Chapter Forty: Caretaking is a Conversation
“What is wrong, flower?”
Katie crawled over to rest her head on her person’s knee. Thatch sounded concerned and there was a little part of Katie that wanted to simply apologise and fall silent. It wasn’t a fair impulse. Thatch would be disappointed in her if she followed it.
“I think I’m losing my grip,” Katie admitted. “I can’t remember names; I can’t focus on anything but you when you’re in the room but I can’t even think when you’re not. I should not have screwed up that jump and I should care that I did. I’m— I’m losing myself and I don’t even mind? I just want to curl up against your side and be your kitty. Katie. Be your katie. Or whatever else you’d like me to be. Anything.”
Thatch’s floral weave tightened. She looked down upon Katie with a mixture of… Katie focused on her sixth sense, trying to parse the mix she was feeling. Adoration yet concern? Something warm, something cold. Thatch lay a hand over Katie’s head and started to gently scratch with the thumb. “I had begun to suspect you were struggling. Most would consider your experience a positive thing, I think. You are letting go of your old life and committing to the new. It is not unusual for florets to spend the remainder of their lives on the endless hedonism we can provide. It is no shame to have all independence stripped away. If that is what you wish.”
“It is,” Katie blurted out. She stared up at her owner with pleading eyes, hands held up by her chest. She wasn’t above begging. Not any more. “I don’t- Thinking is hard and everything is just nicer when I don’t. It’s so hard when I don’t understand how to be. I could just be your pet, right? Just quietly exist for you. You could train me like you have been doing and I wouldn’t have to worry about anything. I’d always know what to do. Could I have that?”
The question was almost a trick. Katie paid close attention to her sixth sense, feeling out Thatch’s emotional reaction. Even honest words could mislead. Katie had no confidence she could outwit anything with wordplay, never mind her perfect, genius owner, but Thatch’s feelings couldn’t lie.
The hand on Katie’s head grew a little heavier. For a long moment, Thatch didn’t respond, but eventually the thumb stopped stroking and the grip grew tight so that Thatch could force Katie’s head up to look straight at her. “Of course you could have that, floret. I can make the necessary arrangements when we get home. You are likely sufficiently familiar with xenodrugs now to handle a class-J regimen, which will grant you exactly what you seek.” She smiled down at Katie with warmth and dim, faltering eyes.
Ah, dirt. Thatch’s words were caring and accepting while her emotional state flailed and panicked. If Katie knew her less well she might have missed the signs, but no, it was as clear as day. The leaves around her torso all stood on end; her smile was warm but static and dead; and her whole torso was so tense Katie suspected another railgun shell would have just bounced.
Neither of them could lie to the other. Katie wanted something that horrified her owner. She looked down, fighting a sob. “Why do I want this, Miss? I didn’t want it. You don’t want it for me. How can I want something neither of us wanted?”
“Ah, dirt.” Thatch sighed, then patted the sofa beside herself. “Up, girl.”
Katie awkwardly climbed onto the furniture—with a little help from a vine providing a mid-journey foothold—and settled in with her head resting on a spot Thatch had pointed to. She looked up at her caretaker’s conflicted expression.
“I have intentionally given you the space to make your own decisions and guide your own path. You did not want to lose yourself, and I do not want to lose you. Katie, I fell for the brave and fierce girl who nearly killed me. I will love you no matter what you become, but… I must admit, this would not have been my choice for you.”
Thatch shrugged, turning to stare out towards the stars. Katie couldn’t tear her own eyes away. “I will always love and care for you, however. I have made my promises. I will not break them. You cannot escape me; you cannot change my love or my support. You will be well cared for. I will ensure Leviathan is, in addition.”
That unceasing urge to obey throbbed in the back of Katie’s mind, demanding she simply chirp an acceptance and curl up to be happily erased. She couldn’t tell the difference between that and her own desires any more. Maybe there wasn’t one. “I don’t— Why would you let me, if this isn’t what you would have chosen?”
Thatch blinked, then replied as if the answer were obvious. “I fell for your willfulness and your fire, Katie. I suppose I wished to try to preserve them. I taught you how to stop me from going too far, but apparently that was insufficient.”
Katie squeezed shut her eyes for a moment, sniffling deep. She’d screwed up. She’d had one job and she couldn’t even do that right. Katie stared down at the floor and spent a few moments trying to swallow her tears. They were having an important discussion here that Katie shouldn’t derail with her dumb irrational emotions and “Am I a bad pet?”
“What?” Thatch’s attention snapped back down to her. “Katie, you are a unceasing delight and a far better pet than I am an owner.”
Katie curled up tighter. All she wanted to do was fall asleep on Thatch’s lap, and that was wrong. That wasn’t what Thatch wanted, so why did she want it? It was the strongest urge in her stupid head and it was wrong. “That’s not a no.”
“Then allow me to be explicit. No, Katie, you are not a bad pet. You are a very good pet.” Thatch’s hand hesitated, but did take its rightful place at the back of Katie’s head and held her down. Katie smiled, nodding quickly. Good pet.
So why did Katie still feel like a failure? She’d spent so long hiding from her own desires, and now that she’d finally been pulled out of her shell she was failing her floret and failing her people.
That wasn’t Katie’s feeling. She looked up at her affini and reached out with a hand, grasping one of Thatch’s fingers with five of hers. “I don’t want to make you feel like this,” Katie admitted. “Why are you letting me make you feel like this?”
“I do not see how I could stop you without defeating the purpose of doing so.” Thatch waggled her finger back and forth, but smiled down at her floret with a bittersweet aftertaste. “Besides, I love you very much and I wish to see you happy. I would give you the stars themselves if I could.”
Katie squeezed shut her eyes and sniffed, trying to center herself. When she opened them she was looking out across the universe, but so blurry she could no longer appreciate it. She didn’t care that she couldn’t see it, but she did care that Thatch wanted her to be able to. Thatch was her touchstone. Without that how could she possibly know what was right?
Katie groaned, voice so soft as to feel petulant. All she wanted was to let herself sink into obedient bliss, but what she needed was a happy Thatch. If there was anything that could keep her focus it was that. Katie pushed herself up on awkward arms so that she could look at her owner more properly. “Is it okay if I be pushy a little here? I’m— I need to be pushy, but it’s so hard to think anything bad of you. Permission might help.”
A finger came to brush the tears from Katie’s eyes, then to lift her chin so she could see Thatch’s melancholy smirk. “I would like nothing more than for you to yell at me, pet. Speak.”
Katie gnawed on her lower lip. She bit it so hard it hurt, and the pain helped. It was centering. Made it easier to think. She glared up at Thatch, trying to coax the fuel within her to burn once more. Just for a few minutes. That was all she needed. Just a minute of her old fire. Seconds. Anything.
Nothing. Katie was just a pet. She didn’t have any fire left.
Thatch didn’t burn, though, and she could still get angry. Katie had seen it. Felt it. Lived it. Thatch’s anger wasn’t the hot drive for destructive retribution but the righteous anger of creation. Katie wouldn’t—couldn’t—tear Thatch down for her mistakes, but maybe she could turn that energy to more constructive ends.
“Why won’t you tell me no any more, Thatch? I thought it was because I was being good, but I’ve walked straight into a position where I’m not doing what you think is best.” Katie grabbed a second of Thatch’s fingers with her other hand, and held both of them close.
The affini looked torn. Katie could feel the conflicting drives resonating into her from above. “Because I wish to see you smile. It was easier to deny you when I wasn’t responsible for your smiles. I have taken so much from you; how could I possibly refuse you anything more?”
“You haven’t taken anything from me.”
Thatch raised an eyebrow. She raised a hand and began to count off fingers, sprouting new ones as necessary. “Your independence; your willful spirit; your freedom. Your humanity; your name; your identity. Your past and your future.”
Katie made a face, and took a moment to flap one of her hands to the side. “You haven’t taken anything from me that was worth keeping. You also took my old clothes, if you want to be really pedantic about it. That isn’t the point. You didn’t take anything: I gave you those things because I thought you’d take care of me.”
“I have given you everything you have asked for. I have spent entire nights searching through the Terran Records learning of the things you enjoy. I am trying, Katie. I am.” The Affini took Katie’s hands in one of hers and gently squeezed. “I do not know what more to do. I want you to be happy. You deserve more than I can give.”
“I really appreciate all of that, hon. I promise I’m not trying to tear you down here. I don’t think I’m even capable of that any more. Could I take care of myself? Now, or… could I have before?”
Thatch shook her head. “Not now, not before. Not every creature is supposed to exist alone, Katie, and there is no shame in that.”
“I mean, duh,” Katie agreed, nodding her head. “So why are you making me?”
“I am-” Thatch paused, tilted her head, and blinked. Confusion radiated off of her. “Katie, I won’t even let you out of the house without spending an hour getting you ready first; in what sense are you taking care of yourself?”
“You take care of all the little stuff! Even some of the bigger stuff! But you’re leaving the biggest stuff to me, I think? I’m being turned into a pet how I want it; we still live in my hab; the collar was my idea and so was the paperwork and I’m the one pushing for everything. Don’t get me wrong, you’re really good at taking care of the little stuff and you’re really good at taking my fantasies and making them actually happen, and I have been happier with you than I’d ever dared dream of, but we’re not equals, Thatch. You can’t just ask me what I want and then do that.”
“Ah.” Thatch sighed. “I suppose I have been somewhat lax.”
Katie held Thatch’s fingers tight. “I believe you threatened to ‘snap my mind in two’ when you were trying to convince me you wouldn’t make good owner material. Where’d that energy go?”
“The affini who made that claim did not have to wake up next to your smiling face every morning.” Thatch rumbled. She raised a hand to Katie’s cheek to cup it in a gentle, caring grip. “How could I possibly hurt that?”
“Don’t you want to?”
Thatch growled, baring her teeth for a moment. “Of course I want to. I am terrified of not. I would have you pinned you to a wall to spread your insides across it so I could inspect and replace every piece. But I can not do everything I wish.”
“Why not?” Katie asked, squeezing Thatch’s fingers. She was trying to walk a fine line here. This was about helping, not about hurting.
“Because it would not be good for me! I have had exactly what I have wanted for half of my life and it has gotten me nowhere. You are a moderating force, Katie. I need you to tell me what I cannot do because I do not trust my own desires.”
It was Katie’s turn to raise her eyebrows now, with a gentle smile. C’mon, you big dork. Make the connection. If it wasn’t good for Thatch to get everything she wanted without somebody to counterbalance it, then why would it be any different for Katie?
Thatch’s expression cracked, and she let her head drop. “Which is exactly the position I have placed you in by trying to suppress my desires entirely. I see.” She looked back towards Katie with a gentle, softly exasperated smile. “I am sorry, floret. You are a much better pet than I am an owner, yet again.” She took a deep breath. “But you were not born a floret, and so perhaps I cannot be damned for not being uplifted directly into dominance. Help me?”
Katie nodded firmly. “Always. Want my suggestion?”
Thatch laughed, quietly, but honestly. “More than anything. Please.”
“Fix me? I think I screwed up. I was meant to tell you if you were going too far, but I should have told you when you weren’t going far enough, too. I was so wrapped up in getting what I want that I didn’t stop to make sure you were getting what you need. I don’t know where my willfulness went, but can you put it back in? However you need it?”
Katie let herself settle back into a more comfortable position. She was kneeling at Thatch’s side, but there were some things she didn’t want to change. “I want to keep some bits, though. I really like the training; I really like the collar; I like the… pet stuff. No, hang on, that doesn’t work. The feral stuff?”
Katie pulled a face. “You’ve stolen all the good terms.” She earned a grin from her plant. “I like not having to be a person. I like getting to be thoughtless and obedient. I wanna keep that sometimes. But don’t let me choose. Make me be who you want me to be, like we said you would. I know you’re worried about breaking me, but I trust you with me more than I trust me with me.”
Thatch was silent for long moments, attention focused out the window.
“What if I get it wrong?” Thatch asked, returning her attention to the girl. “What if I take you apart and find I cannot put you back together? I want to. Stars, do I want to, but what if I am not as good at this as I believe myself to be and I ruin you in the trying?”
“Then you try again. You know who I should be, Thatch. You know who I am better than I do. I don’t need to be exactly who I was. I don’t want to be who I was. I just want to be yours. Please? I know this is hard, but you’ll have my help if you want it.”
Thatch looked down at her with gentle eyes for long moments, seemingly stuck. Katie felt emotional static beating down on her.
“It isn’t doing harm to cultivate something, Miss. If I let Leviathan do whatever it wanted, it would struggle too. Sometimes you have to accept that you know best, right?” Katie smiled upwards. It felt good to trust.
The glow in Thatch’s eyes went dim for long moments. “Very well.” The lights returned, brighter than ever. Her voice was firm, as if a decision long in the making had finally solidified. “You do not need a caretaker alone, you need an owner, and so I must accept that I know what is best for you. I will not allow myself to be wrong.”
Katie smiled up at her. “Thank you. Do you wanna talk about what that means?”
One hand took Katie’s chin in a firm grip, lifting her face to point towards the room’s tall ceiling. The other hand reached down for her neck. It spent a moment on a gentle caress, then gave her collar a sharp tap on the central gem. Katie began to melt.
“I will have you outshine the stars, Katie. I can not give them to you; I shall have you take them.” Vines stretched out to shift Katie’s body and limbs, turning her lazy slouch into a precise kneel. Back straight, head angled slightly upwards. Knees slightly parted, with her hands splayed between them. Mouth open just a few degrees.
Thatch gazed down upon her, inspecting. Thatch never really did seem to look at Katie’s body. No, her sparkling eyes hid a nervous excitement as they saw past Katie’s shell to what Katie could truly be. They held so much promise.
Katie paused, looking up at Thatch with a scrap of confusion.
“Don’t question me, pet. Just do.” There was a moment of hesitation. “Just… trust me, okay? This is for your own good.”
Katie had asked for this. Katie had begged for this. She could hardly stop now.
“…Arf! Arf!” Katie’s cheeks burned. Was this really happening? She’d exposed her soul and begged Thatch to reshape her, and Katie didn’t know what Thatch was going to do. It didn’t matter. Katie had nothing left to fight it with anyway. She was putty in Thatch’s hands.
The affini stared down at her, thinking. After a few moments, she shook her head. “Hmn. No. Too eager. What was it you said before? Kitty? Perhaps moving in the right direction. Meow for me.” Thatch’s vines held Katie in place, unable to break out of her enforced stance. As Thatch gave the order she made a rapid series of subtle shifts, showing Katie how she was to kneel to best evoke her new role.
“M- Miaow?” Katie asked. How was she meant to pronounce that? Just saying the word really didn’t work. This was silly.
Thatch tilted her head to one side and considered the result. After a moment she nodded. “I can work with this. I can teach you how to use that voicebox right, at least until I give it a tune-up.” All of the vines keeping Katie held tightly in place relaxed, as did the plant herself. Thatch leaned back against the chair, but kept her gaze locked on Katie’s body. The instant she tried to move, Katie heard a sharp word spoken and froze up. “No. Stay in position, pet. When I tell you to—” Katie didn’t understand the next word, but it was burned into her memory anyway— “then this is how you do it now. Do not worry about getting it right first time. You will be corrected until you do.”
Thatch spent a moment rummaging around inside of herself before pulling out some kind of tool. She flicked the tip a couple of times, nodded, then slipped it beneath Katie’s collar to— to—
“A-ah!” Katie gasped, mouth falling open as every muscle in her body went taut. She could still feel but nothing responded to her thoughts. She was locked in place. Her breath was halted, lungs full of air she couldn’t breathe. She started up at Thatch not because she chose to but because she literally couldn’t tear her eyes away. She couldn’t even blink.
The plant looked down with a thoughtful frown. “There are machines that can do this part automatically,” she explained, while using the back of a thumbnail to shift Katie’s head a few degrees. She leaned in closer, working carefully while the edges of Katie’s vision began to blur. She was asphyxiating. No matter how much she trusted Thatch, shouldn’t there be some part of Katie that was meant to panic? “But I find myself unwilling to use such a thing.”
The affini reached out her other hand and pressed it to Katie’s chest. Her fingers drummed an inescapable beat into the girl’s body while her vision faded into monochrome. “They operate on averages and assumptions. They are good machines, self-correcting and near perfect at what they do, but I do not lay awake at night imagining you strapped to a machine.” Thatch brought her false lips up beside Katie’s ear and whispered. “I imagine you like this, flower. Mind racing. Body stopped. Your whole existence fading away, all for me. The machines wouldn’t let me do this. They have safeties; protections; limits. No good affini would ever want to do a floret harm.”
Thatch leaned back, looking down at Katie with a predatory grin. There should have been fear. There should have been terror. Thatch’s vines pointed in towards her at sharp angles; her jagged teeth glistened with an alien fluid that could have brought anything from endless agony to timeless bliss. This was what Katie had been afraid of. This was why Katie had fought for all those years. A vicious predator come to steal her soul and take away the one thing she had left: herself. This was the threat that had inspired rebellion.
Thatch reached out to grab the back of Katie’s head and pulled her head in for a kiss. It wasn’t the gentle act of a lover; it hurt, but not more than Katie could bear. It was a shock to the body and mind both. Thatch had never given any indication that she wanted that. She had seemed as disinterested in Katie’s body as Katie herself was, but this was hungry. Lips that felt like soft petals brushed over Katie’s; a tongue of tightly woven plantlife pinned Katie’s own to the bottom of her mouth, and then the top, and then the sides. Sharp fangs danced across Katie’s frail flesh, scratching but never more. She could hardly resist. Her body was a marionette in Thatch’s grip and her mind was a rapidly failing slab of meat quickly burning through the last of its oxygen.
Long seconds passed as Katie sank into her owner’s all-consuming embrace. The taste was otherworldly. Mindblowing. Perhaps literally. Katie could feel what was left of her mental state dissolving in a false saliva that seemed precisely calibrated to burn the mind out of her skull. Katie could hardly think. Hardly see. Hardly feel. Everything felt like a dream as her consciousness wavered and flickered. Some part of her mind knew it was dying and her body could do nothing about it. The terror she’d always expected to feel simply never materialised. Katie felt a serenity about it all. Better to accept what she could not change.
Eventually Thatch pulled her back, licked her own lips, and smiled gently down at the fading floret. “But I am trying to be a good affini. For you. I am still learning. You have seconds left yet, worry you not. That little machine in your head is easy enough to trick. Our best tools would not let me take you this close, but we both know that I know exactly how much you can take.”
Katie’s eyes were drooping now. She still didn’t have control, her body was simply losing the capacity to keep them open.
“No no, now,” Thatch sang. Goddess above, she seemed so alive. Drawing her out of her shell had been a delight to watch, Katie felt, and if she had to slip into unconsciousness to a backdrop of anything, then let it be her plant’s smile. “Stay with me, Katie.”
Snap. Katie’s mind rallied, and her body straightened. She didn’t have control here. She didn’t even get to choose whether she would succumb. “Ye… M..quae?” stumbled from numb lips.
Her plant grinned down at her, letting out a sound almost like a giddy giggle. It might have ruined the mood but Katie barely had a mood left to ruin. “I can work with that,” Thatch agreed, then went back in for another kiss.
This time was different. Katie felt sweet tasting air rushing to her lungs. Her body, desperate for breath, sucked it down in rapid gulps that cared not for the source. Thatch’s hand stayed firm against her chest, again beating that same rhythm in. It took long moments for Katie’s mind to grow aware enough to realise she wasn’t the one breathing here. Vines coiled around her fragile form squeezed and relaxed in a precise pattern, puppetting her. Breathe in, breathe out. Always in sync with the ever-present beat long since drummed into Katie’s soul.
Every breath cleared her mind, but only because she’d been starting from such a foggy depth. It couldn’t even be said that a cloud was settling over her thoughts. The cloud had been there longer than she had. It had a stronger claim over the space. Katie had to think around it, if at all.
Razor-sharp fangs danced over the soft flesh of her lips once again, but now they didn’t stop at a scratch. Thatch bit, and Katie felt a burning sensation burst into her, searing through her veins in time with the song in her heart. The pain forced upon her an instant of clarity, but she could do nothing with it but sink all over again.
Thatch leaned back, wiping a short line of blood away from her chin with the back of one hand. Her eyes returned to Katie’s neck. She still held her tool, tweaking something in the collar. What had she been doing while Katie was unaware? Could Katie even hope to notice, at this point? “Thaaa…” Katie started, but quickly found her tongue stumbling over itself. She giggled at the absurdity of it, and then continued to say… to…
She’d forgotten what she was going to say. Katie tried to remember, but effort was so great. It was too much to bear. She decided to let her head flop softly to one side to rest in Thatch’s offered palm. She only noticed that a smaller vine had pushed her a moment later. How much control did she really have?
“None,” Thatch replied, “if you’re wondering about your agency here.”
Katie blinked up at her with a dumb smile spreading across her face. Could Thatch read her…?
“No, I would need more sophisticated tools than this to read your thoughts.” She paused for a moment to wiggle the hook she was using in front of Katie’s eyes. It was a little handheld version of something they had a bigger version of at home. Thatch was just using what she had to hand. It was still enough to take Katie to pieces. “Writing them, on the other hand, is much easier.”
Oh. Katie’s eyebrows twitched. So that meant that Thatch was… “Essentially having a conversation with myself, yes. You know a thing or two about that brain of yours; or at least you do when you can think. It is a poor design. Almost all of it is given over to simply rationalising the decisions made by that little animal core at its center. Like any animal it is easy enough to trick, train, or tame, and it will not even let you realise I am doing so. Shush now, this next bit will be fiddly.”
Katie blinked repeatedly, staring up at her owner. She was not herself. Her moods hitched and shifted, feeling like her own but changing so rapidly it was obvious they were imposed. She felt them all the same. Her thoughts shuddered like cloth wracked by hurricane winds. Every time she tried to pull any of them back together she found them slipping from her grip in an instant.
“I want you to focus your mind now, little one. What is my name?”
Thatch? Katie was pretty sure. No, Katie was certain. Katie had little trouble thinking that. It may have been about the only thing she would be able to think.
Her affini nodded. “Good girl.” The hand holding Katie’s head up gave her a quick squeeze, and the other shifted position around her neck. Katie tried to keep her focus, but—
Katie let out an animal groan as she felt that focus become a fixture in her mind. An energetic buzz ran through her thoughts, tracing the pathways of her thoughts and burning them in. Thatch. Katie’s attention wasn’t merely present, it was absolute. She could think of nothing else. There was nothing else. Katie was naught but a labyrinthine tangle of desperate need. The sudden enforced stream of input was overwhelming. The deep animal part of Katie’s mind tried to tear itself away, finding it all simply too much to bear, but there was nowhere else to turn. Katie had been orbiting in Thatch’s gravitational pull for so long that the event horizon had started to seem almost safe, almost unremarkable, but now she was within it and there could be no escape. Perhaps if Katie could marshal all her strength of will she could close her eyes and save her mind from processing every leaf, every vine, every movement, every tiny detail of Thatch’s fractal form, but—
Katie heard a click, and then Thatch was pulling the tool away and stowing it within herself once more.
Gosh, Thatch’s eyes were really pretty. It couldn’t be understated, Katie didn’t think. The closer she looked the prettier they became. They could just be called ‘blue’, but that was missing the forest for the trees and the trees for the forest both.
They were teardrop orbs, not quite smooth. Surface pocked by hundreds of tiny facets, or maybe thousands. Each refracted some deeper glow within with its own particular set of distortions. The deep light glimmered and the facets shifted it a thousand different ways in a pattern that Katie couldn’t help but recognise. It was the rhythm of her breaths. The beating of her heart. The Song Sung Eternal.
Every facet was a universe to itself. Every piece of the pattern was the pattern made whole yet the whole was more than the sum of its pieces. Katie could stare adoringly up into the glow and she would miss the trees. She could gaze intently into the depths and she would miss the forest. A simple mind like hers could not hope to comprehend, yet Katie could not resist its call. If there was anything left in her which was not focussed on Thatch it was in hiding, quiet and lost.
If Katie had been losing herself before, then now she had lost her grip entirely. She was falling, and barely cognizant of it. There was no longer anything to hold on to; she was tumbling towards oblivion at an ever increasing pace. She could feel the fuzzed-out edges of her mind unraveling.
“There we are,” her plant whispered. “That’s the look I wanted to see.” Her floral tongue flicked out, unnecessarily moistening her pretending lips. Thatch’s eyes dimmed for a heart-stopping instant, and then she let out a long, slow breath before the entrancing glow shone brightly once more. “The machines wouldn’t let me see this, either. Too much danger of bleedover. Your mind is so open that anything could shape it, but how could anybody stand to let this happen behind a sensory deprivation visor?”
She knelt before Katie, looking straight down into her eyes. She held Katie’s cheeks between her hands, gently shifting the girl back and forth just to see her thoughtless face respond. “Beautiful,” she breathed. “You can barely even understand me and yet I see every word and touch mold that little twinkle in your eye. Let us begin.”
Thatch spoke. It demanded every scrap of Katie’s attention. There could be no room for thought, no room to process, no room to comprehend. The words went straight to the dumb animal at the heart of her. Word after word. Sentence after sentence. Instruction after instruction.
If that were all, perhaps Katie could have been saved. One sense alone could not consume her entirely, but she had more than one sense. Thatch’s vines curled beneath her clothes, writhing against her skin to demand a focus she could no longer provide. Overwhelming scent filled her nostrils, requiring attention Katie simply didn’t have. Thatch’s eyes, and the bioluminescant bulbs that still dotted her, glowed and twinkled in a pattern that Katie’s brain had no choice but to fixate upon, yet she had no thoughts to spare. A pair of fingers unceremoniously plunged between Katie’s lips provided a flavour that washed her away, as if there was anything left. Finally, and worst of all, the waves of emotion that crashed themselves upon Katie’s helpless mind found nothing left to soften their blows.
Thatch told her who she was. Who she had been. Who she was to be. Reminded her of all the things she craved. What she wanted. What she needed. How to curl. How to crawl. How to sit up and beg. All the things the deep animal within needed. All the pet needed. All the katie needed.
Katie felt the hand against her cheek squeeze and instinctively tilted her head to press against it. She tried to hold on to whatever she could but it was no use. She was slipping away into the depths. Every instruction stole a little more away. The last dying act of her flayed consciousness was naught but a whimper and a breath and easy, eager obedience.
“Stay with me, kitty.”
Katie opened her eyes. She felt the tiny vines that had actually opened them leave a moment later. She stared up into Thatch’s eyes with uncertainty and confusion and a long, slow blink. Why could she think? Her head felt clearer than it had in weeks. “Uh…?”
“I told you to trust me. I can not compromise on this. Now be a good girl and sit still while I finish up.” Thatch reached around with a bundle of flowers and vines emerging from her arm. She pressed the bundle to Katie’s face, with the petals conspiring to form a seal. “Just breathe for me, floret.”
It wasn’t like Katie had much of a choice. If she so much as thought about breaking out of her position, some deep part of her subconscious flinched and panicked and stopped the thought dead. Thatch was doing nothing to hold her in place, but she dared not move an inch. Katie breathed. She felt the drugs filling her, spreading out from her lungs along every vein with a tingle she could have sworn she could feel squirming deep within her frail body. Katie braced herself, but to her surprise felt nothing as it reached her brain.
Thatch noted her confusion and explained. “Neuroplasticity tweaks. Soaks into your soft little mind and makes it firm enough for all this to stick without leaving you being too suggestible.”
Thatch pulled her set of flowers away, folded them back into her arm, and then patted Katie on the head. “But you don’t need to know what I’m doing to you, do you, kitty?”
Katie felt the urge to obey, to agree with a smile and a nod. It was no weaker than it had ever been, but she felt stronger now. She tilted her head to the side. She tried to talk, but found her mouth bone dry. Thatch wordlessly pointed her to a bowl of water set to the side of the sofa, which Katie gratefully drank from, quenching her thirst. “No Miss, but I’d like to know, I think.”
Thatch leaned over, picked up her tablet, and took a note. She glanced back over. “Good girl.” Katie’s smile widened. “I had been letting you grow unchecked and so it should come as no surprise to me that you collapsed under your own weight. I will now be providing you a structure on which to grow. You know the details—intimately, if not consciously—and I suspect propping up some basic pillars of your personality will go a long way. All the same, you are one of our projects, and very much a work in progress.”
She tapped a knuckle against her tablet. “I shall be keeping a close eye on you.”
Katie blinked, then nodded. She didn’t feel any different, aside from the obvious change of being clearer headed. She had to admit, this hadn’t been what she’d expected after finally convincing Thatch to rebuild her. Katie sat up, putting her butt against her heels and her hands against the sofa, and considered the backrest. She could make that jump. She shuffled around for a moment to get into position, then leaped up onto the top of the backrest, crawled along it, and draped herself over Thatch’s shoulder. Katie rolled halfway over and batted at one of the flowers in Thatch’s hair.
“I thought you were gonna change me? I don’t feel any different,” Katie asked, pinning the flower down underpaw so she could lean in and bite at one of the petals, hoping to rip it free.
Thatch snapped a sharp word and Katie froze. She carefully removed her teeth from the petal. She’d only left a little mark.
Katie whimpered. “But-”
Thatch reached over and pinched a spot on the back of Katie’s neck. She emitted a soft gasp as all the tension left her body, leaving her to flop awkwardly to one side while her affini gently placed her against the floor. Once the grip was released, Katie blinked, picked herself up, and pushed herself back into a sitting position. She looked up at Thatch with a curiou—
Katie leaped for a bright, moving object. She slammed her hands down against the shuttle floor, certain she’d caught it, but felt nothing. She blinked, dropped her head down to floor level, and carefully lifted her hands to peek beneath.
Empty. She’d— There it was, on the other side of the room! Katie found herself galloping at it, feeling strangely dexterous as she moved. She kicked off with her legs, caught herself on her arms while she brought her legs back around for another leap, and repeated the process so she could grab ahold of the object. Her eyes were focused on her prey. One of Thatch’s bright red vines hanging in the air while the tip wriggled in a way that just caught on Katie’s brain. She had to have it.
It shifted a moment before Katie could grab hold. She scrambled to a halt, slipping against the floor tiles while she tried not to lose her footing. Katie squinted, trotting in a quick circle while she hunted for a sign. It was— Under the sofa! She was off. Again, the vine shifted just before Katie touched it, but this time she was ready for that. Katie feinted to one side as she approached in the hopes it would dodge in the wrong direction and leave an opening.
Not quite. Katie missed it by inches and crashed into the back of the sofa, crumpling into a pile of limbs. Thatch chuckled, reaching down to tickle under Katie’s chin. She was already a tangled mess, but now she was a squirming, tangled mess.
“Who says I haven’t changed you, kitty?” Thatch stopped scritching and gently pressed Katie’s head back so she could stare upwards at the affini leaning over the back of the sofa.
“I think I’d notice, hon,” Katie shot back, twisting her body around to escape the grip and scramble back upright. Back onto all fours, where she belonged.
“Ah, of course. Well then, I suppose you must be just how I want you already, right kitty?” Thatch rubbed a pair of fingers against a thumb together to get Katie’s attention, then led her around to the front of the sofa. As soon as Thatch stopped keeping her hand just out of reach Katie spent a few moments rubbing her cheek against it, emitting a quiet rumble of satisfaction.
Thatch chuckled, then gestured with her head to one side. Katie turned to look and— The vine! She leaped, only to find herself grabbed out of the air and held still. “Look before you leap,” Thatch chided. “There’s a window there. Isn’t it pretty? Take a look for me.”
Katie swung for the vine a few more times until she was forced to accept it was simply out of reach. She still found it impossible to tear her attention away until Thatch pulled it out of sight and used it to tilt her head back towards the window. Katie let her eyes focus out to infinity. She took in a sharp breath as Thatch did something to dim the lights, bringing the starscape into sharp clarity.
Oh. Katie stared, reaching out to place a hand against the glass as she entirely failed to take in the scale of it all. They were way up, relative to the galactic plane. It was almost like Dirt’s night sky, but there she’d been viewing it through atmosphere on a planet peppered with a million tiny lights. Here it was just her staring out unimpeded on the utter majesty of the cosmos. She’d seen this view before, but only now was she getting it. Her mouth fell open.
Katie heard a sound from behind as her plant stood and walked to sit beside her. She didn’t turn to look. A moment later, a hand gently stroked down her back, drawing out a shiver and a breathless gasp.
“Beautiful, is it not?” Thatch asked. She pointed over at a constellation. “That is where I came into being. One of the stellar gardens above Xa’aat.” She shifted her finger, pointing to a wholly different section of the galaxy. “And that, dear floret, is where you came into being. One of the creches around Gliese 1245 A on September 16th, 2527.”
The two points were a fraction of a galaxy apart from one another. So far away, and yet so close when viewed in context. Everything Thatch had seen in her long life had taken place in one small corner of one small galaxy. Katie shuffled a little closer and tucked herself under one of Thatch’s arms. “I think I’d like to see that one day,” she admitted. “Maybe more, besides? How much of this could we see? If we tried? How much is out there?”
“Interested in the rest of the universe again, then?”
Katie tilted her head. “Huh? Of course. Why do you ask?”
A gentle grin overtook her plant’s face. Katie felt a wave of relief washing over her. “Don’t worry about it, kitty.” A vine snapped out to ruffle Katie’s hair, but she managed to dodge out of the way by rolling quickly to one side. She saw the next vine coming and leaped for the sofa, though it wasn’t quite enough. Katie hit chest on, scrambled for purchase, and ended up slipping free and landing awkwardly. Before she’d managed to get herself back on her feet, her hair had been well and truly ruffled.
By the time Katie had righted herself, Thatch had written something on her tablet and was stowing it and the pen back within herself. “However, it has been several hours and we are a little late for our rendezvous. Would you jump us back for me?”
Katie nodded rapidly, earning another quick ruffle. It had been phrased like a question, but it wasn’t one. Why would Thatch need to ask her something like that? She already knew all the answers. Thatch stood and moved across the room, speaking some alien word as she did. Katie hurried forward to stay at her heel.
The main room of the pod was home to a quiet conversation about, apparently, the flight itself. The Aquaes paused as they entered the room, halting as Avium raised a hand towards them. Xyr floret was pointing a camera towards the three adventurers as they talked about the steps that had led up to the construction of an entirely floret-built rocket.
Apparently it had been a long journey, and despite the name this was not the first Floret-1. According to Lily, it was a Rinan tradition to reuse names if a vehicle’s catastrophic failure taught them something, so that the only way to keep a legacy going was to always be pushing the edges of possibility. Hence the Floret-1, a fully operational vessel built with only oversight from the Affini themselves.
Soon the interview came to an end and Katie was ushered in. She carefully trotted up a well placed vine and sat before the jump console. She could do this. This was her thing. Katie stuck her tongue out from one corner of her mouth, did the maths, and then plugged in the correct trajectory. She slapped the sequence initiator.
It was weird to execute a jump without a moment of intense discomfort resonating in the lungs. Not unwelcome, just weird. For an instant, reality snapped in two as their fledgling wormhole formed and swallowed them whole. It only took a moment for the view to clear, and when it did Katie found herself gasping.
The Affini Light Scout Elettarium hung in the void as if it were aglow. Beautiful. Comfortable. Home.
An icon at the corner of the cockpit lit as a voice Katie could have sworn she’d heard somewhere before piped up. “Good evening, Floret-1! This is Elettarium Actual hoping you had a great trip and wishing you a warm welcome. We’ve got a docking bay all lined up for you and an approach vector locked in. Can you confirm you are ready to hand over the controls, Floret-1?”
Lily perked up. “Yeah! I think it should work! I haven’t tested all the code, but, it looked good!”
“Acknowledged, taking over engines now.”
There was a gentle rumble, and then the acceleration that had been providing their gravity vanished. Katie yelped, slowly rising into the air before she managed to reach down and cling to Thatch’s vine with all four limbs.
“Ah,” the voice winced. “No such luck, I’m afraid. I’ll just come get you.”
The scout before them started to bank, slowly turning in their direction. The drive plume alone must have been whole kilometers long. Despite the size, the Elettarium was remarkably agile and was quickly bearing down upon them. As it got closer, the size only became more clear, as did the difference in their relative capabilities.
The Floret-1 may have been a finer ship than anything the Terran Cosmic Navy had boasted, at least if you ignored the weaponry. All the same, they could never have hoped to outmaneuver the Affini ship, despite being a thousandth the size.
Katie let out a breath and glanced over at Thatch. “Terra never stood a chance, did it?”
A grin. “I shall start counting the number of times you come to that realisation, I suspect.”
Katie tilted her head with a curious frown, but was interrupted before she could speak by the disembodied voice piping up again. “While I’m en-route, Floret-1, the good captain has a favour to ask. Thatch Aquae, we’ve been having a little trouble with the feralist remnant of the old Indomitable crew. They did a head count and realised one of their number was missing and are refusing to settle down until we prove she hasn’t been eaten. Obviously, they will not be entirely happy to see a pet, but this may be a situation where, if you could get your floret to walk in, give them a smile, and promise them everything is okay it might go a long way. Your call. It’d be appreciated, but you know your floret’s needs best. The captain wants me to make it clear that she wouldn’t ask if the next best option wasn’t starting to assign emergency caretakers. We’ve already cleared out the adoption register, we just don’t have the population to absorb this many ferals quickly.”
“Ah.” Thatch hesitated. “I am… not sure my kitten would be the most reassuring sight for active feralists.”
Katie smiled up at her from her position perched upon a vine, down on all fours, a little confused. “What do you mean? I’m sure if I just go right in and smile they’ll calm down. It’s not like I don’t know how to act normally any more, right? C’mon, Thatch, I can handle my old crew.”
Thatch stared across at the smiling sophont with a flat expression for long moments, fighting a battle of wills she seemed to know she couldn’t win. Eventually, she smiled back. “Oh, very well, katie. I suppose you can hardly make it worse.”