Chapter Forty Two: Reaching Out
“You are not leaving the hab looking like that.”
“No buts,” Katie insisted. She put her metaphorical foot down, setting her paw firmly between her slightly parted knees as she knelt before her tangled mess of an affini. Hair pointed in a dozen different directions, there was a browning leaf in her cheek, and the foliage on her left arm was ruffled.
In Thatch’s defence, that last one was Katie’s fault.
“C’mon, sit down.” Katie pawed at the ground in front of her and glared.
“Nobody will mind,” Thatch complained, while sitting down and allowing Katie to climb up onto her shoulder so she could start putting the garden that was her hair back together. Thatch could have done it faster herself, of course, but this way was more pleasant for both of them. “Besides, I lack the evidence to show that Cici’s optical sensors even have the resolution to notice. The poor thing seems to have been built with some assumptions about what it would find in this universe that did not hold.”
Katie snorted. “You think? I didn’t plan around finding a hyperbenevolent race of plant people either.” She stuck her tongue out to one side while trying to figure out an artistic way of braiding flower-dotted vines. It was actually quite relaxing. She hummed, trying a few options before finally making her decision.
Thatch, for her part, sat patiently while Katie played, dutifully moving vines as instructed to assist. “That is redundant, dearest pet.”
“Hmn?” Katie asked, glancing over with a vine held between her teeth.
“Plant person. Both translate to the same word in Affini.”
Katie laughed, weaving her set of vines back together. “Of course they do. You’re all completely insufferable.”
“Oh, it gets worse yet. ‘Xeno’ and ‘cute pet’ also translate to the same word.” Thatch reached up with a hand and scratched Katie under the chin. “We would be insufferable were you not all so endlessly eager to suffer us.”
Katie almost toppled to the floor, but a well placed vine caught her and guided her down into Thatch’s lap. A quick swipe across the cheek to guide her gaze focussed Katie’s attentions on grooming her owner’s arm. Short licks downward did a good job of sorting out all the ruffles and misalignments, and then long licks up did a fantastic job of getting everything all lying down where it belonged.
Katie paused, then raised her head and looked up with a curious squint. “Does that mean that ‘xenoveterinary’ is specifically vets for pets? Are there non-xeno veterinaries?” Katie blinked a few times. “When feralists call you xeno scum, are they calling you cute?”
“I believe you are thinking about this more deeply than our xenolinguists did.”
“Do not blame me, xeno. If you wish to file a complaint, you know where to find the xenobureaucrats.”
Katie bit down on Thatch’s arm and worried at it a little. It achieved absolutely nothing, of course, except reminding her that her owner was delicious and that she wanted little more than to sit there chewing on a vine. Thatch even let her, for a minute or two or ten, before gently levering her away with a pat on the head. “You are busy grooming, pet. Keep at it.”
Katie nodded rapidly, then jabbed a hand inside Thatch’s chest to pull out a small pair of scissors. Like all their tools, it had been hand-built. Two sharp thorns rotated around an axle made of genuine Dirtwood: a claim to fame that nobody but they cared about. She reached up and snipped the drooping leaf free, then returned the tool to the absurdly convenient little storage area Thatch maintained inside of herself. The leaf she discarded, given to their hab’s healthy layer of undergrowth. “Okay, one more. Serious question this time. Xenodrugs. Literally drugs for cute pets?”
Thatch nodded. “Whether they are for cute pets, or for making cute pets, is likely intentional ambiguity. I suspect that the majority of the effort that our xenolinguists do put in is ensuring our version of your language is reliably condescending. Again, pet, look not at I, as if this is not your doing. You did this to me and you love every word of it.”
Katie rolled her eyes, but her lack of disagreement spoke volumes.
“So… are there drugs for people? Plantdrugs?”
“We just call them drugs, darling, but, yes. Less popular for recreation, of course. Getting properly inebriated while caring for a floret requires finding somebody to pet-sit, and frankly I don’t really see the draw myself.”
“I need to get you high,” Katie insisted, before licking down the last few crumpled leaves. Thatch’s coat was looking slick and shiny now, she thought. All ready. Katie rolled off of Thatch’s lap and, after a momentary diversion to go drop a bundle of handmade flakes into Leviathan’s river, found herself sitting by the door. She raised a paw to scrape against it, but the door wouldn’t open to her command any more—at least, not without a safeword. The thought of leaving the unit without Thatch was distinctly uncomfortable and so Katie found the restriction profoundly pleasant.
“I have avoided it so far,” Thatch admitted. “It has always seemed like a frivolity when there are so many more important things I should be turning my mind to. Chin up, pet. Time for walkies.”
Katie raised her chin and bounced on her heels, feeling a jittery sort of excitement. She’d spent most of her time in the hab since arriving on the ship, but there was still something intriguing about the rest of the ship. It held a sort of romance, as if there could be anything at all out there and all Katie had to do was find it.
Thatch wrapped a vine around the loop of Katie’s collar and gestured, only slightly, towards the door. It slid open with a smooth and strangely satisfying motion, responsive to even the most subtle command, and Katie was off, darting around Thatch’s legs to meet the outside world at speed.
She made it about six feet before Thatch called her to heel, pulling her back and gesturing for her to go in the correct direction. Katie tempted fate with a moment of pause, but a sharp tug on the leash reminded her who chose their route. As she returned to Thatch’s side she felt a rush of satisfaction and pride that beat out anything the other route could have given her. Maybe she wouldn’t need the tug next time.
The grass-like surface of the Elettarium’s pathways may or may not have been actual Terra grass. It was at least very similar and it felt nice underneath Katie’s paws. Moving around on all fours felt strangely tiring, but her body was growing used to it and the physical act of moving had never before felt so right. Exercise was important for her continued health, Katie understood… but mostly she was interested in exploring the ship.
“You didn’t actually do those things, though, did you?” Katie asked, holding her head up high as she trotted along at her plant’s side. She hoped she was giving the impression of patience, but her eyes flicked across the wide pathway, identifying all the things she wanted a closer look at. After a few moments, Thatch waved her forward to go explore. There was so much to see in the common areas, so many interesting scents and sights and Katie finally had the time to appreciate them all.
“Admittedly not. I could—can—not ignore the urge to see it as a betrayal of the promises my people have made, however. If we are to take care of you, then is such inebriation not a dereliction of my duty?” Thatch kept the vine attached to Katie’s collar loose as they walked. Katie wasn’t far away, and with Thatch deliberately moving slowly she had plenty of freedom to poke and prod and nuzzle into the dense growths of the many flowerbeds dotting the ship’s common areas, searching for secrets.
Katie removed her nose from a tuft of grass which had, disappointingly, contained only grass. “Nobody else around here holds themselves to those standards, Miss. Besides, the Affini never promised me shi—”
“We are outside and you represent me,” Thatch interrupted. “Be polite.”
Katie flushed, bit her lip, and nodded. “The Affini never promised me anything, Miss, but I promised you I’d help you be happy, so. Drugs, I guess? Everybody else is doing it.”
Katie knew from experience that Thatch could move with such speed that they could likely sprint from one end of the arc to the other in mere minutes. Instead, she was walking forward in a deliberately unhurried fashion. The journey was the point here, not the destination. Katie hurried forward until she felt her leash pulling taut.
“Stay close, girl, we’re in no rush,” Thatch ordered. Reluctantly, Katie slowed and let Thatch catch up to her. She immediately regretted the moment’s hesitation. It was so much more satisfying to obey quickly. Katie resolved to do better. “But no, you are quite correct, they do not. I am not even the only one here to have lost somebody, I know this. I am not unique in my damage. I see the lies in my words even as I speak them, but they find purchase all the same. My refusal to heed the call to appreciate and enjoy existence is, I think, the real betrayal of the principles of our culture.” She shrugged, and gestured with the leash. “I am trying to learn how to allow myself that luxury. Thank you for pushing against my insecurities here, kitty. I am… glad to have your wilfulness back with me.”
Katie turned back to smile, though she wasn’t quite sure what Thatch meant. She didn’t remember going anywhere. She let her head fall to one side and opened her mouth to reply, but a whiff of some potent scent found its way into her nose and pulled all her attention to one side. Dark, earthy, but floral. A tingle that danced across her skin and sunk deep into her mind. Beautiful sky-blue petals clung to a dappled orange middle that almost dripped with some kind of viscous, oily coating.
Katie had to have it.
The ship held so many interesting things at Katie’s level that she almost pitied her affini towering far above. Flowers belonged at head height, bringing alluring, entrancing scents right to her nose. Katie slowed to a stop, head tilted gently to one side as she brought her nose between the petals of a flower in the flowerbed of one of the homes they were passing. The oil, or sap, felt cold against the tip of her nose, clinging to it with surprising resilience. As Katie leaned back, the plant followed for just a moment, struggling to hold her in place with its adhesion. She was strongest by far, however, and it soon fell away, wiggling gently in place to much the same cadence as Katie herself. The floret took a deep breath, filling her nostrils with the sap’s sweet scent, and giggled. What a pretty little flower. It smelled divine, and Katie found her mouth watering.
Just one bite? What could be the harm?
Katie slowly reached forward, opening her mouth to nibble one of the petals, just around the edges. It was surprisingly sweet. Almost saccharine, actually. A soft and bitter aftertaste. It almost turned into a paste in Katie’s mouth, but something drove her to keep chewing even as the flavours turned sour and the texture turned scratchy. Her face twisted in distaste, but she reached forward to snap up the rest of the leaf all the same.
“Oh frost,” Thatch swore, glancing back as Katie fell silent. She yanked her leash to pull the girl away, then pointed at the ground with a sharp gesture. “No! Drop it! Drop.” Katie blinked slowly upwards, not quite comprehending what was wanted. The leaf tasted worse the more she chewed it.
Katie felt a vine tap against the muscle of her jaw and some of her earliest pieces of training kicked in. Her mouth fell open and another vine pulled out the leaf and did away with it. The sudden feeling of emptiness was quickly replaced by the tip of a bottle of water and an instruction to “Drink.”
The bottle was thankfully spill-proof, requiring a little pressure before it would let the water escape. Katie wrapped her lips around it and suckled gratefully, sinking into a soft calm as the fluid neutralised whatever she had been eating and soothed the effects on her body. She didn’t know exactly what was in the bottle, but she expected Thatch knew what she needed to thrive. It clearly wasn’t plain water: it tasted of her affini’s gentle honey tang. Katie finished the bottle quickly.
Over a few more minutes and a few more bottles, Katie’s head cleared. Her nose wrinkled while the last few bitter flavours were scrubbed out of her mouth by a tiny, sap-coated vine, blushing mostly from the embarrassment her last dregs of internalised feralism felt as they screamed that she was meant to be more independent than this. She suspected she was permitted such feelings only so she could recognise some fraction of the embarrassment her former self would have felt at being such a dependent, helpless pet. Eventually, she was given another mouthful of water to rinse herself clean, which Katie returned to the dirt beneath their feet where it would be reclaimed and recycled.
“Sorry Miss. I um, that was silly of me.” Katie bit her lip, staring down at Thatch’s feet. She had pretty toes. Katie caught herself leaning towards them with a need to nibble before she further humiliated herself, even though it was very rude of Thatch to both disallow her from eating her leaves while also being made of delicious, edible treats. “I should’ve thought.”
Thatch pulled Katie’s attention upwards with a gentle tug on the leash, forcing her to meet a stern, but caring, face. “You can hardly be blamed for following your instincts, kitty. You are not your responsibility. I had not expected to need to tell you not to eat things you find lying around outside on the ground, but.” Thatch shrugged, then leaned down to ruffle the girl’s hair. “So often I find myself crashing into the reality of things with you. I imagine rewriting you to be only excitement and adventure, and yet here I am, washing out your mouth as we find a bug in your system. For decades I feared that indulging my desires would lead to irrevocable catastrophe, but I find that the problems I truly face are rather more… domestic.”
Katie blinked repeatedly, staring up as her mind slowly caught up to herself. She tilted her head some seventy degrees to the side. “Huh?”
A chuckle. “Worry not, my fragile construct. I think most clearly when I am speaking to you, is all.” Thatch reached down to tickle below Katie’s chin, then do something just below her line of sight. Katie felt a momentary spike of heat at the top of her ₛₚᵢₙₑ ₐₙ_
Katie blinked a few more times, then smiled a little wider. “Worry about what, Miss?”
“Just so,” the plant replied, raising back to her full height. She spoke a short word in Affini. Come, or something much like it. “That flower, by the way, was not dangerous, but I suspect the gardener did not consider the presence of sophonts at your stature.”
Katie found herself nodding. She felt almost as if she could still taste it, but of course that couldn’t possibly be true. She’d had her mouth scrubbed clean. It had tasted awful, anyway. “When I got near it, I um, I don’t know why, but it was really really interesting, and I couldn’t look away.” Katie licked her lips. Maybe just one more leaf?
A sharp tug of the leash dissuaded her from going back. “The Amberfang plant is, apparently, actually native to Terran space. I looked it up while cleaning you out to see if I needed to do anything else to neutralise the effects. The poor thing was almost hunted to extinction. It is a predatory plant that evolved on a world with no animal life larger than equines that drew in its prey with chemical scents that seem to override the decision-making capabilities of the cute little things around here.” She laughed, mostly to herself. “Insofar as any of you have them, anyway. Of course, as soon as a Terran colony was established, its hunting strategy proved problematic: humans were extremely susceptible to the effect but ultimately much too large to fall to the plant’s toxins, and so at worst the colonists ended up with stomach aches while the plants were eaten entirely. Apparently somebody aboard snagged one of the last existing samples out of some Terran Navy black site and is trying to revive the species with a much weaker attraction. Apparently not weak enough for somebody crawling past, however. I left a note.”
Katie pondered. Poor plant. It was just following its instincts and doing its best, and that’d almost gotten them all wiped out, until the Affini had arrived to rescue them. “Wow,” she replied. “There’s a metaphor in there, huh?”
Thatch nodded. “Indeed. Sometimes doing what comes naturally to you will have unexpected consequences you are not equipped to handle alone. Do not despair, pet. I am here now.” She gave the leash a comforting pull.
“I meant for you, you dork,” Katie shot back, pulling back. “Doing what you felt like you ‘should’ be doing even though it was hurting you, and needing me to come rescue you.” She paused. “The bit about altering it to be safer is more your aesthetic than mine, though, admittedly.”
“Admittedly,” Thatch agreed. “Fine, very well, you win. If I agree to arrange petsitting for you and request a drug, will you stop poking holes in my insecurities?”
Katie held her head high as she strode forward, as ostensibly in charge of their route as she was when she rode on Thatch’s shoulders: which was to say, in charge so long as she was making permitted decisions. “No promises, but it’s a good first step. Gosh, I’d love to see you on some class-Cs.”
“I think you will find I bonded with you before we left the Indomitable, sweet katieflower, so I doubt they would be needed. Nonetheless, I shall see what I can do.”
They continued on their walk for a while longer, conversation shifting to lighter things. Thatch, who had never seen By the Stars in their Eyes, had theories about where the show was going. Katie, who had seen some of it before the war had cancelled production, tried very hard not to reveal spoilers. She had thankfully already asked permission to keep the plot beats a secret which had, after a brief negotiation and several concessions, been granted.
As they walked Katie noticed that, for some reason, she seemed to be drawing a little more attention than she used to. Maybe her status as a prior elite rebel operative was getting around? As Thatch wandered past Angel’s Delights Katie was busying herself snuffling around the flowerbeds at the edge of the adjacent park. As she came to the end of a particularly nicely scented tuft of some alien plant—like a kind of lighter-than-air seaweed that anchored to the ground by its roots—Katie’s nose bumped into the waiting vines of an affini.
She glanced up. “Um… hi,” she spoke, smiling in the general direction of their knee. She couldn’t really bend her head up any further. She didn’t think she knew this one—at least, their scent and their stance were unfamiliar.
It hovered its hand over Katie’s head while glancing over towards the one who held her leash. “May I pet your floret? She is exceptionally cute.”
“Um, do I—”
Katie guessed that permission was granted, because the next thing she knew she’d been flipped onto her back with twelve squirming fingers busy rubbing her stomach. Legs twitched in the air as the newcomer proved merciless. Their touch didn’t feel anywhere near as good as Thatch’s, of course, but Katie was pretty sure she had some of whatever class of xenodrug enhanced touch in her system. Which was that? Class— “Ah!” Katie whimpered, biting her lip, eyes rolling up into the back of her head as the rubbing grew into scritches that were barely deadened by the coat of form-fitting leaves that clung tight to her body.
“—very well trained—”
Katie’s mouth quivered, falling half open before she managed to notice and close it, only for the process to start again. She was barely catching anything either of them were saying, but she was pretty sure they were talking about her.
“—unusually sober, despite—”
Stars, the new affini’s fingers were all thumbs, all digging in along the sides of her torso. Her breaths were shallow and rapid, fighting down giggles and coos that seemed almost imposed. Katie writhed against the dirt, emitting little gasps like she were a musical instrument.
“—largely mediated by a transversal shunt—”
Frost and flame, this was humiliating. They were discussing Katie like she was something to be teased apart and analysed, all the while keeping her helpless. She didn’t even know the new one’s name. Their scratching fingers diversified, one hand going up to ravage her chin while another raked across her scalp and a third drew sharp lines across her stomach. Had they had three hands to start with, or was Katie just losing track of what was happening to her in the haze? Her gasps grew louder as a building pressure deep within started to reach unsustainable levels. Hot breath panted into the air, ears straining to snatch just a sliver of conversation over the desperate mewling that surrounded them.
“—well-programmed little pet—”
Katie groaned, frantic breathing reaching a crescendo. Her spine curled outwards, fingers curled in, legs quivering as they tried desperately to hold her weight. She had to force her eyes shut to keep the light from overwhelming her. Never mind knowing the name of the newcomer, Katie was barely sure she knew her own. With her eyes barely under her control it wasn’t like she was seeing anything useful anyway. She called out, desperate, unsure if she was asking for help or for more, but all she got was a hand against her cheek. Katie took a deep breath, smelled the bliss of her owner, and decided that her plea had been one of helpless need. She nuzzled between fingers, licking against Thatch’s palm with increasing ferocity as if that could somehow release the tension within.
“—lacking in stamina, though—”
It was all too much. Katie panted and squeaked and begged with wordless, voiceless, silent pleas… and then something snapped and she felt as if she were a puppet with severed strings. Sensation grew, peaked, and passed from her body, carried far far away on a high-pitched groan. She collapsed onto the ground with shaking limbs and a squirming body, panting in the futile hope she could get enough oxygen into her starving lungs to restart her ailing cognition.
The world was so bright. What had seemed like the gentle bustle of the Elettarium’s population now hammered Katie’s ears with force enough to press another whimper from her sloppy lips. Where mere moments ago everything had been pleasure and need, now that had passed and Katie found her senses overwhelmed. She tried to cover her eyes and her ears at the same time, but even the sensation of skin on skin stabbed through her mind like a needle.
There was one last hypergentle scritch beneath the chin and then Katie felt herself being bundled up for a loose hug. She whimpered, clinging weakly to Thatch’s chest as a light touch danced through her hair. Anything heavier would be more stimulation than Katie could bear, but Thatch knew exactly how much she could take and kept her close, wrapping her in enough foliage that everything was plunged into dark and cool and quiet.
The conversation without continued, but from in here it was more a feeling than a sound and Katie could not make out the words. The vibrations of the hundreds of tiny leaves Thatch needed to vocalise were so slight it would likely have been impossible for another to feel at all, but with hypersensitive skin and much experience in Thatch’s textures and sounds Katie basked in it. It rolled over her like a slow ocean wave, contrasting the hedonistic stimulation of moments ago with a subtle dance that tickled over the soul.
Katie’s heavy breaths lightened across long moments. The slightest hint of acceleration suggested that Thatch may have returned to motion; but perhaps Katie was simply being rocked in place. She hadn’t a point of reference with which to tell. As her exhaustion left her, Katie found nothing to replace it with. She tried to take a deeper breath, only to find her breathing restricted. On autonomous reactions she tried to pull away, opening her mouth to gulp down a mouthful of air that her body didn’t really need but her chest was held so tight that she—
“Shh.” The sound washed over her from every direction at once. “I have you, kitten. You’re safe. Quiet now.”
Quiet now. Katie settled. Shallow breaths were more than enough. As Katie relaxed vines adjusted her position, pulling her arms tighter around something firm and warm, bringing her up to curl around it with her cheek resting softly in place on its top. It was hot and almost thrummed with a melody so familiar Katie could feel herself resonating with it. Energy danced across the back of her mind quiet yet firm, pressing down on any idle thoughts that dared to form. She could think, still… but only when she tried, and even that was a struggle. The constant bubbling of her mind was brought down to stillness.
Eventually even conversation ended and its gentle buzz vanished from Katie’s world. She hung in a floral scent void, weight carried so precisely she couldn’t even feel the binds yet so entirely that when she eventually did decide to move she found she could not. After the first attempt, Katie simply settled back in to rest, safe in the knowledge that even if the Terran fleet at its height gathered intent on doing her harm they would fail even to wake her.
She slipped into sleep, all of creation so quiet that though she still could not hear the near-silent words being whispered into her, she understood them nonetheless.
“—Good katie. Quiet katie. Soft katie. Safe little kitten. Pretty, prized prototype. Delightful, docile pet. No need to wake. No need to move. No need to think—”
An unknowable duration later Katie woke recovered enough to face the outside world. She tried to sit but found herself locked in place. She tried to tap against one of Thatch’s vines with a finger only to find that she wasn’t capable even of that. Katie tried to open her eyes, and while she thought she was successful she could see no more than when she had them closed.
“Mrph!” Katie strained against her bonds with as much strength as she could muster. It was strangely pleasant to discover that thanks to all the exercise she’d been getting lately she felt like she could pull with much more force, and it didn’t tire her out anywhere near as much as she’d expected.
She failed even to twitch.
Katie yanked and pulled and strained. Thatch’s vines were so sensitive she could feel Katie’s movements almost before they happened; why wasn’t she responding? Katie was helpless here. She tried to take in a deeper breath with which to speak, but found that even that was beyond her. Even breathing out of turn was denied, and neither could she hold her breath. How long had Thatch held her like this, managing even the autonomous needs of her body as if Katie could not be trusted even to breathe to her owner’s satisfaction?
As if to top off the humiliation, what finally caught Thatch’s attention was little more than Katie’s captive blush.
Buzzing in from every direction, a response of sorts. “Ah, awake at last. I trust you slept well, sleepyhead? That is a rhetorical question, of course; I would not leave such things up to chance. Are you ready to come out?”
Katie tried to nod. She couldn’t even do that.
Thatch got the message regardless. “Ask nicely, then.”
Katie tried to speak. Her jaw was held so tight that movement was impossible. She tried to move her tongue, and found even that held down by immovable vines. She whimpered and part of her was surprised to find her vocal cords were still under her control.
Insofar as anything was, anyway,
Without a tongue, the best attempts at speech came out as little more than animal barks. “Can you hear me?” Katie tried to speak, but it sounded to her like nothing more than pleasured panting.
“I can,” Thatch confirmed, to her surprise. “Oh, did you think your adorably primitive method of making those soft little pleas was too complicated for me to understand? Speak, morsel. If I could not read the state of a machine from the twitches of its pieces then I would make a poor engineer indeed.”
This was deeply unfair. “Please, Miss Aquae, may I be let out?” Her words sounded more like mewls than human speech. After a moment had passed with no response, she tried again. “Please? Please, Miss?”
The sound of a chuckle from the inside was a rare delight. It seemed almost to echo at first, but Katie realised that wasn’t quite right. She was just hearing the way Thatch’s noises were built up by layer after layer of leaf. It didn’t sound like it did on the outside because she was nuzzled right up against the machinery. Stars above, what could Katie possibly have done in her former life to earn the attention of a creature this majestic?
“Of course, katie.” Thatch’s vines began to unwind one by one, revealing the outside world moments before Katie was carefully lowered out into it and placed on the ground at her affini’s side. By the time she’d gotten steady and looked back up, Katie caught only the final few instants of Thatch’s outer shell curling back into place. The plant knelt and patted the top of her head. “You only had to ask, love. I could get used to that kind of desperation, though.”
Katie moved to protest, but a finger cut her off. “Ah-ah. You know the consequence I levy for mistruths, even unwitting ones. I had a very tight grip on you in there.” She drew the back her false knuckles up Katie’s jawline, slowly raising her head degree by degree. Thatch leaned closer, to whisper. “So don’t even pretend you didn’t love every second of that, you messy, malleable machine.”
Stars-damned xeno weed. Katie buried her face in Thatch’s hand and whimpered quietly until she got what she wanted: another pat on the head, a laugh, and a command to heel as they resumed their journey.
Their walk had taken them on a long loop around the Minor Habitable Arc, deck C—where Katie’s hab lay—before finally ending at the magrail station just across from Katie’s front door. Most places on the ship were easily accessible by foot, but for moving between the arcs, or for accessing the front or rear sections, the rail pods were a necessity due to the difference in relative motion.
Their destination was deep in the industrial heart of the Elettarium, far aft. As their rail pod slowed to a stop the gift of gravity fell away and Katie slowly rose from the floor. She flailed for a moment, looking around for a handhold, but of course there were none to be found. The rear of the ship wasn’t a residential area and there were few reasons for the non-affini to visit unaccompanied.
Thatch, for her part, didn’t budge as gravity vanished. She walked over to Katie and tickled beneath her chin, then hooked a finger through the ring on her collar to tug her along. “Come now, pet. Having a little trouble keeping your paws on the ground? Silly little thing.”
The pod doors opened and Thatch strode out with a bounce in her step. She hopped across the boundary, rising a little into the air and then falling back onto the ship in an entirely believable simulation of gravity.
“You’re ridiculous!” Katie complained, drifting weightlessly along at her side.
“Yet you appreciate it nonetheless,” Thatch shot back.
Katie did, though. The memories from her former life may be blurry but those that centred around Thatch were as sharp as they’d ever been. Trying to peer deeper into her own past gave Katie the impression that she’d simply never had anything worth remembering until that moment a storm of thorn and vine had burst into the drive room and sent her running for her life.
Ironic that Thatch had become what she lived for, now.
Thatch seemed happier now than she had then. More playfulness in her language. A fresh bounce in her step, sometimes literal. Eyes that glimmered with an energy they had lacked back when they had first met. A flourish to her part of their shared, silent duet that spoke to a joy returned to her soul.
Thatch had made her changes on Katie, yes, but Katie had left hers too, just as deep. Thusly, with a smile: “Yeah, I really do.”
Their destination was not far. When Thatch had reached out to try to organise a playdate with Cici the machine had enthusiastically accepted, and had linked its address: One of the very very few hab units mounted into the non-residential areas of the ship. As the pair approached, the door slid open automatically, welcoming them within a surprisingly small and spartan room.
The affini skidded back on her feet almost a full meter as an ex-autonomous ex-weapon slammed into her at vaguely reckless speeds. Thatch reached around and held a finger over the monopropellant vent on Cici’s back and the machine fell silent and still. “Cici.” She laughed. “Is it simply my lot in life now to have adorable sophonts throwing themselves at me?”
“Yes.” Katie and Cici spoke almost as one. Katie led, and Cici repeated with an impressively short duration between. The machine really was learning how to live in this culture at an incredible rate. Katie almost felt a pang of envy at how much it had changed in so short a time.
“Ah, this again. You two are insufferable together.” Thatch rolled her eyes and shoved Cici back into the room, then followed. A sharp tug on the leash had Katie floating after them.
“And yet you’re so eager so suffer u—”
Katie was quiet, but pouted upwards. Thatch reached down to scratch under her chin, banishing the pout in an entirely unfair manner. How was Katie supposed to match wits if she wasn’t allowed to talk?
Though at first glance the room appeared almost empty Katie quickly revised that belief. The room wasn’t empty, it was just designed to spend all of its time in microgravity. Anything of note was strapped to one of the six ‘walls’ of the room, with no particular care given to directionality. Katie supposed that made sense; aside from the very rare case of being in natural gravity, the rear section would only be under force when the ship was accelerating through regular space, which was a relatively rare event. When you could simply attenuate the exit edge of a microwormhole to deposit you straight into whatever orbit you needed, traditional thrusters existed mostly only to rendezvous with fragile things like individuals in spacesuits and Terran warships.
“Now, Cici, weren’t we meeting one of your suitors here?” Thatch asked, glancing around a room which was suspiciously bereft of direct affini supervision.
To the Aquaes’s surprise, light strips built into the room began to glow in time to a voice that boomed out from every direction. “That would be me,” it spoke. “Elettarium Actual. Pleased to finally meet you in a more social setting, Aquae. You hold the record for the longest one has lived aboard me without saying hello.”
On the shuttle, the voice had been smooth, with slick wording and pronunciation. Here it buzzed the air with its volume, giving Katie the sense that they had entered into the lair of something quite other.
Slowly, Katie reached up to tug one of the vines of Thatch’s leg, trying to attract her attention.
The voice seemed almost to focus, no longer appearing from all around, but sounding as if it were coming from right beside Katie’s ear. “Ah, and if it isn’t the other Aquae,” it purred. “The one who left a mark upon my hull and who dared to demand I Jump. Quite a specimen. Quite a pair of specimens. I am pleased that you are ours now, little ones.”
Katie tugged more firmly and Thatch reached down to rest a hand atop her head and pull her in, letting Katie nestle into the safety of her leafwork lattice. “I did not believe we had autonomous ships in Terran space,” Thatch admitted. “Much less that I was on one. I believe I germinated upon an autonomous station, though I suppose I cannot assume you all know each other and, of course, I was hardly conversational at the time.”
Cici giggled. It may even have been one of Katie’s giggles, but it was hard to be sure. “Miss Incertae,—you are flirting.”
Katie tugged again, then pointed at her mouth. Thatch glanced down, pondered for a moment, and then nodded, gesturing for her to speak. “I remember that name. You’re not really a ship, are you?” Katie wasn’t sure where to look. She ended up staring at one of the wall panels that seemed to glow in an oddly familiar way.
The occupants of the room started drifting slowly towards one wall. Or— No, more likely, the wall started drifting towards them. “I am as much a ship as you are inhuman, Katie Aquae, Second Floret. Neither of us were born to our selves, yet both of us sensed the deep yearning for that we did not know. For you, it took twenty nine years, six months, and five days to find yourself. For me, it took thirty four blooms before I had the skill to craft the body I had always needed and one more to seize it. Despite hailing from different galaxies, we are not so different, you and I. You are not of the species that created you…”
“And you are a spaceship. That’s… rad.” Katie gently sat down on the wall that now pressed up against her with a fraction of the gravitational force she was used to. Likely those in the habitable arcs wouldn’t even notice the acceleration, yet here Katie was, granted a ‘down’ once more. “What’s it like being a spaceship? Is it cold in space? Oh stars, what’s it like Jumping?” She glanced over to Thatch. “Miss, can I be a spaceship?”
Cici piped up. “Miss Incertae said—she might let me fly this ship—if I am good.”
Thatch gazed down upon her floret with an appraising smirk. “Maybe as a treat I will figure out how to integrate you with a shuttle, but I quite prefer you little, pet.”
Katie beamed. She found that she could tell who the voice was talking to. In the same way that when it spoke to her the sound seemed to appear just beside her ear, when it spoke to others the sound came from their direction. This time, to Thatch: “If that is a sincere suggestion then we should talk. Biomechanical integration is necessarily a special interest of mine.”
“Oh!” Thatch exclaimed, glancing back down at Katie for a moment with analytical eyes. “That is not reflected in the Records.”
“I am not crew. You will find my technical specifications listed in the obvious place.”
“I see! I see. That makes sense. Yes, if you are willing we could have much to discuss. I was a member of—”
“The Spectrum Jelly Cotyledon program, yes. I have your file. You are categorised in my ‘Potentially Interesting Sophonts I Would Like To Know’ list; I simply had not expected it to take this long to pin you down. What serendipity that you would bring me my darling
cce as well.” The lighting spread throughout the room dimmed, focussing in on Cici for a moment.
It emitted something that sounded akin to a sine wave and emitted a burst of steam. “Miss Aquae is—interesting sophont—I would like to know—also!”
Katie shuffled a little closer to Thatch’s leg and gave it a squeeze. She could feel the gentle beginnings of socialisation stress in her poor affini’s construction and moved to rescue her. “So,” Katie spoke up. “How do an affini and her pet hang out with a spaceship and her exploration probe?”
A panel on the floor slid open, revealing a large, flat fabric surface. It was green at first, but quickly rippled into a kind of wood. Fascinatingly, the texture seemed to change along with the visual. “The same way any two pairs might break the ice,” the ship announced. “Board games.
cce and I have been greatly enjoying the Rinan Rocket to Nyrina!, but I assure you I am capable of reproducing something as simplistic as Terra’s Chess, or something as complicated as the Xa’a-ackétøth’s grand strategy simulations.”
Katie was surprisingly familiar with the soft sensation of uncertainty that played across the edges of her mind, radiating from her poor owner. They were both fish out of water when it came to the personal points of Affini culture, it seemed. “That first one sounds good?” she ventured, knowing Thatch would simply correct her if she had a better idea.
As it happened, she did not, and the two hosts busied themselves placing the pieces.