Chapter Six: Bare Necessities
“You drank from this?” Thatch asked, looking vaguely horrified as she dipped a root into the dirty water Katie had been so proud to find. The dirt suspended within was sent swirling, while the thin layer of grime atop it all started gravitating towards her, pulled in by surface tension.
“I did!” Katie replied, both of them being fully aware that the girl’s polite smile was a challenge as much as an answer. Was Thatch actually capable of treating her as an equal, or would she immediately revert to a casual dismissal of Katie’s capabilities? Given the options Katie had available to her, finding water at all seemed like an achievement.
The Affini hesitated, seeming almost frozen in place with a look of disbelief for a moment, before it met Katie’s smile with an equally polite one of her own. “That’s very resourceful, Katie. Dirty water is an improvement over nothing, but I think we can do better than this. We’ll want to find a river if we can, but for the moment, this—” She glanced down, smile wavering for a moment before she forced it back into place— “will have to do. Now, you can’t drink this straight, it’s filthy, but if we can filter it, and preferably boil it, it should be safe enough.”
Katie’s smile grew a little more genuine for a moment, as she considered showing Thatch her trick with the sticks. When she started looking for a prop, however, she was quickly distracted by the other suggestion. Finding some way to filter the liquid made a lot of sense, now that Katie considered it. At the time she’d been rather too excited about finding water at all to consider that it might not actually be safe for her. ‘Bad’ water wasn’t really a thing aboard a starship. If it was water, it was drinkable, because otherwise it would be waste, or coolant, or lubricant. All H₂O as a base, but if it wasn’t safe they put it in different places and gave it different names.
“You come from a society even more advanced than mine, how do you know any better than me?” Katie asked, starting to think about how she could actually filter or boil any of this. She’d need a container of some sort first, she supposed? Heat could come from a fireplace, but everything around here was damp and they’d need to make a clearing. Maybe filtering alone would suffice for now?
“Partially, I suppose I’ve just been around for longer than you,” Thatch admitted. “You can’t be more than a decibloom and I’m not one of your short Terran years younger than a hundred and three.”
Katie had started rummaging around under the carpet of plantlife while Thatch had been talking, looking for rocks or branches or anything that might start being useful as a tool, but at the mention of an age, she looked up. “That’s old,” she admitted. “Were you, like… a leader or something? Is that why you came after the Jump Drive?”
Thatch’s vine was inches away from ruffling the girl’s hair, but a sharp glare convinced her to back off. “Hardly, Katie. I’m young among my people, and my exact role in our society is… a topic for another time, perhaps. The real reason I know this and you don’t, I suspect, is likely a simple difference of cultural priorities. Taking care of cuties,” she continued, noting the sudden glare from below, “and Katies is, I suppose, somewhat of a hobby of ours. Humans may have outgrown the need to forage for containers in the forest, but other wards of ours have not, and so to be Affini is to get a well rounded education in the needs of the universe.”
While she spoke, she held out a hand to the side to take something a set of her finer vines had been fiddling with. A nest of supple twigs and leaves wound together tight in the shape of a bowl. She held it out towards whatever it was that Katie chose to be. “A gift, freely given, between friends. I’ll use my skills to keep us safe, and you’ll use yours in return.”
Katie took the item, carefully flexing it between her hands. The twigs were well located and expertly weaved, all positioned such that while the outer shell of the bowl had a few gaps or spaces, the inner part seemed to have a smooth, leafy surface. The craftswork was surprisingly artistic, for something made of whatever could be found at a moment’s notice. It looked like it should work.
Katie pulled off the top half of her jumpsuit. It was scuffed and charred anyway, and the planet seemed to have the kind of warm humidity that suggested that she should be just fine with only the thin tee underneath. It took a moment to find a sufficiently large area of clean material to cover over the bowl, but after that she sunk it into the water and waited a moment to pull it back.
She was rewarded with a bowl full of clean, clear liquid that she eagerly gulped down. It still wasn’t a great taste, but it was far better than drinking something that had as much dirt and detritus as water. One bowl wasn’t enough, though two was too much, so she was quickly left with half a bowl spare. She held it out towards Thatch, in offering, who politely dipped a root within.
“Very resourceful,” Thatch praised, with a smile that made Katie wonder if she too were rooted to the ground, unable to move. “I suspect we’ll be off-planet in mere weeks, at this rate.”
Mere weeks. Katie’s face fell. She’d been running on inertia until now, simply due to not having stopped since the fall of the Indomitable, but a guess at a timescale was all it took to bring her back down to earth, or… whatever this place was called.
“Heck,” she breathed. “We’re gonna be here for a while. I… I don’t have any of my stuff, I don’t have any medication, I don’t—”
The world, as grand as it was, seemed to want to close in on her. The only thing that had kept her going the last year or so had been the knowledge that she was at least finally wrestling control of her body back from the uncomfortable human-male-normal shape she’d been created with, but without medication to maintain that, without tools to stop things from sliding back, what state would she be in in three weeks’ time?
At least if she’d surrendered at the start, Thatch had said she’d still get medications. Instead, she’d fucked all of this up, and fought for her own identity only to be the thing that made it fall apart. The changes in her body weren’t as significant as she’d wanted them to be, but she couldn’t go back. She just couldn’t. It would destroy her.
She was staring down at her hands, but she hardly noticed, breathing hard as the pressure of her situation started to bear down on her. She couldn’t do this. This was insane. What kind of person would she have to become to get through this alive? It wouldn’t be the person she wanted to be, but the person she wanted to be would die here.
She didn’t want to die here and suddenly it seemed inevitable. Death by revocation of identity, or death by biological failure. Both were oblivion. She was panicking, she realised, as breaths grew ragged, world shrinking until it was just her and despair… and then Thatch was there, kneeling beside her in the muck with powerful arms wrapped around her torso, hand stroking down the back of her hair, speaking words that were like a lullaby.
Katie couldn’t focus. She didn’t know what Thatch was saying, it was hard to feel like it could possibly matter. The world wasn’t getting any bigger, but Thatch was in here with her now, keeping the void at bay. She didn’t know how long the two of them knelt there, but to her credit, the Affini never complained, nor did Katie suddenly find herself unable to think again, at least not because of brain-melting plant trickery.
“Shhh,” Thatch was saying, when Katie finally managed to marshal her focus towards vocal processing. “It’s okay, it’s okay. We’re gonna get through this, you and I, and we’ll be okay.”
Seeming to sense the slow increase in lucidity, Thatch paused, lifting Katie’s chin with a finger. “Are you back with me, precious Katie?” she asked, and received a wide-eyed, hesitant nod. “Do you think you could tell me what just happened there?”
Another nod, but more hesitant still.
“Don’t wanna… I want to be me, when we get out of here, and I can’t be me without things I don’t have. Pills, razors, stuff for my hair and the rest of me. I can’t leave as… him,” she said, hissing the last word. The world seemed to shrink further, and Katie could have sworn that Thatch physically struggled against the contracting void that surrounded them, but with vines sent outwards to stablise, the void couldn’t muster the strength to overcome her. Katie struggled to imagine anything that could.
Thatch sighed something that sounded almost like relief, expression softening in an instant, and she stopped holding Katie’s chin up and let it fall to nestle against her chest, shifting a hand to hold it carefully in place. Katie caught a whiff of a sweet, floral scent that seemed to stick slightly in her nose. The creature had a low rumbling sound within it, a hint at the ferocity within, but on the outside all was still and serene. Leaves rustled quietly in the wind, but there was a deep warmth to the creature, warmer the closer in to the center Katie got.
“You won’t. Let me take care of that, hmn? I need my equal partner in this, and if I can’t figure out how to synthesise a few simple hormones then I don’t think I’d be allowed back aboard the Elettarium without a few booster classes in Terran biology.”
Katie struggled against the hand holding her head down for a moment, until Thatch noticed and removed it, so that Katie could look up. “You can do that? It won’t… mess with my head, or anything?”
“Ah, human psychology is easy enough, I think I can make sure it’ll leave you clear headed and no different to how it would be if I simply had a stash of your regular drugs. How long do we have before you’re meant to take your next dose?”
Thatch was really tall. Easily twice Katie’s size, but in that moment, it felt like three or even four times, as her cheeks flushed. “I… forgot to take it this morning,” she admitted. “I’m already late.”
“Hmn,” the creature emitted, more than spoke. The sound just buzzed out from somewhere deep within, a deep rumble that Katie could have sworn she could feel. She might not have noticed, but she was practically nestled against Thatch, to hide from the void. “I don’t mind a deadline. I’ll get you some by the end of the day, then.”
Just like that, the void began to push back, world expanding again as the panic started to filter out of Katie’s existence. No longer just her and Thatch, the world once more had trees, and water, and plants, and a family of the great hog-beasts that had been chasing her. Was one of these her assailant from earlier? It was hard to tell, but one of them was clearly larger, leading a charge with two smaller examples of the species.
Wait. Katie’s head snapped back towards the beasts.
Katie yelped in alarm, jumping to her feet. “Thatch, look out!” she yelled, moments before noticing the deep red streaks that crossed the space between the Affini and each hog. Vines, held out to hold the beasts still, a vivid colour that stood out against the darker shades around them like a laser beam cutting through the depths of space.
Thatch hadn’t been struggling to hold back the void, she’d been struggling to hold back these. Six vines stretched a dozen meters to wrap around horn and jaw, hold legs still and prevent movement. Each seemed to be sleeping, now, but they were still held tight. Three more vines stretched behind her leafy friend, wrapped around the great trunks surrounding them, presumably for stability’s sake.
Heartrate slowly slowing, Katie reached out to feel one of the stretched-out vines. It was like steel, no give at all. She could put her whole weight against it and Thatch had no reaction beyond a vaguely amused smile.
Katie stopped playing with the vine, looking away sharply. “I— Okay. Thank you, I appreciate that.” She paused to take a deep breath, telling herself to focus, and then knelt by the watering hole to busy herself filling another bowl. “A river next seems like a good idea, and we’re going to need something to eat. What… do you need?” Katie asked, voice starting shaken but growing more confident over the sentence. Katie glanced over at the Affini, who looked very much like there was nothing at all she could ever need from anybody.
Thatch stood, vines shifting around her as she maintained control over the beasts surrounding them. Katie knew how firm those grips were, and yet Thatch still walked as if she were unburdened, trading off vines around the local trees to ensure she didn’t lose her control. How many of Thatch’s mannerisms were simply acting, for Katie’s sake, she wondered, if the Affini appeared to walk normally even while under pressures that surely dwarfed the motive force that feet against dirt could provide.
“Water would be good, but I can likely get what I need wherever we find food for you. Life seems quite endemic here, but there’s room for another set of roots.”
Thatch paused, glancing between the restrained monsters surrounding them. “Do you eat meat, Katie?” she asked, gesturing to the beasts held helplessly before them. They couldn’t fight an Affini any more than Katie could, and it was discomforting to realise how comparable their situations were. Katie didn’t have immovable vines wrapped around her neck, but even ignoring the one tied tightly around her leg, the easy confidence with which Thatch suggested slaughter was chilling.
“I— No, but… Desperate times?” she asked, trying to swallow her disgust at the idea of surviving only by killing her surroundings. That was the Terran way, though, right? Finding new planets to strip mine and new species to exploit in an ever-expanding shell of endless consumption. Katie supposed, with disgust, that the Affini were doing the same thing, just better.
Thatch seemed relieved, however, vines going slack as she released the beasts. “Oh, good. I was not looking forward to needing to deal with that,” she admitted, seeming almost to slump for a moment. It wasn’t a very human expression, and Katie was fairly sure she couldn’t have her body emulate it if she tried. It was more like Thatch’s whole intricate weave had loosened for a moment. “We’ll find you something non-sentient to eat, then. We’re more likely to find that closer to a river anyway. Let’s both drink up, and then set off. Ah, if you think that’s a good idea, partner?”
Katie nodded absent mindedly, then paused, and nodded again more confidently. If she wasn’t careful, equals or no, it seemed that Thatch’s natural confidence would have her effectively in charge regardless, and that would be a dangerous precedent to have set by the time they got back to Terran space.
Well, Affini space, now.
If Katie was going to get out of ‘domestication’, she had a lot to learn and a lot to plan, and she suspected that turning up on an Affini cruiser as a rescued captive would be much less positive for her than if she were the rescuer, returning a lost soldier.
“Yeah. We need a river, we need to eat. You need to make me drugs, so tell me what you need for that and I’ll make sure you get a chance. I’ll look for… river signs…”
“Animal tracks, insects, thicker vegetation, that kind of thing. Life will collect around the needs for life, so we can follow it and do the same,” Thatch filled in.
“I’ll look for those, and we’ll get out here,” Katie said, as much a promise to herself as to the other. She looked away from the slumbering animals surrounding them, back to Thatch, only to catch the alien looking at her, too. Thatch turned away, focusing on something out of Katie’s line of sight.
Katie took a deep breath. She needed this to work. “I don’t think either of us could do this alone, but I’ll keep you safe, too, Thatch.”