Chapter 5: Equals
Ships breaking around her. Falling. Wind in her ears. The horrifying sensation of feeling like she was in microgravity, while the ground beneath rushed up to dissuade her of that. The nightmarish instant of collision. Silence.
Katie woke with a sudden start, scrambling to her feet before she’d even realised she was no longer dreaming, heart beating in her chest so hard she felt like the staccato thumps would knock her down. She was alive. She was alive. She was—
“Thatch!” she cried out, rushing over to a tangle of vines and plantlife. Half of it seemed to have already dried out, browned, or begun to rot. She wanted this creature dead, didn’t she? It was the enemy. It was a slaver, a conqueror. It wanted to take her and hers, just to have it, when they already had so much.
It had also saved her life. It had almost convinced her that it wasn’t a fucking eldritch nightmare beast from beyond the stars, and then it had guided a broken escape pod across a star system and protected her as they fell from the skies. It was terrifying. Almost dead and it had done all this? How were they meant to fight these creatures, when killing them took scuttling a ship and falling out of orbit?
Katie found Thatch’s face. Flies buzzed away as she reached for it, but as she tried to lift it, it simply crumbled in her hands, plant matter broken and dead.
She was gone. The… dorky alien who had saved her life. Who seemed more interested in talking about science than she had in actually conquering anything. Who had made Katie feel safe when she had been certain she would die, and had then proven that that feeling of safety was earned. It wasn’t fair. This was a creature that was awesome in the biblical sense of the word. Larger than life, and… yet still dead?
The face had been a fake, Katie had understood that much. A mask, put on to make it easier for them to communicate, but it had been alive. Even interesting. It was difficult not to relate to the first non-human sapient creature she’d ever sat down and talked to.
Katie looked around. They were in a clearing in the middle of what seemed like thick forest. All around them was a deep blanket of blacks, purples, reds, leaves and flowers in shapes Katie had simply never seen. Petals that seemed almost hexagonal, flowers that glistened with semi-transparent bulbs. Trees that towered far above them with golden trunks and purple leaves. The clearing was dirt and flattened plantlife, and it took Katie a moment to realise that it was an impact crater.
It wasn’t fair. She was alive, but she was stuck here, now, on this alien rock, with no ship, no radio, no supplies. Nothing but the clothes on her back, and even those had taken damage back on the Indomitable. She had to— to what? Survive here? Impossible.
As impossible as surviving the journey here had been. The competent nightmare that had gotten her here may no longer be with her, but it seemed almost sacrilegious to waste its gift. They may have been enemies, but the loss of a creature like that seemed like something that should have the universe crying out in mourning, no matter Katie’s feelings.
She spent a moment digging through the dying leaves and flowers, searching for one that had survived the trip. There weren’t many, but she found something in vibrant pink that hadn’t gotten too scorched, and tucked it behind her ear.
“I’ll remember your name, Thatch. I’ll… tell your people what you did, when I get back.”
She paused a moment. The first time she’d thought Thatch dead, it had been her words that had woken them up and gotten their attention.
Wind rustled through the area. The carpet of plantlife outside of their clearing swayed gently, while the mighty trees surrounding them stood: diligent protectors in wood and leaf, golden bark almost glittering while the purple leaves far above kept the local star out of reach. Katie looked up, towards the canopy high above, the thick layer of foliage that protected the smaller plants. It had a hole in it, high above them, where a pillar of shattered branches drew out a column from the skies above.
The forces involved boggled the mind. Katie’s meager hope that Thatch would have somehow survived fizzled. It didn’t matter how much larger than life the creature had seemed, it couldn’t fight physics any more than she could.
Katie picked a direction. She neither knew where she was, nor did she have any tools, so it seemed overwhelmingly likely she’d be dead within the day anyway if she didn’t do something about it. Priority one was water, and then shortly after that, food. The planet they’d landed on was, by some miracle, teeming with life.
Either a miracle, or life in this universe was cheaper than she’d thought.
The flies implied animal life, but none of it seemed willing to come and say hello. Likely that was for the best, as if anything took issue with her presence here Katie had little with which to convince them to leave her be.
Instead, she walked. She couldn’t even find the direction of the sun with the thick canopy above. She was probably just walking in a giant circle for all she knew, but without any way of correcting, it was the best she could do.
She mentally amended her todo list: Water; food; a compass or something like it. How was she meant to build that? She stumbled over a branch, laughing, and rolled her eyes at herself. She could fling a hundred thousand tonnes of stuff across the known universe, but building a compass from scratch? It was magnetics, right? Free-turning metal aligning with the planet’s magnetic field. How hard could that be?
It was priority three for a reason.
Eventually, the ground seemed to get swampier. Katie found a stick, something nice and long, abandoned by some helpful tree, and jabbed it into the ground, trying to estimate whether the water table was close to the surface. When she brought it back up, the bottom of the stick was damp. Katie nodded to herself, and kept going, trying to gauge whether any of the directions available to her went down.
After an hour or so of wandering, and several more sticks used, Katie struck gold.
Metaphorically, anyway. The dirty water pooling on the ground before her was worth far more than mere gold. She dropped to her knees and began scooping it up in cupped hands, hastily drinking it down. It tasted foul, but it was water. She’d need a container to bring some with her, and…
A deep growling from behind captured Katie’s attention in a heartbeat. She cursed her own stupidity. Where was she more likely to find animal life than at a watering hole? She slowly looked behind her towards the… thing. Like a hog, but a sextruped, with scales instead of fur, and jagged horns jutting from an open, salivating maw with rows of sharpened teeth. Its four eyes were piercing black dots, focussed on her.
Oh, and it was taller than she was. Looked hungry, too.
Katie broke out into a run, splashing through the water as she scrambled to her feet and darted for the trees. It was huge; maybe it wasn’t nimble. She heard the thunderous drumbeat of six cloven hooves loud enough that it felt like it was mere inches behind her.
Katie was a spacer. She was lucky that she had any experience in real gravity at all, but she did not have experience with running on such uneven ground, where every step threatened to trip her with unseen roots or have her slip on dampened leaves. She did not have experience with predators. She did not have experience fleeing for her life.
She was nimble, though. She darted left, around a thick trunk, forcing the animal to slow to go around. She darted through a small gap between the trees, where it couldn’t follow, and had to take the long way to chase her. She kept ahead of it for what felt like minutes… but gradually, her body began to slow, running out of even the desperate adrenaline-fueled strength that had kept her alive this long.
When she tripped, she knew it was over. Her ankle twisted and she could have sworn she heard a pop. The creature’s jagged horn caught her along the arm, sending her spinning, landing in agony facing down what must have been a hundred teeth in a mouth large enough to eat her whole.
Branches cracked underneath its feet as it stalked towards her, realising its victory and no longer feeling the need to run. It lowered its head towards Katie’s torso and she squeezed shut her eyes, knowing this was it. Goodbye, world.
The beast screeched, an overwhelming sound that forced Katie to cringe, but also one that was enough of a surprise that she opened her eyes. A blindingly red vine was wrapped around one of the horns, pulling it back with enough force to set the creature off balance.
What now? Katie despaired. Was she to simply be a snack for the bigger fish?
More vines speared out of the darkness, from behind the trees, wrapping around the beast until it couldn’t move an inch. They were vibrant, a mix of deep reds and purples, much like the plant life around her.
The beast was dragged away, loudly protesting… until those protests fell silent, and the whole forest was deathly still. What the fuck could do that? Katie struggled to her feet, but her ankle was at very least twisted. Putting weight on it didn’t seem like it would work, and her adrenaline was all burned through.
Something walked out of the shadows. Bipedal, tall. Hues of black and red and purple dominated its surface, seeming to draw Katie’s eyes upwards, towards the face, with its bright blue eyes.
“Greetings,” it spoke, voice a melody. “My name is Thatch Aquae, Second Bloom, and you really are coming with me this time.”
Vines that could tie up megafauna snaked out, slowly wrapping themselves around Katie’s form and lifting her, gently, into Thatch’s awaiting arms. Katie let out a soft whimper as the movement jolted her foot, and a moment later there were new vines keeping it steady and fixed in place. The Affini’s face looked down at her, and Katie could tell it was her, though the colouration was completely different now.
She lifted a hand to touch the chin, felt the edges of leaves and how the wood beneath was used to create structure and firmness, that was then wrapped in soft foliage.
“How?” was the only question that seemed to matter.
Thatch looked down with a caring smile and held Katie more tightly. “It’s a process called reblooming. The old me dies and is thrown away, and the new me… lives. I didn’t have long to do it, since you wandered off, so I had to incorporate a lot of the local life into me this time.”
She raised a hand for her own inspection, replacing it with a set of vines without disrupting Katie’s position. It was similar to a human hand, but Katie knew it was no such thing. The colours mixed together in a mottled texture of black and purple, with reds only starting to seep in closer to the core, and the face, giving the creature the appearance of almost being clothed.
Across her back lay a curtain of plantlife, almost like a cape, seeming to be the same stuff that was beneath their feet, but repurposed. Snatches of the old green could still be seen closer in to what was apparently the creature’s core, but it seemed less like she’d regrown, so much as she’d harvested half her body from the local environment.
Thatch stopped paying attention to her hand and looked back towards Katie. Her vines stiffened for a moment, though whatever her thoughts, they didn’t show on her face.
“Let’s get you back on your feet,” she said, lowering Katie to the ground. Vines wrapped tightly around her leg in the form of a cast, albeit one that trailed back to the creature creating it. Though Katie knew that that vine was strong enough to lift her into the air, it offered no impedance to her movements. She looked back towards the Affini, who glanced away.
“How did you find me?” she asked, stumbling as she tried to walk on her own.
“I knew you couldn’t have been gone for more than a few hours, and that puts a pretty small cap on how far you could have gone, little human—”
“I’m serious. My name is Katie,” she interjected, stumbling back over to Thatch and jabbing her finger into the middle of their chest. It sunk in for half a centimeter before meeting something solid. The creature leaned back as if pushed, though both of them surely knew that that was a choice they’d made. “You say that you don’t want to take away my identity, but you keep ignoring what I want. I— Thank you for saving me, but I’m not going with you. Fuck off, Thatch.”
The smattering of deep red leaves that made up Thatch’s eyebrows rose in shock, the rest of her face following a moment later.
“The Human Domestication Trea—”
“I don’t care about the treaty, Thatch! I didn’t sign that. Nobody asked me whether I was okay with it, just like nobody asked me if I wanted to be human in the first place. All my fucking life it’s been people telling me that somebody else made choices for me and now I’m stuck with them, and no, fuck off with that, and fuck off with all the implications of that. You say you care? Prove it.”
Katie’s finger was embedded an inch into Thatch’s chest at this point, each vine in its makeup gradually giving way as Thatch had the arrogance beaten out of her. Not that it would matter, she wouldn’t apologise. These creatures were so certain of their own superiority that they’d decided that they got to make decisions for the entire human race.
“I’m sorry, Katie,” Thatch spoke, softly, raising a hand to gently extract the girl’s finger from her chest. “You’re right. I got carried away, and I don’t really know what I’m doing. You’re the first feral huma… the first feral around here that I’ve dealt with, and you aren’t like the florets back on the ship. You are a lot more interesting, but I think not that much better at taking care of yourself. Please come with me, I’ll keep you safe.”
Katie’s next breath was deep, and a little uneven. Safe. She didn’t remember much about the descent, or how they’d gotten to the planet, but she remembered feeling like her head was floating on a soft ocean. She’d felt safe then, in Thatch’s vines, and now Thatch was… so much more than she’d been before. Knowing what this creature could do, it was hard not to take its promise at face value.
“No,” Katie answered, anyway, voice as firm as she could make it, knowing that refusal likely meant her own death somewhere on this rock. She didn’t know what a floret was, but from context, she could guess it was what happened to their other captures, and she had no desire to find out more. “You’ll take me somewhere I don’t want to go because of a treaty I never signed between two peoples that I have nothing to say to. No. I refuse, and if you want to make me, then I know you can, but I’ll know that you’re a liar.”
One of the thorns that made up Thatch’s teeth pierced one of the leaves that made up the lips of her mouth. She seemed frozen for a moment, the hues of her face swirling slowly, more red finding its way to the surface, before she figured out how to smile.
“Okay! I understand. I don’t think you’ll be okay, though, and I have nothing better to do, so can I come with you? We never finished our conversation earlier, I was hoping to teach you how to get us home. I might not be able to do it on my own, and I’d rather not live here for the rest of my life.”
Her smile was disarming, and as she’d spoken, her demenour had shifted, losing the sharp edge and speaking more casually, all vines but the one keeping Katie able to walk retracted safely within herself. Coming to her with an offer, not a demand, and admitting fallibility.
“No screwing with my head?” Katie insisted.
“Not unless you ask.”
“No pet names?”
“Not unless you want, Katie.”
“Then… okay. Equals, or not at all,” Katie said, glaring up at the creature’s twinkling blue eyes. Why did she get the sense that it was enjoying this exchange? She didn’t sense dishonesty in the expression, but at the same time she felt as if there was more going on behind those eyes than she was privy to… but she really did need the help, and the alliance of something that had already pulled her out of the fire once wasn’t a small boon.
“Equals,” it said, mouth flowing into a grin that, for a snatched moment, seemed all-too-reminiscent of the hog-beast’s toothy maw, before softening into something more polite.