tagSci-Fi & FantasyArboreal 02: Reunions

Arboreal 02: Reunions

byLatenight_Pondering©

I apologize for the long delay between chapters, life gets in the way sometimes. As always, you might be able to get by if you haven't read the earlier series, but things will make more sense if you do. Those stories in order are:

Mapping Command: First Contact

Mapping Command: Diplomacy

Mapping Command: Rebellion

Mapping Command: Insurrection

Arboreal 01: Arrivals


*****

|1.0

Tia was sitting on her heels, her backpack sitting beside her. She looked up as Sonia came downstairs with a bundle in her hand.

"I thought you might like your boots," Sonia said. "Your pistol is in the left one."

Tia took the pistol out of the boot and emptied her pack again. She put the pistol in the bottom and everything else followed. Tia put her boots on and laced them up. Going barefoot had been fun but these were what she'd worn all of her adult life. Tia stood up and picked up the pack.

"I'm ready."

Sonia took the pair of bags she'd packed and put them crosswise over each shoulder. There was a small strap on each that she used to tie them down. Sonia looked around the large room once more. There was a tap on the door and a dark-haired woman came in. She was pretty but what grabbed Tia's attention were her bright blue eyes. Like the lady she'd seen the other day, the vivid color didn't look natural. Behind her, a short haired blonde woman stepped inside and Tia knew two things immediately; the two women were long term partners and the blonde woman was some sort of ex-mil.

"This is Mandy and Jolene," Sonia said.

Tia shook hands with both of them. The blonde woman, Jolene, was definitely some kind of military type. Mandy and Sonia went into the incubator room, talking about something technical and Tia glanced at Jolene's arm. She had a short sleeved shirt but there wasn't any tattoo there. Jolene smiled, seeing the look.

"I wasn't part of a strike unit. We're retired now, but Mandy used to have a pretty important position. I kept her, and everyone else, safe."

"Like the Ranger Wardens they used to have?"

Jolene nodded. "Yep. What about you?"

"Scout in the Fifth Rapid Response, I was a Chief Sergeant."

Jolene nodded and smiled. "Yeah, you've got that look. You're heading into the deep woods I hear."

"There's someone I'm supposed to meet and talk to."

She nodded. "Could you do me a solid on the way?"

Tia nodded and the woman handed her two small heavy stones. "You'll see a pile beside the creek, could you add these?"

"That's it?"

"Yep, I've been too lazy to walk out there myself."

Tia didn't think Jolene was the lazy type but she nodded and put them in her pack. Sonia and Mandy came back into the great room.

"The kids should be back by noon," Sonia said. "Call-root is in the usual spot if they're not. I don't suppose there's anything I could say to keep you from spoiling them rotten?"

"Of course not," Mandy said and Jolene laughed.

~~~~

Tia and Sonia walked back down the path, past the small landing areas and dome where Tia had arrived. Sonia walked past and soon they came out at the edge of a huge open space. There were a few dozen buildings down below them.

"Why don't the shuttles land out here?" Tia asked.

"The Anek aren't happy in large open spaces. If we hadn't moved the arrival area into the trees a little way, none of them would have anything to do with ship arrivals and we're supposed to be a partnership. See those buildings down there? That's the original settlement. If you look a little ways past that, pad, you can make out the old runway."

"Looks like it was a big one," Tia said.

"It was from the first wave, it had to be almost three kilometers long. Most of it is gone now, all but one of the buildings were taken apart when ships started using grav drive. Now it's all part of the distillery expansion."

"At least it was for a noble cause. What's that little pad for?"

"That's where our gyros take off and land. They're obsolete of course but there's a group of guys that keep them running for fun."

Tia looked at the flat strip running out across the open area and wondered what Eli would think about all that ribbon of plastcrete disappearing back into the soil.

"You look sad, what's wrong?"

Tia shrugged. "Just seems like everyone is forgetting the First Wave mappers and colonists. Mercy knows what kind of hell they had to endure to put those runways in and now they're just rotting away. Not just here, all of the human worlds."

"We might have some faults but forgetting our past isn't one of them," Sonia said. "Instead of trying to preserve miles of runway that no one needs anymore, there's a place that's half memorial, half museum. When we come back through, I'll show it to you."

Tia was a little embarrassed. "I'm sorry, I just met someone..."

"I didn't say that to shame you," Sonia said. "You're right, the Vanguard should never be forgotten. Anyway, we're headed through the settlement and then up that road on the far side. Good to keep going?"

"Feels good to stretch my legs," Tia said. "I just got out of the joint, you know."

"Ooh, really? What was it like? Was it awful? Did the warden abuse you?"

Tia laughed. "She stole my boots."

"That's awful, I'm sure you were starved and made to sleep on the floor too."

Tia laughed. "I still don't know if you did the right thing or not, but thank you."

Sonia touched her arm. "That will teach you to respect your elders."

"I'm pretty sure I'm a lot older than you are."

"Of course you are, dear."

They walked on through the settlement and Sonia explained that after the Anek had been contacted, most people had opted for moving into the shelter of the trees. "You think it's warm now, wait until summer comes. It's almost unbearable out here in the direct sun."

"Why is anything out here still?"

"The distillery over there uses a lot of passive and active solar heat and there's a couple of fabrication shops that need the space too. There was a contingent of sub-Saharan folks that showed up a while ago, they prefer it out here."

There weren't a lot of people moving around, though Tia did see them working in some of the open air workshops that sprawled under the large geodesic shade roofs. A few people waved when they saw Sonia. On the far side of the settlement, they followed a wide path up the long slope toward the far side of the clearing.

"We're headed for the place where the first meeting between the Anek and humans happened," Sonia said. "It's called the First Meeting and we'll meet our ride there at dawn tomorrow. Before I forget, you'll hear 'meeting' used a lot to describe Anek places. That little patch of forest we walked by in the settlement for example. That was named the Human Meeting while the first embassy established was called the Anek Meeting. In general, a meeting refers to a space that the Anek use to share their lives."

"That sounds like it could get confusing."

"It does. The Anek think it's hilarious when us humans talk about getting together to have a meeting but I'm not sure what makes it so funny. Anek humor can be a little opaque; the place I live is called the Eloisha Meeting by humans but most of the Anek collapse in laughter whenever they hear us say that."

"It's the Eloisha Meeting because they live there?"

"They're also born there. Those double doors lead to a room with incubators. Fertilized eggs are kept safe there until the eloisha emerge. It makes perfect sense to me to call it a Meeting since it's the place that most eloisha first meet humans. That's why some of them call me First Mother."

Tia kept herself from shuddering as she thought about being responsible for all those tiny fragile lives.

"They really bother you, don't they?"

"Not because I think they're grotesque," Tia said. "Just how tiny they are, all the ways they could get hurt..." Tia's voice choked off and she stopped to get control of her breathing.

Sonia put a gentle hand on her shoulder. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to cause distress."

"I just need to get over it," Tia said, swallowing.

Sonia didn't say anything else, just waited until Tia was ready to keep walking again. The path wound among the immense tree trunks but remained smooth and wide. Tia began to hear the sound of running water. Then she glimpsed a large river winding around and through the roots of trees. Another tree trunk blocked her view as they walked. Then the path went under a natural arch of roots and ended in a small grassy area next to a creek that joined the larger river a few dozen meters downstream.

"Here we are," Sonia said, looking around. "I love this place."

Tia took her pack off and looked around. The massive pillars of trees surrounded them on all sides, fading back into the mist they always seemed to have around them. A few rays of sun made it through the canopies but most of the light was filtered down through canopies and was tinged a golden green by the time it reached the floor.

"Are those birds?" Tia asked, pointing to some swooping dots.

"Not the way we think of them," Sonia said. "They're large arthropods that fulfill the same ecological role, roughly speaking. They're nothing to worry about. Come nightfall, we'll want to be high in the air though. There's another species that's airborne in the spring and early summer and they like the taste of human blood. Imagine mosquitoes the size of humming birds."

Tia frowned. "I've only heard about mosquitos and hummingbirds in school. Is that big?"

Sonia nodded. "Huge. And they're smart enough to be persistent. But they can't really fly, just jump and glide so they don't get any higher than a few meters. So we're sleeping up there."

Tia looked up at a bundle of sticks high overhead and swallowed. "That's really up there."

Sonia laughed. "Hardly anyone ever falls off. Wait, you don't sleepwalk, do you?"

"I hope not."

"Well, I'll keep you safe," Sonia promised. "Before it gets too late, do you want to swim? The water doesn't have anything that can hurt us up here. You don't want to swim in deep water though, most people steer clear of the big rivers."

"Skinny dipping is okay?"

"I think it's required," Sonia said, pulling her tunic over her head. "But don't worry, I won't peek."

Tia stripped off her clothes and saw Sonia peeking more than once. But since she was sneaking her own looks, she couldn't complain. The creek was pleasantly cool and they floated in the calm pool that had been dug into the bank.

"Let's get up before it gets much later," Sonia finally said. They got out and neither of them bothered to get dressed as they gathered up their gear.

"The stones Jolene gave you go over there," Sonia said. She pointed at a cairn that was about a meter tall. "You can leave them up there."

Tia got the heavy oval stones out left them where Sonia pointed. They settled into place with a slight click.

"What is this for?"

Sonia pulled out her tablet and entered something. "It's a tradition we have. Sort of a way to remember something and say thank you at the same time."

There was a whirring sound overhead and Tia looked up to see an oblong woven basket being lowered toward them.

"We'll both fit," Sonia said. "It's much stronger than it looks. Come on."

Tia looked doubtful but followed Sonia. They sat at either end of the basket, their packs and bags at their feet. Sonia wiggled a little to get comfortable and picked her tablet up.

"Ready? It won't take long, just close your eyes if heights bother you."

Tia nodded, gripping the thin branches along the rim tightly. With a whisper, the basket soared upwards. Tia was ready to be nervous, but Sonia's reassuring smile made it a little easier. Sonia began pointing out different creatures as they rose and Tia looked around, fascinated. She hadn't seen much besides trees and occasional insects since she'd arrived and had figured that Arboreal was sparsely populated. But as they passed the first canopy, she saw there were far more plants and animals that called the canopies of the trees home.

"The forest floor is kind of a desert," Sonia said as Tia looked around. "Most of the life on Arboreal is in the middle canopies of the trees."

The basket passed another large branch that marked a new tier of canopies. The large broad leaves of the lowest had changed, these were slightly smaller, but still a couple of meters across. The basket slowed and Tia looked up and saw that the little bundle of sticks was in fact, a large platform at least ten meters across. The basket rose above the floor slightly and then slid sideways and stopped.

"See? Nothing to worry about," Sonia said, getting up and stepping out of the basket.

Tia followed her to a dome that covered a third of the platform.

"Anyone here?" Sonia called and then pulled the heavy curtain away from the archway.

Tia helped her tie the curtains back on each of the four main archways of the dome. It was amazingly hot inside but the constant at this height began blowing through the open doors, making it almost pleasant. The structure was mostly empty, there was a wide shelf that ran around the edge of the dome, about a meter off the floor that Sonia called an Anek couch. There were other arches that led to bedrooms, others that served as bathrooms. Inside one was an open space with a single large arch leading outside. Sonia pulled back the curtain, revealing an amazing view of the forest. She smiled at the look on Tia's face.

"It gets better. See the water nozzles in the ceiling?"

"This whole thing is a shower?"

"And there's space for a large tub that gets pulled up when someone is staying here long term. This was designed as sort of an embassy after contact and the designer got teased about not putting a shower in. He got a little annoyed and this was the result. The Anek think we're pretty strange for enjoying showers, they're a little like cats when it comes to water."

"Recreational bathing, how very Roman," Tia said.

"That bunch made the Romans look like prudes," Sonia laughed. "Anyway, we'll stay here tonight. All that's around to eat are OneDay bars, sorry. On the other hand, there's usually a few bottles of rum around. Want a drink?"

"Synth?"

Sonia made a face. "No. That never caught on here."

"If it's anything like Eli's rum, I'll give it a taste."

"I think it's pretty good," Sonia said. "Is that a brand?"

"No, a friend of mine had some stuff that was pretty good," Tia said quickly, following Sonia back into the main room. She still didn't know if Eli had managed to disappear. Sonia pulled a bottle out of a box and poured them a little. Tia didn't think it was better than Eli's but she liked it. Sonia and Tia took their drinks outside where there were some low chairs and sat down.

"What are we riding in from here?"

"The Anek will carry us the rest of the way. We're going way into the deep forest and there's nowhere to land a shuttle."

"Oh. Do they do the telepathy thing the whole way?"

"No, they're very polite about that. Thicket talked to you and you were surprised, right? He looks full grown but he's still very young in a lot of ways."

"Piper spoke to me as well, but it wasn't so...invasive, I guess."

Sonia smiled. "Thicket is very impressed with himself since he joined Jin's family. It definitely comes through in his voice. There's another Anek in the family, an older female named Wisteria. She's away working right now and I think he's probably going to have some unpleasant surprises when she gets home."

"Do they all choose plant names or something?"

"Not always but they're popular nicknames since we can't say their actual names. They're very complicated and change over time as the Anek ages. It's made of feelings, places and subtle scents, so they can tell us their names in touch talk but we can't express them. So they adopt Terran words they like to say. There are a few Anek words that we can pronounce but not many."

"They all seem really kind but I'm surprised they didn't take over the first humans to land here. We're way weaker and slower than they are."

"You're not the first person to say that," Sonia said. "Part of it is that their minds don't really work that way. When the first landings took place, they thought we lived up above the trees somehow and that something bad had happened and that we'd fallen. Which is sort of true if you think about it the right way. The other thing is that while they're much stronger and faster than we are, they can barely function after nightfall. They also don't seem to be able to multitask the same way we do, and some people think they're not as imaginative as we are. I don't think that's true, I think they're just very different in the way they imagine things. It's easy to admire them."

"You said you took care of them in incubators? Can they not have children themselves?"

"They can, but not enough were surviving to keep the race alive. They've got an unusual reproductive cycle."

"I was wondering, Jin thought I was a tattalog when I first got here. Does that have something to do with all of this?"

"Yes, there have been sensationalists that managed to sneak in. The last one was about a half a year ago. Mostly they're from New Plymouth."

Tia rolled her eyes. "And that damn captain gave me papers for New Plymouth! No wonder Jin caught me."

"Hmm, I think you would have been noticed no matter what, the leadership here decided to watch arrivals very closely. Even those that aren't planning to live here for long."

"I didn't plan on dying."

"Or living. But we were talking about Anek and their eloisha."

"What is it about Anek biology that gets tattalogs sneaking in? Or am I not allowed to know that part?"

"Their reproductive cycle was thrown out of balance a few centuries ago. By the time humans began to arrive, they were slowly dying out. It was a problem that was easy to fix with basic tech though."

"The eloisha you take care of, where are their parents? They don't visit?"

"No, they're very interested in how their children are doing but they can't be around them for very long. The chemicals that they use to communicate really interferes with the babies' development."

"You're kidding. How did they ever develop that problem?"

"Anek biology is pretty interesting. They conceive externally, instead of internally like we do. Before the trouble started, there was a primate called a tathinni in a symbiotic relationship with the Anek. They carried the young until they hatched."

"Somehow I don't think you mean they carried them in a little bag."

Sonia laughed. "The universe is a strange place, huh? Anyway, something happened that spread among the tathinni and affected their minds. They started attacking the Anek instead of living with them like they'd always done. The Anek drove them away but once the tathinni were gone, they had to come up with a new way to protect their young. They weren't able to find anything that worked well enough to keep them going."

Tia thought about Piper yelling at Thicket because she thought he was hurting her and the cheerful chatter that constantly surrounded Badger, Moss and the rest of them. "I'm glad you were able to help them."

"It's been successful to the point that we've started scaling back on the young. There's a lot of empty space out there still but the Elder Anek are getting a little worn down with all the young ones showing up. There used to be a whole building of incubators at the settlement but the only active ones at the moment are the few I watch over."

"You saved an entire race of people," Tia said. "Not a lot of people can say that. That's amazing."

Sonia blushed a little. "I was one of many people and I just helped."

"How many people are here helping you now?"

"It's just me," Sonia said.

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