Taylor sat between Char and Samook at the head of the long table, waiting for the Aarden to arrive. Besides the seven Elders, Daax and themselves, eleven chairs sat empty around the table, waiting for the Aarden. Taylor had checked on the Aarden’s progress with her wrist communicator before she came into the long house, and Kaz-ur had indicated they would be just a bit longer. Part of the breakfast tradition was that the Aarden had a light protein snack on the way, so they might enjoy the taste treats of their hosts, but still have their hunger sated.
“Just a few more minutes, Kral,” said Taylor as she checked the time on her wrist communicator.
“We are fine to wait. I am more concerned about you. You may begin if you like, I understand you may be hungrier than you used to be.” said Kral.
Taylor shook her head. “I had a piece of fruit before. I’ll be fine to wait. I don’t want to be rude.”
Kral nodded and looked to Taylor’s left. “You are looking well, Samook. I understand you may be ready to select a mate soon?”
Samook glanced sideways at Taylor.
“What? It wasn’t a secret, was it? I’m happy for you.”
Samook looked down at her empty plate. “It is not that. I am nervous. I do not know if I am ready.”
Taylor put a hand on Samook’s hairy arm. “When you’re ready, you’ll be ready, and not before then. You don’t have to choose until you want to even if somebody else says you’re ready to.”
Samook looked up at Taylor. “Thank you, spirit-mother.”
Taylor shrugged. “Like Kaz-ur said-”
“The dream-seer will have a long line of willing males trying for her claw,” said a deep voice from behind them. “And she need not choose any of them if she does not want to.”
Samook turned to look at Kaz-ur, eyes glistening. “Thank you, Kaz-ur.”
Kaz-ur took the seat next to Samook and gave her a broken-toothed smile. “The choice will always be yours. None may choose for you, not even I. But I am happy to advise on this if you so wish it. It is a big decision.”
Samook watched as the remaining ten Aarden took a seat around the table. The long Elder hut suddenly seemed very crowded indeed.
“Greetings, Kaz-ur,” rumbled Kral. “Kotahitanga.”
“Greetings to you, Kral-Elder, kotahitanga. I trust you are well?”
“Fit as a tree,” smiled Kral. “And more wrinkled every day. But recent events have helped to keep me young in spirit. I am not yet ready to return to Aeden like Hap-sook, may he rest well.”
“Highest on the gateway,” Kaz-ur nodded as he greeted the other six elders in turn.
Shortly, plates of sun-baked flat bread and jams were put in front of everyone seated at the table. Most had a small selection of jams, but Kaz-ur’s plate had a large single dollop of Karm jam. “Thank you, Kral,” he grinned.
“Our pleasure, Kaz-ur. Enjoy.”
There was quiet conversation as they ate their way through a few courses, ending with a small seed cake at the end.
“This is new,” commented Taylor as she bit into the small sticky square.
“Do you approve?” asked Kral.
Taylor nodded. “It’s delicious, and very sweet. What fruit is it made with?”
The Elder named Kale spoke. “It is not fruit. It comes from insects.”
“Insects? But you don’t…” began Taylor.
Kale laughed. “No, it is not made from crushed insects. It is a byproduct of their efforts, taken from-” he formed the shape of a large ball in his hands.
“A bee hive? This is honey?”
Kale looked at Kral. “We do not know these words. It is a partially digested excretion from their collection of pollen from various plants.”
“It tastes good,” grinned Taylor. “Just like honey. Do you have any more?”
Kale looked at Taylor. “I am sorry, no. Skeelar is still recovering. This was the first time we tried collecting this much at once. If you like it, we can collect more for another time. But it results in great pain. The insects were unwilling for us to remove it.”
“You mean he got stung. Oh, my! There has to be a better way to do that. People have collected honey from bees on earth for many thousands of years, and they figured out how not to get stung. I could look it up-” Taylor’s cheeks coloured.
“What is the matter?” asked Kral.
“Uh… I can’t ask. The invaders disabled our satellites. Sorry, Kale, but I think it has to do something with smoke, and wearing thick clothes and gloves, or something. The bees aren’t thrilled about it, so you’ll need some kind of protection next time. From whatever kind of insects make this.”
Kale nodded. “We will figure something out. The taste is very pleasant.”
“That it is,” nodded Taylor. “Thank you, Kale.”
“It was tasty, but the seeds are stuck in my teeth,” said Kaz-ur. “Now, I believe you called us together to discuss helping Aeden in some effort, spirit-mother?”
Taylor nodded and stood up. She turned slowly to acknowledge everyone seated at the table. “Thanks for coming, everyone. Now, you remember all of those silver blocks of forest the invaders took away up into space?”
They all nodded.
“Well, Aeden told me in a dream that he wants them back. He is… uh, working with other spirits in the stars to bring them close, but he needs help with the final part,” said Taylor, speaking carefully. She was walking a fine line.
“What part does Aeden need help with?” asked Kaz-ur.
“Bringing them home safely. They could drop from the sky, but they would hurt Aeden even more. So we need to help bring the silver cubes down to the surface slowly. Then we can release the forest and animals from inside, safely.”
“How will we do this?” asked Kaz-ur.
“With the lander. They used them to take the cubes up to space, so we just need to bring them back down, when Aeden’s… friends… put them back in orbit. Who wants to help?”
They all looked at Taylor with blank expressions.
Taylor looked around the room, hoping for a response.
Finally one of the young Aarden spoke up. “Can we breathe? The sky is dark at night, will we be able to see the silver blocks? How will we find them? How will we bring them into the lander? How-”
Taylor raised a hand and smiled. “There are a lot of details, and I’ll need to train you – show you what you need to do. You’ll need to learn to wear space suits, for those that they fit. Some may fit a few Illiya, but most of them will better fit the Aarden. You can breathe in the suits, and you would need to wear them outside the lander, to load the silver cubes. There are a selection of suits in the lander we captured, so we will have to see who fits them. But the first question is – do you want to help?”
Taylor waited as they nodded, one by one.
Taylor smiled. “Great. Now let’s see who fits the suits, and we can start planning.”
Kaz-ur raised a claw. “Taylor.”
“Yes?” Taylor turned to face Kaz-ur. He wasn’t smiling.
“Uh – what is it?”
“You said before that this would require… dedication. There were many landers taking our forests. We have only one. How much… dedication will be needed? How long might it take to restore the silver cubes to Aeden, and release all the animals and sections of forest?”
Taylor took a deep breath. “Um…”
She looked around at the expectant faces. “It will take quite a while, actually.”
“How long, Taylor spirit-mother? We do not say no, we all wish to help Aeden who gives us life and saved us all. We know this must be a large task. How long might this take, so that we may prepare ourselves?”
Taylor swallowed. “A hundred years, maybe more.”
Kaz-ur nodded slowly. “Four lifetimes of an Aarden.”
Taylor winced. “I’m sorry.”
Kaz-ur waved a hand. “It is a problem.”
Taylor looked down at the table. “I know, I’m sorry, it’s too much to ask.”
Kaz-ur shook his head. “No. We will do this, but the honoured gateway will grow very large before this task is complete. You honour us, Taylor spirit-mother, with this opportunity to help Aeden. We accept.”
“The Illiya accept also,” rumbled Kral. “Many more will become Urm from this effort.”
Taylor bowed her head, suddenly overcome. Juveniles not yet born would spend their lives committed to this task, and it all started right here. These former enemies were again united to help Aeden, but to heal the planet instead of fight a common enemy. She wiped away a tear. “Thank you. I know Aeden will be pleased.”
A shout of “Kotahitanga!” resounded in the crowded Elder’s hut.
Taylor smiled as she listened to a small voice only she could hear. “So you were right, Taylor. They do love me.”
Taylor nodded as another tear escaped her left eye. “When everybody’s ready, we can head out to the lander.”
One by one, they got up from the table and filed out of the room behind Taylor.
A dozen Aarden and a dozen Illiya gathered together at the site of the lander. The walk had taken several hours, as the five hundred metre-long lander took up quite a bit of space and the nearby Asook grove needed to get sunlight for the next growth cycle. An area with shorter trees and bushes had finally been selected, and they had parked the lander there until they needed it. Taylor touched a control on a landing leg and the wide ramp opened, lowering slowly to touch the dirt and broken trees beneath. They followed Taylor up into the lander, which still held half a dozen silver stasis cubes in the cavernous cargo bay. These would be handy for practising what they would be doing for the next hundred years or so, but they had others to work with once they had finished with these ones. Taylor had witnessed thousands of the silver stasis cubes scattered across the surface as the landers carrying them had been destroyed by the orbital weapons platform hidden inside the smaller moon, but most of those were half-buried, and they would be lucky to find any of them upright. But one challenge at a time.
“I’ll need to show you how things work, but some of it we’ll have to work out together. There should be manuals for everything, accessible through the on-board computers.”
“Ah, Taylor? Spirit-mother?” a young Aarden raised a claw.
“Faseem,” said the Aarden. “I am Faseem.”
“What is a computer?”
“Uh… I’m not sure how I can explain that in simple terms. It’s kind of like the brain of the ship, but it’s artificial.”
“What are manuals?”
“Uh, instruction books, written out to say how things work, or how to use them.”
“Do the books talk?”
“Uh… I don’t know. I usually just read them.”
“What is read?”
Taylor’s shoulders drooped. “This might take a lot longer than I thought. You don’t have any written language, do you?”
They all shook their heads.
“Uh, and these will all be in Standard. So, let’s hope the manuals can talk. If that’s the case you can take your time learning to read, and I should be able to help with that. But otherwise you’ll just have to remember what I show you…”
“The Illiya do not forget, if you teach us, we will teach many,” said Sax, who had been their best sharp-shooter during the invasion. He and Kaz-ur had been instrumental in the capture of the lander.
“Ok, that’s a plan. But pictures will be helpful too, we might get lucky with that. So, let’s get started. Over here are the lockers where the suits are kept. Some are for surface engagement, others are for use in space for EVAs – that’s extra vehicular activities, but some can be used for both, like the armoured suits. Don’t mix them up. We’ll try them on shortly, but first, the tour. Over here is the kitchen, and the lavatories – you’ll need instruction on those, you can’t go just anywhere in here. We’ll need to train about a third of you as pilots, so everybody gets experience doing different things. And here in the main cargo deck is where we’ll have the stasis cubes. Each of them is managed by a stasis controller, up top on one side. The same type of controller that Sax so expertly shot out, allowing us to capture this lander…”
Several Illiya and Aarden patted Sax on the back.
“… But no shooting in here. We need to be more elegant. Now, if there was a way to get up higher…”
“We have captured many skimmers. Would they be useful?” asked another Aarden.
Taylor smacked her forehead. “Of course those would work. Good thinking. Now, the stasis cubes must have built-in anti-grav units, so once you get them into the landers with the suits and you are back down here close to the ground, you should be able to switch them on… oh, here we go,” she pressed a shallow indentation on the round ball forming a bottom corner of the nearest stasis cube.
The stasis cube lifted several centimetres into the air. Taylor gave it a gentle push, and it drifted slowly towards the door. She pressed the button again, and the cube settled back down onto the floor.
“Just like that. So we can put them more or less where they came from. We can line up the lander with the cut out gouges, then nudge the blocks into place, then have someone on a skimmer floating up top to switch off the stasis field when everyone is clear. It won’t be perfect, but it will be a much softer landing than falling from the sky.”
Kaz-ur looked up at the huge silver cubes. “This idea may work. It will be good to return what was lost to Aeden. You will teach us more, we will practice, then we will begin as soon as we are able. However…”
“What?” asked Taylor.
Kaz-ur frowned. “We will need a place to keep the lander, and we will need to grow huts nearby. There will need to be those who collect food, and support the lander teams.”
“So there will need to be another village?”
“Yes. With both Illiya and Aarden.”
“Uh… will that be okay?” Taylor looked around the group.
The Illiya and Aarden looked at each other. “We will make it work,” said Kaz-ur.
“We will also,” said Sax. “If I may ask, could I lead the Illiya in this?”
Taylor looked at the small crowd. “Of course, if Kral is okay with it…”
Sax nodded. “We can confirm this with him if you like, spirit-mother. But this will be a new village, with a new leader. This does not require his consent, but if you would prefer someone else…?”
“Ah… no! That’s fine, you’ll be great. And from the Aarden side, did you have a leader in mind-?” she looked at Kaz-ur.
“Me,” said a voice.
Taylor looked on with surprise as Samook pushed her way through the crowd of taller Aarden and Illiya. “I would like to do this.”
Taylor looked at Kaz-ur, then at Samook. “Are you sure? Is that okay?”
Kaz-ur smiled. “The dream seer may do as she wishes. She can lead, she has demonstrated this well. Aarden, will you follow her?”
Ten Aarden growled in unison and raised a claw in salute.
“Good,” said Kaz-ur. “Our dream-seer has greatly matured, she is ready to select a mate at any time. But only when she is ready.”
“I have already selected a mate,” said Samook. “If he will have me.”
Kaz-ur turned slowly to look at the small female Aarden. “Already? You are certain? You do not need assistance, any discussion?”
Samook nodded. “I am certain. If he will have me, then it will be done. But if not, then I may take a long time to decide. As you said yourself, they must prove their worth.”
“Of course,” nodded Kaz-ur. “Any male would be honoured to have you as their mate.”
“I hope so, but I am uncertain in this.”
“You should have more confidence in yourself, Samook.”
“I am very nervous.”
“Who is this potential mate that makes you so nervous, that you think he may not also choose you? Is he here?”
In response Samook walked over to Sax and held out her hand.
The crowd fell still, eyes wide at this unexpected exchange.
“Will you have me? We have fought together, you are honourable and brave. I hope I may be sufficient to the task of being your mate. Do you accept?” Samook held her hand higher.
Sax looked down at Samook, barely two thirds his height, looking up at him with hope in her eyes.
Taylor could feel her heart pounding in her chest as she held her breath.
Sax slowly brought up his hand and took Samook’s small furred claw in his larger green hand. “I accept. I hope I am worthy of you, Samook dream-seer.”
“Well, c-congratulations,” Kaz-ur stammered. “That was most unexpected, but well met. A mate has been chosen and accepted.”
Taylor found Char’s hand and squeezed it.
“You seem to have started a trend,” whispered Char.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” Taylor’s eyes shone with tears. “Congratulations, Samook and Sax.”
Sax swept Samook up into his arms and beamed.
Taylor walked over to Samook and whispered softly in her ear as Sax cradled her against his chest. “I thought you said your mate would have lots of hair.”
Samook whispered back. “It is what is inside that counts. Hair isn’t everything.”
Taylor grinned and shook her head. “All the best to you both.”
“So what happens next? Is there some special ceremony?” Taylor asked as she sat in the shade of the lander with Char.
“That was the ceremony,” said Char. “They are now mated.”
“I’m glad I was there to see it,” sighed Taylor. “Simple, but beautiful.”
“No need for anything more complicated.”
“I would like to give Samook some flowers,” said Taylor as she pushed herself up off the ground and brushed her hands off on her legs.
Char looked up at her. “Why? We do not eat flowers.”
Taylor shook her head. “Just because they’re pretty. You don’t eat them. They’re just a symbol for special events, like… selecting a mate, getting married, but also birthdays sometimes, funerals, lots of things.”
“That is good,” grunted Char as he got up off the ground. “None of the flowers are edible. I will help you choose some, so you don’t die from touching the wrong pretty flowers.”
“Thanks Char,” smiled Taylor as she took his hand.
“How many flowers do you need?”
“About a dozen or so.”
Char looked at her and paled. “How many?”
Taylor held up his hand, “Two hands, six fingers each, that many.”
“I know what a dozen is,” said Char. “It is just that it might take some time.”
“Because,” sighed Char, “as soon as you pick one flower, all others in sight will hide.”
“Oh,” said Taylor.
“Yes,” sighed Char. “We will be gone for a long time.”
“Well, it’s a beautiful day. We’re going to bring Aeden’s forests back, Samook has a mate, the sun is shining, it’s a wonderful day for a stroll with my mate, and the father-to-be of our children. I’d enjoy a nice long walk with you.”
“Then we had better get started, the day is only so long,” sighed Char.
“That’s okay,” said Taylor. “We can stay out all night if we need to.”
“Because,” Taylor squeezed his hand. “I said they could use our hut, you know, for their first night or two as a couple. Apparently Samook is really looking forward to it. Sax doesn’t have a hut yet, seeing as he only got mated today and they need to choose a location for the village. The lab is bare, though they can make that their home until they can grow a hut. But they should be comfortable tonight at least, don’t you think?”
“What? On our sleeping platform? But-?”
Taylor smiled. “It won’t be the first time she’s slept on our bed. When you were healing, it was better than being on the ground. But I’m sure she’ll clean up any hairs.”
“No, that’s fine, but-”
“Look, Char, we’ll find a nice spot by a creek or something, out under the stars. As an added incentive you can play with my hair.”
“I do look forward to that…” sighed Char.
“…all of my hairs. It’s a warm night after many warm nights. Actually, it might be a little stuffy in our hut.”
Char squeezed her hand. “We may need more than a dozen flowers.”
“That’s what I was thinking,” grinned Taylor. “It could take days.”
The conversation was forced and stilted as the newly mated couple walked together through the forest towards Taylor’s village.
“The weather is pleasant this afternoon,” Samook remarked.
“It is. Not too warm.”
“It was nice of Taylor and Char to offer us their hut.”
Sax nodded slowly. “Very nice.”
Samook looked at the ground, watching their feet as they walked along. Her small, hairy, clawed feet, and his, large, green and hairless. “Look, Sax, if you don’t think-”
Samook felt a hand settle onto her shoulder, warm, solid and very, very green.
She hesitantly put her claw on top of his hand. “Perhaps I was rash, maybe I should have-”
“Shh,” Sax slowed and pulled her towards him. Her muzzle reached the bottom of his ribcage. She was afraid to look up.
Samook closed her eyes and felt the first sting of tears welling up.
A gentle but firm hand lifted her chin up. “Samook, why won’t you look at me?”
Samook swallowed and slowly opened her eyes, tears dampening her fur. “I am afraid.”
Sax smiled, his eyes glistening. “You need not be afraid.”
“And yet I am.”
Sax lowered himself down to sit cross-legged on the ground. Now he looked up at Samook. “Please tell me what bothers you. I am here for you, always.”
Samook sighed. “I am afraid that I pushed you into this, Sax. In front of all, I… I did this to you.”
Sax smiled. “Is that all?”
Samook shook her head. “No. I am afraid… afraid that you felt you had to accept.”
Sax took her claw and drew her into his lap so that she faced him, nose to nose. “No-one can tell me who to take as my mate, Samook, not even the spirit-mother. Not Daax, not Kral, not even Aeden. I get to choose this, and I chose. Unless you have changed your mind?”
“What?” Samook blinked. “I have not… I would not change my mind in this. But I feared…”
Sax cradled her muzzle in his hands. “I choose you, Samook, and I shall say it as many times as necessary until you believe me. As much as you chose me, I also choose you.”
Samook sniffed. “You speak truly in this?”
“Yes, Samook. The time we spent fighting the invaders, getting to know each other, and for me to begin to know the Aarden through you, how could I choose another?”
Samook closed her eyes. “I will still eat meat, Sax.”
“And I will point out the fattest Nak and Sploor for you to eat.”
Samook opened her eyes in time to catch his smile. “Surely not that.”
Sax laughed. “Perhaps not, but I will not object to you in this. They say Char has tried meat, who is to say I will not some day?”
Samook’s eyes went wide. “You do not have to do this, Sax. I would never ask that of you.”
Sax pressed briefly his nose and forehead against hers in Hapath, then pulled his head back to look into her eyes. “I know. Things are changing, Samook. We are yet another sign of this. The Illiya fear a return of the old ways from the Aarden. What message do you think we send regarding this?”
“Female Aarden have never eaten Illiya, Sax.”
“Then I will sleep with both eyes closed.”
“You slept well enough when we were fighting the invaders.”
“You see? I already came to trust you then.”
“Is trust enough?”
Sax shook his head. “Trust is a foundation, but respect, admiration, even love have their place in this.”
“Love?” Samook breathed.
“Yes, love. My feelings for you are strong, Samook, and they do not tell me to run away.”
“Aarden are faster,” smiled Samook.
“I would let you catch me, to let you believe it was so,” winked Sax. “You have already captured my heart.”
Samook leaned into his chest, inhaling his scent. “Only one?”
Sax ran his fingers through her mane, from her head down to her waist. “One of my hearts, you already have. For the other, you must race me and win.”
“You said you would let me win.”
“I said this, yes.”
“Then must we race?”
Sax rested his cheek against hers and inhaled the slight musky scent of her fur. “With every breath I let out, we race, and with every breath I take you catch me again.”
“Then I have both of your hearts now?”
“You do. But what of yours?”
“Aarden have but one. It is yours, Sax, for everyday that we live.”
“It will have to do,” Sax breathed into her hair.
“What? An Aarden heart is worth as much as both of-”
Sax pressed his lips against hers, mouth to muzzle. Samook looked into Sax’s twinkling eyes.
“That was…” Sax began.
“Interesting,” sighed Samook.
“I was going to say nice, but interesting will do,” Sax smiled uncertainly.
Samook drew her head back. “We have time to figure things out, Sax. Some things will simply be… different, as Aarden and Illiya are different.”
“It will be interesting.”
“Very interesting, I hope,” Samook smiled.
“I look forward to the day the first Aarden male takes a female Illiya as his mate. Now that will be interesting.”
“You think this might happen?”
Sax shrugged. “The impossible is now possible, so who is to say? In time, I think it must be this way.”
“What if others don’t like this, Aarden and Illiya together?”
“Then they will need to adjust. I will not change my hearts based on what others say.”
“But what if they don’t adjust?”
“We are leading by example. What better way to say Kotahitanga than to have a mated Illiyan-Aarden pair, the first of many?”
Samook put her arms around Sax’s neck. “I say first things first, and one step at a time. We have the use of Taylor’s hut for two nights. What do you say to that?”
Sax untied a knot at his waist. “I say that it is a long walk, and I’m not sure I can wait.”
“It is a long walk…”
“A long walk might be tiring, even with your double hearts.”
“We are in no hurry to get there, and the weather is pleasant.”
“The hut may be too warm,” Samook smiled.
“I was thinking this as well.”
Samook pulled herself close, staring deep into Sax’s eyes as she moved his belt aside and made herself comfortable. “This could work.”
Sax gasped, then smiled. “This could work very well.”
“Oh!” Samook exclaimed.
“What? Are you all right?”
Samook smiled as she traced a hairy claw over his chest, triggering another trail of shimmering rainbows. “I’m more than all right. But I never knew you could do that.”
Sax smiled as he adjusted her position in his lap. “We have much to explore together.”
“Yes, we… do. Now… shhhhh. Do more of… that. Yesss…”