Chapter Thirty Nine: Fragile Constructs
Katie stared at the hodgepodge pile of metal and plastic that lay within the Floret-1 and pulled a face.
She and Lily had stepped out from the main party shuttle to take a look at the rocket Lily had been building. It was cleanly split into two separate pieces: A bulbous front section that—while exotic—evoked affini design sensibilities and a rear section that appeared to have been welded together by a squirrel on a sugar high. Katie glanced over at Lily, who was in the process of swinging around the side of the rocket with one hand clutching a rope attached to one of the outer panels while the other held a welding torch that was very much active. Katie decided that she was glad that the front section was safe.
If Katie was honest most of this was going over her head. Fuel tanks connected to a wide exhaust… thing with lots of little panels that wiggled when Lily fiddled with the cabling. A Terran-style computer system full of metal and plastic was installed into the middle of the rocket and had apparently been programmed entirely by Lily herself, though as with all of it she had been supervised.
Katie didn’t really understand it. That was fine. Nuclear rockets were a bit pedestrian for Katie’s tastes anyway. She didn’t know how to go slower than 300,000km/s.
Katie leaned over to one side to rest her head against Thatch’s hip. Come on, Katie, you know about rockets! She squeezed shut her eyes for a moment to focus her mind, and then inspected the reason she’d been invited in the first place: the ramshackle jump drive at the heart of the Floret-1.
It didn’t look quite right, Katie thought. Thatch’s words of wisdom were as clear in Katie’s head as they’d been on the day she’d been taught them, even if all the surrounding details were fuzzing out. Katie should understand this.
“This looks a little weird. Do you think this’ll jump, Miss Aquae?” She looked up at her big dork with a wide smile. Thatch would know. Thatch knew everything.
Thatch raised an eyebrow and gently scratched Katie’s scalp. The hand on Katie’s head was purely practical, of course. She needed to be held in place or she’d float away. Also, Katie felt a burning need for contact and Thatch could either hold her down or have Katie clinging to her leg, and the former made it easier for her plant to do things. Katie found herself wishing for the latter all the same. “You tell me, floret. Feel free to ask me more specific questions if you wish, but this is your area.”
Katie spent a moment grinding the top of her head against warm, dense foliage. Of course. If Katie wanted the answers, she’d have to work for them. She should want that. She could think when she was around Thatch, and this had been important to her.
What was actually wrong with the drive? It took surprising effort to clear enough headspace for Katie to picture how these components should go together in her head. Her eyes flicked between the pieces. All the important stuff was there, it just… felt wrong. Katie thought back to her schooling. It felt like it was multiple lifetimes ago now. It was hard to feel like anything she’d learned there could be applicable, but maybe it would help.
“Oh!” Katie pointed at a large, round object that looked like it was made from some kind of steel. The reaction chamber itself. “The electromagnets are unevenly spaced, so, uh… I think the resolution on our jump vector would kinda suck? I don’t think that’s the problem, though, because the EM valve—” Katie’s finger shifted, pointing to a metal construct much like the one they’d salvaged back on Dirt— “is backwards.”
Katie let out a breath. That much thinking had been exhausting. Was it time to let Thatch take over yet? She could just sink down to the ground and let her owner take care of everything and wouldn’t that be nice?
Katie paused, then whispered up to Thatch, making sure nobody else would be able to hear. “Are you sure this is safe?”
Her plant nodded. “The module up above is something fairly unusual for Terran space. I believe they were developed for crash-boarding the automated Xa’a-ackétøth war moons back during first contact. They are shielded against hypermetric interference; rated for near-c collisions with small objects and appreciably fast collisions with large ones; internally cushioned to mitigate sudden changes in momentum; and equipped with the kind of safety equipment that puts the Elettarium to shame. Frankly, anything short of dropping it into a star will hardly be felt from the outside, and the dedicated jump engine on the inside would easily rescue us from that. In the incomprehensibly unlikely event of anything actually breaching the pod, its internal Firebreak systems would snap anything higher energy than a cute little sneeze right out into hyperspace. Unless our records are out of date, you will be safer inside that module than any human has ever been in all of recorded history. Our records, not theirs.”
Katie was blushing. Why was Katie blushing? How could her plant take something as benign as the specifications of a little shuttle pod and turn it into a flirt? “Do you even know the word ‘yes’?” Katie asked, with a laugh. A wisp of a memory from the times before she’d been herself floated up into her consciousness. Katie leaped on it, knowing it would be gone in moments. “I really did end up in the flirting mines, didn’t I?”
“Flirting is the major cultural export of the Affini Compact, yes.” Thatch rolled her eyes. Katie rolled hers too and gave her dork a gentle push. Like Thatch was any different. “But regardless, yes, I am quite sure this is safe. You must understand, Katie, I will never allow you to come to harm. You may not understand all of the layers of safety you are held within, but you may trust them.”
It was nice, to be reminded of the bubble Katie that was Katie’s existence. Easier to flirt with her owner about how she was more loved and cared for than she could even comprehend than it was to think about hyperspacial engineering. Katie might not know all the systems that protected her, but it was enough to know that Thatch did. Katie didn’t need to test it. She knew that Thatch didn’t have to lie to her to get what she wanted, and beyond that, she never would. It was nice to flirt back. Comfortable. Easy to fall into the rhythm of a gentle back and forth. “But what if the fuel exploded right now?” Katie asked.
Without gravity to hold her down, the only thing keeping Katie from drifting into the air was Thatch’s hand. When it was removed, the subconscious movements of Katie’s body knocked her into the air. She only moved a little, but it only took a little before she hung helpless.
Katie’s earlier feelings really hadn’t been about capability. She was as trapped as she would have been if Thatch had her every limb bound in place, and she definitely didn’t mind. Existing in Thatch’s power was a kind of grand cosmic comfort that Katie had never dared imagine. The plant grinned, brushing vines across Katie’s body while ensuring they kept out of the way of her hands, preventing her from grasping anything with which she could pull herself to safety.
“You are deep in the clutches of a precursor race, pet. Do you really think we’d let any of you build something like this if there was the slightest chance you could escape us? You haven’t the power to harm yourself. You are so far under my control you couldn’t stub your own toe without asking permission.” Thatch paused—with their faces mere inches apart and a finger holding Katie’s chin up—so that she could glance to the side.
Katie followed her gaze to find Lily perched atop the rocket staring at them with a tilted head. “Okay, I know you two’re still getting used to each other,” she said, chirpy voice emanating from a biomechanical implant on her neck. “But we launch in an hour! Katie!” She scrambled over the surface of the rocket, magnetic boots and gloves emitting tiny clangs as they engaged and detached, to hang over the open casing around the jump drive. She pointed downwards. “Show your affini how flirting is really done and build something that works!”
“Ahem.” Thatch couldn’t actually blush. She didn’t have blood, and if she did it certainly wouldn’t be red. Katie still found herself laughing at the sense of embarrassment that Thatch practically glowed with, even if she was the only one among them who would be able to feel it. “Yes, right. Katie, inspect the drive. Make it better. Do your best and impress me.”
“Yes, Miss Aquae!” Thank the stars, an order. Katie grinned across at her owner. She grabbed one of Thatch’s vines and hauled herself in, scrambling up to take a seat on the affini’s shoulders. It was striking how much easier it was to focus when she was following a a command. Katie bit her lip, blushing gently as she put her knowledge together. She could just invert the valve and she was pretty sure it’d work. Two minute fix, all she’d need would be one of the tools Thatch was holding for her and a moment of time.
Would that be impressive, though? Katie knew she could do better than that. “Is there an atomic compiler we can borrow around here?” Katie asked, directing her question at Thatch.
“We can likely requisition one of the general purpose ones here in the rear section. I shall enquire.” Thatch left a vine behind for Katie to hold on to while she retreated to back to the Varies’ shuttle. Katie swallowed the urge to scamper alongside at her heel with some difficulty
Lily rolled her eyes. “Have some appreciation for the sciences, Katie!! This rocket’s going to space! Let’s make it go really far!” The creature’s enthusiasm was infectious. Katie squeezed the vine in her hand; it squeezed back; and Katie could tell everything was okay. Okay. She could do this. She reached out a hand so that Lily could guide her in to grab a handhold on the rocket’s hull, then started sketching out a design on the screen of her communicator.
Time to focus. Thatch said so. She could do this for Thatch.
Lily climbed over Katie’s back to sit on her shoulders. The creature was about a third of Katie’s height, so… this was probably weirdly close to how it felt to be Thatch. Katie felt Lily’s hands resting on her head as she peered over to watch. “What did I get wrong? I had it just like the diagrams!”
Katie winced. “Ah, that’s kind of a well kept secret, I guess. All the manufacturers put little traps in the diagrams to make sure nobody can maintain these things without training.”
“What.” Lily seemed actively offended. “But they’re cool! Why wouldn’t they just show everyone so they could keep getting better? That’s stupid.”
Katie glanced around to make sure there weren’t any affini nearby. From what she’d seen so far, talking about capitalism in their vicinity was likely to lead to everyone getting distracted. “There wasn’t any money in making things better, and it wasn’t technically illegal to leave traps that got people killed because they classed it as a form of copy protection.”
“Wow. The Terrans sucked, huh.” With Lily this close Katie could hear that she was speaking in what was presumably her own native tongue. The rapid, high-pitched chirps were usually quiet enough to get drowned out by the output of the translator, but Lily was close enough to practically be speaking into Katie’s ear.
“Big time. I’m glad you got rescued from all that.” Katie hadn’t met many Rinans before. She certainly hadn’t had a conversation with any. The few she had come across had been fitted with bulky Terran-built translator units with a deeply limited vocabulary, and it wasn’t easy to have a conversation without a shared language. The plant-tech replacement seemed to be doing a much better job.
Even ignoring the translators, the Terran Accord had treated the Rinans quite terribly. In Katie’s opinion, it had been coming across a weaker species within its space that had really cemented the Accord as unsalvagable. What could have been a moment to celebrate, where proof of alien life led to a reorientation of humanity’s priorities, had instead become an intensification of them. The Rinans had been colonised, and eventually openly exploited, up until the war had brought everything crashing down. Of course, humanity’s parting shot as they realised the Affini front was about to overtake them had been to try to glass the whole place simply for the crime of not being theirs any more.
Terrans made good pets, but bad owners.
Lily shook her head and shrugged. “Nah, I got myself out of that one! Built a rocket out of stolen bits of Terran spaceship and flew for the open stars. The schematics being wrong probably explains why my jump screwed up, though! Crashed right into Master and Mistress, recruited them for my quest, and returned to free Nyrina!” As the speech had gone on, Lily had grown increasingly more energetic, finally ending with one foot on Katie’s shoulder, the other on her head, striking a dramatic pose.
Katie laughed. “Well, thank you for rescuing me, too.”
“You were a side quest! Like any good side quest, you bring rewards. C’mon, your affini is coming back, let’s build a better drive! Gonna go to space!” Lily leaped away, grabbed a rope trailing through the air, and swung back around to finish putting some final touches on the sublight engines. Katie leaned back into Thatch’s gentle embrace and did her best to avoid distraction.
Step one was to tear the old drive out. It looked like it was made from actual salvaged Terran drives, which was its own kind of terrifying. Katie directed Thatch to pull the pieces out one at a time. The back of the casing held the old Terran warning messages, still.
Warning: Not user repairable! Only highly trained technicians may perform maintenance.
Well. Katie was highly trained.
With Thatch’s help keeping her on task, Katie managed to fit a replacement drive of her own design with whole minutes to spare. She had a lot of help, of course, but Thatch made sure that everything was Katie’s idea. For something they threw together in an hour, Katie was actually pretty happy with how it looked. She was pretty sure she could squeeze twice the efficiency out of it with a little more development time, but given she actually understood the underlying principles now it still beat out any drive she’d used before—the room-spanning behemoth from the Indomitable included.
Finally, it was done. Katie tried to collapse into Thatch’s side, but forgot about the microgravity and ended up just floating in place until she was retrieved. Thinking was exhausting. Finally, could it be time to just relax? She buried her head against whatever part of Thatch happened to be nearest when she was picked up. She couldn’t help but squirm. Every touch was bliss. Every minor moment of contact was purpose. Thatch’s emotions washed over her, making it so easy to just sink into a haze of thoughtless existence.
Alas, time waited for no sophont, the Affini included. Lily herded the party out and into the rocket’s pod and everybody filtered inside one by one. The entrance was—by Affini standards—positively restrained, and the plants among them actually had to shrink to squeeze through. Katie took some pride in noting that all of them looked awkward doing it except for her Thatch who shifted her shape as naturally as she always did.
Katie, biased? No. Katie was the only one who saw clearly.
The interior of the pod was smaller than the outside would have suggested, but it was still comfortable given the relatively exclusive guest list. They even had some separate rooms off to the side, though those were only large enough to be comfortable for one, really. Thankfully, Katie didn’t mind sharing Thatch’s personal space so they called dibs on one and settled into the main room for takeoff in the meantime.
The front of the pod held a trio of chairs facing an intimidating looking control panel. Zona, Xylem, and Lily took their places and started hitting buttons. The pod shook gently as clamps detached and the launch sequence truly began.
Just beyond the control panels lay a wide window, pointing forwards relative to the rocket. In one of its corners a little square flickered into life displaying a stylised depiction of the Elettarium, little petals spinning. A disembodied voice filled the room with a slick, confident accent. The icon’s petals seemed to pulse to the same timing. “Good evening, Floret-1! This is Elettarium Actual requesting confirmation of your intent to disembark. As a reminder, we plan to jump one hour after your initial disembarkation and then pause to reconvene.”
Cici hovered at the other side of the room, sitting at Serrat’s heel. At the voice, it bounced up and down a few times and then emitted: “Hello—Ined!! It is I—Cici—using voice!”
The voice’s collected demenour momentarily broke into something more casual. “Hey there, hot stuff! I made sure there was a relay installed in that pod there, so keep in touch during the flight! You’re in charge of letting me know how it goes, got it?”
The response was just a rapid series of beeps and green lights.
“Good probe. Now, as for the rest of you.” The voice took a moment, and then continued in its prior drawl. “You have clearance to undock and a clear exit pathway. Engines free from two clicks out, but watch the arcs and petals while you get there.”
Lily reached up and flicked a few switches. “Confirmed, E-A. If all goes well, we’ll see you in a couple hours!” She paused, then continued. “We’re going to space!! Onwards!”
Lily hit the large, central button on the control panel. It was big, red, and everybody in the room was thrown backwards when she hit it. Katie felt the acceleration squeezing her lungs as she was forced against Thatch, who was forced against the wall in turn. Katie’s inner ear demanded that she consider it the floor, but she hardly had time to consult it while nuclear fire pushed them forward so hard her teeth were rattling in her skull.
Out of the forward window, Katie could see the Elettarium’s petals slowly turning. Despite the acceleration, it still took a while to clear them. The affini vessel was just incomprehensibly gargantuan. Katie was told that most of their ships were bigger, but surely after a certain point scale just stopped mattering.
Eventually, one of the Varies—Katie’s knowledge of which was which had been rattled out of her mind earlier in the burn—reached over to the lever Lily had pushed all the way up and gently slid her hand back down. The acceleration weakened over long moments until it felt not too far off of Katie’s home’s comfortable 1.2g.
The other Varie looked back, turning to face a room that had effectively changed orientation. What was once a wall was now the floor, and the glass cockpit now formed the ceiling. “Everyone cozy?”
She got a series of nods from the florets. The comfort of the affini was simply presumed. “Then, hey, katie? Be a good girl and configure the jump.”
Thatch raised an eyebrow at the familiarity, but it was pointed towards Katie. All the same, a handful of vines shot out to the room’s handholds so they could be lifted up to the ceiling and Katie could be placed in front of the jump console. She remembered their flight path. The trajectory was simple enough, just some basic mathematics. She could do it in her head.
“Uhm,” Katie hesitated. No, that couldn’t be the right answer. Had she forgotten a step? She went back over the calculations in her head to discover she’d flubbed the first step, and had to do the rest over. That time gave her a coherent answer, though. Eventually. She had to do most of the steps at least a couple times, but she got there in the end. She dialed in the resultant cosmic dance. The reaction chamber was dotted with powerful electromagnets that would activate in a specific order and with specific strengths to guide the wormhole they’d push through their little pinprick in spacetime. Get the trajectory right and you could go anywhere, but the timing requirements made short jumps difficult to pull off, and the field strength requirements made longer jumps harder to aim. They were going right for the middle of the two, in the golden band where a jump drive was most accurate with the lowest power requirements.
Katie moved to hit the button, but found it unusually squishy and unmoving. She blinked, then lifted her hand to look. One of Thatch’s vines blocked her hand. Katie looked up with a blink. “Miss?”
“I think your friend might be a little sad if you plotted a jump that didn’t cleanly terminate, pet.”
Oh, dirt and frost, Katie had been in such a hurry to get on with it that she’d forgotten to finalise the sequence. The wormhole would go to probably the right place, but lead deeper into hyperspace. They’d have come back up somewhere at random, if at all. It was a rookie mistake. It was the rookie mistake.
Katie’s hand was shivering. She pulled it away from the console, feeling her confidence shatter, revealing it to have been a sham. She should never have gotten that wrong. This was her area. This was what she did. This was what so much of her self-confidence had been built on for almost a decade and a half.
And Katie found herself apathetic. She didn’t need those skills any more. She didn’t need to understand this. She didn’t need to understand anything but how to be a good pet for her owner. She could sink, gratefully, into thoughtless oblivion and live a long, happy life at Thatch’s heel and never have a care again.
Katie grabbed hold of a vine and squeezed. “Miss Aq— Thatch, can we talk?”
There was a moment of silent conversation between Thatch and the Varies, spoken in a few shifts of expression and pointed vines, and then Katie was taken through to one of the side rooms and carefully placed on the floor. After hours in microgravity, Katie felt unsteady on her feet, but she was more comfortable on her knees anyway. The shuttle floor was a little hard for it, but she would make do. Thatch took the room’s sofa, positioning herself such that she could look out of this room’s viewing window, where they could see the Elettarium slowly growing more distant on a background of the endless void.