Taylor propped herself up on an elbow and smiled at her mate. She gently traced a finger along the small ridge on his bare green head, triggering a faint rainbow shimmer across his skin. “Fathers do lots of stuff. They teach their children how to do things like play catch, tie their shoes and ride a bike… what?”
Char shook his head. “What is a… bike?”
Taylor smiled. “Well, some things won’t apply here. But there will be lots of things you can teach them, and it wasn’t an exhaustive list. You’ll need to spend a lot of time with them and guide them, help them grow up to be good people.”
“I am nervous,” said Char. “How can I be a… good father to human children? They are not Illiya, we do not know what is needed for your kind as they grow.” his green cheeks turned a light shade of pink, revealing his unease. “Perhaps if Calvin was still alive…”
Taylor gritted her teeth. “I don’t want you to mention his name again. He’s dead, and good riddance. In every way that counts, you’ll be the father. He was just a genetic donor.”
Char swallowed. “Of course, but a human father for a human child would be best, would it not? I might miss something important or do something wrong, and they might grow improperly.”
Taylor shook her head. “I’m sure you’ll do fine.”
Char grimaced, revealing white, blunt teeth. “My only experience has been with juveniles, but you will not bear juveniles. Like an… an animal, your litter will be born small and defenceless.”
Taylor poked Char in the ribs. “I’ll try to ignore that. Humans have babies, not litters, and the twins might be a bit smaller than if I was just having one baby.”
“And then they will grow.”
“Yes, but slowly. They’ll be dependent on us for quite a while. It can take close to a year for them to even be able to walk.”
“That is a very long time,” frowned Char. “Most animals on Aeden are able to walk in a handful of days after birth.”
Taylor shook her head. “It’s totally different with human babies. And even after they learn to walk, we’ll still need to take care of them.”
“I will protect them with my life,” Char looked at her earnestly. “For as many moons as it takes until they can defend themselves.”
“That’s great to hear, Char. Especially as it takes twenty Earth years to be a full-grown adult, that’s about… twenty four Aeden years. But you’d only need to defend them for the first twenty Aeden years. After that they’re pretty much adult sized, but still maturing.”
Char put his hand over his eyes. “Illiya rarely live that long, Taylor.”
“The Elders can get to be quite old. I’m sure that-” Taylor examined Char’s face. “Wait, are you crying, Char?”
Char lifted his hand away to reveal purple streaks on his cheeks. “Yes, I worry that-”
Taylor pulled herself across his chest and kissed him. “What could you be worried about?”
Char took a shuddering breath. “I worry that much could happen. I worry that I will die before they are even as big as an Illiyan juvenile. I worry that they will be easy prey for Vaseth, or even smaller creatures. And the Aarden-”
Taylor put a finger on his lips. “Shh. Things have changed, remember? The Aarden aren’t likely to want to eat Illiya for a long time. The Illiya might live a lot longer now.”
Char blinked. “So I may live to see the babies grow up to take care of themselves?”
Taylor smiled. “Yes, I’m pretty sure that’s a possibility.” She wasn’t about to tell him how long Aeden would let Char live, above any of the other Illiya. Aeden had promised that Char could live as long as she would, nearly two thousand Earth years, which still seemed impossible. But she couldn’t say anything to Char about any of that. She was the highest of the Threes, and the third highest ranked Xathen in the galaxy even though she was a hybrid… it was a lot to wrap her head around, especially as she had never knowingly met a Xathen.
“You are lost in your thoughts again, Taylor. Are you alright?”
Taylor blinked. “Um, I’m fine. But try not to worry too much about the Aarden, okay?”
“I will try,” Char wiped his eyes. “But what about the other meat-eaters?”
“Smudge will keep them away. Nothing will want to mess with a Vaseth.”
Char swallowed. “But what if Smudge accidentally bites or scratches one of the babies?”
Taylor smiled. “Then they’ll have an extra nap. I’m sure Smudge wouldn’t actually eat them.”
“How do you know?”
Taylor teased out a lock of hair and brushed it along Char’s chest, leaving a rainbow trail in its wake. “I just know. Smudge will protect us, and the babies too.”
“Did you have an Aeden dream about this?”
Taylor paused, then continued tracing her hair along his skin. “…Yes. The babies will be fine, I promise. No Aarden, Vaseth or other meat eater will harm our family.”
Char frowned. “Much could still happen. They could be eaten by vines while climbing trees, they could get too close to the Asook while playing, they could-”
Taylor laughed. “You’re already worrying about the right things. I think you’ll be a good dad, and like I said they’ll grow nice and slow, so you’ll have plenty of time to adapt to their developmental stages. They say parenting is keeping one step ahead of your children, but it’s a new experience for every human parent. You’ll be fine. Humans mostly end up starting from scratch, just like us.”
“That does not make me less worried.”
Taylor smiled. “It’s fine. Nothing will eat our children, and we’ll figure out the parenting thing together.”
“It will take time to believe the Aarden will not go back to their old ways, Taylor. We don’t know what they are doing now.”
Taylor twined her five fingers into his six, stroking his second thumb with her other hand. “All we need to do is to keep up communications with them. I agree that being separated can cause problems, so we should do something about that. I’ll talk to Kral about it in the morning and see if he’s up for visitors. It will be nice to see Kaz-ur and Samook again, anyway. I miss her a lot and it would be nice if she could be here when I deliver the babies.”
“She is welcome to be with us, of course,” Char blinked. “But how long is it until the… birth? Surely it cannot be so soon.”
“No,” Taylor smiled and looked up at the green leafy branches that formed the roof of their living hut. “It won’t be that fast. It’ll be another seven months or so, as gestation takes about nine Earth months for humans. I should be starting to show in another thirty days or so.”
“Plenty of time, then. But Aarden do not have babies, and she is a juvenile. She will not know what to do, so why do you need her?”
“Call it a girl thing. I don’t know if she can actually help or not, but I trust her. What I really want is for my mother to be here, but Samook’s the next best thing.”
“But you cannot ask your mother to come.”
Taylor sighed. “Not without the satellites, no.”
“Even if you could, there is still the… quarantine, yes?”
Taylor closed her eyes. “Look, it’s not realistic, but it’s what I want. I know it’s not likely to happen. Who knows when the quarantine will be over? The last thing Mum said was that they were going to keep trying to convince the administration to let them come back. She said it might take a year, but that was more hoping than anything else. At best she’ll get here after the babies are born, but she doesn’t even know I’m pregnant, or that the planet was nearly destroyed.”
“It will be a surprise for her.”
“More like a shock, I expect.”
Char squeezed her hand. “You will be a good mother, I think.”
Taylor frowned. “How do you know?”
“You will be the only talking animal who bears babies. Good or bad, there will be nothing to compare you to. So I say this… I think you will be a good mother, because you are a good person.”
“I don’t think it works that way, Char, and I’m far from perfect.”
“Do you then choose to be a bad mother?”
“Uh… no. I’ll try to be a good mother, that’s all I can promise.”
Char grinned. “That is all I ask, and you will let me know if I am being a good father?”
Taylor smirked. “I’ll certainly let you know if you’re not. But I feel like it will be the blind leading the blind. On Earth you just take it for granted that there will be family and friends around to provide advice and help with the children. Too much advice, I’ve heard. But here there won’t be any of that, and… I’m worried. We don’t have anyone else here with that kind of experience.”
“Incorrect,” said Char.
Taylor looked at Char with surprise. “What do you know, Char? The first crew didn’t have kids here for the Illiya to observe, or did they?”
Char shook his head. “There were no human children on Aeden before this. I was thinking about Heather. She would have had a mother and a father, friends also. She would remember, she could give… advice.”
Taylor’s smile faded. “No.”
Taylor withdrew her hand and held it close to her chest. “Not a good idea. Not for this.”
“She’s insane. I mean I like her, but after the fire… remember how she almost ended up killing me, twice? First with the message about the flyer, then how she told me to walk right up to those Vaseth?”
“She speaks with Aeden. You should trust her. She has not been wrong in her advice, cryptic as it may be.”
“Parenting will challenging enough without having to deal with more riddles.”
“It gives me comfort knowing she is there if we need her.”
Taylor sighed. “Fine. If we’re at our wits end and need to talk to the crazy tree about the children, we’ll see what she has to say. But I’ll think long and hard before doing anything she says, especially where the children are concerned.”
“As long as you are willing to talk to her.”
Taylor put a hand to his cheek and kissed him, long and slow. “Okay. Now enough talk about babies and advice and insane Urm. Right now, it’s just you and me. Let’s enjoy it before it gets too crowded in our hut.”
Char coughed. “May I…”
Taylor smiled. “You can play with my hair after. Now come over here, my brave Illiya.”
Taylor gently closed the door of the hut and stepped out into the darkness. Thousands of stars were out, pinholes in the sky that warmed other planets, other life forms living out their busy lives under the light of their suns. Earth’s sun wasn’t visible to the naked eye, but Taylor knew roughly where it was. She held up her right fist and placed it in front of the long bar of the Milky Way, at the heart of the galaxy. She held up her left hand and separated her thumb and forefinger about three thumb widths, then lined it up with the edge of the long bar and her fist. Somewhere along her fingernail was home – her old home, where she had been born on Earth twenty years ago and ten thousand light years away.
There had been a war, out amongst those stars. The war had ended before she was born, so in many ways it didn’t matter. But in the end, of course, it made all the difference.
Humankind had a long history of battles and wars, with a few that spanned the globe that gave them life and sustenance. However, humans were not unique amongst the hundred worlds of the Commonwealth in their periodic expressions of aggression. It was almost as if the fight to survive and evolve led inevitably to major conflicts, until either the dominant species outgrew such impulses, or they tore themselves apart. Survey crews had found remnants of several vanished species throughout the Orion Spur, archaeological remains of self-inflicted catastrophes that might have happened to any of the other thriving species of the Commonwealth, if they hadn’t survived a critical juncture in their own development.
Earth was still recovering from the mistakes of humanity’s past, but at least it was recovering. Changes had been made after it was almost too late, and collective energies had been applied to avoid self-extinction, along with saving countless species which would one day be re-introduced to the greening spaces of Earth, and not just on the outer colonies.
Survival was never certain, but at least the species in the Commonwealth had learned to get along. Yes, there had been a few inter-planetary spats, and there was enough suppressed aggression to maintain a standing space navy to keep order. The Commonwealth worlds had united to fend off the Xathen when expansion had gone a bit too far into the Perseus Arm. This event had triggered a hundred years of war trying to repel the Xathen, and then suddenly it was over, barely a dozen years before Taylor was born.
Hundreds of thousands had died on both sides, which was impressive enough considering that space warfare typically involved small numbers and high-powered weapons, and was rarely conducted within reach of a gravity well. It was long, drawn out, and terrifying to all those involved. It was a war like no other in all of the Commonwealth history – but it was a minor skirmish in the long history of the galaxy.
There had been another war, a civil war without equal long before that. Four billion Xathen standard years ago, the Xathen arose in the galaxy. They spent the next three billion years exploring it, looking in vain for signs of evolving intelligence, but never, ever interfered. When a group of Xathen tired of waiting and chose to break that edict, the repercussions rippled across the galaxy. Trillions of Xathen died, along with a number of suns – which accounted for most of the loss of life when their planetary systems perished. Impediments thus removed, the victors embraced their experiment while the tattered remains of the ‘non-interference’ movement left the galaxy entirely.
What experiment, one might ask – unless you were Xathen. The Commonwealth was the result of the latest cycle of experiments in the Orion Spur, where Taylor herself had been born. Worlds had been seeded with Xathen DNA, carrying the spark of intelligence itself, and that explained a lot of things. It explained why diseases could be transmitted between species that had evolved light-years apart, which had necessitated the development of the nanos – the self-replicating, multi-species-adaptive, genotype-locked nanotonic phages, or S.R.M.S.A.G.L.N.P’s that were the salvation of interstellar trade in the Commonwealth. Once in the host body and activated, the nanos protected the integrity of the genome and supporting micro-biota that formed a living person, defending against all invaders.
Commonwealth scientists had developed several theories regarding how this commonality of DNA structures might have occurred. One theory was based around amino acid chains that were often found in comets, asteroids and other interstellar drifters. These periodically impacted planets, so some scientists theorised that there had been a widespread random dispersal from some common interstellar source long ago. However, Taylor now knew the truth was far more purposeful and direct, and had happened more than once.
This fascinating history also explained why Taylor of Earth could be a level Three hybrid, but there was only one thing that really mattered to Taylor at the moment.
As a result of a billion Earth-years of Xathen meddling, there was an outside chance that the babies might be Char’s instead of Calvin’s. Some days, that was the only thing that got her out of bed in the morning, but she couldn’t talk to Char about it. Taylor had secrets, lots of secrets, because she now knew a lot more about the Xathen and the Orion Spur than any human, or any non-Xathen creature in the Commonwealth for that matter.
“Am I interrupting anything?” said a little bald man as he walked out from behind her hut.
Taylor turned and smiled. He was only as tall as her shoulder, but he was an advanced solid holographic projection representing the controlling entity for this barrier world and the small brown moon – the mouse moon – and now he served her. Well, technically she controlled all of the barrier worlds, each of them designed to quell any particularly unruly elements in the Experimental Zone… There was a lot she couldn’t tell anyone, ever, or it could all come to a crashing end and the experiment would be reset. If the experimental races were ever to find out, well… it had happened once before, they had reacted badly and the Xathen had extinguished billions upon billions of lives, all traces of their societies erased, and the experiment had started all over again.
She couldn’t even tell Char, as the planet’s true purpose was purposely concealed from his peaceful, primitive people. They wouldn’t react well to finding out they were soldiers purpose-built for some future genocide, just waiting to be activated.
No, she couldn’t tell anyone, and one little slip…
Taylor took a deep breath. “Hello, Aeden.”
Taylor looked at Aeden and tilted her head, asking a silent question.
“They are all asleep already. Why are you awake?” Aeden asked.
Taylor gazed up the stars. “I’m worried.”
“Worried about what?”
Taylor sighed. “All of it. Being responsible for the barrier worlds, holding them on standby. I’m about to be a mother, and I’m the only human here. What if there are complications? What if I died? The barrier worlds would activate and reset everything.”
“You could release them, but with your recent registration at the Xathen central genetic library there is a level of concern at suddenly having a new high Three. There is also an unusual level of Xathen activity near several of the barrier worlds, so I would not recommend releasing them yet.”
Taylor nodded. “Thanks for the update. But lots of things can happen during pregnancy.”
Aeden put a hand on her shoulder. “I will take care of you. I have considerable resources, some of which can be deployed without raising too many questions with the Illiya. But if there are complications, your wellbeing will come first. I will just tidy up later.”
“Thanks Aeden, I know things are messed up enough for you as it is. How are you recovering from the invasion?”
Aeden rubbed his shoulder. “The scars on my surface itch, and they have left me blind in many areas.”
“It is very distracting. However, it would be good to recover the lost sections of my skin. I don’t like them out in space, waiting to be discovered. I was hoping you would give me permission to retrieve them?”
“How would you do that?”
“I can send out probes to re-program the drone trains to return the stasis cubes to orbit, then bring them down a few hundred at a time.”
“You mean crash them onto the planet.”
Aeden nodded. “Yes, but the stasis cubes would protect everything inside. They could be deactivated, and we could recover some of the fauna that was lost. Every bit helps.”
“But they would come down hard, Aeden, and wreck more of your surface.”
“I could just land them in the oceans…”
“And then you would lose the animals. If the stasis fields released – because some day they would, the power cells in the controllers would fail – then they would just wake up to drown at the bottom of the sea. It would be horrible.”
“You are being too sentimental. I need to consider the options and impacts…”
“I am the Caretaker, right? You said so yourself, and I care. Save the animals if you can, but don’t wreck more of your surface. And don’t drown anything, okay? Why don’t we use the lander to retrieve the cubes from orbit? We could bring them down a few at a time, push them out at a low altitude, close to where they came from, then turn off the stasis fields one at a time. The animals could walk away, and it could help fill the scars on your surface.”
Aeden tilted his head. “An elegant solution, but it will take a considerable amount of time. You only have the one lander, and all the reapers have been damaged or destroyed. Otherwise you could more easily replace the blocks back into my surface. But there are other aspects to consider, and such a method would be so slow…”
Taylor shook her head. “Let’s try it this way first. Besides, the Illiya and Aarden would probably enjoy the task, restoring the lost parts of you.”
“But it could take many, many years, there are over six million stasis cubes, if I can retrieve them all. Some will have already left the system and may be more difficult to recall.”
“Six million, two hundred and fifty thousand, more or less,” said Taylor. “Maybe a few thousand more.”
“If they made ten trips a day, twenty cubes each, which is optimistic, that would take them… thirty-one thousand, two hundred and fifty days,” said Aeden. “Almost a hundred local years.”
“I’ll still be around. As long as the lander keeps functioning, let’s do that. Because there’s something you’re not thinking about, Aeden.”
“And what is that, Taylor? Do you have something to teach me?” he smiled. “I am four hundred and fifty million Xathen standard years old, nearly a billion of your Earth years. I very much doubt-”
Taylor put a hand on Aeden’s shoulder. “They love you, Aeden. When I first got here, you were just some… concept, an ethereal being, an abstract deity of sorts, planet and moon, all involved with the life cycle of the Asook plants and the birth of the Illiya and Aarden. You gave them dreams, you cultivated that mythology. But all of that has changed.”
Aeden swallowed. “But I cannot afford to reset them, replace the existing stock, and have a new batch learn from scratch. I am too far damaged, source stocks depleted, and my current state of readiness requires…”
“Relax, Aeden. I don’t want, in fact, I forbid you to reset anything here. The planet is waking up, and not just you coming out of standby when I touched the right tree. The Illiya, the Aarden, they have all seen you act. You’re not just in their dreams anymore, Aeden, you are very much real. They may not have seen you as a person, like I do right now, but they see you as a real, caring, perhaps supernatural, entity who cares for his people. But they also see you bleed – they feel sorrow at the lost forests and animals, the damage to the planet. They needed you to save them, and now, I believe – no, I am certain they would very much like to repay that favour. Let them help you. Let a few of them dedicate their lives to helping restore you. What harm can it do?”
“I… I will consider this. I can shepherd the stasis cubes back into orbit, not too many at a time, so they can retrieve them in an orderly fashion. But what if they ask questions? They will wonder at the cubes returning to where the lander awaits. What would we say? I think we need to work this through before taking any action. There are many variables to consider, and the potential long-term effects…”
“They saw you destroy the main ship, the landers, and the reapers. They have lots of “how” questions, anyway. It’s not that far a stretch to come up with some excuse for how the cubes return home. Maybe they miss you and want to come back. There are lots of possible stories. But don’t worry about it, there will be lots of stories anyway. Besides, it was too tedious when I got here. Their lives were pretty simple.”
“Actually, you have caused quite a bit of trouble since your arrival,” frowned Aeden.
Taylor sighed. “Yes, but the stability is gone, Aeden. They’re no longer the same innocent, simple people carrying sticks and growing living chairs and huts and eating fruit. Their eyes have been opened, they are very intelligent, and you can’t reset them. So they need to start developing, and they’ll have lots of questions. Who knows, it’s high time they discovered the wheel, don’t you think?”
Aeden put a finger to his lips. “I will think about it. This is so far ahead of plan… and it is not how I anticipated it might happen. And I have to deal with the problem of low population numbers. The plant life is robust enough, but I need to restock the Illiya.”
“And the Aarden,” said Taylor. “Don’t play favourites.”
“But I won’t need them to cull for quite some time…”
“Maybe never. When we start developing their society, there may be a place for both, without one group eating the other every year or so.”
“This will take some thought, and I should consult-”
“Who? Consult who?” asked Taylor. “I thought I was in charge here.”
“There are two level Two’s above you, I might seek their opinion…”
Taylor shook her head. “That might bring them here, then who knows what would happen? Nothing good, I think. Can’t we handle this locally? Can you trust me?”
Aeden looked sternly at Taylor. “But you are just a-”
“First of the level Threes, Aeden. Third in the galaxy. Remember that, I may be a hybrid, but you registered me properly as a Xathen citizen. Did you want them to come check up on you? What if they find you defective? What happens then? Will they reset you?”
Aeden grew still. “Your order has been received, Taylor Neeran level Three. We will plan to retrieve the stasis cubes as you directed, although I would strongly recommend that you permit me to analyse the variables first. Also, I would like to discuss the next stages of development for this world with you, after considerable options analysis that I will share with you, for your decision. Will that suffice?”
Taylor nodded, suppressing a smile. Aeden going all formal probably meant he was annoyed – as annoyed as an artificial intelligence could be, anyway. But he would get over it. “That would be fine.”
Aeden gave a curt nod. “If there is anything else-?”
Taylor frowned. “Yes, there is.”
Aeden took a deep breath – or the appearance of it, anyway. His interaction routines were improving all the time. Initially he had smiled far too much. “What do you command, Taylor Neeran, First of Threes?”
Definitely annoyed. “Nothing.”
Aeden’s face relaxed. “Then what-?”
Taylor walked over and gave him a hug, then took a step back.
“What was that for?”
Taylor bowed, hands pressed together in front of her. “Thank you, Aeden, for saving our lives. And I will probably say it a few hundred more times, just so you don’t think it was an accident, especially as you seem to get annoyed too easily.”
Aeden’s mouth fell open. “I am sorry, Taylor, I was out of line, it’s just-”
“Fine, it’s fine, Aeden. We’ll sort it out, together. I need you. And what I said about the Illiya and Aarden loving you, I really believe that to be true. Because I love you too,” she smiled. “As much as anyone can love a planet, anyway.”
“I am developing a… fondness towards you, too, Taylor,” smiled Aeden. “As unruly, untamed, wild, unpredictable as you are, and even though you constantly seem to attract trouble…”
Taylor grinned. “Why thank you, Aeden, that’s very sweet. Now I think I’m going to go back to bed. A mum-to-be needs her sleep. It’s going to be a busy day tomorrow.”
“What do you have planned?”
“Nothing,” grinned Taylor. “I’m going to sleep in, get Char to bring me breakfast in bed, and then go talk to Kral for a bit. After that, I might go for a stroll and then have a nap.”
“Sounds like hard work,” winked Aeden.
“You have no idea,” smiled Taylor as she opened the door to her hut and walked inside.
Aeden watched the hut for several seconds, then looked up at the sky. He held up his right fist against the long bar of the galactic core, then spread his left thumb and forefinger apart, just so, then lined up his left hand beside his right. A small glimmer appeared on the fingernail of his forefinger, three quarters of the way down from the tip. “Right there,” he whispered. “Earth is right… there.” And then he vanished.