed the request. The lights dimmed while they were working then returned to full brightness as they began to speak. “Say please,” they responded, voice clipped and firm. Katie flushed. They could do that? She looked up at Thatch hoping for some help and got none.
Another pause for processing. Katie bit her lip, feeling the heat against her cheeks rising. The affini promise of being given everything she could ever want hadn’t mentioned that she’d have to beg. After a few moments, the machines had their answer: “No. Be a good girl and ask properly.”
Katie let out a flustered weh. Whoever had recorded these lines had clearly had fun with this and it wasn’t at all fair that it was working. Hadn’t she been above this, once? “Nnngh.” She looked up at Thatch and silently tried to will her into helping. She got nothing more than an amused smirk. “Fine! Please, pretty please may I see the report on the Indomitable incident, hab? I’m a little pet who has to beg computers to run searches now and please may I be granted the results?”
“Of course you may, you precious little—” The voice cut over into another recorded in something that sounded suspiciously like Thatch’s gravelly tones— “Katie!—” Back to the original voice. “You only had to ask, silly.”
The screen finally switched to display the report, but after a few seconds it blurred out. The machines piped up again. “Say thank you.”
Katie whimpered. “Thank you?” Thatch was enjoying this. They’d see how much she was enjoying it if the machines tried to pull this on her, though suspiciously they never had. Maybe they knew better.
“You’re very welcome, cupcake. Enjoy your reading.” Before boarding the Elettarium, Katie would have sworn that computers couldn’t be smug. Like many things from her prior self, that had been incorrect.
The report came back into focus and Katie’s ordeal seemed to finally be over, except that Thatch was already scrolling to a specific section. “Be a dear and read that out for me, hmn?”
Katie nodded rapidly. When the machines told her to do something it was kind of embarrassing—though not really in a bad way, if she was honest with herself. It was exciting to have such a concrete reminder of her place in this society.
When Thatch told her to do something it was different. It was purpose. Identity. Thatch didn’t remind Katie of her place: she defined it.
“Yes, Miss Aquae! Uh, let’s see… After most of the cuties aboard were rescued, we hit a bit of a snag!” Katie paused and glanced up at her owner. “How am I meant to pronounce five exclamation marks, Miss?”
Thatch shrugged. “I don’t think your vocal system is capable of it; just do what you can.”
Katie nodded firmly. “We got all the humans, but there was a sneaky Katie hiding behind a non-standard security system that hadn’t been incapacitated by the gas! The poor thing was so scared she tried to scuttle the ship to get away! Thankfully, Thatch Aquae was there to calm her down and after a small detour she became a very good girl! The destruction of the Indomitable was responsible for: One bad dream from a floret who had to watch (soothed via rapidly applied squishing); The loss of one of the Elettarium’s cargo chutes (replaced by the automated repair systems); and one scratch on the hull, which after some discussion was not repaired but instead dedicated to the Katie.”
Katie took a long breath, held it, and then let it out as a longer sigh. “This is definitely infantilising, but it’s actually really nice to read something that… just accepts my inhumanity?” She was still smiling.
“Hmn,” Thatch chuffed. “Interesting. You shall be wanting the certificate, then?” Thatch asked, using the tip of a vine to select one of the many, many items that linked off to other records in the Affini computer system. Apparently they’d engraved Katie’s name onto the hull next to the scratch.
This damage caused by Katie Aquae, Second Floret! She is very sorry, and we are all very proud of her.
Katie stared for a few moments. “Does that technically make the entire ship my certificate?”
“At least that hull panel, I would think.” Thatch rolled her eyes. Her voice was so dry Katie felt the need to drink a glass of water. “Before you ask, I don’t know why we’re like this either.”
“Probably because most of us came from a society where the idea of anybody sincerely celebrating our achievements was more alien than you are. I didn’t really get to be proud of anything I achieved before, because all I’d get for doing the impossible was shouted at by somebody who thought I could have done it faster.” Katie gestured at the screen. “This is a little silly, but actually, no, I’ll take somebody getting a bit too enthusiastic about celebrating something I did over what I used to have.”
The gentle sense of surprise wafting down over her like a gentle scent on the breeze was a worthy reward, Katie thought, for managing to exceed Thatch’s expectations. She grinned upwards. “So where’s my certificate, Miss Aquae?”
The affini stared for a moment, then sighed with a gentle smile, resting a hand on Katie’s head. “You really are turning into a floret, I see. Perhaps you will make me an Affini yet.” She stood up, finally releasing Katie, and headed for the door. Katie scrambled along the long journey to one of the bed’s edges so she could follow, but Thatch spoke a word she didn’t quite catch and Katie found herself stopping dead. “I will return presently, pet.”
Thatch left. The bedroom door slid closed behind her.
The room suddenly felt so quiet.
Katie wasn’t really alone. She knew Thatch was just one room away. She still felt her emotions starting to droop the moment she had the room to herself. Katie still felt the gentle happiness and gratitude that characterised her life now, but the intensity was gone and the texture felt coarse and uncomfortable. Katie let out a quiet cry, fighting the urge to call her affini back in.
This was ridiculous. She couldn’t be kept company literally every second of every day. She had to be able to exist alone sometimes. She could be independent, for Thatch, right? For a few minutes? It wasn’t much.
Katie sat on the bed and stared at the door, waiting for Thatch to return.
No, that was ridiculous too!
Katie could be left alone! She just needed a distraction. That was all. Katie looked around the room but nothing seemed to draw her enthusiasm. She looked down at her pale human arms.
Oh. Human. She’d been expecting the floral pattern from before.
Thatch must have gotten very cozy with her overnight. It had happened before but Katie hadn’t exactly been thinking straight when she’d woken up. For a moment, she had allowed herself to imagine that the inhuman appearance might not have been merely skin deep.
Why did acknowledging that hurt so much? Katie had lived her entire life with these arms. Hell, she’d put a lot of work into getting them this far. The skin was soft, the hairs were practically transparent, and though there were a few blemishes from old wounds or accidents Katie found she didn’t mind those. They were signs of things she had actually done. Her body was a project she’d been working on for years. A project Thatch had been working on for months. It was one of their success stories.
So why had all those butterflies from before fallen down the pit that had just opened up in her stomach? Katie looked at her very human fingers flexing and not a single butterfly dared to fly. Why? Just because she’d let herself imagine for a moment that she could be something more than just human?
Katie groaned. Back when she’d been a child she’d been depressed and didn’t know why, but it wasn’t until she’d started to make real progress on her transition that gender dysphoria had really started to hit. Was she going to have to go through the same thing again, except with inhumanity she could do little about? It wasn’t like she could get rid of her arm.
Katie’s eyes snapped back to the door as it chimed and slid open. All in a rush the colour came back into the world as Thatch Aquae walked in carrying a sheet of paper. Katie scampered over to the side of the bed to meet her person there and received a rough ruffling of her hair in response. Her plant chuckled. All was right with the world again.
Thatch sat down and Katie immediately draped herself over the affini’s leg. “Apologies, that took a few minutes longer than expected. The compiler refused to compile it because apparently that is insufficiently fancy. One of Cici’s people is doing deliveries now, however, so it only took a few minutes to have this delivered from the paper forest in the Botanical Gardens.” She held out an actual certificate for Katie to take.
The paper itself was thick and luxurious, marked with ink in rich colours and a design that was—by Affini standards—positively restrained. Which was to say that it was the most ostentatious certificate Katie had ever seen by some margin.
Katie glanced over the text. This award certifies that Katie Aquae, Second Floret, pet of Thatch Aqaue, Second Bloom did successfully damage the Affini Light Scout Elettarium during her capture with quick thinking, clever action, and impressive bravery!
Apparently the Affini tracked who managed to actually damage any of their ships, and Katie was now a member of an exclusive list of the most capable rebels. In her old society, Katie would have been worried about being on that kind of list, but here it really did seem that they just found her antics cute.
Thatch retrieved the certificate, pinching it between two fingers. “I shall frame it and hang it on a wall, I suppose.”
“It is kind of weird to celebrate me almost killing you, huh?”
Thatch paused, frowned, and considered. A moment later she shook her head. “No, I am very proud of you for this,” she confirmed, gesturing with the certificate as she carefully placed it on a bedside table. “But it feels insufficient. Why reward you only for this one action that nobody could have missed, as if your smaller victories are worth less simply because they are harder to see? Yes, your actions aboard the Indomitable were brave, clever, and impressive, but were they braver than standing before an Affini captain and demanding your independence? More clever than you forcing me out of my shell? More impressive than our speed record on Dirt? No, and yet this is what gets celebrated. It feels insufficient. You are so much more than this one relic of your prior feralist era.”
Katie blinked a few times. “You… don’t need anybody’s permission to make certificates, right?”
Thatch froze. Her head slowly tilted down to meet Katie’s gaze. “I… do not, no. I can simply register your achievements myself.”
A vine wrapped around Katie’s torso to lift her free then placed her to one side while Thatch herself stood. “I will return presently,” she declared, and made for the door.
Katie hurried to follow. “Hang on, wait, I actually wanted to talk to you about something!” she called. In response, a vine came to pick her up, delivering her to Thatch’s shoulder. “Thank you. Um, you’re a bioengineer, right?”
Thatch scratched under Katie’s chin with a single gentle finger. “Good girl! You can remember simple facts about your owner.”
“Dork,” Katie shot back, sticking out her tongue. “No, I mean… I don’t know what you specialise in. Do you know anything about, like… enhancements? Or prosthetics? Or… jeez, that’s a weird question.”
Thatch made her way over to the Affini-scale chair they’d constructed, grabbing her own tablet as she went. She began writing. It was in Affini but Katie could guess what she was doing and it was adorable.
“Biotechnological integration is my specialty, actually. That is why I was considered the best available candidate for Caeca. That necessitates a deep understanding of biological form as well as how nervous and cognitive systems usually operate. Learning the intricacies of the human-standard body was a matter of some light bedtime reading. Admittedly I have fallen somewhat out of practice with the practical aspects.” Her stylus scribbled over the surface of the pad while she spoke, writing beautiful, flowing letters that Katie couldn’t begin to read.
“Do you think you could still do it?” Katie bit her lip. What was she doing?
A hand reached up to pet Katie’s head. “I imagine so, it has only been fifty years. Why do you ask?”
Katie took a deep breath. “What if I wanted that?”
Thatch’s artistic handwriting snapped off into a sharp line that quickly escaped the tablet entirely as she twitched and sent the stylus flying across the room. She froze in place. Katie felt the vinework lattice beneath her squirming, lasting long moments before her plant eventually formed response. “I think I need to say yellow here,” Thatch admitted.
Katie frowned, sitting up in surprise while nodding firmly. “Of course, what’s wrong?”
“Is this a hypothetical question, Katie?”
Straight to the hard parts, then. Katie shrugged. “I don’t really know, Miss. We were all tangled together when I woke up this morning and it took me a while to realise what had happened, and when I did I was… disappointed? I don’t know what I want, but I keep looking at myself and seeing someone human?”
“You are not, you know that. We have it in black and white.” Thatch’s attention was wholly on Katie now, with the tablet lying forgotten on her lap.
Katie carefully climbed down and sat on it, like it were a makeshift chair. “But I feel it, y’know? People told me the same thing about my transition. I didn’t need to make any changes because I was already a girl, but like, it doesn’t feel like it, and it doesn’t help when I know that what everyone sees isn’t me. I don’t want to have to explain my weirdnesses to everybody I ever meet to get them to not, uh… deadspecies me? There’s probably a better term.” Katie shrugged and leaned forward to hug into her plant’s stomach. “Do you wanna tell me what’s wrong? I’m sorry, I didn’t mean this to be scary.”
“You have done nothing wrong.” Thatch insisted, holding Katie close with one arm. She looked down at the girl for a moment, then held out her other arm, dissolving it in the process, and then used the pieces to gently wrap one of Katie’s in a floral embrace. “I apologise. You could not possibly be aware of the details. In cases where a creature’s original body can not be preserved, we do create replacements, but those replacements need some way to communicate with the brain and for that we will use a Haustoric Implant by preference.”
Thatch pulled the temporary weave she was building tight. She was moving slow and careful, working fine vines twixt fragile fingers. For a moment she moved Katie’s arm as if it were her own, testing the limits of her movement and stretching her hand into all the awkward positions a humanlike hand could get into. Eventually, she passed control over to Katie.
“I have many complicated emotions tangled up in this area.” Thatch looked away.
Katie shuffled to her feet—she could stand on the tablet just fine, it wasn’t like she could do anything to break it—and pressed her ‘augmented’ hand to Thatch’s cheek. The lattice of vines was thin enough that she could still kind of feel, but it was like touching something through a thick glove. “Hey, we won’t do anything we aren’t both comfortable with. This isn’t the same as Caeca. I’m not dying, and we’re not talking about anything experimental.”
Katie could feel Thatch quiver in intimate detail and the covering on her arm couldn’t help but shiver in turn. Katie pressed her head beneath Thatch’s chin and used her unadorned arm to hug around one shoulder. “Right?” she asked.
Thatch looked away. “I…” She hesitated. “Right. It would of course be safe, you are right. Nothing experimental.”
Katie nodded quickly. She could feel a ripple of uncertainty dancing across her sixth sense. “It’s okay. You aren’t forcing me into anything.”
Thatch let out a soft sigh, paired with a nod and a weak smile. Her scent rippled over Katie, washing away what little energy she had. She sank, letting out a quiet whimper. “May I please curl up in your lap now, Miss?”
Katie proceeded to do just that after a difficult to explain, but clear, sense of permission struck her. It was so much easier to just let herself exist in Thatch’s care. Thatch would take care of everything. Katie didn’t need to worry herself over it. She didn’t need to think.
It hardly took moments before the girl slipped into slumber, curled up on Thatch’s lap with a large tablet balanced atop her. The affini continued writing out all the achievements for which she was to be praised. It would take a while.