Cooperative: The Destination
Day 1 after Bond
James snorted and opened his eyes. A pair of large eyes were looking back at him. He blinked and focused. He felt a sense of deja vu. Didn’t this just happen? Aris continued to stare at him.
“Is this real? Or another dream?” James asked hesitantly.
Aris didn’t respond. But she didn’t have to. Her thoughts were in his head. James gaped as he remembered. The bond. “Aris…”
“Who is Steven Crow?”
Unexpected question. “Well, he is a, um. An Elf. Who wasn’t an Elf, but was…” James trailed off. He shook his head. Her lips had not moved when he heard the question. “You’re really in there.”
“You knew about the bond.” Her eyes continued to stare at him without blinking.
James fidgeted. “Yeah. When I was at the Tel’range ruins, Steven kinda tried to teach me about gating. And…tried to explain the bond to me. But Aris, I didn’t do it on purpose. Please believe me.”
“It is done,” Aris said, vocally this time. “Your world is most peculiar.”
“Terra? Or the Cooperative?”
James grinned. “Yeah, I guess it is.”
“You looked for me all that time?”
“Aris, I was desperate to get back. I felt like part of me was missing. It was excruciating.”
“You experienced the bond before you were bonded,” Aris mused thoughtfully. “That’s why we…bonded. Why it was so easy.”
“I didn’t mean to. Please…I didn’t want it to happen this way. We were supposed to…” James stopped.
“Fall in love?” Aris squinted at him.
“Well, we…you really seemed to care about me last time.” James fidgeted again.
“That’s not me,” Aris said sharply. Her irises flashed yellow briefly. She frowned and he felt her calm herself. “Not yet.”
James nodded. “You don’t believe in fate. I get it.”
Aris blinked finally, much to James’ relief. She sighed. “It takes two to bond. Something in me connected with you, too. I just don’t understand it.”
“Well, you will. I promise.” James grinned, then sobered under her glare.
“We must find this Younger of yours. Where is she?”
James pursed his lips. “Well, the last time we met, we were at the castle.” He looked out of the entrance of the cave. “It’s still dark out. I need to see the stars.”
Aris sat up, and pulled James to his feet as she stood up. He stumbled, not expecting how strong she was. “Careful. Your leg.”
“It’s healing. You should know.” Aris adjusted the gauze.
“Well, it was a pretty bad wound,” James started. He sighed. Elves did heal quickly.
Aris looked at him for a moment, then briskly stepped out of the cave and looked up. James grabbed his backpack and followed. “At least let me change your bandages.”
She pretended to ignore him as she looked at the stars.
James hesitated as he caught up with her. He was thrilled to have found her, but scared at the same time. He knew the struggle she was dealing with. He could feel it. Her frustration, and fear. And it seemed focused on him.
“Stop it,” Aris said quietly as she scanned the skies.
“Sorry. I can’t help it.”
She pointed at a bright cluster of stars. “I saw that in your memory.”
James nodded. “It was over there, though.” He squinted. “It’s almost sunrise. So, it should be…” He turned a little. “There.”
Aris nodded and pointed toward some distant mountains. “Then the castle and portal is in that direction.”
“Yay. Another quest,” James said ruefully.
“Cory liked to go on quests. To explore castle ruins.” James sighed. “At least I got to fly us in my ultralight.”
“Your best friend.”
“You’re just reading me like a book, aren’t you?” James grinned.
“And I am still not understanding what I am seeing.” Aris squinted. “The humans, they didn’t build castles?”
“We don’t know who built the one here.” James nodded. “The Legracian humans live in these big tree things. In the trunks of living trees.”
“Legracia. You have not been there.” Aris looked up. “What are these Temples?”
“Aris, I only know what I’ve read, or watched, or was told. So no, I never actually went to Legracia. Just Endard, Syagria and here, that’s it. Only three worlds I’ve been to, except home.” James sat on a large rock. “I met several humans, though. Selkies. Elves. Keratians. A Troll. Scared the crap out of me.” He rubbed his temples. “And their Temple complex? They are just…massive. A bunch of the biggest trees I have ever seen, all growing into one big…thing. Structure. Inside it’s open and there are these platforms on huge branches that grow into the interior.” James interlocked his fingers in front of him to illustrate. “That’s where common people go to travel by gate to thousands of Temples across the Cooperative.” He glanced at her. “Portals.”
Aris sat down next to him, looking at him curiously. “We’ve only known Elves. And Syagria. But we have stories of others.”
“Well, there are others. Lots of others.” James scratched his head. “I remember a time when we didn’t know of any others. Not even legends. No hint of life anywhere. Scratching around Mars looking for hints of microbes. Then it all just kinda landed in our lap all of a sudden.”
“A Selkie. But…more. Much more. Like some sort of goddess.” James shook his head. “Whenever I talked about her, people would freak. Like I met King Arthur, or Santa Claus or something.” He sighed. “You know, she dropped me from the sky. Told me to gate home or hit the rocks below. We are going to discuss that when I see her next.”
Aris looked at him curiously. “I see me. But…” She frowned. “We apparently have a long way to go.”
“Yeah. You..the other you, she said years,” James said sheepishly. He waved a hand. “At least you seemed happy with me. Or the me she knew. It can’t all be bad.”
“We shall see.” Aris frowned at him, then looked up. “We must begin our journey.”
James looked down at his chest. “I could use another shirt.”
“We’ll just go get one then.” Aris stood up.
James looked at her, then grinned. “That was a joke, wasn’t it?”
“We’ll have to make do with what we have, James.” Aris adjusted her gauze again.
“I need to change that.”
“No. Save your bandages.” Aris shook her leg a little as she pulled her pants over the bandages. “The wounds are closed already.”
“Wow.” James lifted a flap of cloth to look at the bandages. “That’s fast.”
Aris pursed her lips. “Faster even, thanks to the bond.”
James looked up and grinned.
“No. Don’t even.”
“Well…it’s already helping, right?”
Aris scowled and started walking.
“Just trying to be positive.” James trotted to keep up. “My chest is sore.”
Aris grabbed his hand, and the pain abated significantly. James looked down at his chest, then at her appreciatively. She kept her eyes on the field before them. James followed her gaze. “You know, it’s okay to have feelings.”
“Right now, we are in survival mode.” Aris glanced at him briefly. “Keep your focus.”
“Sure. Survival.” James looked around. There was no Earth to go home to, no Cooperative to call. But, for some reason, he didn’t seem to care. He had Aris.
Aris looked sideways at him, then sighed.
James looked down at her hand in his. “You didn’t freak. I would have freaked. Well, I sorta did the first time. You scared me to peeing. Just left a puddle and everything.”
Aris furrowed her brows as she scanned the thickening forest around them. “I was terrified when you found me. You were the enemy to me.”
“Yeah. Enemy. But after that?”
She glanced at James. “We already expected that others existed. And we have been in contention with some of those others recently. What is so surprising?”
“That there were others, I guess.” James looked down as he stepped over a clump of ferns. “I mean, this would be like, first contact or something. I should be at a musical keyboard or making weird hand signals or…” He grinned. “Putting a paper sack on my head and laying down.”
Aris cocked her head, perplexed.
James shrugged. “Something Steven liked to say.” His eyes widened. “Oh, I get the reference! That’s hilarious! No Vogons here, though.”
“You are peculiar, James.” Aris looked up.
He got the distinct impression she wanted to climb into the trees. “Your leg may be better, but that could open the wounds back up.”
“Unlikely.” Aris glanced at him. “We travel faster when we climb.”
“I travel faster when I drive.” James smirked. “An ATV would be nice about now.” He looked down. “You took your shoes off. No wonder my feet feel weird.”
Aris glanced down. “They were no longer needed.”
James pursed his lips as he regarded her. “Sure. We’ll see about that when we walk across stickers.”
“The ferns have thorny stems, James.” Aris looked at him, annoyed. “Our feet are not quite as soft as yours.”
James made a face as he looked around. “Our feet are not quite as soft as yours. Blah blah blah.”
Aris grinned as she continued scanning the forest.
James coughed, trying not to laugh. “I’m married to an alien. It cannot get much weirder than that.”
“I’m not an alien, James. Neither are you.” Aris glanced at him. “We are fellow sojourners in life and have much that is in common.”
“Like being hungry?” James raised an eyebrow.
“Yes. We must find food. And water.”
“I have a water bottle.” James rummaged through his backpack and pulled out a large sport-bottle. “It was the biggest I could find for my emergency pack.”
Aris grabbed it and looked at it. James pointed and she glared at him. “I know how to open it, James.”
“Yeah. Sure,” James said, not convinced. But she figured it out and took a long drink.
“Trying to ration it.” James closed the bottle.
“Better in you than not in you, James. You must preserve your strength.” Aris tipped the bottle.
James sighed and took a sip. Aris glared at him and he took a longer drink. “There. Happy?”
“There is water over that rise.” Aris nodded ahead of them. “Rationing will just weaken you and lessen your chance of survival.”
“Yes ma’am,” James snarked as he put the bottle in his backpack.
Aris shook her head. “Are you always this annoying?”
James shrugged. “Some would call it an endearing characteristic.”
Aris laughed, making James grin. She glanced at him and shook her head. “Peculiar and annoying.”
James raised an eyebrow. “I think you like it.”
“I think…” Aris started then stopped, freezing almost in midstep.
James almost tripped when she didn’t release his hand. He looked back at her, then pulled his hand from her tightening grip. “Aris?”
She just stood, staring into nothing.
James wrapped his arm around her and put his hand on her cheek. “Come back to me, girl. Please…you’re scaring the crap out of me.”
Aris started falling back and James held her upright as he put his forehead on hers. “Aris?” He closed his eyes and saw something. He focused on it and found her in her mind. “Aris, it’s okay. I’m here.”
Aris was kneeling in a barren field, trembling in fear. She started when she saw him, and he found himself immediately in front of her, kneeling. “I’m not going away. You can’t scare me away.”
“I’m not alone?” Aris was breathless. She trembled as she looked around. “They’re all dead. Everyone.”
“We’re in a forest, Aris. Just a plain ol’ boring forest. Come back to me.” James grabbed her hand and suddenly he was back, holding her up. Aris blinked and took in a shuddering gasp. James held her cheeks as he looked in her face. “Aris? Are you back?”
“How did you do that?” Aris shivered and closed her eyes.
“I have traveled over a hundred thousand years and God knows how many galaxies to find you, Aris,” James said solemnly. “I may joke a lot, but…you are my center. My life.”
Aris took in another breath, calmer this time. She wiped her eyes. “You don’t know me. How can you be so…” She hesitated.
James smiled. “In love with you? Frankly, I don’t have a clue.”
She looked around and coughed. James took a step back, keeping his hands on her shoulders. She looked back at him. “You were there.”
James nodded. “Freaky.”
She gazed up into the sky. “It’s only been a few minutes.”
“James, normally it is days,” Aris said. “I’d wake up and days are gone.”
James brushed hair out of her eyes. “I guess there are fringe benefits to our bond after all.”
Aris looked at him for a long moment, then turned and started walking again.
James sighed, and threw his arms up in the air. “Hey. I just went to hell for you. That’s all. Whatever that place was.”
“Syagria.” Aris wiped her eyes. “It used to be Syagria.”
James frowned. “Well it’s not like that now.”
Aris stopped and spun around. “And it will never be!” Her irises flashed yellow as she glared at him. She shook her head as she looked at him. “Don’t you understand? This, right here, could cause that. What we are doing.”
“We’re walking through a forest,” James said carefully.
“To what? To who? A goddess? Some…gate? What about the others. There are several portals, and one enemy that is already a threat.”
James chewed his cheek as he regarded her. “What if we do nothing then?”
Aris slumped and started walking again. “We are not supposed to be. This was not supposed to happen. How can I bond with…you’re not even an Elf?”
“Sorry for being Terran,” James grumbled.
“Too many things that are not supposed to be. And now the same dream again. My world. Dead.”
“Maybe we are supposed to prevent that,” James said quietly.
Aris didn’t respond as she tried to stay ahead of him.
“You know, Steven…”
“You’re not this Steven. Are you?” Aris stopped and glared at him.
“Um. No.” James was taken aback. “But I know that doing nothing is as bad as doing something.”
“It was a mistake coming here.” Aris turned and continued the trek. “I thought the dream would stop. I thought it was my fault. It might still be.”
“It was shorter. That’s gotta count for something.” James scratched his chest as he trotted to keep up with her.
Aris shook her head and stopped again. She rubbed her face and looked at James oddly. “You fear nothing, do you?”
“Spiders. And Trolls,” James said, grinning.
She cocked her head. “You’ve seen war, and devastation, but you keep pushing forward.”
James got serious. “Aris, I push forward because there is always a tomorrow. Another chance to make things better.”
He shrugged. “We make mistakes. But I think the trend is still for the better.”
“You are a strange creature, James.” Aris squinted at him. “And I am bonded with whatever you are. That’s even stranger.”
“Well, I make a mean brisket. Give me a chance.” James smiled wanly.
“James, usually years goes into the bonding courtship. Hundreds of years even.”
“I’ve known you for a year. And when I first met you, you’d known me for years too. Surely that counts?” James crossed his arms.
Aris shook her head and continued walking, forcing him to trot to catch up. After a long period of silence, she sighed. “Thank you.”
James had stayed behind her, but caught up with her when she said that. She glanced at him. “You are not even an Elf, and yet accept me when my own have rejected me.”
“I love you. And I hope for the best,” James said seriously.
Aris continued walking briskly. James wondered if he made a mistake telling her his feelings. But he realized she already knew. Their bond. She had apparently already sifted his memories and thoughts exhaustively. He coughed and was about to comment on how hungry he was when Aris stopped and knelt down by a fallen trunk.
“Here.” She ripped a cluster of mushrooms off the trunk.
“Are they edible?” James sniffed them. “Bad mojo if you get the wrong one.”
Aris stood up and glared at him. “You need to learn to trust me, James.”
James grimaced and broke off a piece and ate it, staring at her while he dramatically chewed and swallowed. He licked his lips and looked at the rest. “That was actually pretty good. We’re on an alien world and…plants are plants and fungus is fungus. Go figure.”
“There are differences.” Aris chewed as she looked around. “But all life is based on a narrow set of parameters. Water does not naturally flow uphill after all.”
James nodded as he finished off his handful. “Well. Breakfast for a king.”
Aris just looked at him as she finished her last morsel, then started walking again.
“It’s okay to joke, you know,” James said as he caught up with her yet again. “Levity. Good for the soul.”
“I have not had reason to be happy for a very long time, James.” Aris looked sideways at him as they walked.
“Then find a reason,” James said resolutely.
Aris opened her mouth but James interrupted. “It’s a matter of survival. Your outlook on life will determine how likely we are to survive.” James squinted at her. “You do want to survive, right?”
“James.” Aris glanced at him, then looked down. “I will try.”
“Do. Or do not. There is no try,” James said, grinning. “A wise movie character said that.”
Aris smirked. “I see your reference. Your entertainment is very odd, James.”
James laughed. “I’ll take that as high praise, coming from an actual alien.”
“Wait,” Aris said, stopping. She cocked her head, then disappeared up a tree before James could ask. He was about to call up to her when she dropped silently to the forest floor, looking worried.
“What?” James asked.
“Experience your bond, James,” Aris said quietly. “We must change direction.”
Aris just looked at him impatiently. James returned her look, then saw what she had seen in her memories. “They’re hunting us. The people who shot you down.”