Chapter Thirty Seven: Applied Electromechanics
“I’m fine, I’m fine!” Katie protested, trying and failing to prevent Thatch from smoothing out the overlaid foliage of her dress for what must have been the tenth time that morning. “Thatch, you’re fussing.”
They stood just outside their nearest magrail station, Thatch down on one knee as she made sure Katie was properly groomed. They had planned to be out of the house by mid-morning but the ship lights were as bright as they were going to get and both of them were hours late to their respective appointments.
Thatch had explained that most appointments across the Affini Compact assumed that the attendees would take anywhere between a hour to several days to actually turn up. She had done so in a tone of voice that had suggested she was above this, while at the same time distracting herself by brushing Katie’s hair for the third time while already an hour late for her own appointment.
The plant grumbled. “Yes well, you are very cute, and I do not actually wish to attend my checkup.” She sounded almost petulant, but both of them knew she was going to go.
“You said you’d go to your checkups, Thatch.” Katie’s plant put a finger to her jaw, gently pressing in. Katie’s mouth opened before she’d recognised what she was doing. She flushed while Thatch poked around inside, running a finger along her gums and inspecting her tongue. “Ahm fii!” Katie protested, but was quickly shushed.
Thatch continued her inspection for long moments, checking over a list of things she knew full well were up to her standards. Katie was clean and well maintained, with a gentle floral scent. Her clothing was clean, sharp, and stylish—at least according to two sophonts without a sense of style to share between them—and her communicator was tucked into a pocket Thatch had been so kind as to stitch. If Katie got lost or scared, her collar would ping Thatch to come pick her up. If she stayed out too long, the same would happen. The level of surveillance was honestly a little baffling, but Katie found herself appreciating it. Obviously Thatch should know where she was at all times. That just made sense.
If anything Thatch looked a little scruffy by comparison. Her foliage had been well pruned, but she’d woken up with twigs sticking out of her hair and had refused to let Katie fix it. That old visual imagery didn’t quite have the same implications on an affini, admittedly.
Eventually Thatch seemed happy that Katie had not gotten untidy on the walk over. Katie got the sense, anyway, and she was growing to trust her subconscious hunches. She smiled up and—
Nope, the last thing either of them needed was twenty minutes lost to an adoration loop. Katie fought the urge to sink into it anyway. Instead, she stepped forward and hugged her plant as tight as she could manage. “You’re going to do fine, hon. I’ve watched you do scarier things than an appointment, and I’ll be here when you get back.” Thatch draped a vine over her back and squeezed back.
Stars, why did this have to end?
“Alright.” Thatch eventually released her, returning to her full height. “Make sure you check in every half hour, and please do have fun. I expect you to be on your best behaviour, understand? Good girl. Off you go.”
“Yes, Miss Aquae!” Katie chirped, stepping backwards into the awaiting pod. “Good luck with your appointment! I love you!”
The pod door slid closed and, for the first time in a long while, Katie was properly alone. Half the colours in the world seemed to wink out, leaving her feeling empty and lonely. Part of her wanted to just hit the emergency stop right away, dash back out of the pod, and just go with Thatch to her thing.
Instead, she gave her plant a wave through the transparent pod door as she was smoothly whisked away. The ship’s botanical gardens were where they handled the well-being of thousands of different species of flora, and the ship’s affini themselves were ultimately just another kind of plant. Unfortunately, that also made it a difficult environment for anybody not used to intense xenodrugs to exist within.
This was fine. Katie could handle a few hours alone. She had her collar around her neck and that was supposed to help her feel comfortable. She had Thatch a petal-wiggle away on her communicator if she really needed it. She’d be fine. It was fine. She was happier than she’d ever been, a few hours away from Thatch couldn’t be all that bad.
Besides. Katie was supposed to be making friends here. She’d have distractions. The pod whisked her along the habitable arc at incredible speed, but her destination was the ship’s base, over where the docking bays lay. As the pod slowed to a stop near her destination Katie felt the pull of false gravity weaken and slowly vanish entirely.
As the doors opened she was greeted by somebody she didn’t know. The affini was as tall as any, but beanpole thin with limbs that tapered off into nothingness. Two of her four arms ended in hands, while the others ended with fine looking vines. Her wooden face bore a smile and her ochre eyes twinkled bright. “You must be Katie, right?”
“Uh?” Katie asked. Was she supposed to talk to strangers? In Thatch’s opinion, there was no such thing as a dangerous affini, but Katie was fully aware that some of Thatch’s opinions about the Affini Compact were simply incorrect and how was she meant to come to a decision here? She reached for her gut instinct only to find it as lost and confused as the rest of her.
A voice called out from behind the new affini: “Katie!!”
Katie leaned to one side in time to catch Cici floating towards her at an intimidating speed. Though the machine was a good foot and a half shorter than she was, Katie still felt a complicated mix of emotions as the animal parts of her brain recognised the demilitarised war machine hurtling towards her on jets of compressed air. As it closed in, jets on the front slowed it to a crawl so that, despite the lack of gravity, it could still nuzzle into Katie’s side.
“Hey you,” Katie laughed, giving the affectionate machine a pat on the chassis. Some of her melancholy lifted, scared away by the presence of a friend. She held on as it moved away, pulling them both from the pod, which promptly left. “This the new friend you were telling me about?”
“One of—them!—Serrat Dentate, Third Bloom—is very nice!” Cici’s speech was becoming more rhythmic every time Katie spoke to it. Maybe it was just because so many of its vocal samples came from affini now, or maybe it was simply falling under the Affini’s spell at a rapid speed. Either way, Katie found herself tapping a finger against its casing in time with the beat.
Katie waved at the new affini. “Good afternoon, then, Miss Dentate.” She got a wave and a greeting in return, and the three of them headed out towards one of the docking bays.
Idle chatter quickly filled the silence but Katie found herself not really engaging. It wasn’t that she had nothing to say, her head just felt sluggish. By the time she had a response the conversation had already moved on. Cici’s speech was still stilted and hesitant, but the clips now played off at a rapid pace and it and the affini clearly had a rapport. It was learning and growing at an intimidating rate.
Serrat had a vine coiled through Cici’s outer shell. The machine was a whirlwind of noise and motion. Fans spun, lights blinked. Whatever mechanic compressed the air for use as propellant certainly wasn’t quiet, either. Katie rested the back of her hand against one of the hot strips of corrugated metal that lay on the back of Cici’s shell, radiating off heat far more efficiently than Katie could have managed. Vacuum tubes glowed with a gentle waver as electricity poured through them; electromechanical elements snapped shut and clicked open. Cici was no beast machine. It was just a machine.
Katie wasn’t feeling jealousy, exactly, she didn’t think. Envy, maybe? Nobody would accuse Cici of being human. It was dumb, Cici was literally mechanical, but Katie found herself longing. They moved at a steady pace: Serrat hooked vines through honeycomb lattice plates; Cici had intake vents collecting air to use as propellant; and then there was squishy Katie who, should she be stranded out of reach of a wall or handhold would simply have to wait to be rescued.
Not that that was even a problem. Katie knew she was somewhere she’d always be caught, and she knew that if she needed to be useful, Thatch would teach her everything she needed to know. She didn’t mind relying on others for things. That was the whole point of what they were doing here, wasn’t it? Thatch could provide for Katie in a way she could never do herself, while at the same time Thatch had needs that only Katie could provide. It wasn’t a problem. This wasn’t about capability, she didn’t think.
So why did she feel like the weight in her stomach was going to pull her down to the ground all by itself, gravity or not?
Katie heard something beeping. Was that her collar? She wasn’t panicking again, was she? Did she— Katie’s eyes focused on the gentle glow of a soft green light in shining in front of her eyes, flickering in a steady cadence.
“Katie—are you okay?” Cici asked. The first clip was in Katie’s own voice. The second was in Thatch’s, though barely recognisable without the sledgehammer blow to Katie’s emotions she was used to every word imparting.
Katie wondered what Thatch was doing. She’d be in the Gardens by now, right? Did Affini medical establishments have waiting rooms?
Katie’s lips curled up into a gentle smile, imagining her dumb plant sitting on a chair reading a six month old copy of some magazine, waiting her turn. It probably wasn’t anything like that, but the image had a sense of normality that was grounding. Katie blinked slowly, then pulled herself back to the present to find a wide array of sensors all pointing at her with a curious quiver.
“I’m, yeah, sorry. I’m okay. I’m just not used to being alone, I guess,” she admitted, fingers absent mindedly reaching up to brush across her nametag. She held it tight, took a deep breath. She should be able to do this. They’d taken steps. Katie could feel a static facsimile of Thatch’s emotional blanket being played back from the gem in her collar. She had instructions to follow and a schedule for checkins. She had to be able to deal with being apart from her plant. What were they gonna do, stay in the same room as one another for the rest of her life?
Katie clung to her nametag for a moment longer, then let it go. “But I’m not alone. Hey, how’ve you been?”
They continued on their journey again. Cici painted a harrowing picture of treaty negotiations going into overtime with a Vonn Neumann probe on one side of the table and a jellyfish out for blood on the other. It seemed Wing had won and Cici’s ‘species’ would be surprised to learn that empowering each ‘independent’ unit to negotiate the terms of first contact had some severe consequences.
Katie had to admit, she wasn’t entirely sure that Cici hadn’t intentionally thrown the game.
For her part, Katie updated the probe on her own goings on. The status lights dimmed a little as she described her own experiences with Affini xenobureaucracy. The poor thing still hadn’t found an owner yet, Katie guessed. She didn’t understand how, given how thoroughly submissive and domesticatable the machine seemed.
Serrat kept quiet, apparently realising that an unfamiliar face was adding to Katie’s stress. Katie felt kind of bad about that, but having an affini watching over them did help. Things could only go so far wrong when there was an affini in the room.
They reached their destination quickly enough. In the more residential areas of the ship it wasn’t unusual at all to see signage with four or five different translations all in one place, but here there was only Affini script. This was a functional area with what seemed like dozens of docking bays each large enough to house a significant ship, or several smaller ones.
The specific bay they were heading towards held a shuttle much like Katie had seen before, but with a large hexagonal structure docked to the back of it. Given the diagrams June had showed her, Katie guessed that was a whole habitation unit back there. There was another, smaller vehicle docked at the other side of the bay, a long and bulbous looking thing that seemed to lack the elegance of usual Affini design.
As they neared the shuttle a panel on the side opened up to reveal one of the two shuttle pilots. “Ho!” called… Katie had to admit, she still mixed the pair up. They didn’t even look all that similar, Katie was apparently just bad with foliage if it didn’t happen to own her. “Welcome, you little cuties!”
Serrat raised a vine in question. Possibly in objection.
“You heard me, Dentate. Get your bark in here and tell me how you’ve been.” Both affini laughed and Serrat casually pulled ahead to meet her friend. They all moved so easily in microgravity. The habitable arcs were a work of engineering miracle that were entirely for Katie’s benefit. The girl kept a tight grip on Cici while the machine steered them inside the shuttle, and then the door slid shut beside them.
It was busier inside than Katie had been expecting. She knew that what had begun as a quiet invitation had spiraled out into something closer to a party, but even so, there were more people here than she’d expected. In addition to Zona and Xylem (Katie still hadn’t figured out which was which, but both were present) there was, of course, Lily—bouncing off of the walls with a screwdriver in her mouth—, Serrat, Cici, and another affini/human pair Katie didn’t recognise.
There were already a few conversations ongoing. Katie got a few waves from those aboard she already knew, but no immediate demands for conversation. Cici scooted them over to an unoccupied corner, where a pile of pillows had apparently been attached to the floor, with a convenient strap to hold Katie in place.
“It is—nice to see—you again, Katie,” Cici admitted. There was a hesitancy to the words, Katie thought. Was there? Was it capable of producing that kind of nuance, or was it Katie misinterpreting the recordings?
“It’s nice to see you too. I’m sorry we haven’t gotten to spend much time together since we got back, it’s… I’ve been distracted.” Katie shrugged, giving the machine a gentle smile. They both knew what she meant. Katie had been busy getting her spirit broken and her life reoriented around somebody else. Just one of those things, right?
Cici was a mechanical entity. Katie could literally see its cognition happening before her eyes. That only made it easier to spot that particular sign, with the way that all the vacuum tubes and all the electromechanical switches seemed to flicker off at once for a moment.
Katie tilted her head to one side. “That didn’t sound okay. Did I do something wrong?”
Fuck. Katie didn’t want to go back down to having literally only one friend in the entire universe. What had she done? While Cici crunched the numbers, Katie’s head rapidly computed all the possible ways she could have done something awful.
“I miss you,” Cici replied, after several long moments. Where had she picked that line up? Katie didn’t even recognise the voice. “I miss—Thatch.”
Oh. Katie reached forward to press her fingers against the machine’s outer shell. What was she meant to say? They had been busy. Maybe they could have tried harder to make time for Cici, but the last thing Katie wanted to do was put pressure on Thatch. “I’m sorry,” Katie said after several long moments. It felt like settling. “I think we’re both going to be making more of an effort to be around. Miss Aquae should hopefully be joining in later, she just has some stuff to deal with first.”
Katie wished Thatch was here. She missed her dork.
“We are—friends—right?” The poor thing. It bobbed up and down, propulsion jets never quite managing to cancel out its motion entirely, giving the impression of nervous fidgets. “It is—not a concept—I am used to.—but—it is—a concept—I am very interested in.”
“Yeah! Yes, absolutely! I care about your wellbeing and it’s really cool to have you in my life,” and I’m envious of your body. “I’m sorry I couldn’t give you the time you needed. I hope I can now.”
“Thank you.—I care about your wellbeing and it’s really cool to have you in my life—also. Maybe—we could hang out—tomorrow?” Its lights and tubes flickered hopefully. The gentle crackle of switches opening and closing was a static that sounded almost nervous.
Katie had really planned to spend all of tomorrow in bed recovering from a long day of socialising. More pressing, though, she had no idea whether Thatch would come out of her appointment energised and enthusiastic or frustrated and annoyed, and as cruel as it felt to think it nobody else could be Katie’s first priority. She couldn’t make that kind of promise. If Thatch needed her to, Katie knew she would betray anything or anyone.
“I… think I’m probably busy tomorrow,” Katie admitted.
Katie glanced down. She didn’t know. “I… plans aren’t really my area any more,” Katie admitted. It felt rude to openly defer to Thatch, not least because it was extra pressure on her, but also because Katie knew she hadn’t gotten it either before she’d had any capacity for independence pried out of her skull. Florets directing difficult questions to their owners had just seemed either like a worrying sign of potential abuse or like part of a game they were playing. Truly it was neither but how was Katie meant to explain that her entire stack of priorities had been turned on its head without just reminding the poor thing that it wasn’t at the top of that stack? If Katie was totally honest, the only reason she was even here was because Thatch had something else she needed to do. Katie would take a quiet night in over a party any time. How was this meant to stack up to the cosmic bliss of existing at her owner’s heel?
“Oh.—It’s okay—I understand.”
Katie squeezed shut her eyes. How did friends work? She hadn’t managed to hold on to any before. After a moment she tried again. “If you send Miss Aquae a message then I think she’d be glad to get to spend some time with you.”
“It’s okay—I should talk to———Serrat—anyway.” The machine escaped on jets of compressed air, and Katie simply lacked any ability to keep up with it. Katie moved to unstrap herself from the pillows, but she wasn’t really sure what to actually do afterwards. The other guests were all talking. They all seemed to know each other and it was Katie who was the newcomer here.
Katie quietly fingered her communicator. She could just pull it out and ask Thatch to rescue her. Actually, she really wanted to do that, but what would her owner think if she didn’t make it twenty minutes into a party before giving up and begging to be taken home. She could do this, couldn’t she? It was just a party.