“You’re right. Aeden is a paradise.” Taylor smiled at the image of her mother hanging in the air above the grass. She had set the small computer down by her feet so she could have a more natural conversation, rather than looking down at her lap.
Susan’s forehead creased. “I’m being serious, Taylor. Forever is a long time. You’re young, so maybe that hasn’t sunk in yet.”
Taylor raised a hand. “No, Mum, I get it. I know I’m here for the long term. Aeden is a beautiful planet and the Illiya are treating me well, so really, it’s been fine.”
“I still worry about you.”
Taylor sighed. “I’m fine. You gave me plenty of opportunity to become independent while I was growing up, this is just another step along the way.”
Susan blinked away tears as she looked away. “I’m so, so sorry-”
Taylor waited until Susan turned back towards her. “Mum, that’s all in the past. I am who I am now because of everything that’s happened in my life, and this is where I’ll be when you can come visit. And it’s great to talk to you more often, I really like that.”
Susan wiped away a tear. “Okay. I’m still not used to my little girl being so strong, so capable.”
“Twenty and not so little any more, but that’s how Grandma and Grandpa raised me after Dad died.”
Susan nodded. “I’m proud of you, you know. You’re taking all of this so well.”
“I’ve got Char and a whole village taking care of me, it’s not so bad. And I’ve got pretty good at climbing trees.”
Susan laughed, then looked over her shoulder. “Well, you still have your sense of humour. Now, I really don’t want to cut you short, but it looks like they need me on the bridge.”
Taylor nodded. “It’s okay. I know you’ve got work to do.”
Susan raised her fingers to her lips and blew Taylor a kiss. “I love you. Talk to you next week.”
“Love you too,” smiled Taylor as she closed the vidlink connection.
A four second lag through the null space link wasn’t too bad. Next week the delay would be more noticeable as the Zanzibar was away on another survey assignment, further away from the jump-gate they had just passed through. With Taylor being ten thousand light years away from Earth but still able to talk to her mother and her grandparents now and then… it was amazing, when you thought about it. A thirty-four second lag to Earth made the conversation with her grandparents awkward and stilted, but it would have been much longer if there hadn’t been several jump-gates along the way.
She took off her slim augmented reality glasses and put them in a shirt pocket. She took a moment to rub her nose, then stripped off the thin haptic gloves and rolled them up, tucking them in beside the glasses. The glasses pinched her nose, but they were the only pair she had. Her mother and the rest of the crew of the Zanzibar had AR implants, while she had to make do with wearables. Her mother had refused to let her get the implants like most of the other students because she wanted Taylor to make a conscious choice about doing it when she was at least twenty. Now it was too late to get implants and although the glasses hurt a bit, she needed them to do her homework and to make the most of the calls with her mother and the crew.
She tilted her head back and stretched out her arms, then leaned forward and closed the lid of the computer. She fingered the small titanium pendant hanging on the silver chain around her neck, playing with the reflections it made on the grass by her legs. Her mother had given it to her on her birthday to remind Taylor of her as she travelled across the stars, but now the small etching of Earth would also remind her of the home she would never see again.
Three months had passed since the Zanzibar had been forced to leave Aeden for repairs. Three and a half months since Taylor had received the life sentence that meant she could never go home again.
Three months as the only human on the verdant planet named Aeden… Taylor leaned back against the tree and looked up at the leaves above her head, trembling in the light summer breeze. The same breeze caused ripples across the surface of the creek, hiding the deep pool downstream from where she sat, then the breeze shifted and raised goosebumps on the exposed skin of her arms. The day had been hot, and she welcomed the cooling breeze drifting out from beneath the forest canopy behind her. Some days she was already looking forward to the cooler days of autumn.
Not that it was that cold on Aeden, the average temperature had been mild when she arrived in early spring with the rest of the crew of the Zanzibar. That was the day two Illiya had died during first contact because of her.
Three months since they left… no.
Three Earth months, roughly ninety-two days… still not right. Days were shorter on Aeden, twenty-two point six Earth hours, so it was longer in local days. She could count it by the passing of the full moons, of course. Both of them. The larger, silver Hunter moon was full every fourteen and a half Aeden days, while the smaller brown Drazen, or ‘Mouse’ moon was full every twelve days. The Hunter moon and Mouse moon, chasing each other across the sky… Taylor shook her head. It was still hard to get used to, but she had the computer her mother left behind so she could stay in contact through the null space satellite relays. At least it knew what time it was – on Earth, anyway.
But her mother was rarely on Earth, so it didn’t really matter except as a way to coordinate their calls.
Taylor smiled. She and her mother talked a lot these days, far more than they used to. Two calls a year from Susan, and two visits a year to see Taylor on Earth, it had been that way for over a decade… there were reasons behind it, but Taylor was finally letting it go.
But now, now… it had been thirteen Earth weeks with calls almost every day. Some had been short, but others were for an hour or more, depending what was happening on the ship at the time. Many times Taylor and Susan had lost track of the time until her mother was interrupted by a knock on her cabin door by one of the crew.
Of course, that didn’t mean the end of the call – even as Susan got up to attend to whatever was needed of the ship’s captain, the interrupting crew member would take her place and chat.
Sometimes it was Angus, and they would have a good, comfortable chat, almost like talking to her grandfather. Leigh would always try to make her laugh, but all too soon he would put on a sad smile and give another apology. He had pulled the trigger that condemned her to remain on Aeden, but it was her startled scream that started it all – the darting of Carla, Leigh’s firing into the trees, the two dead Illiya… Taylor tried to fend off the apologies with a smile. She didn’t blame Leigh, but he certainly blamed himself.
Illiyan logic wasn’t human logic, but it wasn’t so far removed that it didn’t make sense. Cause and effect vs root cause and multiple effects, and balance as a system of justice. Not so different, really. At least she wasn’t dead… although if she was just a little older, she would have been. At the trial they had classed her as a juvenile, and young ones make mistakes, so there was no death sentence, just a lifetime of learning instead. That was her mother’s punishment, as the person responsible for her – having to leave Taylor on the planet, but it was much better than being dead.
Taylor enjoyed her chats with Angus, and even Leigh, though it might take a while for him to get over the guilt. She even talked with Trent once or twice, but the conversations were brief. There had been almost daily conversations when the crew was in quarantine, but that had slowed down once things got busier on her mother’s end.
Carla was now back on the ship and had spoken with Taylor a few times, but the conversations were short and awkward. Taylor may have forgiven Leigh, but Carla was still angry at them both, especially after having to spend two months in quarantine. They had placed her in isolation while they studied her, poked her, prodded her, drained off vial after vial of blood to figure out why her nanos had stopped working. The superficial cause was simple – she had been hit by sleeping darts during first contact, and she ate the local food when she woke up… several of the crew had suffered nano degradation for a while when exposed to the environment of the planet, but they had all recovered after they stopped eating the local fruit.
Except for Carla.
It was actually a pretty big deal. For a while the space station they docked at had refused to let any of the crew disembark when they arrived back from Aeden.
Nanos – the Self-Replicating, Multi-Species-Adaptive, Genotype-Locked Nanotonic Phages or S.R.M.S.A.G.L.N.P’s were the foundation of keeping interstellar travel safe. Viruses and bacteria constantly mutated, and many crossed species boundaries – quite a concern when you were trying to hold together a Commonwealth of a hundred planets, representing over seventy different intelligent species, most with interstellar spaceflight technology. In the early days of interstellar trade there had been plagues, and millions died. Scientists had come to the rescue and developed the nanos – a simple, elegant solution to the problem. No matter your species, no matter your parentage or gender, hybrid or pure blood, when nanos were injected and activated, they performed one key function above all others – to preserve the genome and core system functions of the host. Anything that was not present in the host body at the time of activation was considered a foreign agent and terminated with extreme prejudice, faster and more effectively than white blood cells or their equivalent in other species could do on their own.
No more sick days, no more quarantine zones, just simple, easy travel from planet to planet. Nobody carried diseases when they visited, and nobody got sick. The nanos were abundant and cheap – every citizen of every world in the Commonwealth was injected shortly after birth, and the nanos activated. Hardly anyone thought about them at all. Everyone had them, and nobody got sick. They just worked.
Until they didn’t, of course, and that was the main reason nobody wanted to let Susan’s crew off of the ship. Even though Leigh, Angus and Trent had never been directly exposed to the environment of Aeden, they were still looked at with suspicion.
In the end, though, following a detailed examination of the crew on-board the Zanzibar by heavily suited med-techs, the crew were released with a clean bill of health.
All except Carla, who had been escorted away to an isolation chamber, still wearing her thinsuit inside a thick over-suit they insisted she wear while in transit.
Susan and the crew could talk to Carla from behind thick glass, but even then the visits were kept short. Anything that was powerful enough to suppress or kill the nanos posed an extreme biohazard and a risk to the entire Commonwealth.
It didn’t help that every blood sample they had extracted was non-viable before they could put it under the electron microscope. By the time they could prepare the sample, an exothermic reaction would occur and destroy it. When they had discovered that, the first impulse of the quarantine facility was to eliminate the problem. In other words, sterilise the room and its contents by flame at 1000 degrees and eject the dust into space.
Fortunately, cooler heads had prevailed as Carla seemed healthy enough, but the samples didn’t survive extraction from the host and the preparation steps for analysis. Next, they took small sections of skin from her fingertips, her neck, the inside of her elbow, her mouth and from her feet. When the results were the same, the scientists were stymied. The supervisor wanted to torch the room right then and there, but was held back from pressing the button when one of the med-techs pointed out that they didn’t know how the subject would react.
‘The subject’ – Carla had somehow lost her name after the first week – would have been killed, of course. But they were worried about how her cells would respond to the extreme change in environment – when a med-tech suggested she might become a walking bomb, they gave up on the idea of sterilising the situation.
Instead, they watched her closely. They strapped nanotonic monitors onto multiple points around her body, but they stopped any further ‘invasive’ testing. No more blood samples or biopsies. Just observation and time to see if the nanos would restore themselves as they had with the other crew members who had ingested foods from the environment of Aeden.
All of the crew had been tested, but there had been no adverse reactions to chemical analysis or the other batteries of tests – the samples also appeared perfectly normal under the electron microscope, so it was possible that something just needed to flush itself out of Carla’s system.
When Carla’s nanos finally showed signs of recovery, she began to smile again – until she found out they were keeping her in isolation for an extra week after her nano levels restored to 100%, just to be safe. Things were looking up as another round of samples came up normal when the nanos appeared stable. No exothermic reactions, just normal human cells and the nanos under the eye of the electron microscope. Every sample after that also came up clean, but they added an extra week of observation just to be sure.
Those extra two weeks felt nearly as long as the first month and a half in isolation, but Carla held on and was calm and placid about it all. Inside she was seething, but she dared not express it in case some trigger-happy med-tech interpreted that as a sign of her transforming into something other than a highly irritated human female.
When they finally released Carla, she wasn’t allowed to leave the isolation chamber until she had put on another isolation suit for the escorted walk back to the Zanzibar.
There was a collective sigh of relief across the station when the crew departed for their next assignment, with the ship repaired, restocked and fully functional.
While there had been some initial interest in the limited survey findings from Aeden, the nano impairment problem struck the planet off of the ‘nice to see on vacation’ list. Officially, the planet was now quarantined and off-limits, with the two relay satellites in orbit above Aeden now serving as monitoring stations to warn any ships approaching the planet.
Susan had petitioned to be allowed to return to Aeden and see her daughter now that the ship had been repaired, but the authorities were adamant. Until more was known about the cause of the nano degradation and sudden recovery, any ships approaching the quarantined planet should consider it a one-way trip.
The fact that the planet was on the fringes of Xathen space, nestled in the Perseus Transit reduced the urgency for investigating the situation further. The last thing anyone wanted was for the Xathen to pick up the war where they had left off. The war had ended before Taylor was born, but it was still fresh in the memories of many Commonwealth citizens, including some of her mother’s crew.
Leigh had served as a young cook on a Commonwealth Navy spaceship near the end of the war, and he saw the terrible cost on the faces of the crew he fed every day. A few of the far-off battles had been complete exterminations, with whole fleets of Commonwealth warships utterly destroyed when the Xathen attacked.
Few saw a Xathen in the flesh and lived to tell the tale, although statistically the ship-to-ship battles were roughly even over the hundred years of fighting. One battle would push the Xathen back towards their territory, the Commonwealth inflicting heavy damage, with one or two Xathen ships left to retreat. But then the Xathen would return with a vengeance somewhere else and even up the score.
It was only years later, when Leigh was working on a salvage crew scouring far-flung regions of space where battles had once raged, that he saw a Xathen for the first time. Not just one Xathen, either. Leigh and two of his crewmates had found dozens of them on a derelict ship, the crew long-dead. The Xathen crew they came across were a mixture of species. Most were roughly humanoid in structure, but some had extra limbs or wings, while others appeared to be reptilian or insectoid.
Leigh had barely escaped the derelict Xathen ship when a decades-delayed self-destruct sequence activated and imploded the ship, killing his crewmates. Leigh was lucky to survive the hard radiation exposure, and after all that the Navy had confiscated his suit vids of the Xathen corpses. Leigh was left with nothing but memories and his stories, but Taylor believed him.
With the Xathen war still fresh in the memories of many, some felt that sending the Zanzibar out to complete the planetary survey after the first ship disappeared a hundred and thirty years ago had been tempting fate. Instead of providing answers, the Zanzibar had returned damaged, and with reports of a newly discovered primitive alien race. But the survey also raised troubling questions, and the problem of nano suppression remained unresolved. Nobody was going to be travelling to Aeden anytime soon, or anywhere near Xathen space.
Taylor hadn’t taken that news particularly well, but Susan was more optimistic. She said time dulls memories; it might take a year, but she would keep trying to convince her superiors that a follow-up visit need not be a one-way trip. As a parting gift from the station, the crew had each been provided nanotonic monitoring equipment, so they could be regularly monitored and tested on the Zanzibar during their normal duties. When the medical authorities found no adverse effects in her crew over time – as Susan hoped would be the case – they might relax their strictures and let the Zanzibar go back for a follow-up survey visit.
A lot can happen in a year, but Taylor held onto that with both hands – it wasn’t a promise, it wasn’t set on a calendar, but in about a year they might be back.
And if she chose to count that in Aeden years – three hundred and twenty-two local days, and those days were shorter, of course – if you looked at it that way, it was hardly any time at all.
Taylor got up and brushed the dirt off of her bare legs. She bent over and picked up the computer, then tucked it under her arm as she stood up.
She looked along the length of the creek, then turned to head back towards the hut she shared with Char, her Illiyan companion, teacher and protector.
Char had been through a lot with Taylor, and she had only learned the extent of his challenges after being abandoned by him for several days in the forest, and then being reunited. The Elders had bound him to her for the crime of embarrassing them during her trial, and it was more than just to be her protector. It was another sentence, of sorts. The Illiyan judicial system of balance was simple, with very little grey to work with.
Kill someone? You die.
Hurt someone badly? You lose a thumb. You didn’t see that one too often. They liked their dual opposing thumbs.
Get the prisoner drunk off her gourd on local fruit before the trial so she can barely talk? You get a life sentence, bound to the girl you got drunk.
Not that there was any problem with getting intoxicated, oh no. She had seen quite a few happy Illiya wandering home in the evenings, meandering back and forth across the clearing on unsteady legs. If there were any straight lines on this planet, it was a sure bet they couldn’t follow one after a few handfuls of strong fruit.
No, it wasn’t a crime to get drunk, and they didn’t have rules about getting a juvenile drunk, either.
But to embarrass the Elders during a formal trial as a result… that was another story. To be bound to someone for life was exactly that. It wasn’t anything resembling a marriage. The day that Taylor died, Char would die as well. Voluntarily, or he would be assisted to not see the next sunrise.
Taylor paused beside a smooth, grey-barked tree inside the edge of the forest and looked out onto the clearing. Illiya were returning home for the evening, not that the dark bothered them much with their exceptional night vision. But companionship was important to them, the sense of village, of family – of hapu, of whānau, to borrow some terms from Henry’s Māori culture. So they generally returned to the village in the evenings because there were a few things that could eat you in the night if you were out alone without a good spear.
Yes… she knew she had been putting off thinking about him.
Henry. The other man in her life.
Well, he might have been, if the circumstances had worked out differently. But at least he was human, although not exactly available. Single, yes, but on the other side of the quarantine line, which gave her a lot of time to think about things. Like the fact that they had only known each other for a few weeks, not even a month, but he had wanted to spend the rest of his life with her on Aeden. She still had trouble grasping that.
She vividly recalled her first vidlink conversation with Henry, shortly after she and Char had made it back to the village after escaping the forest fire. They had missed the ship by minutes as the Zanzibar had been forced to leave for repairs or be stuck on the planet forever. Yes, she remembered every detail of the conversation.
Henry slid into the seat Taylor’s mother had just vacated. His face was filled with emotions cycling in rapid succession through relief, elation, worry, joy, affection… in the end relief settled onto his features.
“We were so worried about you, Taylor. We thought maybe you were…”
“Dead?” smiled Taylor. “Not quite, but it came close a few times. Minnesota girls must be bred tough.”
Henry had smiled at that. He had also been born on Earth, in Aotearoa – New Zealand, but had moved off-planet with his family when he was young. However, his family still kept close ties with his whānau, his family back home. The Māori were survivors – they had survived the European invasion of their country long ago and had thrived over the last thousand years or so.
“I’m so glad to see you’re okay,” Henry smiled shyly as he stretched out his right hand towards her.
Taylor reached out towards the screen with her haptic-gloved hand and glanced down at the image of Henry’s dark hand hovering in front of the screen.
“I’m relieved the Aarden didn’t get any of the crew,” she said as she threaded her fingers between his virtual ones. “I’m glad you made it away safe.”
“I wish I was actually holding your hand,” Henry sighed.
“This will have to do,” Taylor glanced down at her hand.
Henry winked, then his face crumpled. “Ah, this sucks. If I had known you were alive, I’d be with you right now instead of holding a handful of air.”
Taylor paused. It felt like a long time ago since she last held Henry’s hand, felt his soft kiss on her lips. There was no doubt that he was attractive, and not that much older than her at twenty-three. And there had been chemistry, oh yes. She had been starting to have strong feelings for him, but she had since wondered if it might have been partly desperation too, facing a lifetime as the only human on this planet when the crew of the Zanzibar left.
“Cat got your tongue?” Henry smiled. “Oh, and just so you know, Squilm is adjusting, but she wanders around looking for you. She’s getting lots of attention from the crew as she does her rounds, and she’s been sleeping on my bunk.”
Taylor felt a lump rise in her throat. Squilm was her cat, had been for more than half her life. She missed her cat, and she had always been there for Taylor, unlike her absentee mother. Taylor forced a smile. “I’m glad she’s settling in okay.”
“Would you like to pet her? She just came into the room.”
Taylor couldn’t hold back her tears, and barely managed to squeak out “Yes, please.”
Henry let go of Taylor’s hand and looked down. “Just a minute, I’ll need to tweak the interface, hold on…”
Taylor waited while Henry worked on something just out of sight. She saw Squilm’s orange tail moving back and forth at the bottom of the screen. And then suddenly Squilm was standing on Taylor’s computer, glaring at her accusingly.
Well, a hazy outline of her virtual cat was there, anyway. The small computer didn’t have enough processing power to render her fully, and the null space vidlink on the small computer had limited bandwidth.
Taylor smiled as she reached out to pet her cat, then quickly drew her hand back. “She bit me!”
Henry tried to suppress a laugh but failed and broke into a broad grin. “She misses you.”
“She has an interesting way of showing it.” Taylor reached out more slowly and this time Squilm permitted herself to be petted. Taylor could feel Squilm purring through the fingertips of the gloves as she stroked the faint ginger outline of the cat. After a few moments Squilm turned, licked Taylor’s hand and slid away, disappearing as she passed by the edge of the computer.
Taylor looked on, stunned as she saw Squilm hop up onto Henry’s lap. He gave Taylor a crooked half smile. “Sorry. She’s been showing a preference for me lately. She can be very demanding though.”
Taylor sighed and reached out her hand. “It’s okay.”
Henry took her hand again. “She’s lonely. She hasn’t seen you since you left the ship.”
Taylor squeezed his fingers gently. “I understand how she feels.”
Henry nodded as Squilm vacated his lap and walked out of view. “She’ll probably go visit Angus next. She’s fairly predictable once you analyse her patterns.”
Taylor laughed. “She’s a mooch, always has been.”
Henry glanced at the doorway, then gave Taylor’s hand a squeeze. “We’ll take good care of her.”
“Thank you. Henry, you said some important things in your message. Is that really how you feel?”
Henry blinked. “Of course.”
Taylor frowned. “I wasn’t sure you really meant what you said. I mean, we don’t know each other that well yet, Henry. It was what, three weeks from when I met you until the Aarden attacked?”
“Two weeks, six days before you disappeared, plus the week on the ship. But it was long enough.”
“So you really wanted to stay with me here, forever?”
“I still do.”
Taylor swallowed. “Wow. That’s a big step.”
“I recall you wanted me to share your hut.”
Taylor blushed. “I did, didn’t I.”
Henry winked. “You mentioned it a few times, actually. You seemed quite determined.”
Taylor’s blush deepened. “You did share my hut for a while, but nothing happened.”
Henry shrugged. “You were sick, you needed taking care of.”
“Thanks for doing that for me.”
“You’re welcome. And if… when I come back, the offer is open. But only if that’s what you want.”
“I’ll have to think about it.”
“We have a little time, at least until the ship gets repaired. We might be able to come back right away.”
Taylor nodded and glanced at the creek, then looked into Henry’s deep brown eyes. She suddenly decided she wasn’t ready for where this was heading. “Henry, a lot has happened since we ran from the Aarden, like nearly dying a few times. I might not even be here when you manage to get back. It can be pretty dangerous here.”
Henry frowned. “Don’t say that. You’ve managed okay so far, and you’ve got Char to protect you, right? You should be okay.”
“He’s in rough shape but his broken ribs will heal.”
Henry raised an eyebrow. “What did you do to him?”
“Very funny. He nearly drowned in the river and got banged up pretty badly.”
“Did he lose his balance?”
“No, he was paralysed by a Vaseth, one of the deadliest killers on this planet. That happened during our escape from the forest fire.”
“I’m sorry for making fun-”
“I told you it was dangerous here.”
“Sorry. You’ve stood up well. I’m impressed. Sorry to hear about Char.”
Taylor sighed. “Yes, well he needs some rest, but I saved his life. I’ve been lucky so far, but anything could happen at any time. I don’t know if you should be waiting for me. There might be nothing to come back to.”
Henry looked at her earnestly. “Yes, you see? Life is short, you never know what tomorrow will hold – or even if you will have a tomorrow. If I was there, I could be with you, protecting you – we could be kotahitanga.”
Taylor raised an eyebrow. “That’s different from what you said in your message. You said ‘kotahi’, united or something. Does that mean something like married in Te Reo?”
Henry smiled. “Kotahi just means united, together. It could be two or more people, or two or more villages. It doesn’t imply anything romantic just by itself. Spouse, partner, mate, friend or ally is hoa.”
“Oh,” Taylor frowned. “That’s nice to get the language lesson, Henry, but-”
“I meant more than that, of course,” he lowered his eyes. “But only if you wanted me to stay with you. I wouldn’t force anything. But if I had stayed, even if you hadn’t been interested in that way, we could still have been kotahitanga.”
Taylor’s stomach was getting knotted up in a swarm of emotions. Sometimes she wished he would say things clearly and use words she knew. “Translation, please.”
Henry nodded. “Sorry. Kotahitanga means stronger together. Like villages uniting against a common enemy, or… just two people, uniting to protect each other against the world.”
“I really like you, Henry.”
“Great!” Henry smiled, then it faded as he noticed Taylor biting her lip.
She shook her head. “No, I’m not trying to brush you off. I mean, I really like you. And you’re a good kisser, if you get my point. Really good. But we’re both young, and I’m stuck here, and you’re not, and you’ve got a galaxy full of girls you can choose from…”
Henry shook his head. “No, I’m not that kind of guy. And surprisingly enough, when you spend your days exploring new planets, almost all of them with no intelligent species to talk to, well, my options are limited.”
Taylor’s stomach fell. “Oh. I see.”
Henry’s eyes went wide. “Oh, no! That’s not what I meant. You aren’t the first girl I’ve kissed, either – and I’m not saying this because you were conveniently nearby. What I’m trying to say is that you’ve had a really big impact on me, Taylor. You’ve heard of love at first sight?”
Taylor squeezed Henry’s hand, hard. He yelped and tried to pull his hand away, but Taylor held his virtual hand tight, and the vidlink transmitted her intent across hundreds of light years into the sub-dermal haptic response implants in his hand.
“That’s not what it was, Henry. Maybe it was pheromones combined with the excitement of being on a new planet together. You can’t say you love me.”
Henry grimaced. “Not yet, you’re right. But perhaps one day it could happen. You’ve got a strong grip, by the way.”
Taylor looked at him in surprise and relaxed her grip, but didn’t let go of his hand. “Sorry.”
“You can’t tell me you don’t have an impact on the people around you. I mean, I had no idea the vidlink could transmit so much pressure. As far away as you are, you can still hurt my hand… and my heart.”
Taylor gently squeezed his hand. “I’m sorry, Henry. You feel how you feel, and I… I don’t know what I feel right now. I’m not saying no, but I suppose we’ve got time to talk about it. You still need to get the ship repaired, and Carla…”
Henry looked down at his lap. “Yeah, we don’t know what’s going to happen with Carla. And I guess you’re right, we’ve got time to figure things out. But it’s really up to what you want.”
“Don’t make rash decisions, Henry.”
“I’m telling you how I feel right now.”
“We’ll talk more soon, okay?” Another squeeze of Henry’s hand.
Henry grinned. “I’m looking forward to it.”
After a few more idle pleasantries, Taylor had cut off the vidlink, but her stomach was still tied up in knots.
Taylor and Henry had talked many times during the months following Taylor’s return to the village, and although Henry was still feeling the same way towards Taylor each time, she found that she hadn’t been the same with him. For one thing, she hadn’t told him about Char, and it was becoming a problem.
Henry knew about Char, of course, but only as her teacher and protector. She hadn’t told Henry about the rest of it and she wasn’t sure why, and then it felt like it was getting too late to bring it up.
Their last conversation had been very awkward.
Henry had still been earnest and hopeful, but it was obvious that Taylor was becoming more distant. Perhaps that’s why he let it slip that her mother had talked to him about staying behind with Taylor. After hearing that, she was furious.
Not really at Henry, she could tell that he believed what he was saying. But she knew – she knew if something were to come of it now, she would be haunted by whether Henry had been coerced by her mother to be with her, or if it was what he really wanted. But she couldn’t say anything to her mother now that they were getting along so well, and also because she could see how Susan had been trying to protect her only daughter. Taylor wished he had said nothing about it, but it couldn’t be un-said.
Taylor certainly didn’t want Henry feeling forced into anything, or feel sorry for her. She couldn’t handle that. She cared for Henry, she really did, and perhaps, when things settled down, if he still felt the same way in a year, if the quarantine was ever lifted… maybe then.
…But of course she couldn’t do that, not really. There were other complications, and maybe she was over-reacting to her mother’s coercion of Henry. When she finally told Henry about what happened with Char, she hadn’t been overly gentle.
Henry hadn’t taken it very well. It was probably a mistake to tell him like that, but she didn’t want to be lying to Henry either. As a result, they hadn’t talked in the last two weeks. Every time she called to talk to her mother and asked to talk to him afterwards, her mother would shake her head and say he was busy. However, he had made time for Taylor every call before then without fail. She didn’t blame him for being angry, but his absence made Taylor ache.
Taylor was bound to Char – and not just him to her, she had bound herself to Char after saving his life. If she was stuck here on this planet forever, well, it made sense to be bound to the one bound to you, except for the whole dying part.
Although she still had a small hope about it not actually being forever. If Aeden someday joined the Commonwealth, they would need an ambassador, and the job might include some travel, if she was lucky. Of course, the quarantine made that whole idea more and more unlikely.
But being bound to Char was more than just a simple equation. After escaping the forest fire and then dragging his unconscious, drowned body from the river up to the nearest Yahnee healing tree, something had awakened in her. She tried to recall those feelings now – longing, desire, the need to protect, but more than that, stronger, deeper, more urgent – it was hard to put it into words, but she had meant every word she said, and she would stick by them.
On the other hand, it wasn’t like she had a lot of other options with her facing a lifetime on Aeden as the only human. Maybe that had made it easier to tell Char that she loved him after she saved his life.
But what did that really mean? How had she developed such strong feelings for him in only a few days? She had told Henry he was making a big leap wanting to stay with Taylor after only knowing her for a few weeks – she had known Char for less than that when she bound herself to him. She felt like such a hypocrite, especially after telling Henry not to make rash decisions. You could go in endless circles looking at it from all angles, but in the end it was very simple.
Henry was gone, and might never be able to come back. Char was here, she was bonded to him, and she could never leave Aeden.
Yes, Char had been angry and wanted to kill her shortly after they first met. On the other hand she had been rude and disrespectful of their sacred Asook, so she let that one go.
Yes, he had abandoned her for four days in the forest, but that one was partly her fault too.
But despite all of that, he genuinely cared for her – it wasn’t just about saving his own skin. And she cared for him too. After a whirlwind of events that spanned less than a week where she had faced death – hers and his – far too many times, the intensity of her emotions towards Char had boiled over.
Since then, things had settled down to a simmer, and they were taking time to get to know each other. They had a lifetime to spend together, and as things generally didn’t happen too fast on this planet, they were taking it slow. Unless you were running from a forest fire or an Aarden, there was no particular need to rush.
So, they were a couple. An odd couple, a tall, green, barely clothed humanoid chameleon alien with two thumbs on each six-digit hand, and six toes on each foot. The only clothing Illiya ever wore was a long pocket-loincloth belt type of arrangement, and the same went for the females, who had small, almost non-existent breasts with round, flat nipples. That was the easiest way to tell them apart, as the males had no distinguishing features on their chests, other than the outlines of well-toned muscles under their green skin. But then, the Illiya were generally trim and fit.
Taylor was relatively tall for a human female at 175 cm, but Char could still rest his chin on her head by leaning down a little. She wore as many clothes as she needed to, given the weather and accounting for human norms of privacy – a short-sleeved shirt, shorts, and if she hadn’t lost it in the fire, she would be wearing the old baseball cap that Angus had given her on her birthday. Okay, so she wasn’t wearing much more than the Illiya, but it was summer. She went barefoot like they did, and the soles of her feet and the skin on her toes had toughened and thickened from months of walking and climbing trees without footwear.
Her tramping shoes had been eaten by the Vaseth that she later killed, so she didn’t have a lot of choice in footwear at the moment. Henry had left her another pair, but they were too big for her. She got along just fine without them though.
However, as the days got hotter, she found she was choosing not to wear a particular item of clothing. Frankly, it was just too uncomfortable. It had its place in her limited wardrobe, but like everything else it would wear out soon enough. An under-wire had already broken in one, and she couldn’t fix it. She only had one good bra left and when that finally broke, well, there were no replacements, and that might mean ever. She supposed she could use sticks to replace the under-wires or just do without, but that was a thought for another day. For now she was going without a bra, but as she wasn’t overly endowed, it wasn’t an immediate problem. She also wasn’t worried about the fashion police, not with everyone else running around the place practically naked. No, her choice was more about practical summer comfort. In winter she would probably wear one again, broken or not, and add as many layers as she needed from the limited range of clothes in the crates to be comfortable in the cooler weather.
So, she was getting by with just a shirt, shorts and underwear – she wasn’t going without those. If she had thought to bring a swim suit, she might have had more summer clothing options, but as it was she tied the bottom of her shirt up on the hotter days, exposing her belly button. Illiya didn’t have those, so it had initially sparked some interest in her little ear that could not hear, but at least the Illiya didn’t rush up and try to touch it. They were generally polite about that kind of thing.
She wasn’t taking anything else off – well, not in public. She knew she was being prudish in a place where everyone else just wore a draping belt… but a girl had her standards. When her clothes rotted through, she would have other decisions to make, but by then she might be making her own clothes, like the Illiya made their belts and blankets. She was a Taylor after all. Branches and thorns had already torn holes in most of her clothes as she ran through the forest and climbed trees so that day might not be that far off. She had been patching them as best she could, but it was just a matter of time before they wore out.
So aside from the shirt, and the fact that the only colour changes her olive skin could make were to blush and to develop a nicely bronzed tan on exposed skin, she was fitting in well enough. Short, unable to hide effectively, only two thumbs… yeah, they were an odd couple, but they were getting to know each other.
There were things they couldn’t do together – obviously, two species that evolved ten thousand light years apart couldn’t have kids. That was something she was surprised to find she was thinking about a lot lately, but they got along just fine most days. On the days they didn’t, it was probably her fault. She was the one with less predictable emotions and behaviours. Illiya were calm most of the time, but when Char got angry, well… it was usually because she was doing something that might endanger herself – and if she died Char would die too, so she could understand that.
On the other hand, there were other, more normal relationship-type things they could do together, and he was closer to human than some students she had dated in the past. Holding hands, long walks in the forest, talking… he was also a good kisser, to be fair. But his hands… his hands worked magic with their four supple fingers and strong opposing double thumbs that could also be so delicate and gentle…
Char liked to play with her waist-length chestnut hair, and explore the other hairs all over her body, in the times she had let him so far. She thoroughly enjoyed that, and it made her gooey and tingly from her head to her toes to… but it hadn’t gone beyond that, not yet. They had a lifetime to get to know each other and do more… more intimate things.
But to be perfectly honest she couldn’t stop thinking about Henry, and that tended to cool her jets just when it looked like she was about to move on to the next stage of mutual exploration with Char.
Hair. Most animals had it, except for the lizards and fish.
Illiya had no hair – it would interfere with the chromatophores in their skin that made them such effective chameleons. So they were all fascinated by her hair, and while there was nobody rushing up to touch it, you could tell that the Illiya were curious.
One day while Taylor had been talking to Freya she noticed the female Illiya glancing at her hair as it moved in the breeze.
“Would you like to touch it?” Taylor asked her suddenly.
Freya’s cheeks turned a light green. “But only Char…”
“It’s just my hair, it’s nothing special. If you want to touch it, go ahead.”
Freya reached out carefully. “It is very soft.” She was pulling several strands between her fingers when Taylor yelped.
“I am sorry!” Freya cried, letting go of Taylor’s hair. A couple of strands of loose hair came away in her hand, and she held them out to Taylor with an apologetic look on her face.
Taylor rubbed at a spot on her head and grimaced. “It’s okay. In fact, you can keep those. They’ll grow back.”
Freya slowly pulled her hand back. “Like leaves on a tree?”
Taylor nodded. “Kind of like that, yeah. Anyway, they fall out every now and then. You’re welcome to keep those.”
Freya smiled. “I will make something with them.”
“If you want any more, there are plenty stuck in my hair brush. You can have those anytime.”
Freya nodded. “Thank you, Taylor. It is a precious gift.”
Taylor laughed. “It’s just hair.”
Freya leaned in close and pressed her forehead against Taylor’s, their noses touching. “Thank you.”
Taylor breathed in slowly, smelling the spicy scent of Freya’s breath. “Freya, I need to ask you something. Did Henry teach you the Hongi? I’m curious.”
Freya leaned back, a confused look on her face. “What is that?”
“It’s what we just did – the pressing of foreheads and noses. Why do you do that?”
Freya glanced down at the hair in her hand. “Hapath is a sign of trust, also of affection, like family.”
Taylor nodded. “I see. For Henry and his people, the Hongi is something a little different – a sharing of breath, of life force, or spirit.”
Freya’s eyes widened. “An interesting idea. Do you believe this?”
Taylor opened her mouth to reply but paused. “I don’t know. I don’t think your spirit actually goes anywhere. But who am I to say what’s real or not? There are still so many things we don’t understand in this universe. So I don’t know. But at the very least, it’s a nice story. And it is about trust and sharing, so I guess it’s like Hapath.”
Freya nodded slowly. “I will remember this, and tell others. There is much we do not know as well. We will learn from each other, yes?”
“Yes, we will.” Taylor smiled and pulled out a single hair, then handed it to Freya. “You need at least three to braid. I’ll get you more later.”
Freya accepted the hair and smiled. “Thank you.”
Taylor blinked, pulling herself back to the present. The sun was much lower in the sky. She had been thinking about Henry… and Char, and how being bound to him might end up complicating things. Although Char also wanted her to be happy, to do human things when it was possible. Like when somebody came to visit, she would have certain… opportunities.
When she was ready to… to have children, that would take a lot of thinking, but there were obvious complications. She wouldn’t want to use Henry like that if he came back, but she wasn’t sure how it would work out if he wanted to stay. Any way you looked at it, it was a complicated mess, even if Char approved so she could be happy, to be fully human and have a child. She didn’t know what to do, and it made her miserable just thinking about it.
The quarantine made it a moot point anyhow. Not that she thought she was ready for that kind of responsibility. She was only twenty, but then circumstances were far from normal and likely never would be again.
Taylor sighed. The sun was now down below the tree line, and if she didn’t get back to the hut soon, Char might come looking for her. She wanted him to know she could take care of herself even though he was her protector. She sometimes needed to remind him she was his protector too and had saved his life even after he had abandoned her… everything was complicated except for the simple daily routine she had fallen into.
On Aeden, where food grew close at hand and basic needs were met with little effort, there wasn’t actually that much to do. It was kind of boring, actually. Char and the rest of the Illiya seemed perfectly fine with it being that way, but then, they were natives. They didn’t have much in the way of sports, but they did a lot of walking in the forests around the village and the Asook grove. She had become trim and fit, to where she was starting to resemble her mother more and more. She still had a youthful softness in places, but her arms and legs were now well toned and muscled from walking and climbing trees, practising escaping from Vaseth, the deadliest killer on the planet. At least they couldn’t climb trees. If the Aarden came back, well, you ran for your life and hoped they didn’t catch you. They practised that too – although Taylor was faster in a sprint, Char’s long legs left her in the dust after a couple hundred metres.
So they walked, and climbed, and talked. She had tried to mix things up and engage some Illiya in simple games, but she struck hide-and-seek off of the list. They found her every time, but how do you find a chameleon hiding in the branches or blending in against the trunk of a tree? They thought it was pretty funny and kept on playing amongst themselves long after she had given up.
Humans were a more restless species, she supposed. Unwilling to sit still and relax for too long, she needed to be busy, to be accomplishing something. Of course, she still had her degree to complete, which had been converted to correspondence courses due to her change of circumstances, but it wasn’t exactly exciting. Her ability to apply her extra-solar studies would be limited to one planet, and as for deep-space studies, well, she wasn’t going anywhere on a space ship, but it was too late to change her major. So no, her studies and homework weren’t exciting, but they broke the tedium of daily Illiyan life, aside from the vid calls, which had provided regular distractions until now.
In fact, she had been avoiding her studies for the past few weeks, but with the calls to her mother and the crew becoming less frequent – but still at least once a week, Susan had promised that – Taylor had fewer and fewer excuses not to do her homework.
Let’s face it, I’m bored. I need a vacation, some excitement, anything. Another hundred years of life like this… maybe it is like a kind of prison.
But it wasn’t all bad. Char was warm and kind, great to snuggle up to and did amazing things with those hands and her hair…
Taylor stepped away from the tree and walked towards their hut, the tall grass tickling against her knees in the evening breeze.
With a sigh, she opened the door of their shared hut and entered the comfortable darkness inside.
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