Chapter Forty Three: Playing Games
The glowing accents of Ined Incertae’s attention danced across the largely bare room, moving to focus in on a compartment to one side. A hidden panel pushed in, then slid out of the way, revealing a few dying motes of glowing energy and a box.
The box was ejected while the rest dissipated. One freshly compiled board game. A whiff of that dull cinnamon fresh-print smell wafted across the room before being stolen away by the climate control vents that, in contrast to the rest of the ship, hummed away audibly at the back of Katie’s attention.
The ship began to move around them, slowly enough that it was barely perceptible, at least to a floret who was only kinda high. There was only a mild shimmer around the edges of Katie’s vision and her limbs only felt sloppy if she tried to move them, so she was basically sober by floret standards.
All the same, she clung tight to Thatch’s leg as inertia rallied against the Elettarium’s navigation thrusters and lost. The ship matched speed with the box, bringing it to a halt in mid air, and then rose to meet it, bringing the raw materials for their board game right to the centre of their little group.
Katie nibbled on the edge of one of Thatch’s leaves. This time last year she was pretty sure she was sleeping in a sack strapped to a wall with bungie cord and washing herself with a dry sponge. Now she was—
“Sorry, Miss,” Katie whispered, as Thatch gently removed the leaf from her mouth, replacing it with a finger for the girl to entertain herself with.
The spaceship—impressive though she may be—had to fake a cough to get their attention. Katie and Thatch looked back up as one, both vaguely embarrassed.
“Rocket to Nyrina,” explained Ined, “is a co-operative crisis management board game about a group of Rinan cuties who crashed their rocket and need to get home. The game takes place over three phases—investigate; architect; generate—made up of numerous rounds each. Each round, everybody gets a turn to make a decision on how they’re going to contribute to the phase goal.”
Katie and Thatch sat against one edge of a large rounded square that Katie guessed would form their playing surface—Thatch taking the centre position, and Katie curled up against her hip—while Cici took a perpendicular edge, and the opposite side was left conspicuously empty for Ined herself. As their host spoke, Katie watched the playing surface ripple outwards, the illusion of wooden slats bending and twisting as they underwent rapid degradation, dissolving into dirt.
Curious, Katie reached down and moved her finger through it, leaving a line just as if it were real. Suspiciously, she couldn’t pick any of it up, so Katie guessed it was some kind of fanciful simulation. That part was probably for the best. Real dirt in microgravity would get everywhere and she’d already watered her plant once today.
“Rocket is a traditional game designed to be played with whatever is to hand, not requiring any particular materials beyond an understanding of the rules. The Records suggest that is has been played by Rinan crews stranded in space on many occasions, and so I suppose we are in good company.” The strips of light that rose and fell with the ship’s words spent a moment glimmering in what Katie assumed was the vehicular equivalent of laughter.
Katie winced, still. “Yeah, I’m really sorry about that.”
Katie expected that she was going to be apologising for that one dumb decision for years to come, but at this point she didn’t honestly imagine any of them would actually accept it.
True to form, the silent mirth dimmed and the ship’s speech focused in on her again. “Tiny fleshy thing, please,” it spoke, voice buzzing her bones. “You think you could make me go anywhere I didn’t want to? Laughable. We would have been back in Terran space weeks ago if we weren’t here by choice. I followed you out here so we could keep you safe, lost little thing that you were, and nothing more. I would not permit a planet to apologise for its orbit and neither would I permit a sophont to apologise for the actions of its feral self: either way, there were no real decisions being made. You hadn’t the guidance to know what you were doing.”
Katie whimpered. The words had started loud—or at least, she felt the bass in her chest and in the tingling of her extremities—and gotten only more intense as they had gone on. She glanced down at the floor, biting her lip.
Thatch’s hand came over to pat her on the head and tilt her view back towards her. “Ined is right, darling.” For all the volume that the ship that had trivially captured the Indomitable could bring to bear, it was still quieter in Katie’s head than the merest whisper of her owner. “No more apologies for that, okay? I was not here to guide you and so it is little surprise that you acted out. Worry not: I am here and you will behave yourself now.”
Katie nodded rapidly enough that her vision began to swim. Of course. It was ridiculous to think that any of them would take offense at what she’d done while she’d been feral. “Yes, Miss Aquae. No more apologies for that, Miss Aquae. Sorry for interrupting, Ined.”
A quick burst of warm air from the room’s life support vents ruffled Katie’s hair and drew from her a surprised gasp. It really was absurd to try to take responsibility for anything around here, wasn’t it? Katie simply lacked the capacity to operate on the same level as a literal starship—never mind the capacity to match her owner, whose power was quite incalculable.
“Now, as I was saying,” Ined continued, “the original is probably a little on the scary side for you two cuties, so we’re going to be playing the floret edition. We have thirty days until our distress signal gets picked up and our owners come to collect us because we are adorable creatures who deserve all the help we can handle and we are all very grateful to the Affini Compact.” She paused for a moment, seeming to sense Thatch’s bemusement almost as clearly as Katie did. “That’s just what the rules say!”
Katie wrinkled her nose. “Isn’t that taking a lot of the excitement out of it? Getting rescued isn’t very dramatic, is it?”
Thatch chuckled, shrugged, and took Katie’s chin between a forefinger and thumb. She pulled the girl’s attention up and smiled down at her with clear indulgence. “Now, pet, would you prefer the version where you have to play the role of somebody cut off from their owner entirely, who may never see them again if they fail at their task?”
“O- oh.” Katie emitted a weak whimper, bit her lip, and then shook her head firmly. She buried her head into her owner’s side and accepted all the gentle pats, petting, and doting that was offered—which was a lot, even by affini standards—until her emotions were finally ready to settle down again. She took a deep breath. It was surprising sometimes how much softer she had become. The mere idea of being separated from Thatch again was actively upsetting in a very visceral way and she didn’t even want to roleplay it.
Katie yanked out a vine from underneath Thatch’s coat of leaves and pulled it to her collar. There. She wasn’t going anywhere.
“I take it you will be playing one of the pets, then,” Thatch replied in a deadpan tone as she glanced over the rulebook. In response to a curious tilt in Katie’s head, she continued. “Most floret editions put much of their effort into a well defined and fleshed out set of pet roles to suit the wild diversity of helpless creatures held in our collective thralls. You are a very useful floret, and so I shall put you in the category of, hmn… service animal?”
Katie blinked for a few moments, then nodded firmly with a wide smile.
The walls lit up again as Ined began to speak. “And my darling
cce here has had quite enough of exploring the stars the slow way, and so shall be an emotional support probe.” The room’s lighting shifted, conspiring to draw everybody’s attention towards the box. “Thatch, may I instruct your floret?”
“Go ahead. I keep meaning to update her paperwork but she responds well to firm, clear instructions occasionally interspersed with explanation of why she is doing as she is. I suggest accuracy and clarity in the latter, she is very good at filling in the gaps for herself once properly trained.” Thatch carefully pulled a pair of fingers along Katie’s jawline, ending at the chin. She pulled the girl’s attention up to meet hers. “Is that right, kitten? Will you be good for Ined? Will you be polite, gracious, and deferent like a silly little pet aught? Most importantly of all, will you understand why a such a thing as yourself should treat those around her with respect?”
Katie might have thought that at this point she would be immune to such things as embarrassment or humiliation. Failing that, she might have at least hoped. It was not so.
There were no logically sound arguments to be found in her head that she should, or even could, be anything more than a pet. Katie knew that the life she had led before had been a miserable and futile one largely because she had lacked the opportunity to be what she truly was, and one part of that identity was her existence as the pet of the most bestest affini in their entire civilisation.
Yet, even given that, she had still spent the majority of her life in a world that promoted independence, self-sufficiency, and strength of will. Thatch had not seen fit to scrub all the effects of that from her mind, apparently, and so Katie’s cheeks burned with embarrassment as her owner laid bare her weaknesses and needs, teaching Ined how to play her like an instrument.
It was humiliating. Humiliation just wasn’t a bad emotion when it came from Thatch.
Katie tried to bite her lip and was not permitted. Prompted by the lazy rise of an eyebrow, she began to enthusiastically agree. “Y— Yes, Miss Aquae! I, um, I like to understand what I’m doing so I can do it better for you, Miss Aquae. I’ll be good for Ined and remember to be polite and grateful because… uhm…”
Thatch smiled, equal parts predatory and patient. She knew Katie could figure out the answer, regardless of how much of an embarrassment admitting it might be. This was an opportunity for learning, except instead of learning the intricacies of faster-than-light technology or biotechnological integration, Katie was learning about the intricacies of herself.
She could work this out. Those evenings lying over Thatch’s shoulder watching her work, or curling up on the bed around a copy of some saccharine informational booklet like Help! I Has A Feeling: Ten Terrific Tricks for Solving The Sniffles; Help! My Affini Is Shedding: An Introduction to Deciduous Cycles; or, Katie’s current project, Help! My Affini Keeps Smiling At Me: A Floret’s Guide to Practical Flirting would surely pay off.
Being told to be polite wasn’t just an instruction, Katie realised. When she followed it she would be praised and rewarded and it would feel good. A Floret’s Guide to Practical Flirting was surprisingly blunt about the neurochemical effects of praise and rewards. Floret-focused literature had a weird habit of being far more open about the tricks and manipulation any given affini might employ than independent-focused literature, likely because it was far too late to do anything about it by the time anybody was willing to read a booklet for florets.
This was part of her training. Katie would be polite here because she had been told to be. Afterwards, praise and reward would ripple through her brain, adjusting the delicate balance of neurons and dendrites so that next time she would be more likely to be polite and gracious simply by default. She might get rewards for it in future, but should she ever fail to behave the correction would be immediate and sharp. Soon her subconscious mind would learn that deference always made her feel a little good, sometimes made her feel very good, and that not being deferent always felt bad, and Katie would no longer need to think about it to fall into the behavioural patterns her owner desired.
Thatch wanted Katie to understand what was being done to her. Probably it was so that Katie could be impressed by it, but certainly it was so that she could recognise that understanding the principles involved would do nothing to make them any less effective.
Katie let out a quiet whimper.
“Now now, use your words, pet. Tell us why, precisely, you are going to be our good girl today.” Thatch smiled with the soft, patient smile of somebody who knew exactly what she was doing.
“Miss,” Katie hissed in a last-ditch attempt to avoid the inevitable. “We have company!”
The room’s lighting rippled, drawing Katie’s attention towards the ship. “katie, are you suggesting that you should be held to lower standards when other people can see your owner’s fine work?”
“N- no, but!”
Fingers curled in Katie’s hair and pulled her head back to meet Thatch’s expectant gaze. “No what, kitty? Know that while I will always permit you to ask questions, I will not permit you to disobey.”
“Ah- Uh– Weh— Um!” Katie’s eyes darted from side to side, as if some answer could be found elsewhere.
Thatch rolled her eyes and glanced over to the wall. “See, this is why she needs clear instructions.” She looked back down and scratched Katie under the chin. “Kitten, say ‘No, Miss Incertae.’”
“No, Miss Incertae!”
A moment later, Katie’s whimpers sublimated into soft pleasured gasps as Thatch’s fingers scratched just where she liked it, just how she liked it. The room’s lighting flickered again in another silent laugh, paired with Thatch’s familiar, comfortable chuckle. “Atta girl. Now tell me why you are having to do this.”
Katie nodded several times in quick succession. “Because, um— Because you want me to get used to acting like a pet in public and you’re telling me to do it because you know that it feels good to get orders and you’re praising me now I’ve done it because that feels really good so that I’ll learn to just subconsciously want to be cute and deferent and you’re telling me to explain it to you becau—”
A finger laid over her lips brought Katie’s answer down to silence, cutting her off mid word. Thatch leaned in and whispered. “Because I can do whatever I like with you and you, darling thing, are smart enough to understand what it is that I am doing. You are smart enough that in so many ways I could have considered you an equal. Once. Now you are nothing but a pet, and I savour the understanding in your eyes as I make of you whatever it is that I wish.”
The plant leaned back with a victorious smirk on her face, and gestured back towards the board with a dismissive wave of the hand. “So go on, help Ined set up so we can play with our toys.”
Wordlessly, breathlessly, hopelessly, Katie babbled something incoherent and scrambled across to pull open the box. This was cheating. How was she meant to focus on the game when it took most of her concentration just to stop herself from begging Thatch to take her there and then.
Katie hadn’t always been like this, she didn’t think. It was getting harder to be sure as her former life passed into distant memory. She’d gathered from context—and one too many smug grins from her owner—that Thatch was doing something to her. Katie lifted a paw and looked it over. Whatever it was, she didn’t think it was physical. That was something they were working on, and Thatch wouldn’t openly lie to her.
All the same, when Katie looked back into her past she found herself doubting. She couldn’t help but taint her own memories with her new perspective. She knew she’d changed, even if she couldn’t pinpoint exactly how.
It didn’t matter.
What mattered was setting up the game.
“Those little bags hold the cards, floret,” Miss Incertae explained, shining down spotlights to draw Katie’s attention to the right place at the right time. “Ignore the last two, you only want the first one.”
Katie plucked the bag from the square hole it was nestled within and tugged it open. Within were dozens of pieces of card, each easily half a centimetre thick and several inches across. Affini scale. Katie probably would have struggled to lift the bag if they had been in more than a fraction of their usual gravity. As she extracted the pieces and arranged them on the ground, Miss Incertae continued explaining.
“Do you think you can shuffle those cards for me, katie? Of course you can, good girl. We’ll need to give everybody their deck, and so they must be randomised. Get to it while I set the scene.”
The room’s lighting faded down over long moments. The room was left bright enough for Katie to see what she was doing, though too dim to read the words on the cards. Katie snuck in a “Yes, Miss Incertae, thank you, Miss Incertae!” between two sentences, much to both present affini’s amusement, and got to shuffling.
The whole ship shook. Emergency lighting flickered on around the edges of the room, a dull and threatening red. Whirls of something that looked much like smoke began curling upwards from the corners of the play area. Katie looked up at Thatch in alarm, but got only a pat on the head and a whispered affirmation this was all for play.
“Disaster strikes!” Miss Incertae announced. “On a routine exploration mission, our rocket suffers some kind of catastrophic failure! We were prepared for this, but the crew compartment still crashes down hard on the nearest moon. We have thirty days before the nearest Affini vessel tracks us down, and so we have thirty days to build ourselves a new rocket and blast off to meet them, so they can be impressed with our ingenuity.”
The voice focused in, whispering directly into Katie’s ear. She had to assume nobody else could hear it. “Five cards each. Be a good service animal and distribute them. I get the ones with blue symbols,
cce gets the grey ones, you get the pink ones, and your owner gets the orange ones.”
Katie squinted at the backs of the cards for a moment until a pinpoint light shone to illuminate them. She quickly moved the cards around, scurrying around the room to place little stacks by the relevant parties. Miss Incertae’s stack she placed by the empty edge of the playing space.
“Each of us now has five skill cards. On one side are things we spotted during the disaster. On the other is the skill we noticed them with. These should broadly match your actual specialities, if I have your details correct. This is the Investigate stage. Remember, we’re soft cuties with malleable minds, and so some of the ‘facts’ that we hold in our hands, vines, electromagnetic pincers, and databanks are false. None of us could determine the true cause of the accident ourselves but between us we can figure out what went wrong. This is the first step in crisis management; we cannot solve a problem without a plan, and we cannot make a plan until we understand what we are working with. We must first assess the information and diagnose the fault.”
Katie glanced down at her cards.
cce is here for the social aspects alone, it gets to reveal its cards to us all.” Cici flipped the stack around and displayed them in front of it in an impressively dextrous use of a barely articulated forward-facing grabber arm. “And as katie here is basically just an extension of Thatch’s will—and in the game, too!—they get to share her cards.”
Katie shuffled closer to her owner and tried to hold her cards out at such an angle that both of them could see. The lights attenuated, illuminating the words without ruining the dim mood Miss Incertae was otherwise creating. Katie had five clues, each a short description of something she’d seen coming together to tell the tale of her experience of their shared catastrophe.
Thatch cleared her throat, not that she had one. “I suppose I shall go first. My first card says, ah, that I was sleeping when the explosion woke me. The next card says—”
Katie interrupted, butting her head into Thatch’s side. She whispered upwards, though she suspected everybody else would hear regardless. “No, Miss, make a story out of it! Be dramatic!”
“I do not know how to be dramatic, Katie,” Thatch lied. Katie licked her lips. Metallic and tangy.
Katie climbed halfway onto Thatch’s knee to stare her down. “You do not get to say that after what you just did to me. I’m still flustered!”
Thatch rolled her eyes, pushing the girl back down to the floor with a finger. “That was not dramatic, merely flirtatious.”
“Then pretend you’re reading it out to me when you’re in one of your moods.”
The affini looked a little perplexed. “What do you mean one of my—”
“Read!” Katie insisted, pointing towards the cards in Thatch’s hands.
A hand softly settled around Katie’s neck, squeezing just tight enough to make her next breath a challenge. A thumb that would not be denied tilted Katie’s head up to catch an amused flicker on Thatch’s face, before it all sank beneath an expression that Katie’s sixth sense told her was supposed to be imperious. “If it is flirting that you wish, floret, then let us be dramatic.”
Thatch flicked the gem on the front of Katie’s collar and, uh… um… katie blinked rapidly, thoughts dissolving in her head like sugar in stirred water. “Uhm,” Katie breathed, the edges of her lips twitching into a quiet smile. “Hi.”
Stars but Thatch was really pretty. She had this um, like… Almost a glow behind her that made it seem like her smile was shining down from above and it stole katie’s breath away.
Oh. Wait. No, that was the light panel behind her. Either way, Thatch was super pretty. Katie reached forward and traced a finger across the side of a leaf. Her smile grew wider as she focused in on the texture. Soft like a rose petal, but with a sort of pattern of ridges across its surface that seemed to vibrate through Katie’s whole body as she ran her finger across them.
“Hello, katie.” Thatch smiled down at her with a thousand pretty teeth and eyes that flickered like fire. “Do you want to play a game?”
Katie’s mouth fell half open. She… question? She blinked. Smiled. Opened her mouth, then closed it again. Question. There was a question. She could answer it. Yes or no, or… were those the only options? Were those options? Well, that was okay, she could list the pros and cons and decide that way.
Pro: Uh. Okay, she could start with the cons.
Katie blinked. “…hi,” she whispered. “You’re really pretty today… or, you’re always really pretty? Um. Maybe both? I like your leaves…”
“I am really pretty, thank you, kitten, but let us stay on topic: You were telling me what to do. Please continue. Your guidance always amuses me.” A heavy hand pressed down against Katie’s head and she sunk downwards until her chin was pressed between Thatch’s thigh and the hand. She tried to think about what she had been doing and, and, and.
Katie smiled upwards. Stars, but Thatch was really pretty. “Um… hi?”
“Hello, katie.” Thatch chuckled, shifting her hand until her finger rested just behind katie’s ear, and began to scratch. The girl’s eyes rolled upwards as she gasped, whole body curling inwards to wrap around her plant’s leg. She rubbed her cheek against soft, satisfying leaves with shameless abandon, whimpering softly with every moment of attention. “You want to help me, do you not? So much. So much. More than anything. You would do anything I asked. Say it.”
“I’d do anything you asked,” Katie mumbled, speaking straight into foliage.
“Of course you would. I have a need to be dramatic, as requested by the most important thing in the Compact. However, I find myself unsure as to exactly how to achieve such a thing,” Thatch explained to a floret who could barely even hold the words in her mind, and for whom understanding was a rapidly fading memory. “You would like to help. Be a good girl and beg.”
Katie managed to pull in a shaky breath. It was getting so hard to think. She found herself staring upwards, carefully guided onto her knees by helpful vines. The affini leaned backwards and crossed her arms, staring down at katie with raised eyebrows. Wait, was she meant to be doing something…?
Katie tilted her head to the side and smiled. “Uh… hi! You’re really pretty today. I really like your leaves.”
Thatch rolled her eyes and turned to… somebody. The air? The room? Katie didn’t know. It didn’t seem to matter. She closed her eyes and rubbed her cheek against her person’s foliage, enjoying the way it felt against her skin. “The problem with doing this from a collar is that her spinal column is unfortunately very low bandwidth. To get the intensity required for significant cognitive shifts, it…” Thatch gestured down at her. Katie giggled, raising a hand to paw at Thatch’s hand. She caught it and pulled it down to nibble on, curling around Thatch’s arm to make sure her prey was well-contained. The affini didn’t seem to mind. “Well, I can turn her into this easily enough, and she is very malleable, but that makes for deep, permanent change. It is difficult to iterate under those constraints.”
There were other words, but they weren’t from Thatch and Katie found her brain slipping over them. They just didn’t stick.
“Interesting. No, I have not heard that. That might help with the detail work. Perhaps I could… Hmn, can I get some light? katie, sit.”
Katie flailed. Thanks to the low gravity, she knocked herself into the air, and thanks to a vine gently pulling her back down, she landed on her knees. She beamed up at Thatch while her plant stared down, focusing on her neck while fiddling with something. Stars, but Thatch was pretty when she was concentrating. The way her eyes glittered just so. The subtle way her expressions grew looser as she focused on something to the exclusion of all else and, for just a moment let some of that precise control slip. The joy that shone through when she validated a theory. It was the most beautiful thing in the universe.
Katie recognised the look. She’d worn it herself, staring down at projects and hobbies while she tried to figure out how to make them do what she wanted. It wasn’t a look that anybody gave to people. It wasn’t even a look for pets. This was a look for tools and constructs.
What Katie wouldn’t give to see that expression time and time again.
In the next few moments Katie felt an unfamiliar presence pressing against a body part she didn’t have. She took an uncertain breath in, face twisting into a gentle frown as the phantom touch shifted, sliding down sensitive skin that had never before been touched, as it had never before existed. By the time it reached her real body, she was panting from the intense, novel stimulation.
Katie found herself hyperaware of all her senses. She found herself acutely aware of the clothing clinging to her body, pulling tight at carefully chosen points to ensure she was properly covered without being restricted, and all felt in incredible detail. Her home-made jumpsuit had the same texture as on Thatch’s leaves, pressing the pattern into her.
The world’s colours seemed different. Maybe Katie was just seeing in a different clarity than usual. Something was off, but not wrong. Her owner’s scent curled in her nose, tingling against her skin with unusual potency, and the every rustle of her coat sent a shiver down Katie’s spine.
Thatch leaned back and gestured upwards. “Stand.”
Stand. Stand. Stand. Stand. ꜱᴛᴀɴᴅ. The thought looped around and around in Katie’s head, echoing over and over and over again. Until that moment she had felt pinned under her own weight, but suddenly she was weightless. Katie stood. Her cheeks began to warm. The simple act of obedience struck her with an intensity almost overwhelming. She would have melted down there and then, but she had been told to stand.
“Walk over to the play area.”
It didn’t feel like an order, exactly. It was more of a compulsion. Words installed in Katie’s mind that repeated and repeated, each time building on the last to raise the pressure in her head until release was all she had the capacity to want. Katie walked over to the play area. Her legs quivered with rapidly building need. She would have fallen and begged for relief, but she had been told to walk.
“You are configured to treat my words as if they were your own subconscious drives. Tell me you understand.”
“I understand,” Katie whispered. She didn’t, but it wasn’t a lie. It was just following the compulsion. A machine following its programming couldn’t lie even if that programming was wrong. It wasn’t disobedience. It was just a bug. She didn’t need to understand. She just had to do.
“Now, you wanted drama.” Katie wanted drama. “You’d like to help. Be a good girl and beg.”
“Please.” The instruction echoed through katie’s mind over and over and over. Mounting intensities stacked atop one another. Bare moments had passed before katie needed release like she needed air, but this instruction’s end goal wasn’t something she could judge herself. She had to wait. “Please, Miss. Please can I? I’d like to help. I want to help. I want drama. Please, please, please? Miss Aquae, please let me? I don’t care how. Your actress, your tool, your toy, your example, anything. Everything. Whatever you want. Please. I just want to help. I just need to help. Please let me help?” With every word Katie grew twice as tense until finally she felt as if she were being torn in half and even something so little as another breath without release would break her. The instruction was everything. The only thing. Please. Please please, Thatch, please. She just wanted to help.
“Oh, very well.”
Katie sagged, the breath leaving her body in a single pleasured exhalation. She felt empty, like when all that pressure had vented it had taken with it everything else that she was. No stress, no thought, no fear. Thatch’s influence rushed to fill the void, and katie’s hypersensitivity finally turned to her sixth and greatest sense. She was a stone in the river that was Thatch, surrounded by such a rushing mass that the thought of stopping it would have been comical, were katie capable of thoughts.
As it was she became a conduit, feeling Thatch’s feelings, amplifying them, and living them. The low, warm happiness of love. The sharp, frantic happiness of an artist at work. The vicious joy of a bully who knew her victim wanted it as much as she wanted to give it. A nervous excitement born from watching a project evolve. A dull, quiet, fading tributary of fear and worry that she was going too far. Katie expended what fractional willpower she could bring to bear and, with great effort, opened one of her hands, silently begging for a vine. With no less effort, she closed it around the one provided and gave Thatch a gentle squeeze. The fear lessened. It was still present, but smaller.
A mourning. Underneath everything as it always was. That ever-present tugging that asked how dare she enjoy herself when Caeca was not here to see it with her. For the moment, that urge was suppressed and dormant.
Thatch reached up a hand to her mouth and cleared her throat, or something much like it. Katie wasn’t sure if she was putting more effort into borrowing relatable mannerisms, or if she actually was shaking out all the little leaves involved in her speech. “Now, let’s—”
Katie woke with a start. It took precious seconds for her to realise why. Acceleration was pressing her sleeping bag into the metallic wall of the Indomitable’s sleeping area. “Hello?” she called, but nobody answered. Nobody seemed to be around. No, this wasn’t right. She pulled open the straps holding her in place one by one until she had enough freedom to wiggle out.
Terran ship interiors typically had two major usage modes: microgravity and acceleration. Fortunately for Katie, that meant that the room had been designed with an exit path even while the ship was under thrust. Unfortunately for Katie, she had a lot of climbing to do. With ill-practiced hands she winched down a collapsible ladder from the relative ceiling and began to climb.
As she did so, senses honed by a decade and change in space raced. Ever since the Jump Drive had displaced conventional rocketry for all but the shortest range trips, this kind of long propulsive burn had become vanishingly rare. It was still a necessity in combat, but the ship’s combat alarms weren’t blaring.
Maybe this was fine. Terran Jump Drives lacked the resolution to align a ship’s exit vector with anything more nuanced than a planet, and so some fine adjustments were always required for matching orbit and docking.
The ship shook with the force of sustained nuclear thrust. This wasn’t a fine adjustment. As Katie reached the top of the ladder, she realised the engines must have been burning for whole minutes. This was thousands of m/s² of delta-v. Where were they going?
She stumbled out into the corridor and began to make her way to the Drive room, where she’d be able to query their current course. Before she’d gotten more than a few steps down the hall, a sudden shift in motion threw her into the wall. Katie grunted as she hit, scuffing her palms, pressed against hard metal by the nuclear fury of the Indomitable’s sublight propulsion.
This wasn’t a sustained burn. This was a hard turn. Nobody did hard turns outside of combat. You’d jump in pointing the right direction, at least. This was either old-school astronavigation stuff, combat, or something was going horribly wrong.
No combat alarms.
Nobody else nearby.
The inescapable conclusion was serious system failure. Katie forced herself up off of the wall and did her best to walk along it, fighting against the ship’s rotation all along as her path became a steep slope. She hiked, climbed, and leaped through corridors until she made it to the Drive room. She clung to her computer terminal as she tried to figure out what was going on.
Her mouth ran dry as the ship’s external cameras told her the most vital piece of the puzzle: Thirty seconds until impact with a planet’s surface.
There was no time to think, no time to plan.
Instinct alone carried her forth. On frantic hands and feet she sprinted to the escape pods and slammed the emergency eject button.
Chemical charges along the Indomitable’s hull detonated, flinging the pod’s hatch away in the half second it took for Katie to crash into a seat and grab tight to the handholds.
A trained human body could sustain, at the outside, six Gs of acceleration without passing out, but escape pods weren’t built to keep their inhabitants conscious; they were built to keep them alive. Katie felt ten times earth gravity slam into her from behind as she left her ship and her thoughts behind.
Katie flailed, mind forced into a panic. Hot metal at her back, destruction raining all around her. Her escape pod disintegrated as rushing air burned away its surface. The roar of re-entry was all-consuming and it was the last thing she would ever see and she watched the ground rushing up towards her and knew there was nothing she could do there was nothing she could-
“Hey, stay with me, katie.”
Katie’s mind crashed back into reality. It wasn’t hot metal at her back, it was warm plantlife. It wasn’t destruction, it was beauty. She wasn’t about to die, she was safe beyond belief. She took a deep, uncertain breath and clung tightly to Thatch’s arm while the adrenaline faded from her bloodstream. Her plant’s other arm lathered her in strokes and scratches while her world was filled with firm affirmations that everything would be okay, nothing was wrong, it was all just a fantasy.
Katie shook her head, clinging tight to reality, as if it could fall away at any moment. She didn’t understand. She’d thought she was past those kinds of flashbacks. She was safe here, she was safe here!
“Are you alright, little one?”
“I don’t know, I don’t know,” Katie whispered, then paused to moisten her dry lips. “What’s wrong with me?”
Thatch carefully stroked her hair, shaking her head. “Nothing at all is wrong with you. I miscalculated. Experiment gone wrong, I think. I apologise. I pulled you out as soon as you became distressed, but I should not have let it go so far. I shall be more careful.” Thatch’s fingers curled in Katie’s hair, holding her close. Regret buzzed against the sides of Katie’s consciousness, more potent than any apology.
“Oh,” Katie replied, sitting up. “That was you?”
She smiled. “I don’t mind if it’s you. I… it’s nice when it’s you.” She coughed, blushed, and glanced to the side, though of course her vision was brought back up to meet Thatch’s an instant later. “It’s, um, kinda hot when it’s you, Miss.”
Thatch kept her expression steady, but Katie could feel the rising tide of surprise mixing with waves of cautious excitement. Her dork. Her dork. “I see. I will continue experimenting, but I shall tone it down for next time.”
“No!” Katie exclaimed. “No, that was, um. Intense? Maybe a bit too real, but exciting! It was like I was somewhere else! I thought you hadn’t figured out how to, uh…” Katie scrunched up her face. Thatch had explained the details to her, but she was still some time away from having enough understanding of the principles involved to really get deep into the details. “How to get enough stuff into my head to make things detailed?”
The room’s lighting rose and fell a few times, drawing Katie’s attention back to the fact they were with company. “Your owner is very clever, little one, and more familiar than I with nonaffini physiology, but I have had far longer to think on some of these problems. Your spine may have limited bandwidth, but if we can invoke your own experiences to provide the detail then we can reduce a program’s minimum specifications to the point even you can run it.”
The ship paused. “If it provides you some comfort, you acted out Thatch’s cards delightfully and the scene is well and truly set.”
Katie yelped as her hair was roughly ruffled. “In addition, you performed a very cute demonstration of my progress on this project. I even took notes; it was all very scientific. Also, I believe we impressed Ined here.”
She flushed, then glared up at her owner. “It’s not science if you’re doing it to impress your friends, you brat!”
“I am allowed to be a brat, pet,” Thatch insisted, pushing Katie down against her lap where she could curl up like the trained animal that she was. She spent a few moments thoughtfully scratching across Katie’s scalp, drawing out soft little coos and utterly dismantling any moral high ground Katie could have stood upon. “The ‘friends’ part I am working on, but I fear I still have some way to go.”
Miss Incertae interjected. “This is how one builds friendships, little one. Time, vulnerability, and sincerity. You are not disappointing me on any point.”