Take a deep breath…
Taylor propped herself up on an elbow and smiled at her mate. She traced a finger gently along the small ridge on his bare green head, triggering a faint rainbow shimmer across his skin. “Lots of stuff. I can only tell you some of it, because my father died when I was ten. Then I lived with my grandparents and they took care of me, though that’s not quite the same. You’ll figure it out when the time comes, I guess.”
“I am nervous,” said Char. “How can I be a… good father, if I don’t know what to do?” his green cheeks turned a light shade of pink, showing his unease.
“I’m sure you’ll do fine. You care about people, and you do have other Illiya who care for the juveniles, right? Like Daax and Freya, for example.”
Char grimaced, revealing white, blunt teeth. “But you will not bear juveniles. Like an… an animal, your litter will be born small, defenceless.”
Taylor poked Char in the ribs. “I’ll try and ignore that. Humans have babies, not litters. Usually just one at a time, although in this case I’m having twins. But yes, the babies will be small, and we will need to take care of them for a long time as they grow.”
“I will defend 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 about 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 about sixteen Earth years, or 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, Kral’s around one-thirty. 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 would 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 anymore, or at least not for a long time. Illiya might be able to live longer now.”
Char blinked. “So I may live to see the babies grow to be adults, able 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 be letting Char live, above any of the other Illiya. Aeden had promised that Char would be able to live as long as she would – which was 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 technically the third highest ranked Xathen in the galaxy even though she was actually a hybrid… it was a lot to wrap her head around, especially as she had never met a Xathen before.
“You are lost in your thoughts again, Taylor. Do you worry also?”
Taylor blinked. “Um, no, I’m fine. But don’t worry too much, just enjoy each day as it comes, okay?”
“I will do that,” Char wiped his eyes. “But what about the other meat-eaters?”
“Smudge will keep them away, nothing will want to mess with her.”
Char swallowed. “I almost forgot she is a Vaseth, so yes, that is true. But what if she accidentally bites one of the babies, or scratches them?”
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, Char. Smudge will protect us, and the babies too.”
“Did you have a dream about this?”
Taylor paused, then continued tracing her hair along his skin. “You could say that. I am still the spirit-mother, remember? The one who woke Aeden up. The babies will be fine, I promise. No Aarden, Vaseth or other meat eater will harm our family.”
Char frowned. “Much could happen. They could be killed by vines while climbing, 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 they’ll grow nice and slow, so you’ll have plenty of time to adapt to their developmental stages. They say that parenting is keeping one step ahead of your children, but it’s a new experience for every human parent. You’ll be fine. Humans don’t have access to Urm to download memories, so they all end up starting from scratch, just like us.”
“That does not make me feel less worried.”
Taylor smiled. “It’s fine. Nobody’s going to eat our children, and we’ll figure out the parenting thing together.”
“It will take some time to believe the Aarden will not go back to their old ways, Taylor. When we fought alongside them, it was different, but now that they have gone home we don’t know what they are doing.”
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, Char. I agree that being separated can cause problems, but remember how Samook lived with us, and it was fine. Actually, I miss her a lot and it would be nice if she was here for the birth. I’m going to need some female help.”
“Of course she is welcome, and Illiya will be happy to help, but they will not know what to do,” said Char. “How long until the… birth?”
Taylor looked up at the green leafy branches that formed the roof of their living hut. “About another seven months, I think. Pregnancy takes about nine Earth months for humans. It will be at least another thirty days until I start to show.”
“Plenty of time, then. Do not worry. But Aarden also do not have babies, and she is a juvenile, just over a year old. She will not know what to do either. Why do you need her?”
Taylor sighed. “Call it a girl thing. I don’t know if she can help or not, but I want her here, and I trust her. Really, what I want is for my mother to be here, but with the wrecked satellites, there’s no way to get in touch with her. She hoped they might be able to convince the administration to let her come back in about a year despite the quarantine, but who knows? At best she might get here sometime after the babies are born, but of course she doesn’t even know I’m pregnant, let alone that we almost got wiped out by invaders.”
“Do you think she will come back?”
“I hope so. I miss her, now more than ever. I’m a little frightened, Char.”
Char squeezed her hand. “You will be a good mother, I think.”
Taylor frowned. “How do you know that? I don’t even know what a good mother is supposed to do. Susan was barely home after I turned six, she was away for months at a time. Grandma was great after Dad died, but still, not the same. And I was pretty messed up for a few years, so I don’t know what normal should be like there either. I just know that Grandma worried a lot.”
“You just said that my being concerned will make a good father, that it will be okay. So perhaps do not worry. We will learn together,” said Char as he kissed her fingers.
“The blind leading the blind,” sighed Taylor. “No strong parenting models at all to work from.”
“Incorrect,” said Char.
Taylor looked at Char with surprise. “What do you know, Char? The first crew didn’t have any kids here for the Illiya to observe, or did they?”
Char shook his head. “No, there were no previous human children. I was thinking about Heather. She would have had a mother and a father as well. She would remember.”
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, Char, remember? I mean I really like her and she’s been helpful, 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? It was plain crazy, but if I hadn’t done it, I could have died!”
“I sleep well knowing Smudge is guarding the door. If any invaders remain and were ever to come across our village, she could give them a little scratch.”
“And then eat them alive and paralysed as they watched her do it, no thanks, Char,” she pulled her fingers through her hair. “At least not at our front door. If she wanted to eat them, she’d have to do it elsewhere. You’d have to help drag them away so she could eat them in the forest.”
Char paled. “I could not do this, Illiya are protectors of life…”
“She would just be protecting us, Char, but you’re right. Smudge might be protective of her kill, and she might bite you by mistake. If she has to eat, we’ll just have to wait until she’s done.”
“Perhaps Smudge should-”
Taylor leaned over and gave Char another kiss. She dragged her soft hair across his chest and was rewarded with a flowing rainbow of colour as he shivered with pleasure. “Don’t worry. Not likely to happen. And I’m kidding. I wouldn’t let her eat them. I’d want to question them.”
Char’s colour returned to a solid green. “Good. Because I was worried that-”
“…and then let her eat them somewhere else.”
Char swallowed. “You are… still angry.”
Taylor nodded. “At all of them, especially Calvin. They wrecked a lot of the planet, and nearly killed us all. Don’t tell me you forgive them for what they did?”
Char shook his head. “No. I also feel… anger. But Calvin is… the father.”
Taylor bit her lip. “It’s not your fault. We both thought he was a good guy, but that couldn’t have been further from the truth.”
“But don’t you-”
“I don’t want to mention him again. He’s dead, and good riddance. In every way that counts, you’ll be the father.”
“Whatever that really means,” sighed Char.
Taylor put a hand to his cheek and kissed him, long and slow. “You’ll be fine. Now go to sleep.”
Taylor gently closed the door of the hut as she stepped out into the darkness. Thousands of stars were out, pinholes in the sky that warmed other planets, other lifeforms 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, long ago. The war had ended before she was born, so in many ways it didn’t really matter. But in the end, of course, it made all the difference.
There had been many wars, thousands, possibly millions of land-based wars and skirmishes in the long histories of the hundred planets of the Commonwealth that spread across the Orion Spur. There had been a few interplanetary spats between the species of different worlds in the early days, but those had been short-lived. Things had soon settled down into a steady exchange of trade in goods and knowledge. In fact, the last six or seven hundred years had been relatively quiet as species met, introduced themselves, and got about the business of growing the Commonwealth and sharing and exchanging in profitable trade.
The early days had been challenging. With new-found species all having some level of DNA snippets in common with the discovering species, there came the problem of communicable diseases across worlds. No-one knew why that was the case, although amino acids were commonly found in comets, asteroids and other interstellar drifters. These periodically impacted planets, so some scientists theorised that there had been wide-spread seeding at some point from some common interstellar source. However, Taylor now knew the truth – all of the civilised worlds in the Commonwealth had been engineered with modified lifeforms millions of years ago, using Xathen DNA as a common base template as part of an experiment that had been running for over two billion Earth years.
But no matter the source, common DNA posed a problem and as a result, safe zones had been constructed for conducting trade around spaceports, and vaccines developed for those involved in the interactions. But with each new world and their thousands of evolving variations of viruses and bacteria, it was a constant challenge just to keep up and immunise the few who were allowed in the safe zones, let alone entire populations. Quite a few of them died from the vaccinations themselves, which did not bode well for the future of interstellar trade. Millions died from the Rigellan flu because of a break in quarantine protocols. But then a group of scientists – very, very clever ones – developed the nanos. The self-replicating, multi-species-adaptive, genotype-locked nanotonic phages, or S.R.M.S.A.G.L.N.P’s were the salvation of the Commonwealth. Inoculations and production of the nanos were cheap, and once in the host body and activated, the nanos would protect the integrity of the genome and supporting micro-biota that formed a living person, defending against all invaders.
Of course, that posed potential problems with reproduction, as all ‘foreign’ DNA was seen as a threat, but that had been anticipated, and the ability to suspend nano activity in the sexual organs and then adapt themselves to accept the new growing bundle of DNA in the mother was built in to the design, needing only minor external interventions that were readily available. Females of any species could therefore choose when they wanted to have children, and that also helped with limiting the population growth as suddenly most species found that they were living longer, healthier, more productive lives.
Yes, the nanos were a godsend, but they didn’t work everywhere…
Taylor wriggled her bare toes in the dew-covered grass. Smudge lifted her head to look up at Taylor, then lay down her head and went back to sleep.
No, they didn’t work everywhere. The environment on Aeden suppressed the nanos somehow, and they had become dormant in half the crew when they ate the local fruit. Carla had been darted during first contact, and it took two months in quarantine after they left the planet before Carla was finally cleared and her nanos were again functional. It was a pretty big deal. The planet was quarantined after that, and her mother’s ship had been denied permission to come back to Aeden.
Then the invaders had come, posed as researchers from Ganymede University, in support of the quarantine study of the planet, but instead they had nearly killed everything on the planet after stealing large swaths of forest to grow black-market biological exotics.
A lot had happened in the six Earth months since she had first arrived on this planet. The planet was now scarred with long linear gouges cut out of the surface, nearly ten thousand square kilometres of them, spread out all over the planet. She had begun to lose count of how many times she had nearly died, but now things were looking up.
And she was pregnant, most likely to Calvin, but also possibly to Char, as impossible as that seemed. It should simply be impossible with her being born on Earth, and Char emerging from a leafy pod on a strange planet nestled in the Perseus Transit, on the edge of Xathen space.
But the Xathen were responsible for it all, so it kind of made sense.
Aeden was a barrier world protecting the Xathen from their experiments in the Orion Spur, one of nearly five hundred such planets. The Xathen regularly monitored their experiments, their identities concealed, and occasionally, had unsanctioned interactions with the experiments themselves, and Taylor was proof of that – a Human/Xathen hybrid. But then, most of the experimental races in the Spur had nearly seventy percent pure Xathen signature DNA. This was only measured against a hundred and fifty thousand base pairs in the nearly three billion most species in the Commonwealth carried, but it was a part of the set that often overlapped between species. The reason for this was that the Xathen had long ago found the source of intelligence and self-awareness, deep in their own DNA, but had never seen it repeated in the whole of the Milky Way galaxy in nearly four billion years – Xathen standard years, of course, which were 2.172 Earth years long. After three billion years of waiting, the Xathen tired of being the only intelligent species in the galaxy and began experiments to develop other sentient species that might one day serve as companions to the Xathen.
There was lots of stuff that went with that – it explained why the nanos were needed, it explained why Taylor was somehow a hybrid with a very high command level, but in the end, there was only one thing that really mattered to Taylor at the moment.
And through all that, and as a result of billions of years of Xathen activity, there was a small 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 of course she couldn’t talk to Char about any of 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 other creature in the Commonwealth for that matter. Secrets that could cost the lives of all of the citizens on a hundred worlds, were they ever to be revealed…
“Am I interrupting anything?” said a little bald man as he walked out from beside 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 currently controlled all of the barrier worlds, each 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 trillions of lives had been extinguished, all traces of their societies erased, and the experiment had started over again.
No, she couldn’t tell anyone, and one little slip…
Taylor took a deep breath.
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 at the moment, 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 now 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 just yet.”
Taylor nodded. “Thanks for the update. But 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. At this point I need them to remain primitive. 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 partly blind in many areas.”
“It is very distracting. However, it would be good to try and recover the lost sections of my skin. They can’t be reintegrated quickly of course, but I don’t like the idea of 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 could 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 little bit helps.”
“But they would come down hard, Aeden, and probably wreck more of your surface.”
“I could just land them in the oceans…”
“And then you would lose the animals as well. If the stasis fields released – because some day they would, the power cells in the controllers would eventually fail – then they would just wake up to drown at the bottom of the sea. It would be horrible.”
“I think you are too sentimental,” said Aeden. “ I need to consider the options…”
“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 just use the lander to retrieve them from orbit? We could bring them down a few at a time, push them out at a very 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.”
Aeden tilted his head. “An elegant solution, but it will take a considerable amount of time. You only have the one lander, and all of 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…”
Taylor shook her head. “They had over a thousand of them, and more than a thousand landers. You destroyed all of them except one, because we were in it. Which was fine, you saved us all. Thank you again.”
“You’re welcome,” Aeden nodded. “But 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 am able to 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 were able to make ten trips a day, twenty cubes each, which is optimistic, by the way, that would take them… thirty one thousand, two hundred and fifty days,” said Aeden. “Almost a hundred local years.”
“I’ll still be around,” said Taylor. “As long as the power lasts on the lander, 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. I very much doubt-”
Taylor put her 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 actively 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 that 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 do this. I will shepherd the stasis cubes back into orbit, not too many at a time, so they can be retrieved. 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. 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 probably 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 just 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 a bit too tedious when I got here. Their lives were a bit too simple.”
“Actually, you have caused quite a bit of trouble since your arrival,” frowned Aeden.
Taylor sighed. “Yeah, I know and I’m sorry about that. 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 do 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. If we start developing the 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 will need to consult…”
“Who? Consult who?” asked Taylor. “I thought I was in charge.”
“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 we just 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 perfectly 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 slightly. “Then what-?”
Taylor walked over and gave him a hug, then took a step back.
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 a bit 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 fond of 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. Besides, it’s going to be a busy day tomorrow.”
“What do you have planned?”
“Nothing,” grinned Taylor. “I’m going to sleep in, talk Char into getting me breakfast in bed, and take it easy. And then 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.
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