Taylor gave Char a shove with her elbow. “Unggghh. You’ve been hogging the bed again.”
Char opened one eye and reached out with a long green arm to play with Taylor’s hair. “I am larger than you, therefore I need more of the sleeping platform.”
Taylor yawned as she noticed the first light of dawn seeping through the walls of their hut. “A girl needs room to sleep, you know.”
“The sleeping platform has grown big enough for both of us.”
“Says you. I’m crammed all the way over here on the edge.”
Char lifted the blanket and slid over towards his side. “Better?”
Taylor stretched out her arms, her right arm resting on his bare chest. “Better.”
Char resumed playing with her long hair. “What do you want to do today, Taylor? Have you finished your homework yet?”
Taylor groaned. “I don’t want to do it today.”
“You said you needed to study.”
“Yeah, but it’s not exciting. I feel like doing something different, maybe go exploring. Your ribs have healed up nicely, so maybe we could go away for a few days.”
“But you have an exam…”
“The exam is in three weeks or something, I’ve got plenty of time to get ready for it.”
“You said that yesterday, and many times before that. You told me to just tell you to study if you were acting like this.”
“You’re a nag, you know that?”
“What will happen if you do not prepare?”
“I uh… I might fail.”
“Do you want this to happen?”
“Does it really matter?”
“You said it was important to finish your degree.”
“Spoilsport,” said Taylor as she gave him a poke. She folded back the blanket and sat up on the edge of the bed. She faced away from Char as she stripped off her night shirt, revealing firm, toned biceps and lean, strong shoulders from months spent climbing trees. Her lower back had a deep bronze tan that matched her arms, but her upper back was her natural pale olive in the shape of a shortened T-shirt.
Char reached out and touched a long, jagged scar on her right arm that was a constant reminder of her first close brush with death. A wolf-like Vaseth had attacked her in an Asook grove during the night of mouse-catches-hunter, but she had dropped to the ground as it leapt at her throat. The Vaseth had landed in a tangle of carnivorous protector vines, but not before it had clawed her arm as she instinctively tried to cover her head and neck. The Vaseth had left two matching scars – one on her forearm, starting from just below her elbow and running down to her wrist. The second scar began on her elbow and ran in a jagged line up to her shoulder. The scars had paralysed her for several hours as scores of animals moved around and over her to reach the Asook plants.
Char had a smaller scar on his right ankle, the size of a fingertip where a Vaseth fleeing the forest fire had sunk a claw into his leg as they fled across the river. Char had been swept away in the raging torrent, unable to even close his mouth as the water took him.
She lifted Char’s finger and traced the upper scar down her pale shoulder, pausing briefly at the tan line. She continued tracing his finger along the pale scar as it ran over her bronzed bicep and down to her elbow.
She kissed his fingertip before placing his hand down on the blanket. I should probably go to a quiet clearing with Char standing lookout and even up my tan, but who would I really be doing it for?Char didn’t seem to be bothered by her tan lines, and nobody else saw them. She leaned over and reached into a crate beside her bed, then pulled out a cleanish T-shirt. She turned towards Char as she slipped the shirt over her head and slid her arms through the short sleeves. It was one of her better remaining shirts, with only one finger sized hole along the right side. Forest life was tough on clothes.
She had collected quite a few smaller scars, mostly from scraping against thorns, branches and serrated Skeem leaves hidden in the tall grass. The majority of these scars were on her legs and arms but they faded as they healed, their faint outlines hidden by her tanned skin. The Vaseth scar was the only one that stood out for all to see – it hadn’t been deep, in fact it had barely bled – but the paralysing toxin had etched a permanent mark in her skin like a pale, ragged tattoo. As far as she knew, she and Char were the only ones in the village to have survived such close encounters with Vaseth, and they had the scars to prove just how incredibly lucky they were.
Once their prey was paralysed, a Vaseth would take their time eating their meal alive. Their victims were fully awake and aware during every agonising moment until they bled out, or the Vaseth hit a vital organ.
Her second encounter with a Vaseth was when she was alone in the forest after Char had abandoned her. She was extremely lucky – she had managed to kill the second one before it had a chance to eat her. To attack a Vaseth was extremely dangerous – practically suicidal – but she had been desperate. Taylor had been trapped in a tree for over a day without food or water and unable to escape while the Vaseth was working its way through several days worth of Urlock carcass beneath her. Her choice had been simple – try to kill the Vaseth with a handmade spear while it rested, or wait until she was too weak with hunger to do anything other than fall out of the tree and be eaten for dessert.
She had a pair of striped ears that she had cut off of that particular Vaseth if anyone were ever to doubt that the event had happened. Yes, she had been through a lot since she got here and so far she had survived, but tomorrow was always another day.
Although in fact the last few months had been relatively uneventful, quiet, maybe even a little boring, despite the fact that she got plenty of daily exercise walking, running and climbing. She didn’t want to rush out and face death again, but she needed to do something to break the monotony.
She pulled up the bottom of her shirt and tied a knot just above her bottom ribs, exposing her flat bronze belly. It was already feeling like it would be another hot day. Any hotter and she would have to start cutting up shirts or take the leap, even up her tan and gonative for a few days or weeks…
Well, that wasn’t likely to happen, though the Illiya probably wouldn’t care either way. No, some of her most damaged shirts would go first, before it came to that.
Char had been watching her closely as she sat quietly on the edge of the bed. “You have many thoughts, Taylor. I see them in your eyes.”
She sighed. “Yeah, I was just thinking about the Vaseth that nearly killed me. It’s pretty dangerous here, you think they’d cut me some slack. Nobody else in my class has to worry about being eaten. You can’t study when you’re being chased by wild animals.”
“You are safe here.”
“You don’t actually know that.”
“You are very good at climbing trees quickly now. You could have plenty of time to study while you waited for Vaseth to leave if one came near you.”
“Like I’d be able to concentrate if that happened.”
“You are making excuses.”
“So what if I am? It could happen.”
“If you want to fail, that is up to you.”
“You’re trying to make it sound like it’s my fault that there are things to worry about other than studying.”
“You said to tell you…”
Taylor crawled across the bed and dragged her long hair over his chest. “What if I’d rather do something else?”
Char shivered, his eyes drawn to her hair tickling his chest. Rainbow sparkles of colour radiated out from where her hair touched his green skin. “You should be studying…”
Taylor sat up, lifting her hair away from his chest. “If you say so.”
She leaned forward, dragging the ends of her hair back along his smooth skin. His chest became a flowing cascade of colours as he took in a sharp breath.
Char reached up and pulled her down onto his chest. “My little mouse, you are trying to distract me with your hair.”
“Maybe I am. Don’t you like it?”
Char pushed the hair away from her face and kissed her tenderly. “We have all of our time together on Aeden for this. But you have only a little time to prepare for your exam. You told me it was important to make sure you were ready for it.”
“I’d rather do this.”
“You would like to fail?”
“You want to go and explore, but you must study first.”
“I’m exploring right now,” Taylor laid her cheek on his chest and caressed the small ridge above his forehead and with her fingers. She withdrew her hand from his head, then traced small circles on his hairless chest, causing rainbow whorls of pleasure to appear under her fingertips. She was learning what he liked, and she was definitely getting his attention. She twirled a lock of hair across his chest with her fingers, leaving a shimmering rainbow trail as Char shivered. A few more minutes of this and he would want to do nothing but explore her hairs again for hours… ah, yes. Far better than doing homework or studying. And maybe soon they would take the next step…
“Ah… Taylor… perhaps we could… go for a walk… after you… do some… studying,” he gasped. “What is the topic? Zeno-bi-ology again?”
Taylor sighed and lifted her head to look into his deep brown eyes. “No, I submitted the Xenobiology paper last month, ‘A study of the native flora and fauna of Aeden’. Two hundred plants, a hundred types of fruits, forty animal species and a few birds and lizard analogues. But those are all that I’ve seen so far, so it’s not an exhaustive list. And I still haven’t heard how I got marked on it. This one’s an astrophysics exam.”
“Oh,” Char frowned. “And that is…?”
Taylor sighed and closed her hand into a loose fist. The rainbow sparkles on Char’s chest faded as his breathing steadied. “It’s all about the nature of stars and planets and moons, and how they move around in space. There can be some pretty complex things happening out there, like the behaviour of planets orbiting binary stars. However, other things are a lot easier to calculate, like the orbits of the twin moons of Aeden, and Aeden orbiting around its sun. But even there you have some interesting quirks. You don’t often see two moons that can take turns eclipsing each other.”
“I do not understand, Taylor. We just know what we see in the sky.”
“That’s okay, you’re not doing the degree. But I’m sure if you wanted to, they would sign you up. They might even let you do it for free for the honour of having the first Illiya study at the University. They like having firsts.”
Char smiled and stroked her head. “Perhaps later, Taylor. I am happy to learn what I need from Urm.”
“Lucky for you.”
“You should study.”
“Some of us have to.”
“Urm do not know Astro-fisiks, Taylor. Only the memories of when they walked Aeden as Illiya before they became trees.”
“Yeah, yeah. I know, I’ve got to learn this the hard way.” Taylor sighed and sat up. She slid over to the edge of the bed, put on a fresh set of underwear and slipped on yesterday’s shorts.
Char smiled as she stood up and unplugged the computer from the cable that ran up the living wall of trees to the solar charger mounted on the leafy roof. “Good memories are earned the hard way, Taylor. And some learning must be done this way as well.”
She turned to look at Char, twirling her hair playfully around a finger. “I really could study later, you know.”
Char swallowed and shook his head. “Study is the most important thing to do today. You said I must not let you distract me.”
“You’re a pain in the butt, you know.”
“You said you would say this also. Go study.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Taylor leaned down and pulled out the thin haptic gloves and AR glasses from an open crate, then tucked them into her shirt pocket.
Char stretched his arms out across the bed and closed his eyes.
“Hey, no sleeping in,” frowned Taylor.
“I don’t have to study,” smiled Char as he opened one eye. “Illiya learn and never forget. But I will get you some breakfast, my little mouse. What do you feel like this morning?”
Taylor picked up a hairbrush from a crate beside the bed and proceeded to pull it through her hair. “Karm, Spikken and Takru, please.”
Char frowned. “You know Takru is hard to find.”
Taylor tugged at a knot in her hair. “Well, if you can find some, I’d really appreciate it. I’ve run out of coffee and I need a morning wake-up today.”
Char nodded. “It may take some time, but it will give you more time to study. I will look for Takru, but only if you are studying.”
Taylor picked up the computer and padded softly over to the door. “Don’t take too long, my brave fruit hunter. I don’t think that well on an empty stomach.”
Char pulled back the blankets and sat up. “I will pick you some Karm and Spikken first, then search for Takru.”
Taylor smiled as she opened the door. “Thanks, Char.”
She paused in the doorway. “Yes?”
“I am very glad you are with me.”
“I love you too,” she smiled as she stepped outside. “Now hurry up with that breakfast, hey?”
Char was as good as his word and delivered a small pile of fruit to her while she studied. Taylor had the computer sitting on the ground in front of her in the shade while she leaned against the trunk of a Skrill tree. She preferred this location for doing her homework because it was out of the way of the noises of the village and it was away from the pleasant distractions of the creek. The fact that the curve of the trunk and roots fit her back nicely helped too. There was even a gnarled root with a flat top in easy reach where she had set her coffee mug before the coffee ran out.
“Takru for my little mouse,” said Char as he set two small round pink fruit down on the flat-topped root.
Taylor looked up and grinned. “You found two!” She picked up one of the cherry-sized fruit with her gloved hand.
Char shook his head. “I found three, the other I put away for tomorrow. No eating it by accident, only two in one day. I don’t want you to fall asleep.”
Taylor popped the first one in her mouth and sighed as she crushed the fruit between her teeth and inhaled the vapour. “Ahhhhh.”
“How is your studying going?” asked Char.
“Much better now, thanks,” said Taylor as she put her gloved fingers around a sphere hovering above the computer. “I’m building an orbital model of Aeden’s system.”
Char frowned. “I don’t understand.”
“I’ll tell you more about it later. Right now I need to concentrate, please.”
Taylor manipulated the floating model of the local solar system for a few minutes, occasionally typing on a mid-air virtual keyboard to add details. She paused to bite into a Spikken, then licked her lips.
Char sat beside her quietly as she worked her hands through the empty air, but after a while he interrupted her. “Can you show me what you are doing, please?”
Taylor glanced up at Char. “Uh, sure. Just let me save it first. I could use a little break, anyway.”
Taylor pulled off her glasses and slipped them onto Char’s face.
His eyes narrowed as he examined the spheres representing the sun and planets floating in front of him. “Ah, so that is Aeden, and the Hunter and Drazen moons? They are so small.”
Taylor took a bite of fruit and nodded. “Well, it’s just a model. Mum sent me some survey photos which helped with the texture mapping on the spheres, and the geo-spatial data and measurements, mass, angular velocity, that type of thing. I wasn’t cheating in case you were wondering, it’s part of the base set of data that students usually have access to for setting up a model, then you apply some different variables, like determining how a comet could perturb the orbit of one of the moons, for example.”
Char looked at Taylor, a confused expression on his face. He carefully removed the glasses and handed them back to Taylor. “It is beautiful.”
Taylor put a hand on his cheek, then leaned over to give him a quick kiss. “Thanks, Char. They don’t give you extra grades for that kind of visual detail, they’re more interested in the physics of it all and you could get a pass with a wire frame model. But Aeden is a beautiful planet, and I wanted to do it justice.”
Taylor felt a gentle tug on her hair. “Uh, Char, I’d better get back to this model before the battery runs down too low, and now that I’m actually studying, I’d like to finish this today so we can go and explore. You can play with my hair after I finish my homework, okay?”
“Hairs?” smiled Char. “All of them?”
Taylor blushed. “Okay, um, sure.”
Char gently traced his fingers down her back from her head to her waist, making Taylor tingle with pleasure. “Uh… no more of that, or I won’t be able to concentrate, okay?”
Char grinned. “Just as you tried to distract me before, my hard working mouse. Now, I will leave you to do your homework. Hair later.”
Taylor took his hand and kissed his four fingers, then each thumb. “Deal. Thanks for the Takru.”
Char nodded and pushed himself up off the ground. “I will be at the hut when you are finished.”
Taylor nodded and finished the Spikken. “I shouldn’t be too long.”
The sun crawled across the sky as Taylor worked on the model. She was making adjustments to the mass parameters of the small brown moon because something was slightly off relative to its observed orbital velocity and average orbital distance from Aeden. The rapid apsidal precession, or rotation of its elliptical orbit was not unique, although it certainly added complexity to the model. But then, it was hard to accurately measure the mass of a large object moving in space, and they had only made limited observations before they landed on Aeden. Taylor was about to run a simulation with the new settings when she was interrupted by a soft beeping.
A blinking orange symbol appeared on the top left corner of the computer screen. “Huh! Not a vid call, I’ve got a message.”
Taylor motioned towards the symbol with her hand and a message window appeared in the air in front of her. She scanned the sender details. “It’s from the university. Maybe it’s the grade on my last assignment.”
Taylor touched the message icon on the floating image.
A face she didn’t recognise hovered in front of her.
“Hello, Taylor, we haven’t met yet. My name is James Callen. I’m a colleague of Professor Xintic’s at Ganymede university, in the Xenobiology department. Sorry this is just a message instead of a live vid call, but of course you wouldn’t be expecting to hear from me, so it’s just easier to record this.”
“Taylor, there was a great deal of interest in the paper you submitted last month. Quite a lot, actually. The university has just commissioned a further study of the exotic life-forms on Aeden.”
Taylor frowned. “But the quarantine…”
James had paused, almost as if he expected her to say something. “You’re probably wondering about the quarantine of the planet you’re on. Well, the good news is we’re going to provide valuable data that should help them make key decisions about the quarantine. I’m sure you’d be happy to see your mother and crew again soon.”
James glanced down, then looked back up, staring directly at Taylor. “Well, I hope it ends up being good news, anyway. But there is enough interest in the flora and fauna of the planet that they’ve allowed us to formally study the planet. If all goes well, they might be able to lift the quarantine sooner rather than later. But in order to make any decisions there needs to be a study, and we’re the team that’s being sent to do that.”
Taylor nodded, a lump forming in her throat as tears welled up in her eyes.
James smiled. “So, Taylor, we’re going to extend your study of the flora and fauna, with data analysis feeding directly to those making decisions about the quarantine. In practical terms, we will be there to work with you, and provide any resources and assistance you need to help us sample and catalogue more of the flora and fauna on Aeden. I understand that you don’t have any local transport, so we can help with that too. We’ll be bringing some equipment and personal items for you as well. I’m sure you might appreciate having extra clothes and boots, that sort of thing. Oh, and some consumables like coffee, which you’ve probably run out of by now.”
Taylor nodded, wiping away tears.
“Anyway, we’re looking forward to meeting you soon. We’re bringing a crew of about ten, but they won’t all come on-planet with the quarantine restrictions in effect. We’ll have secure biohazard containment storage units for samples and that sort of thing, and we can leave some equipment with you to help with further studies when we go.”
He glanced down again, then smiled at Taylor. “Oh, and you got an A+ on the assignment. Xintic told me to pass that along, so congratulations and well done. We should be there in just under two weeks. See you soon.”
The image disappeared.
Taylor stared at the floating solar system that had re-appeared when the message ended. They might be able to end the quarantine soon! And that would mean… that would mean they could come back! Her mother, the crew, and… Henry, but first things first. She grinned. “We’re going to have company!”
As excited as she was about the unexpected visitors, Taylor decided she had better finish the orbital model as she had promised Char she would. She worked as quickly as she could without making too many mistakes, and it only took three rounds of adjustments to get the brown moon’s mass, orbit and angular velocity figures to match. When she was finally done, she saved the model and stretched out her arms. She was hungry again, but the pile of fruit was long gone.
Taylor closed the lid of the computer and tucked the gloves and glasses into her shirt pocket. She pushed herself up off the ground and took a few moments to stretch and work out the kinks in her neck and limbs before picking up the computer. She noted the position of the sun and yawned. “That took a lot longer than I thought it would, but at least now it’s done. Just a little brush up before the exam, and I should be okay.”
Taylor walked back into the village and waved at an Illiya passing through the clearing. “Hi Daax.”
Daax walked up to her and inclined his head. “How are you this day, Taylor?”
“I’m very good, thanks. How is Freya?”
Daax nodded. “Freya is well. Char said you had much studying to do for your… exam?”
Taylor smiled. “Yes, it’s for my astrophysics class. But I’ve had enough studying for now. A bit more study closer to the time and I should be ready for it.”
“Very good. How long until your exam?”
“It’s in about three weeks, so shortly after our guests arrive, I think.”
“What guests?” asked Daax, his cheeks turning a burnt orange.
“I just got a message from the university. A ship is coming in a couple weeks with a research crew to help catalogue more of the plants and animals on Aeden and hopefully end the quarantine earlier.”
“If they are friends of yours, they will be welcome.”
“Uh, well, I don’t know them personally, but apparently they are working with my Xenobiology professor, and I really like him.”
“I see. Remember when they arrive, you will not be allowed near their ship or flying machines.”
“Of course, Daax.”
“Good, we would not want any… incidents.”
“You mean so you don’t have to kill me.”
“Yes. That would be unfortunate. You are fitting into the village very well, Taylor.”
“Uh, thanks Daax. I’d have to say that everyone I’ve met here has been very nice.”
“I am pleased to hear that. I trust that your conversations to the stars also indicate you are being treated well?”
“Uh, of course. I mean, not in every conversation or anything. But Mum’s a lot more relaxed now.”
“And how is Angus? The grey haired one?”
“Oh, he’s great. He really appreciated the notes I sent to him about the Illiya. He’s fascinated with you.”
“We are just what we are, Taylor. You are welcome to continue sending him your observations.”
“And how is Henry, the young one?”
“Are things not well?”
“Uh, we had kind of an argument. We haven’t spoken in a while.”
“You should not argue, I think. He seems like a nice human.”
Taylor flushed. “Yeah, he’s great, but things are complicated.”
Daax shook his head and smiled. “Things do not have to be complicated. When you talk to him, make it better.”
Taylor nodded. “I’ll try.”
Dax nodded. “Good. Now, Char told me that he is waiting for you, and that you two are planning to go on a journey?”
“Yeah. Char and I are going to go explore for a few days.”
“Where are you going?”
Taylor shrugged. “I want to check on Heather, then maybe work our way up somewhere higher for a look around, get the lay of the land a bit better. Climbing to the top of a tree isn’t really an option with the vines.”
Daax nodded. “Of course. Heather is the Urm you found when you were lost, yes? A human one from the other ship?”
“Yeah, I want to see if she made it through the forest fire.”
Daax shook his head. “Urm are very resilient, but even they may not survive a fire.”
“I know, but that’s why I have to go look. I’ll keep worrying until I know if she made it.”
Daax put a lightly wrinkled green hand on her shoulder. “Don’t expect too much. If she survived, it may not be a good thing. You might not like what you find.”
“I owe it to her to see if she’s okay. I promised to go back and see her.”
Daax withdrew his hand. “If she still lives, we will make sure to visit her as well. An Urm should not be left alone for too long.”
“I’ll do that. I’m sure she’d like some visitors.”
“Well, let us hope she is well. Good luck on your journey,” Daax shook his head and walked away.
“Um, thanks. See you in a few days.”
She felt her stomach grumble, then turned towards her hut. “I hope Char has some lunch picked out, I’m starving!”
Taylor walked into their hut and found it empty. She plugged the computer into the solar charging cable, then put her glasses and gloves back in the crate. She sighed and pulled the blanket across the bed, then tucked it under the makeshift pillows. “He never makes the bed.”
Seeing movement through the wall of the hut, she walked back out into the sun and around the corner of the hut. She found Char hanging Taylor’s damp clothes on the clothesline.
“Thanks for washing my clothes, Char,” she stood on her tip-toes to kiss him. “I could have done that.”
“You were studying and I wanted to help prepare for our journey, so I washed your clothes.”
“Thanks,” she rubbed a shirt between her fingers, but it felt slippery. “Um, did you remember to rinse them after the wash to get the soap off?”
Char stared at the long row of clothes hanging on the line. “I am sorry Taylor. Illiya just wash in the creek, I am not used to washing your human clothes properly…”
Taylor put a hand on his arm, then began to take the clothes off the line. “It’s okay, we’ll just rinse them and hang them up again together.”
Char helped take the clothes off the line, then they put half of the clothes back into the makeshift washing machine that Henry, Angus and Leigh had made for her birthday out of plastic containers and pipes. Taylor grabbed two empty buckets and walked to the creek. A minute later she came back with two buckets full of water, then poured one of them into the washing machine and sealed the lid. Char started cranking.
“Did you finish your homework?” he asked as he pumped the handle around and around without breaking a sweat. Henry had done the washing before the Zanzibar left, and usually built up a full sweat as he cranked the heavy load of water and clothes.
Taylor shook her head, dispelling the image of Henry’s strong back. “Ah…right. Yes, the model is finished, and I should be ready for the exam by the time it comes. But I have some great news!”
Char raised an eyebrow, looking up at Taylor as he cranked. “What news?”
“I got a message from the University. I got an A+ on my paper.”
“Is that good?”
Taylor smiled. “It’s very good, you can’t really do better than that. But even more exciting, they’re sending a ship to do a more thorough study of the plants and animals on Aeden! They say it’s part of the study to see if they can remove the quarantine.”
“Good, you said you wanted some excitement. Visiting humans should provide this.”
“Well, they might not all be human. The university has lots of species studying and working there.”
“More exciting then. So you do not want us to go explore for a few days?”
Taylor shook her head. “I still want to do that. They won’t get here for a couple weeks, so we’ve got plenty of time to go away for a few days and get ready for them to arrive when we get back.”
Char opened the drain valve and let the water pour out onto the grass. He gave the clothes a few more spins with the valve open, then pulled them out and dropped them into the empty plastic crate Taylor used for a laundry basket. “Have you decided where you want to go?”
“I want to go check on Heather first, and see if she’s okay. Then I want to go somewhere to get a better view of the lowland forest. We can save more exploring for after the people from the university are gone.”
Char nodded and handed Taylor the basket of damp clothes. “That would be a reasonable trip, perhaps two or three days. A good walk.”
Taylor grinned and started hanging up clothes as Char began rinsing the second load.
When they had finished, Char put his arm around her waist and kissed her on the forehead. “Are you unhappy that I made you study?”
Taylor put a hand on his chest. “No, I’m fine now. I needed that little push to get it done.”
“Good. I am sorry I had to interrupt you this morning. May I play with your hair now, my little mouse?”
Taylor smiled. “Okay.”
“… all of them?”
“We’ll see how it goes,” Taylor twirled a lock of hair between her fingers.”You did kick me out of bed this morning.”
“I washed your clothes.”
“Yes, but you left soap in them.”
“I also got you three Takru this morning. They were very difficult to find.”
“You did, didn’t you.”
“And one more while I waited for you.”
Taylor grinned. “You did? Well, why didn’t you say so! My hairs are yours, my brave Illiya.” She tingled with anticipation as she took his hand and led him into their hut.
Packing for a trip
“What do you think I should take?” asked Taylor as she pulled out an empty backpack from a nearby crate.
“Take what you like,” shrugged Char.
“That’s not very helpful.”
“Illiya do not need to pack, just wear a belt. Ready to go any time. Aeden provides.”
“Well, I’m human, and I’d like to pack a few things.”
“Then pack what you think you need.”
“We’ll be away for a couple days or so?” asked Taylor.
Char nodded. “Or longer if you like.”
“Do you think it will rain?”
“It is possible, but only Aeden knows.”
“I’ll pack a few changes of clothes and a poncho. But I hope I don’t have to cover myself in mud to protect from bugs again if it does rain.”
“You can use Purm to keep bugs away,” said Char, handing her a piece of fruit.
Taylor accepted the bright orange Purm and put it in a side pocket. “Thanks. I think I’ll pack a blanket, Henry’s boots in case of rough ground, my knife, a notepad and pen in a waterproof pouch, the compass that they left in the crates, and a couple of water bottles. Oh, and one of the maps Trent made.”
“Leave some room in your backpack.”
“We will need to bring some food with us when we cross the river. It will take a long time for the plants to regrow enough to make fruit after the fire. You may want to leave some things behind to make room for food.”
“I have a better idea,” said Taylor as she rummaged through a plastic crate and pulled out a large piece of folded fabric.
“What is this?” asked Char as he began to unfold it.
“Your own backpack. They left me a few spares, so you can fill it up with as much food as we need. I’m not going to be the only pack horse on this trip.”
“I have pockets.”
“They won’t hold that much fruit. From the sound of it we may need a couple of days worth. We don’t know how far the fire spread, or if we’ll find enough fruit we can eat as we explore. But you can carry a lot of fruit in a pack like this.”
“I don’t know how it works.”
“Big baby, I’ll show you how to put it on.”
Char stood patiently as Taylor fitted his backpack and showed him how to adjust the straps. “It’ll feel different when it’s loaded, but to help you get used to it…” Taylor opened up her backpack and transferred most of the contents of her backpack into his while standing on the sleeping platform.
“You put everything into my pack,” frowned Char.
“You need to get used to it before we load it up with fruit,” said Taylor.
“You mean it will get heavier?”
Taylor shook her head. “Big guy like you, that shouldn’t be a problem. I’ll take my stuff back when we start collecting fruit.”
Char frowned and pushed a thumb under the strap on his left shoulder. Taylor adjusted the strap for him, then compared it to the right side. “You see? Nicely balanced, you Illiya like that kind of thing. Now, we’re ready to go.”
Char nodded, wriggling his shoulders under the unfamiliar load.
Taylor put on her backpack, picked up her walking stick and opened the door to the moonlit sky. “After you.”
Char sighed and stepped out into the darkened clearing.