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Excerpt for Intercession: Taylor Neeran Chronicles #3 by , available in its entirety at Smashwords




INTERCESSION


Taylor Neeran Chronicles

Book 3


J J Mathews



Copyright © 2019 J J Mathews

All rights reserved.


ISBN-13: 978-0995103450

First published in 2019

Mouse Moon Press

Hamilton 3200, New Zealand

www.mousemoonpress.com








No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the copyright owner and the publisher.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.












Cover artwork by Rafael Silva
Space background by geralt (CC0)

Dedication


For my wife Lorna, who encouraged me to write Science Fiction...


...and who had to wait for me to publish six other books before I started writing Illiya.


Commonwealth space

Original image source: NASA

Timeline

Commonwealth-Xathen timeline


AD 1969 Humanity’s first manned landing on Earth’s moon

AD 2012 Curiosity landing on Mars

AD 2036 First manned human landing on Mars

AD 2374 Humans encounter the Zelani

AD 2382 Earth joins the Commonwealth of planets

AD 2549 Ganymede University founded; sixteen Commonwealth species attending

AD 3352 Commonwealth now includes 100 inhabited planets

AD 3354 First Commonwealth ship encounters the Xathen in the Perseus Arm

AD 3355 Excelsior begins survey of planet XJ546GV2-M-2, disappears

AD 3355 Commonwealth-Xathen war begins; planetary surveys paused

AD 3455 Commonwealth-Xathen war ends; borderlines drawn

AD 3480 Planetary surveys and Commonwealth expansion resume

AD 3485 Zanzibar commissioned to complete survey of planet XJ546GV2-M-2 (“Aeden”)

AD 3485 Taylor Neeran sentenced to remain on Aeden forever

AD 3485 Aeden is quarantined

AD 3485 Aeden is invaded, forests stripped, but invaders destroyed



Contents

Watcher

PART I

Take a deep breath...

What once was here

Plan of action

Best laid plans

Chat with a planet

Visitors

Complications

Lost time

Time alone

Strayer

Oversight

Perspective

Domestic affairs

Birds and bees

Messenger

Overdue visit

PART II

From the frying pan...

Responsibility

Repercussions

Visitor

Baby talk

Arrival

Family matters

Identification

Baby time

Confrontation

Escalation

Sentencing

Old friends

Behind the mirror

Endings and beginnings

Enjoy this book? Make a difference!

Acknowlegements

A note on Heather

Icarus

Characters

Aeden's flora and fauna

Te Reo Māori terms

Illiyan songs and dictionary

About the Author

Other books in the Taylor Neeran Chronicles


Watcher

A girl and her pet

A pale, slender hand rose to meet a narrow chin in the darkness. A soft tinkling could be heard as the owner of the hand leaned in towards the bright image hovering above a low, flat table. The tinkling stilled and was replaced by the sound of slow, confident breathing as the watcher studied the image.

A girl, nothing extraordinary about her at all, walked through a peaceful forest glade with her pet. A few moments later, another figure walked out from behind a tree. Male, short, bald and in a tidy grey one-piece uniform with spotless black shoes. In contrast, the girl herself was grubby, bare-footed and her clothes were badly in need of repair. Still, she seemed happy enough. Well-fed, lean but not too thin, well-muscled but not overly so. Long, brown hair, clear, brown eyes. Scars along her right arm, pale against sun-darkened skin, but no other disfigurements. She seemed content and not bothered by the length of the teeth of her pet. Protection, perhaps, but her pet was likewise undisturbed by the appearance of the bald man. Familiars, one might surmise of this peculiar trio.

Nothing particularly remarkable about the scene, except for the fact that this stripling of a girl was currently in control of the most destructive force in the galaxy. Her pet, one of the deadliest creatures on the surface of the planet on which she so casually stood. And the unassuming bald man was at her command, representing the control system for barrier world three-seven-two, and through him, she controlled four hundred and ninety-eight other such weapons of mass destruction, each with the ability to extinguish five stars and their associated planetary systems.

No, this was anything but unremarkable. Even though everything about her conveyed a sense of ease, of youth, of... innocence, perhaps. And yet she had come out of nowhere to become First of Threes. Very troubling. Questions were being asked, as yet unanswered.

Perfectly shaped black eyebrows met in a frown above a pair of olive-green eyes as the scene unfolded. The watcher sat for several minutes, absorbing the silent scene.

When the small bald man disappeared in the blink of an eye, the pale hand separated from the chin. Two slender fingers made a flicking, twisting motion, and the scene swiftly played backwards. A single finger rose and the scene stopped, then resumed playing once more. A third finger twitched, and the conversation became audible for the fourteenth time.

The stripling smiled in greeting. “Hello, Aeden.”

Pale fingers twitched, and the scene froze.


Innocence could be simulated, intentions masked.


The pale hand returned to the narrow chin. Continued surveillance was indeed warranted, the watcher’s sources were correct in that regard. A motion from the other hand plunged the room into darkness as the image of the girl was replaced with a swirling image of the galaxy.


One bright yellow symbol in a long chain of chartreuse pearls.


One too many. They should all be a pleasant, satisfying green, with no traces of yellow at all.


With a flick of the wrist, the galaxy disappeared, and the lone seated figure contemplated the darkness in silence.


Who was this Taylor Alice Neeran?


PART I




Take a deep breath...

Family planning

“So what does a father do?” Char frowned.

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.”

“But she-”

Taylor withdrew her hand and held it close to her chest. “Not a good idea. Not for this.”

“Why not?”

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.”


Sleepless

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 Neeran of Earth could be a level Three Xathen hybrid, but there was only one thing that really mattered to her at the moment.


As a result of a billion years of Xathen meddling, there was an outside chance that the babies she carried 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 ever should.

“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 intentionally 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.”

Loose ends

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 well-being 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.”

“I’m sorry.”

“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 the associated 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 just 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 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-”

“Love.”

“-what?”

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 could 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’re 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’d 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.


What once was here

Recovering the cubes

After a good, long lie-in and breakfast in bed, Taylor sat up and pushed away the blanket. She looked over at the computer that her mother had left behind, sitting on top of a stack of crates. It had done nothing but collect dust since the invaders destroyed the communication satellites. It was as useless as the augmented reality glasses and the haptic gloves that sat folded neatly beside it. For once she was glad that her mother hadn’t allowed her to get the AR implants like the other students. They were useful in many lines of work, but they could also become addictive, and she knew a few students who had practically lost the ability to distinguish between real life and the virtual additions surrounding them, keeping their implants active 24/7. Many of those wore full haptic suits, so they could feel everything going on around them in their augmented surroundings. The suits provided a range of sensations by triggering nerve endings - hot, cold and simulated pressure. It was nothing like touching something with your own skin though.

But right now, it was all just a tidy pile of useless junk. There were no satellites, no more homework, no way to finish her degree. She hoped that Calvin had transmitted her completed exam back to the university, but it probably didn’t matter. She didn’t have any use for extra-solar studies or deep space sciences. Aeden said she was free to leave if she wanted to - if she had a ship, that is. The hidden warships were off-limits until a system purge or planetary reset was in progress, and she didn’t want that to happen. Nowhere to go, and no-one to call.

Well... technically Aeden told her he could get her in contact with anyone she wanted, but he couldn’t replace the missing satellites. It would create a lot of questions if anyone ever found out she was communicating without them. Eventually somebody would come back to check on her, and find the satellites missing or in ruins. Questions might eventually lead to the planet’s true purpose, and a full reset of the systems in the experimental zone could follow swiftly. No, it was safer to remain out of contact, although she desperately wanted to talk to her mother.

Taylor stood up and stretched. Time to go have a chat with Kral.


Smudge trailed along behind Taylor as she emerged from the forest into the Elder village. Directly ahead of her stood a long platform with seven chairs, crafted entirely from interwoven living trees. Her eyes flicked to the centre chair. Kral’s chair, where the Voice of the Elders sat in court with the rest of the Elders to decide on important matters.

Taylor’s first introduction to the Elders was at her trial, but she had been intoxicated from consuming local fruit and remembered very little of it. Since then, most of her meetings with the Elders had been held in the long, low hut on the left side of the platform. The Elders had progressed from initially viewing Taylor with distaste to something closer to fondness and affection, but her helping to save the world probably had something to do with that... even though she had also been the root cause of that near-disaster. Balance had been met.

Taylor paused at the bottom of the steps. Smudge looked up at her, ears perked.

“Stay here.”

Smudge lay down beside the step and promptly began chewing on a piece of grass. Taylor walked up the steps and knocked on the living door.

She didn’t have to wait long for Kral to open the door.

“Good day, Taylor, have you eaten?”

Taylor smiled. “Yes, thanks, I had breakfast in bed a little while ago. I’m taking it easy today.”

Kral raised an eyebrow. “Breakfast-in-bed?

Taylor smiled. “A human custom. Something we do on special occasions, especially for mothers or fathers, or partners who need a little extra attention.”

Is this a special day? Did I miss something? Your... birthday... was not so many moons ago, it could not be this. What is it?”

“I’m going to be a mother,” smiled Taylor.

Kral shrugged his wrinkled green shoulders. “We know this already.”

Taylor grinned. “Yeah, well, today is another day where I’m going to be a mum, and so far nobody is trying to kill us. I think that’s something worth celebrating, don’t you?”

Kral looked Taylor up and down. “I suppose. But if I recall, aren’t human special events normally limited to a single day, or a short series of days?”

Taylor nodded and winked conspiratorially. “That’s right, but don’t tell Char that. I plan to have him serve me breakfast in bed a lot.”

Kral smiled. “I will keep your secret. But there must be something else you wanted to talk with me about, other than to tell me you are making your poor mate work hard for you.”

Taylor took a deep breath. “Well, now that you mention it, I wanted to talk about the Aarden.”

“We have not seen the Aarden for some time,” said Kral. “Now that the crisis is over, I worry they may... go back to their old ways.”

“You’re not the only one who’s worried about that, even though I don’t think they’ll be eating any Illiya anytime soon. I’ve been thinking about what we can do to help with that, and regular communication is a key part of it.”

“Meaning-?”

“Meaning that I believe Kaz-ur is particularly fond of your sun-baked flat bread and Karm jam. I think it’s time for them to come back for a visit, don’t you? Then we can have a nice breakfast and talk about the future.”

Kral pondered this, his hands moving distractedly in front of him. “Agreed. I will contact Kaz-ur by the wrist-talker and arrange this. Unless you wanted to take the flyer and get them here sooner?”

Taylor shook her head. “I think we will need about ten or twelve Aarden for this meeting, and the flyer only holds five.”

“Why that many?”

Taylor shook her head. “I’d like to save that until we’re all together, but it’s important that we talk.”

Kral frowned. “You make me curious, spirit-mother. Do we face another danger?”

“No, it’s just something I’ve been thinking about, to help Aeden.”

“Ah,” nodded Kral. “Still trying to restore the balance?”

“I’ve got a lot to make up for.”

“You have done enough. We are alive, and thankful.”

Taylor sighed. “Well, I wish I could do more, and maybe I can.”

Kral raised an eyebrow. “Are you going to tell me what this is about?”

Taylor opened her mouth to speak, then shook her head. “It’s best to wait.”

Kral nodded. “As you wish, spirit-mother. We will trust you in this.”

Taylor bowed. “Thank you, Kral. I’m looking forward to seeing Samook again.”

“Why don’t you go see her then?”

“They’ll be coming here soon, after you invite them.”

“It takes the Aarden nearly two days to walk here. You could spend more time with her if you went to her village and brought her back in the flyer. You could also invite the Aarden to come here when you visit them, or you could call them on your wrist-talker.”

Taylor blinked. “Ah. I could do that, but I like the idea of the Illiya and Aarden working together, and not just when the world needs saving. It’s good to get to know your neighbours, now that they’re not eating you. If I asked them, they might see it as an order from the spirit-mother or something. I would prefer they see it as a friendly invitation from a kindly neighbour.”

Kral swallowed. “You have a point. Familiarity and regular contact could prevent... reversion to prior activities.”

“That’s the idea,” smiled Taylor as she walked down off the steps onto the grass. “But I like your suggestion of going to pick up Samook.”

“When shall I tell them you will arrive?” asked Kral.

Taylor paused, thinking. “Well, I have a foot-rub booked in this afternoon with an Illiya who has particularly talented thumbs... let’s say around dinner-time. I hate to do this, Kral, but seeing as you’ll be the one calling them... could you please ask them to cook me some Nak?”

Kral shivered at the mention of eating meat. “I will do as you request, spirit-mother, and I will invite our neighbours for a social meal and discussion. Is there anything else?”

Taylor grinned. “No, that’s it. And I wanted to thank you for everything. It’s a beautiful day.”

“Everything? Including keeping you here forever?”

Taylor took a deep breath. “Yeah, I guess for that too. Things are working out okay.”

Kral nodded. “I am glad to hear it. We enjoy having you in the village, Taylor. It can be... entertaining, and instructive.”

“And having the spirit-mother living next door could be an advantage.”

That sounds... cheeky... however, you are correct. We have had more than the normal number of visitors, which is good for sharing news. And many are interested in you.”

“If there’s anything I can do to help, just let me know. Thanks for your time.”

Kral sighed. “You are welcome. Now please stay out of trouble.”

“I’ll do my best,” waved Taylor and walked back towards her hut, whistling as she walked. Smudge’s ears twitched at the out of tune notes as she followed along behind.

Baby talk

“Taylor, what are human babies really like?” asked Char as they walked together through the forest. Smudge walked along beside them, her dark striped Vaseth fur blending into the shadows of the trees, except for the swirls of muted colours on her front half that had earned her the name from Taylor.

You have a lot of questions,” smiled Taylor. “And all on the same general topic. I thought you were supposed to be my teacher. If you ask so many questions, how am I supposed to learn?”

Char looked at her and frowned. “I am sorry, Taylor. Did you have anything you wanted to know?”

Taylor smiled. “Not today. But you’re obsessed with this whole baby thing, especially for a guy. Most human males don’t take that much of an interest, except for getting the ball rolling, that is.”

Char took Taylor’s hand. “I want to learn. I do not want to... make mistakes. What if I hurt them? What if I teach the wrong things?”

Taylor pulled her hand away and placed it on his bare green chest. Illiya wore practically no clothes, summer or winter, just a basic pocket-loincloth arrangement around their waist. They were also completely hairless, leaving the chromatophores in their skin fully exposed and making them extremely effective chameleons when needed. It also helped to explain Char’s ongoing interest in her hair.

Taylor smiled.“You’ll be fine. Don’t worry, you’ll make mistakes, and I will too. But somehow kids mostly end up okay. I mean, look at me, I was pretty messed up after Dad died, but I turned out all right, I think.”

“You seem more... rational than Heather,” Char stroked her hair, tracing a finger from the top of her head to her waist.

Taylor frowned. “Some comparison.”

“But you act rashly, get upset, you like to eat meat...”

“Okay, compared to most Illiya I suppose I am pretty strange.”

“But I love you anyway.”

“I love you too, and don’t worry, you’ll be fine. Stop stressing, or you might make the babies stressed.”

Char’s eyes went wide. “This can happen? I do not want to do this. What do I do? What do I not do? Help me, Taylor!”

Taylor looked up at Char. “Just relax. If you stress me out, then that might affect the babies, but just a little, I think. They’re pretty resilient. But if you want to help, there are a few things you can do.”

“How may I help?” asked Char.

“Foot rubs are good, when the baby starts to grow, I will get sore feet, especially near the end when I’m supporting more weight,” Taylor rubbed her forehead. “Oh, and back rubs, those are good anytime, I should have told you that earlier. Stuff like that.”

“I can do that,” Char smiled.

“And when I can’t see my feet, you may need to tie my shoes.”

Char looked at Taylor’s bare feet, confused. “You do not wear shoes anymore.”

“No, but I might want to. The hiking boots have a good supporting insole. You may need to learn to tie shoes.”

“Is that all I need to know?”

Taylor shook her head. “No, there’s probably a hundred other things, although we’ll make some stuff up as we go along. But you wanted to know what babies were like, right?”

Char nodded eagerly. “You said the babies will be small when they come out, but how tall will they be?”

Not tall, long,” Taylor held her hands a short distance apart. “They’re measured in length until they’re able to walk, then you measure them in height.”

“And it takes almost a year for this to happen, while animals walk much sooner. Do animals on Earth take a long time to learn to walk, too?”

Taylor shook her head. “Most of them learn to walk shortly after birth, like here.”

Char’s forehead creased in confusion. “Then why do humans take so long?”

Taylor shrugged. “It’s a compromise in the design. Having a bigger brain means it takes longer for them to develop and become self-sufficient compared to most animals. Even so, human babies have large heads when they’re born, then the rest of the body catches up.”

“That sounds... unpleasant.”

“Uh, actually, babies can be pretty ugly to start with, wrinkled up all over. But they grow quickly, get cute, and then the fun begins.”

“Fun?”

“Teaching them, feeding them, changing diapers...”

“What are diapers?”

Taylor explained, then Char made a face. “I will have to do that?”

Taylor nodded. “And they throw up on you, and pee on you, and keep you up at night, crying and hungry...”

Char shook his head with disgust. “Why do you have such things? It sounds horrible!”

Taylor shrugged. “It’s just the way things are. When they become adults, the cycle starts again. They say it’s a worthwhile experience with the good and bad, stress and sorrow, lots of sleepless nights, but fun stuff happens too.”

Char shook his head. “No wonder Aeden births juveniles. So much work, such a long time to develop...”

Taylor stretched up on her tip toes to give Char a kiss. “Just part of being a parent. But don’t worry, you’ll be a great father.”

Char sighed and stared off into the forest. Taylor enjoyed half an hour of silence as they walked on through the forest, Smudge weaving between the trees behind them, looking for something to eat.

“Did I tell you what a beautiful day this is?” Taylor smiled as they approached the village.

Char nodded. “A few times.”

“Yeah, maybe I have. But you know the best part?”

“Nobody is trying to kill us today?”

“Well, there is that. But no, the best part is getting to spend time with you.”

Char looked at her with concern. “Have you been eating strong fruit? You seem more... happy than usual.”

Taylor shook her head. “No, I’m just happy. Pregnant females can sometimes have mood swings, the hormones get pretty active when you’re growing a baby from what I've heard. Today, I’m happy, but there are lots of reasons for that, so who knows. I think you should just enjoy it. Tomorrow I might be grumpy.”

“If you say so...”

“I do. Now, I’ll race you to that tree, then you can give me that foot rub.”

It's what I really, really want

“That was wonderful,” grinned Taylor as she walked to the flyer with Char, adjusting the leather cord around his neck that bore a single Vaseth ear, marking him as a friend of the Aarden. She rubbed at her neck where the stiff hairs of a red Haplander ear prickled her skin. It was one of many that now hung on her leather cord. Two ears she had cut off a Vaseth that she had killed, but the rest of the ears had been gifts from the Aarden. Every Illiya and Aarden on the planet now knew who she was, but Taylor felt it was respectful to wear the cord. It also served as a reminder of their shared bond in saving the planet.

“I enjoyed it as well. You have such fine hairs on the top of your feet,” nodded Char. “But now my hands are sore.”

Taylor put a hand on his cheek. “I love you Char, you’re so good to me.”

Char leaned his head into her hand. “I want you to be happy.”

“I want you to be happy too, Char. You were really nice about the breakfast in bed thing, and the foot rub was amazing. But I want to be nice to you too, this isn’t all about me. What can I do that’s nice for you? Pick your favourite fruit? Get you some jam? I could learn how to make it, just say the word. Being a couple works both ways.”

They entered the flyer and Taylor walked up to the pilot seat and sat down, Smudge taking her place on the floor behind Taylor. Char sat in the copilot seat, hunching down to avoid the low ceiling at the front. Char leaned over and whispered into Taylor’s ear.

What? You’re kidding. You want to do that, for me to be nice to you?”

Char nodded.

Taylor sighed. “Well, that wasn’t what I meant, but okay.”

Taylor closed the doors and lifted off, then headed towards the Aarden village.

Char put a hand on her leg. “Fly slow.”

Taylor sighed and pulled back on the throttle controls, then engaged the auto pilot.

“You’re sure about this?” Taylor turned her seat towards Char.

“I am,” said Char. “It makes me happy.”

“Fine,” Taylor sighed and turned her chair away from Char. “Go ahead.”

Char smiled as he drew his fingers through her hair and began to braid it, weaving a complex pattern with the two thumbs and four fingers on each hand.

Just so you know, I’m really enjoying this, but it’s supposed to be about you.”

“Shh,” said Char. “I like your hair. This makes me happy and relaxed.”

“You’re weird,” sighed Taylor as they flew slowly, ever so slowly, towards the Aarden village, Char braiding, un-braiding and then re-braiding her hair all the way.

Old friends

Samook was waiting in the small enclosure when they landed. Kaz-ur walked through the opening in the wall and came up to greet them. The smile he gave with his tapered, hairy dog-like head revealed a broken tooth.

“Welcome, brother in fire,” Kaz-ur growled.

Char nodded, acknowledging the reference to Kaz-ur’s own brief roasting to remind him that not all meat is for eating. A lot had changed since the invasion, but would it be enough to counteract millions of years of Aarden playing the role of hunter and Illiya as prey? Taylor hoped it would be the case.

Char stepped forward and embraced Kaz-ur. “It is good to see you. I trust your scars heal well?”

Kaz-ur waited until Char let him go before he inspected Char’s back. “Almost as good as yours, my friend, but I still have bare spots where the hair has not grown back. It will continue to be a reminder to respect Fusen-ra meat. Come, we have picked fruit for you.”

Char held out a small woven bag full of fruit. “We brought something for you as well.”

Kaz-ur stuck his twitching nose near the top of the woven bag. “Do I smell... Karm?”

Char nodded. “I know you like the jam from this fruit.”

Kaz-ur grinned, his sharp teeth visible, but Char no longer reacted to the display. “I do, but it does not grow well in the mountains. It is a... treat, that I very much appreciate you bringing. Thank you, Char.”

“Kral is preparing extra jam for your visit.”

Kaz-ur nodded. “I look forward to this, and he mentioned there is something you wish to speak about. But why should we not talk now? You are here.”

Taylor shook her head. “This is a discussion for both Aarden and Illiya. It involves helping Aeden, who helped us.”

Kaz-ur nodded. “We will wait for the full story if you wish, spirit-mother. And Kral has requested that ten Aarden come down for our visit. That is a lot of bread and jam.”

Taylor grinned. “Plus yourself and Samook, so an even dozen. I’m sure they’ll make enough food.”

Kaz-ur looked closely at Taylor. “So full of secrets, I can see them in your eyes. But we will help, I could refuse you not. Are we needed to fight?”

Taylor shook her head. “No. Just to help Aeden, but it will require... dedication.”

Kaz-ur curled his lip.“We are very dedicated to Aeden and Fusen-ra. Now, how have you been?”

“The morning sickness hasn’t been nearly as bad as I thought it would be.”

Kaz-ur narrowed his furry eyebrows. “You have been unwell?”

Taylor shook her head. “Not really. Increased hormone levels during early pregnancy can make you feel ill, or even throw up. I’ve only had a few days like that, so I count myself lucky. Some pregnant mothers have trouble holding food down. But I still have my queasy mornings.”

Kaz-ur glanced at Samook, then looked back at Taylor. “Fortunate for us this does not happen, then. It would be a waste of good meat.”

Taylor smiled. “Yes it would, and it’s not a lot of fun. But how are things going for you here?”

“Quiet since the invaders fell, but the village is half-empty. It will be a long wait until the next Asook cycle, and we hope that Aeden will be generous in providing us new juveniles. We have forbidden the hunt for Vaseth ears until then. Our numbers are already too low.”

Smudge looked up at Kaz-ur, licking her lips.

Kaz-ur reached out a hand to stroke her soft fur. “I speak not of you, of course. You are companion and protector of the Heesen-ra.”

Smudge licked his hand, lightly brushing the edge of a tooth along a finger. Kaz-ur shuddered, then looked up at Taylor. “She looks well.”

“She rarely leaves my side, unless I tell her to hunt. She hasn’t scratched anyone even once.”

“When she eventually dies...” began Kaz-ur.

“Uh... you want her for the honoured gateway?” asked Taylor.

Kaz-ur nodded. “If it does not trouble you, it would be a great honour for our tribe. She fought bravely with us.”

What about her ears?” Smudge gave Taylor a sharp look. Perhaps she understands a lot more than we think.

“Your decision, of course.”

“They stay on,” said Taylor, looking into Smudge’s soft brown eyes. The Vaseth sneezed. “It’s what she wants.”

Smudge licked his hand again. “Then it is settled. These are important matters best discussed in advance.”

Taylor scratched Smudge behind her ears, which triggered a deep purring sound. “I am sorry to hear about Hap-sook. I really liked him.”

Kaz-ur bowed his head. “He was very old, older than most Aarden ever get. It was almost like he was waiting for something, perhaps it was you.”

Taylor blushed. “Ah, I don’t think so. I was just lucky to meet him.”

Kaz-ur inclined his head. “There is much in this world that is unexplained. It may be that he waited for you, perhaps not, but you are the Heesen-ra, the spirit-mother, without a doubt. So I would like to believe this.”