Episode 21: The domes

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Char stood squinting at the scuffed dust where the three Trea-Ess had stood moments before.

Message received, Na’odani.

Damned if she was going to show it, though. She turned to her alien escort. Beside Jezeen, Venn’s brow had a deep furrow down the middle. Char paused and took note of this. Jezeen’s face was placid and unconcerned as she turned to meet Char’s gaze.

“Now that this is done,” Jezeen said, “Jai will show us the city.”

Char raised her eyebrows. “Um, yeah. Okay.”

They exited the star-shaped compound via the large front gates that, like the other doors inside, opened without any door handle or lock. It revealed a wide thoroughfare made of the same yellow dust. The thoroughfare was bounded on either side by high, black metal walls with periodic round portholes. The walls curved inward over the street.

Venn caught Char’s eye and pointed to the windows. “Living quarters. This is new. The city has grown.” A faint frown crossed his face and disappeared beneath its placid surface. He dropped back and fell in step with Char and Seth.

Jai, a slightly shorter, bright-eyed Na’odani walked alongside Jezeen, talking in long strings of unintelligible syllables.

“How many people—uh, Na’odani—live here?” Seth asked.

Venn shrugged. “Many.”

“Is this the largest city in Na’o?” Char tucked the tail of her scarf into her collar and took a deep breath of the hot air.

“It is the only city,” Venn said. He frowned again. “It covers half of our world.”

“Half!” Leander caught up to them. “For real?”

“Yes,” Venn said tonelessly.

They were still passing along the flat black wall. Seth went over to the wall and laid his hand against it. His brow furrowed. “It’s cool,” he said. “I thought it would be warm.”

“The city has grown so large that the planet can’t sustain itself anymore.” Venn’s voice rung hollow. “This is why we bridge to other worlds. One day we will need a new one to inhabit, I suppose.”

He sighed. “It’s hot. I nearly miss Kaa.”

Leander laughed. “But where are the people?”

“I asked Jai this too,” Venn said. “They are inside, he says.”

He stopped and bent down to trail his fingers in the dusty street. Jai and a few of the Americans walked on.

“This dust?” Venn said. “It falls from the sky. It’s killing Na’o slowly. Last I was here, there were still plants growing along the street. Jai says plants only grow under the domes now.”

“Domes?” Seth interjected.

Venn pointed.

Char could just detect a reflective glimmer in the sky a long way off. She squinted, and the faint outline of a massive, transparent dome came into focus. It might have been the size of a football stadium.

“Like your greenhouse, doctor,” Venn said, standing up slowly.

Char swept her eyes over the black walls and the yellow dirt, then to the glassy dome in the distance. “So your world is dying, too?”

Venn glanced back at Jezeen. “Yes.”

“That’s why you need the other worlds.” Seth’s face twisted. “God, your world is just a parasite, isn’t it?”

Venn’s face was blank. He didn’t answer.

Char met Seth’s eyes.

“And Kaa?” Seth asked wearily. “How is Kaa helping you?”

Venn pointed to the receding Jai and the others . They began walking again.

“The plants,” Venn said. “The plants can grow in very hostile conditions. We may be able to hybridize them with ours.”

Jezeen turned around suddenly. “Let’s take the next shuttle to the domes, Venn. It’s hot.”

The shuttle was a small version of the triangular aircraft they’d flown from Kaa. It didn’t have a pilot, but flew rapidly only about two feet from the ground. It deposited them at the base of one of the domes—there were five of them in a group. The dome towered fifty feet above them, sheer glass, no frame or metal. It wasn’t perfectly round, but egg-shaped.

Char turned and watched Seth squint up at it.

“Do you feel like we’re touring Europe?” she muttered to him. “Like you always wanted to?”

“It’s not Westminster Abbey.” Seth’s lips formed a wry smile. He brushed one finger across her cheek above the scarf.

Over Seth’s shoulder, Char caught the eye of Leander who wrinkled her nose and shook her head.

Inside the dome, Venn and Jezeen stopped sharply, reaching out to catch each other’s hand.

A tree grew in the centre of the dome, reaching up with smooth, straight limbs toward the top of the glass. Instead of leaves, it sprouted fine, yellow, hair-like strands from its branches.

“Mangan trees. These used to grow everywhere,” Venn said softly. “The domes protect them now.”

They stepped forward, and Char and the Americans followed. They stepped from the hard, black stone surface onto a springy, red-brown moss-like plant. Char’s feet sank into it, almost like beach sand.

“Look up,” Jezeen said.

Char tilted her head back. High above them in the tree, green vines hung down with some sort of yellow orbs hanging from them.

“Fruit. The same kind you ate dried in Kaa.” Jezeen’s tongue darted out over her teeth. “Delicious, and hard to come by unless you are a bridger.”

“Why?” Seth said.

“Because we can’t grow many of them, and there are—“ she drew in a deep breath and frowned “—seven hundred million Na’odani in Eskalon, I think.”

“Closer to eight-hundred million,” Venn said softly. “Most citizens eat food farmed off-world.” He turned slowly in a circle, gazing up into limbs of the tree. “We had one of these by the house where I grew up. I used to climb it and sit up in the branches for hours.”

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Jezeen brushed her fingers over Venn’s arm.

“Jai tells me they are putting up more domes,” Venn continued, “and planting more trees.”

“I think we could farm on your world,” Jezeen said. “Venn has told me about it. In fact, I would suggest you offer it to the high council tomorrow.”

Char snorted. “I can’t authorize that! Every bit of arable land is government-farmed now.”

Jezeen shrugged.

Jai led them further into the dome to a round pool of water cut into the black rock. A fountain burbled in the center of the pool. The sat down along the edge. Venn lay down on his side and trailed his hand through the water.

“Venn,” Seth said softly. “Do you think there is anything in all of your world that we can take back to save our world? Your world is on its last legs.”

Venn swished his fingers, rippling the surface of the water. “Truly, Healer Seth, I don’t know. I suspect so, but in the past, you have been quite hostile to the idea of draining one world to save another.”

“I am,” Seth said sharply. “Perhaps we should go home and die with dignity.”

Venn squinted at him. “It’s too late for that, Healer Seth. You are here. You must speak to the council.”

Seth turned and met Char’s eyes. He sighed.

Venn and Jezeen seemed loath to leave the dome. They wandered away, leaving Char and the others with Jai. He couldn’t talk to them, but he could climb the tree and bring them fruit to taste. It was almost overpoweringly sweet, reminiscent of dates, but with a sharp tang.

As Char handed Jai the core of her fruit, she caught sight of Jezeen and Venn kissing beneath the outer fringe of the tree. Char’s mouth twisted into a half-smile as she sighed.

They returned back to the base as the slow rotation of the ring planet plunged it into the one of the first of the two short nights Jezeen called the medir.

Once the Americans were alone in their sleeping quarters, Jeff, and Seth huddled together in a corner, examining leaves and twigs from the dome while Maureen scrutinized samples of the yellow dust.

Char sat down on her bunk and watched the others shake sand from their clothes and snack on the dried fruit and bread that was left for them.

After a moment, Leander ambled over and handed her a piece of the bread. “Don’t suppose we could have a word?” she asked.

Char glanced around. “You mean privately?” She peered into her bed cubicle. “Let’s go in here.”

They crawled in and propped themselves up on their elbows, facing each other.

“What?” Char said in a low voice.

“When are you going to tell me what the hell is going on between you and Seth?”

“What, are we fourteen?” Char wriggled a little.

“What, are we withholding information from each other now?” Leander snapped. “Did I not drink with you almost every night after you kicked him out? Did you not help me clean my husband’s brains off my walls?”

Char exhaled softly. “I don’t know, okay? I don’t know what’s going on.”

“Well, start from the beginning.”

Char trained her gaze on the thin metal walls somewhere above Leander’s head. “The night before we bridged to Kaa, I was afraid I was going to die without making nice with him. So I went to his room, and one thing led to another, and…” She shrugged her shoulders as best she could in her reclined position.

Leander harrumphed.

A faint buzz filled the room. An instant later the lights turned off.

“Oh, come on!” Marlene howled in the corner.

“Look,” Leander said under her breath. “I’m not saying I’m opposed to it. I think we can both agree that Seth isn’t the monster that we’ve been calling him for the last five years.”

“No,” Char said.

“But exactly where would getting back together go?”

“We’re not back together!” It had come out far louder than Char intended. She was glad for the dark. “We’re not back together,” she repeated in an undertone. “Because that would be cruel and unusual punishment for Seth.”

“Oh, come on.” Leander’s eye-roll was almost audible. “I don’t give a fuck about him. I’m worried about you. This mission could be big for you, and if it is, do you want to drag the doctor along behind you?”

That sounded like something her mother would say. Char shut her eyes. “Leander, we have to get back safely first. I have the goddamn Na’odani council to deal with tomorrow. Let’s not count our chickens.”

“I’m not ready to change the subject yet.” The other woman’s strong fingers gripped her arm. Her voice lowered, became husky. “Look, if there were an alternate universe in which we got back to Alaska safely and were hailed as pioneers, and then Chris showed up alive and I had to choose between being with him and being famous? I’d choose him.”

She paused, but before Char could reply, she forged on. “And that all being said, you know I’ll support you whatever you choose. You’re my best friend.”

Leander crawled out of the bed, leaving this pronouncement to sit with Char.

Leander would never see her husband again because Chris was dead. That wasn’t a fair comparison.

And moreover, this was entirely beside the point. Seth had to wait. She had to get them back first.


Episode 20: The city of Eskalon

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The lights came on, and a moment later the door to the room opened. Char sat up.

“Leader Char, please get up. Leader Taig has called for you.” Venn glanced from Char to Seth and met her eyes without a hint of surprise. “I will wait for you outside.”

The door shut.

“I told you they’d barge in,” she groaned. She swung her legs off the bed and peeled off Seth’s shirt. She had her back to him, but she could feel his gaze on her body. Char smiled.

Knobby knees and skinny ankles be damned, an ass was an ass.

Char ate breakfast with Leader Taig, Leander, and Seth in Taig’s apartment. It was just a slightly larger version of her own room with a table and a window that looked down over the red valley. They drank a hot, sweet, creamy beverage that had a floral taste to it. Their food looked like army rations to Char—items that seemed like dried fruit, and a hard, savoury bread.

After a white-robed Na’odani cleared away the breakfast, Leader Taig pulled a thin, letter-sized sheet of metal from her robe and lay it on the table. She tapped it, and the dark surface shifted. Some kind of markings appeared.

“A message came from my superiors in Eskalon,” she said. “You will state your case to the high council.”

Char swallowed. “I-I’m not authorized to make deals. I’m just an envoy.”

Taig stared at her stone-faced. “You may state your case, and the high council will decide if we will negotiate or keep you prisoner.” She folded her hands. “Venn tells me your people intend to come into Kaa.”

Damn it. Why did we let Venn hear the protocol?

“Yes,” Char said.

“We will bridge to Eskalon soon. Go to your team and prepare them.” Leader Taig got up[N1] . The door opened and Jezeen and another Na’odani stepped in.

“Take Leader Char to her people,” Leader Taig said. “I will call for the aircraft.”

<>

“You slept with him.”

Char sat pinned in the corner of the packed aircraft with Leander beside her. Seth sat on the opposite side of the triangular craft talking to Callum.

Leander drilled her with a stare. “Did you?”

Char ignored her.

“Did you?” The other woman barked.

Char glanced around the aircraft. “Can you be quiet?”

Leander raised her eyebrows.

“Yes,” she hissed. “We fucked and I’m not sorry.”

Leander faced front again and peered at Char from the corner of her eye. “Are you out of your mind?”

“He’s an attractive man who’s dynamite in the sack. Do I sound crazy?”

Leander glanced at her. “Hmf.”

“It doesn’t mean anything.” Char regretted saying it as soon as it left her mouth, but she didn’t take it back. Seth was out of earshot.

The aircraft began to rise gently above the compound.

Char thought they were going to land and walk through the portal, but as their craft flew over a high, black pinnacle, she suddenly felt a sucking sensation. Around her the craft seemed to contract, then expand rapidly, bursting forth into open air.

Char sucked in a breath. The craft floated in blackness, but through the portholes she saw that around them were bright strands of blue and purple light, loosely woven together like reeds in a basket.

“What is this?” Leander asked.

Taig turned from a window. “This is Habbas. We have yet one more jump to make.”

“What am I seeing?” Char leaned back to peer from the porthole behind her head. They were passing close to a strand. Char thought she saw shapes like trees.

“This is called a…” Taig faltered, waiting for her translator to catch up.

“Frame world,” Venn said from the opposite corner.

“Yes,” Taig said. “We’ve had a trade arrangement here for a long time. The inhabitants here fly between the strands of the frame.”

“Weird,” Leander said.

The craft picked up speed. The strands flew by in long purple and blue ribbons. Ten minutes later the craft slowed. Char caught sight of a structure on one of the strands. It spiraled up like an antelope horn.

She poked Leander. “Is that a building?”

The sucking sensation interrupted her. Char felt her body stretch out longer and longer. Her thoughts felt further and further apart.

The aircraft snapped back together.

Char’s stomach leapt toward her throat, and she heaved her breakfast onto the metal floor of the ship.

“Woah,” Leander said.

Char straightened, wiping her mouth. She turned to look through the porthole and saw a distant, peach-coloured sky. Another aircraft zipped past the window; beyond that, the horizon curled up into the fog.

“A ring world,” Char breathed.

They flew for another fifteen minutes and began to descend gently. Char spotted a sprawling compound shaped like an eight-pointed star made of black metal. The ground in every direction had a golden-yellow cast.

The aircraft landed in a cloud of canary dust. The ramp lowered with a gentle hiss and warm air pooled in.

“Come now.” Leader Taig beckoned them from the top of the ramp. The other Na’odani, including Venn and Jezeen, flanked the Americans and walked them off the aircraft.

“You didn’t say it was warm,” Leander muttered as their feet hit the dusty ground. She craned her neck toward the sky.

Char followed her gaze. Above them, the world crossed over them in a narrow strip. The wind blew in their faces, kicking up yellow dust that stuck in Char’s mouth. It tasted metallic and salty.

She was instantly baking in her thermals. The air was hot and oppressive, thick with dust.

Seth began to cough behind her.

Leader Taig turned to face them. “Welcome to Eskalon.”

By the time they entered the wide doors of the compound, Char’s face was coated in dust. She touched the tip of her tongue to her lip and tasted salt.

Two tall, slim Na’o in white robes walked toward them and bowed from the waist.

“These men will take you to your rooms,” Taig said. “I’ll have cooler garments brought to you.”

“It’s a desert,” Seth murmured to her as they followed the Na’odani. “I didn’t see any green from the plane.”

“Their plants might not be green,” Char said. She pulled her damp collar away from her neck and felt the fine dust filter down into her bra.

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“I didn’t see water, either.”


The two Na’odani led the group into a triangular, black-walled room. One side of the room was made up of little cubicles, stacked on top of each other like crates. Char realized they were beds. Little closets like the one in her room on Kaa, the one that had the shower, were tucked into the narrow point of the room.

The Na’odani turned and shut the doors behind themselves without ceremony.

“No segregation for us,” Leander said wryly. “I call the first shower.” She sauntered over to one of them and peeked in. “It’s big. Group showers?”

Char snorted and turned to eye the bunks. “I call bottom bunk.” She walked over to the nearest bottom bunk and began to peel off her outer thermal layers. Golden dust sifted out onto the floor. Seth’s hand brushed the small of her back as he passed and sat down in the cubicle next to hers.

“The warm weather is nice,” he said softly. “I wish there was a beach.”

“This isn’t a vacation.” Char caught his eye around the edge of the wall between them. “Any time now I have to make a convincing case for an American-Na’odani trade alliance.”

“We can offer water,” he muttered.

Instead of the white-robed Na’odani, Venn and Jezeen entered the room an hour later. Jezeen grinned, her teeth flashing white in her face. She and Venn had shed their warm Kaa clothes and wore loose black robes without the tight-fitting thermals beneath. Jezeen wore a wine-coloured scarf draped over her head and around her neck. Venn had mustard-yellow scarf slung around his neck.

They handed bags of clothes to Char and Leander. Inside they found similar loose robes and scarves.

“For the dust,” Jezeen said.

The soldiers began to strip out of their dusty clothes. The scientists glanced at each other and found corners of the room to change in.

Char drew on a slim under-tunic and pulled the robe over it. It was incredibly light and airy. Her scarf was the same red hue as Jezeen’s.

“You look ridiculous,” Leander said behind her.

Char turned. The clothes were tighter on muscular Leander. They left her ankles exposed. Her scarf was green.

“Hey, they know what green is,” Char said.

“We haven’t been to Eskalon in—“ Jezeen tilted her face toward the ceiling as she led the Americans out of the room.

“Twenty ka’dons,” Venn said. “Na’o time. In total time, between jumps it is actually more like thirty ka’dons.” He turned back and caught Char’s eye. “This is, by my math, twenty-four American years. The time on Earth and Na’o passes very similarly. A tad faster.”

“Venn is good at math,” Jezeen said, deadpan.

“Why haven’t you come back?” Seth asked quietly.

“Because we were on campaigns to other worlds,” Jezeen said. She touched Venn’s shoulder. They shared a glance.

They came to a bend in the hall formed by the meeting of two star points. Without them pushing any buttons, a door in the center of the wall slid open [N2] in front of Venn and Jezeen.

Hot air hit them like they’d opened the door of an oven, and dust came with it. Char tugged her scarf up over her nose. A triangular aircraft flew low over them and into the hazy distance. They were back into the center of the compound.

“Leader Phais wishes to show you something,” Jezeen said. “He is the commander of this base.”

“Is this the main military base?” Char asked.

“No,” Jezeen said.

The open area in the centre of the compound was a good hundred yards across. At the far side, a group of black-robed Na’odani stood in a loose group. Three brown-grey masses huddled on the ground nearby.

As they drew closer, Char saw they were long-limbed, hairy creatures with faces that were somewhere between a lion and a gorilla.

Jezeen called out to the Na’odani, who turned to watch them approach. The alien woman spoke to them in their own language, pointing to the Americans and at the creatures on the ground. One of the Na’odani, who Char suspected was a male based on its squarer features, strolled over to one of the creatures and delivered a sharp poke to its side with the staff he held.

A whining cry, dog-whistle high, emitted from the creature. It cowered.

Jezeen turned to Char. “These are envoys from the world of Trea-Ess. They were caught attempting to steal weapons.”

Two more Na’odani went over to the creatures and forced them to stand. Upright, the creatures were even taller than the Na’odani, probably between seven and eight feet tall. They shuffled under the poke and prod of the Na’odani’s staves until they were against the black metal wall.

The Na’odani backed away. Two others came over, carrying thicker, shorter staves. They stood about twenty feet from the creatures and lifted their staves.

A bright flash of light burst from the end of each staff, and with it came a metallic clank. For a moment it seemed nothing had happened, then the hairy creatures froze in place. Their brownish hair turned black, and then as if they were balloons and someone stuck them with a pin, they simply burst. Fine dust flew in every direction and dispersed. The two creatures were gone.

“Holy fuck,” Leander said.

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Episode 19: I'm improvising

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“You’re walking,” Seth said before the door slid shut behind him.

Char looked down at her feet, which were in some kind of boots that were soft as slippers. “Yeah. They have magic bone-healing things, it seems.”

“Magic. Fun.” Leander dropped onto Char’s bed. “Nice digs.”

Char sighed and swung her gaze around the little apartment. It was as Spartan as her quarters in Fort Situk. She had a narrow bed made of the same material as the ones in the healer’s room. It looked like stone and then molded to her body. There was a smaller room off to the side where Char had found a toilet—she knew the hole in the floor with the lid was a toilet because Jezeen had told her—and a what was essentially a shower. She pulled the lever and suddenly rain fell from the ceiling. Warm rain.

“Apparently since I’m ‘Leader Char,’ I get special treatment,” Char sighed. “Listen, I told Taig—that’s the female that’s in charge—that we wanted to make a trade agreement.”

Leander’s eyebrows shot up. “Oh?”

“Yeah,” Char said. “I know I’m above my pay grade here, but we need to get home safely and we need to be allowed back into Kaa.”

Leander nodded tightly.

“So, here is what I figure. We say we want to set up a meeting, bring in our superiors. We’ll gather as much information as we can. Seth, you and the scientists can keep gathering data. We’ll go back to Greta and give her the goods and hope to heck she cooperates.”

Seth folded his arms across his chest. “I don’t like this at all.”

“Well, Erwell wouldn’t put it in the protocol,” Char snapped. “I’m improvising.”

“No,” he said wearily. “Splitting up Kaa like it’s Czechoslovakia.”

Char paced away from them. “I’m just trying to get us home.”

“Yeah,” he said softly. “I know, Char.”

She told them that Taig would be contacting her superiors in Eskalon.

“We’ve got six days,” Leander said. “How long will that take?”

“They can regrow bones. You’d think they’d be able to send instant messages back and forth.” Char ran her hand through her hair. “I don’t know, Leander. I’m making things up as I go.”

“You’ll work it out,” Leander said. “I guess I’ll go back and tell everyone else.” She grinned. “I have semi free run of the place now, and I’m going to use the heck out of it.”

“You do?” Char glanced over at Seth.

He gave her a half-smile. “We’re both second in command, apparently.” He turned to follow Leander out the door.

“Wait,” Char said softly. “Seth, can you stay for a moment?”

He turned, and so did Leander.

Leander met her eyes and gave her a dirty look before backing out and shutting the door.

Char rolled her eyes. Seth stood rigidly.

“You okay?” Char took a step toward him. He had dark circles under his bloodshot eyes.

He met her gaze. “I didn’t sleep much. I was just… wondering where you were.”

“Seth,” she breathed.

He closed the distance. Their bodies collided, and he wrapped her tightly in his arms. His lips pressed into her neck and then against her mouth.

“You scared me,” he muttered against her mouth. “When you were deployed, I knew you were in danger, but I never got to see it. I…”

“I’m fine, Seth.” Char pulled back gently and laid her palm against his cheek.

“I know, but I—“ his mouth followed hers.

Char turned her head. “Seth, I don’t know if we should…”

Seth leaned his forehead against hers. “Char, I—“

Shit.

She gazed into his eyes, so close to hers, and felt the weight of his hope fall on her shoulders. With it came the seize of anxiety.

Seth straightened, and Char thought she saw the sting of rejection in his eyes. Still, he encircled her with his arms and rested his chin on her shoulder. “I’m sorry,” he sighed. “You must be exhausted. I’ll go so you can rest.”

“No, stay,” she blurted. With one hand she gripped his shirt, her nails scrabbling over his skin. With the other she grasped his face and pulled it toward hers.

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Char lay with her arms wrapped around Seth, spoon-fashion, their legs entwined. She stroked his loose hair away from his face and wrapped it around her finger. She was warm, deliciously comfortable.

“You promised me we’d talk about this,” Seth murmured.

Char’s hands stopped.

She drew a shuddering breath. “I’m going to put some clothes on. I don’t trust these Na’odani not to barge in.” She started to roll onto her back, but Seth caught her hand and kept her there.

“Hey,” he said. “Relax.”

Char licked her lips and tucked her arm around him again. He tipped his head back against her shoulder.

“This reminds me of when you would spend the weekend at my apartment by the hospital in Juneau,” he said.

“The small bed?”

“Yeah.”

Char laughed under her breath and wiggled into the pliable platform. “I think it was harder than this one.”

“My back was always sore when I had it. I brought it from home.”

“It was the bed you had at home?” She laughed again.

He nodded. “I doubt Mom and Dad bought it new.”

Char tucked several dark strands of his hair behind his ear. “Your parents were good people.”

He nodded, his hair tickling her face. “They were happy when they died. They’d gotten their trees back.”

She could imagine the unsaid “no thanks to you” in there.

She could [N2] remember his tired, red eyes after coming home from surgery in Vancouver. He’d been working almost around the clock patching up soldiers who’d been shipped in from Japan. He’d lie beside her in bed doing surgery in his sleep. In the middle of that, he’d gotten a call from his parents. Could he come plant trees? They’d finally got the go-ahead from the state.

He’d asked her to come. She said no. He’d asked again. She said she was busy.

“I want some time with you,” he’d said. “Time away.”

She’d barely looked up from her paperwork and said, “We’re at war, Seth. It can wait.”

He’d dropped it after that, and at some point she’d felt bad and asked him if he was upset she wasn’t going with him. He said no, but generally she knew when Seth was lying.

Somehow that had been his last straw.

The lights in the room suddenly shut off with a faint buzz, and Seth’s face was swallowed by darkness.

Char tensed.

“This happened yesterday too,” Seth said.

“Oh.”

She felt his breath on her face. She relaxed.

They lay in silence for a moment.

“What are we going to do?” Char whispered.

“About…?” he rasped.

“Us.”

A long, dark moment passed.

“Char?” Seth’s voice cracked. “I know I love you. I just don’t know if I trust you.”

She took a deep, shuddering breath. It seemed more than reasonable. Reasonable would be neither loving nor trusting her. It still hurt, though. “Alright,” she said.

“I don’t know what we should do. I probably shouldn’t be here in your bed.” He laughed ruefully. “But I’m just a man.” His fingers emerged from the dark and ran through her sweaty hair. “And I guess I wanted to pretend you still loved me.”

“I don’t…” Char swallowed. “I don’t not love you, but we did this once and you know me. I’m a fucking wreck, Seth. A wreck and a workaholic. Why are you bothering with me?”

The pads of his fingers circled her ear. “The people who love you, love you. You don’t have to be anything for anyone.” His warm thumb traced her bottom lip. “Your mom is dead, Char. She can’t yell at you anymore.”

Char choked suddenly. She sat up, dislodging Seth’s hand and the blanket. The air was ice cold on her bare skin. She cleared her thickened throat. “They turn off the heat when they turn off the lights?”

“Char.”

“I’m putting on some clothes.” She got up and fumbled around on the floor for her pants.

“Char, you’re strong.” Seth sat up behind her. “You’ll see this mission through, and when you do, I hope it’s enough.”

Her hand connected with fabric. Char fumbled around until she found a neck-hole and pulled it over her head. The shirt was baggy. Seth’s.

“You want me to go back to the others?” Seth asked softly.

Char sat for a moment with her hands in the depths of the oversized sleeves. The warm bed and the relative safety of Seth’s arms beckoned to her from the dark bed.

“In the dark?” she said finally. She dropped back onto the mattress and fumbled around for his hands. They found her and encircled her waist. She nestled in the curve of his body.

“We can sleep on it,” he murmured

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Episode 18: I'm here now

Just bridged in? Start at Episode 1

Leader Taig was not in her quarters when Venn entered. Jezeen sat on the low bench by Taig’s desk. She jumped up when she saw him.

Venn rushed to her side and pulled her close. He buried his face in her silken hair and breathed in the floral scent.

“You smell like the Mangan trees in Eskalon,” he sighed.

“You don’t even remember what those trees smell like,” Jezeen said.

“No, I’m certain they smell like you.”

She laughed huskily.

“Why is Leader Taig here?” Venn muttered into her hair. “What happened to Ryn?”

“After your team disappeared,” Jezeen began slowly, “Councillor Hya made an inquiry into Leader Ryn’s orders to send you with the trainees so deep into the Kaa valley.”

Venn exhaled, half a moan. “And?”

“They found he had done wrong.” She paused. Her voice came out tight with emotion. “Venn, I’m sorry. I—”

The door swung open. Venn and Jezeen leapt away from each other as Leader Taig came in.

Taig clapped her hands together. “Now then, Bridger Venn. Let us talk about these Americans.”

“B-bridger Jezeen was telling me of Leader Ryn,” Venn said as Taig circled her desk and sat down. Indeed, the last time he was in these quarters it was to plead with Ryn not to send him with the trainees into the valley.

Leader Taig fixed her steel-grey eyes on him. “Then you know of the circumstances under which I took command of this base?”

“He knows the beginning of it,” Jezeen said quietly.

Taig folded her long hands. “But you are returned now, and will be required to give account.”

Venn bowed his head in acknowledgement.

“But the Americans are my first concern, and you have effectively brought them to me. Tell me how this has happened.”

Leader Taig sat back and opened her hands in the Na’odani gesture of listening.

“I drew them here,” Venn said. “I knew no other way of returning to you.”

Venn told her the abridged version of how he’d come to escape from the Kaa burrow, how he’d fled up the mountain and through the portal badly injured. He told them about how the American world was dying because they had used most of their resources, and how Director Greta Erwell had been determined to go through the portal to look for resources. Then he told his leader that they had taken one of his kemzog stones.

Her face grew very serious. She folded her hands. “It cannot remain in their hands.” She paused. “Forgive me, Bridger Venn, but from Hya’s perspective the stone is worth as much as your life.”

“I know,” Venn said quietly. “Kindly recall that if I’d stayed in Alaska, they would have possessed six stones.”

“I do note this. I will inform my superior,” Taig said. Her voice lowered. “Before Leader Ryn was reassigned, he personally supervised a mission to retrieve the kemzog stones from the dead bridgers.” She sighed. “They killed many Kaa but did not find them, nor any remains. I’m certain we shall be sent on another search for them.”

Venn took a deep, quivery breath. Jezeen laid her hand in the small of his back.

“I don’t think the Kaa knew what the stones were for,” Venn said. “The Americans do, and they are testing it in their laboratory.”

Taig leaned forward. She spread her hands again. “Venn, what do they really want with us?”

Venn glanced at Jezeen. “They don’t want anything with us. They want resources. They never intended to meet us at all.”

Leader Taig’s lips parted in a wry smile. “Indeed.”

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“Leader Ryn put me back into the main barracks,” Jezeen said, drawing Venn along the hall by the hand. “But Leader Taig has given me our old room back.” She turned and pressed her palm against a metal door. It slid open with a soft whoosh and she pulled him inside.

The room was just big enough for a two-person bed and a rectangle of polished stone floor for them to leave their boots on. Venn’s old clothes hung on hooks along the wall.

The door closed behind them. Jezeen turned and pulled him onto the bed. For a moment, they groped at each other’s clothes and fumbled to kiss.

Jezeen laughed with her face against his neck. “Have we lost the way of each other?”

“I’ve found it,” he said. He’d gotten his hand up under her thermal garments and found the smooth flesh on the inside of her thigh.

“I never thought I’d hold you again,” she whispered.

“I’m here now,” Venn said in her ear. “Don’t let me go.”

She tugged his overtunic off, but as his head emerged from the fabric, she paused.

“Wait,” she grabbed his wandering hands. “Contraceptives. Leader Ryn withheld mine after you… left.”

“It’s fine.” Venn tried to kiss her but she turned her head.

“No!” Jezeen wriggled from his grasp. “If I conceive and can’t finish the mission, I must complete another.”

Venn’s senses returned. He wiped one hand over his sweaty face. “Do we have any temporaries?”

“When’s the last time we needed a temporary, Venn?” she snapped.

They both paused, met each other’s eyes, and snickered.

“Since we were young bridglings on Nayulana,” Jezeen said. “By Eskalon, we’re old.”

Her eyes darted around the room. “Stay here.” She activated the door and darted into the hall.

“Jezeen! Your clothes!” Venn laughed as the door shut. He sat down on the bed.

A few moments later she slipped back into the room carrying a silver vial. She sat down on the bed and unsnapped the middle of the container. One half held an opaque silvery liquid. The other held clear. She handed him the opaque and kept the clear. They both drank.

Jezeen made a sound of disgust and tossed the empty vial away. “Temporaries.” She turned and shoved him back on the bed. “Now then.”

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Episode 17: The Na'odani Emerge

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The aircraft dropped out of the rainy haze to land smoothly in the center of a compound shaped like an eight-pointed star. The rain-slick walls gleamed black in the waning light. The brackish Kaa rain blew up in gusts from the silent engines.

Between the pain and the medication Seth had given her, Char was fighting to keep her head clear. The moment they landed, the ramp dropped open and the two Na’odani picked her up from her place, slumped against the wall of the aircraft. Another took Venn. They carried Char and Venn toward a door. The other Na’odani herded the rest of the Americans in the opposite direction.

“Hey!” Char bucked against the Na’odani holding her. “Where are you taking me? I need to stay with them.”

The Na’odani with the blue sash came alongside her. “Venn tells me you are injured. We will take you for medical care.”

“I want to stay with my soldiers!” Char barked.

“They will be safe. I give you my word.” The Na’odani bent down and met Char’s eyes with its silver ones. “I am Taig, the leader of these bridgers. You are the leader of these Americans, yes?”

“Yes,” Char said.

“If you come in peace, no harm will come to any of you,” Taig said, straightening. “We are a peaceful people.”

“So I’ve been told,” Char said wryly.

She went with them. The Na’odani brought her into a black-walled room with brilliant white lights built into the wall. They deposited her gently on what looked like a solid black metal table, but when she lay against it, it was warm and molded to her body.

A new Na’odani dressed in white robes sidled over and threw a thick, fluffy blanket over her. It was made of a silvery, shimmering material and reminded Char of building insulation.

Leader Taig circled to opposite of the white-robed Na’odani. “Healer Kaz cannot speak your language. Tell me what your injury is, and I will tell him.”

“My ankles are broken,” Char said. “The solid forms around them are casts to keep the bones in place.”

Leader Taig relayed all of this in the melodic Na’odani tongue.

Healer Kaz squinted at them and replied.

“He will take them off,” Taig said. “We do not use these things.”

Venn lay on the plank-bed next to her. He turned his head toward her and met her gaze. His face was tight with concern.

“Venn,” Taig said. “You will translate for Healer Kaz. Explain to Leader Char what the healer does so she is not afraid.” Taig turned to Char. “I will go speak to your soldiers. Who is leader in your absence?”

“The one called Leander… or Seth,” Char added.

Taig nodded and swished from the room.

“If you come in peace, no harm will come to any of you,” Taig said, straightening. “We are a peaceful people.”

The healer produced a small, shiny instrument. Char steeled herself, but the instrument slid through the solid cast like butter, bisecting it. He made a quiet clucking noise when he saw her ankles and looked up at her with a gentle smile. It needed no translation.

He rubbed some odourless salve over them that instantly made her ankles go numb. She gasped.

“It is just for pain.” Venn’s eyelids drooped. “Perhaps Healer Kaz will condescend to give me some yet.”

The healer strapped Char’s legs into two clear cases that enclosed her legs from foot to knee. Suddenly, a warming sensation went through her legs.

Char jerked her head up to look at them. “What’s he doing now?”

“It stimulates bone growth,” Venn said softly. “In Na’odani. Perhaps it will work for you, too.”

“Great,” she muttered. “A bone grower.”

Her pain had left completely. She was warm after being very cold. Her eyes drew inexorably shut.

Some time later, an animal screech woke her from her sleep. Char sat up. Her legs jolted in their casements, provoking shards of pain.

Venn, with the healer bending over his leg, had sat up straight. Another black-robed Na’odani rushed in, practically tossed the healer aside and leapt onto Venn’s bed.

“Jezeen,” Venn groaned. He wrapped his arms around it and buried his face in its robes.

Char stared. Seth had said something about Venn having a wife or something, right?

Jezeen rocked Venn back and forth, stroking his silky dark hair. Venn’s body quaked.

It felt too private to witness. Char lay back slowly and turned her head away. She lay listening to Venn’s choking sobs and the soothing sounds of the beautiful creature with him.

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Char swallowed. She tried to focus on the strange tingling going through her feet and legs, but she couldn’t.

Venn and Jezeen were whispering to each other, punctuated by what sounded like gentle kisses.

Longing for Seth rolled over Char. She remembered coming back from deployment and walking into their little apartment with her bags. They fell to the floor and the ‘thud’ was still hanging in the air when Seth’s mouth claimed hers. They spent the rest of the day tangled up in bed, either talking or making love.

The memory of the night before going through the portal filled her mind for the umpteenth time since it had happened. Seth had been so earnest, so tender, and she wasn’t lying when she said they would talk about it, but the thought of what he might say was scarier than going through a portal into another world.

Because if she knew Seth, he wouldn’t say it meant nothing to him. Likely, quite the opposite, and then what was she supposed to say to him?

Char squeezed her eyes shut and tried to shove away the emptiness in her belly. She was tired, and physically comfortable. The most she could hope for was to fall asleep.

When she woke up, she was warm and comfortable and the tingling sensation was gone from her feet. Char turned her head and met the keen silver gaze of Jezeen.

She had the same translucent skin as Venn, with sharper cut cheekbones and chin in her narrow face. She also had ebony hair, but unlike Venn’s, hers was shaved to the scalp on the sides, and flowed in a Mohawk-like cut from her crown, loose down to her mid-back. She and Venn were spooned together on the narrow bed, under the white blanket.

Char blinked and made a little nod of acknowledgment.

A moment later, the door slid open with a small ‘whoosh’ and Leader Taig came in with the healer.

The healer glanced uncertainly between Jezeen and Char and said something softly.

Because if she knew Seth, he wouldn’t say it meant nothing to him. Likely, quite the opposite, and then what was she supposed to say to him?

 “He says he will undo your feet now,” Taig said to Char. She stood beside Char’s bed and gazed down with imperturbable grey eyes.

“Alright.” Char began to sit up, but the healer pushed her gently back and fiddled with the restraints holding the casements shut. A moment later, he removed them and said something.

“He is going to prod them,” Taig said. “Tell him if it hurts.”

It didn’t hurt just then, Char realized. Her ankles felt normal.

The healer jammed a finger right into the joint of her ankle. Char winced, but no pain came.

“Good?” Taig asked.

“Good,” Char said.

The healer poked the ankle all over, and then the other. The results were the same. No pain. He got Char to stand. Her ankles held her.

She walked across the cool stone-like floor to the wall and back to her bed. “What the fuck?” she said under her breath.

Venn raised his head and mumbled, “this isn’t a literal phrase, Leader Taig.”

Taig threw her head back and laughed. The healer jumped and smiled with a confused expression. “Leader Char, you cannot know how that translated for me, but it sounded quite vulgar.”

Char raised her eyebrows. “Literally it is. I apologize.”

“I accept this apology,” Taig said. “Your legs are well?”

She nodded. “I want to see my team,” she said. “Where are they?”

“Your team is well.” Taig swept her gaze from Jezeen to Venn. “But I found Venn’s explanations, thus far, of why you are here severely lacking, and I cannot decide with certainty if you are my prisoner or my guest until I know why you are here.”

Right. Char glanced down at her healed feet and ankles and sat down on the bed again. “Okay, well, we are from another world called, um… Earth.”

It wasn’t as if she hadn’t thought this over while she was on watch outside their camp.

She recounted how Venn came to Fort Situk, and how their people were badly in need of resources. They’d been sent to take samples. That was all.

Taig had also sat on an empty bed, while the healer busied himself in the back of the room. Jezeen sat holding Venn’s hand, listening intently.

 “This is our world now,” Taig said when she’d finished. “Did Venn not tell you that?”

Erwell either hadn’t cared, or genuinely thought they could get in and out without alerting the Na’odani. Char pulled out the lie she’d been shaping since the first night in Kaa. “We have few options. We were hoping we could come to some kind of trade agreement.”

Taig folded her hands and rested her pointy chin on them. “That is outside my authority.”

“Leader Taig, if we could make our case to someone,” Char spread her hands, “we would be happy to do so.”

The alien leader exhaled slowly through her nose. “I will send word to my superiors in Eskalon. For now, I will find you a place to stay.”

“Could I see my team?” Char stood.

Taig slid off the bed. “You may see your seconds in command. That is all.”  She turned. “Jezeen, please take Leader Char to the empty quarters in section three. Venn, fetch the Americans called Seth and Leander. Once you have done that, I must speak to you at length.”

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Episode 16: A narrow miss

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When Seth, Leander, and Callum pulled Char’s limp body from the Kaa’s pit, Seth steeled himself against the sight. Moments before, she’d been firing the assault rifle still dangling from her shoulder. She was alive.

“Take this.” Leander ripped the rifle from Char’s body and handed it to Jesse.

Seth quickly assessed Char’s thermal-clad form and prodded at her legs. “Both broken,” he said to Leander.

A wail echoed up the tube and washed over them.

“Quickly!” Venn hissed.

Seth and Leander met eyes. “I’ll take her,” he said.

Seth threw Char’s arm over his shoulder and flipped her into a fire-fighter’s carry.

Suddenly a Kaa burst from a burrow in front of him—a long sinewy, eel-like body and a toothy, sucking mouth, about four feet long.

Leander fired a burst into it. It flopped to the ground.

Seth felt Char twitch and stir.

“That’s a small one,” Venn said. “Go!”

They plunged forward, winding their way through the dens. Another Kaa, twice the size of the first, launched itself into the air a few feet in front of them. It flipped in mid-air as all seven soldiers open fire. Fur and slime splattered the ground before the creature landed with a heavy thump.

A moment later another one, much smaller, sprang from the burrow right in front of the unarmed Jeff. Venn swung Jeff around by the handcuffs, putting himself between them and the Kaa, and flipped into a graceful kick. He drove his boot into the Kaa’s head and, anchored by Jeff, swung himself around and caught the Kaa again with his other foot.

The creature landed hard on the ground, and Callum leapt forward and jabbed his knife into it. Its teeth let loose of the leg and it fell, streaming pale fluid.

“Go!” Venn shouted. He dragged Jeff forward.

They pressed on. Finally they reached the slick, rocky slope of the mountains. Seth stumbled under the load of Char’s light weight. Callum caught him from behind and boosted him up. They climbed up to a small plateau and stopped. As they did, a splat of thick, oily moisture hit Seth’s face. He had no free hand to wipe it away. Another hit his nose, and in a moment a steady rain of fat drops were falling.

“Is that rain?” Marlene asked. She dropped to her knees and fumbled for a vial in her pack.

Seth laid Char down. She stirred and opened her eyes, snapping to alertness.

“Woah, no, no. Don’t sit up.” He pressed her back against the slick rock. “We’re across the valley.”

“My legs are broken,” Char said.

“I know,” Seth said softly. “I’ll need to splint them.”

“Venn’s hurt too,” Jeff said behind them.

Seth turned, and saw Venn calmly winding a strip of fabric around his foot.

“The Kaa’s teeth perforated my boot,” the alien said.

While the others pitched the tents, Seth gave Char and Venn each a shot of pain medication. The doctor then uncuffed Venn and helped him into the tent. Seth and Jeff carried Char inside and helped her out of her thermal pants. As soon as they removed her boots, her ankles began to balloon.

“It’s your ankles,” Seth said.

“Yeah,” Char grunted.

Seth pulled a military-grade broken bone kit from his pack. In fifteen minutes, he’d bound Char’s ankles with quick-forming polymer casts.

Jeff helped Venn staunch his wound and bind it. The Na’odani lay flat on the floor, still breathing heavily. Jeff sat beside him.

“Thanks,” he said to Venn. “You saved my ass.”

Venn nodded.

“You’re stronger than you look,” Jeff said. “That was quite the move.”

“It turns out, Venn is a Kung Fu master,” Seth said wryly.

Char didn’t react to this. He wrapped her up again to stay warm, and propped her up against the wall of the tent.

“Get me Leander,” Char said. Her face was pale and sweaty.

Seth ducked out of the tent and returned a moment later, Leander in tow. She down beside Char. “How are you doing, boss?”

Char swiped a hand across her clammy brow. “Is it raining?”

“Yeah,” Leander said.

“Do you have people on watch?” Char asked.

Leander nodded.

“The protocol says that if one of us is severely injured, we abort immediately,” Char said.

Leander’s face twisted, but she nodded. “I’ll tell the others.”

“Wait,” Char said as Leander began to stand. Her hands stirred in her lap. “We just got here. There has to be a way to stick this out.”

Leander squatted back down. “If we use this is a base, you can stay here and we can fan out to collect more samples.”

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“What about getting back across the valley?” Seth asked softly.

“That detail hasn’t escaped me,” Char snapped. “Just seems like a fucking waste to go back because of a non-life-threatening injury.”

“Well—“

She cut him off. “I’ll take the rest of the day to think of it. The rest of you can make yourself useful.”

A curtain of icy rain had descended over the mountain, reducing their line of sight to the small ring of their encampment. Seth watched Char fight the drowsiness brought on by the pain medication. He didn’t tell her to rest.

The valley, where the Kaa had attacked not an hour before, lay eerily silent. The wind began to blow, howling through the mountain crevice in a hollow moan.

Venn sat silent, awake and alert, listening.

Seth sat down beside Char, and she leaned against him. Her body was rigid.

She tipped her head against his shoulder and shut her eyes. “I’m not an idiot,” she muttered. “Don’t try to talk me into going home. I know what we’re up against.”

Seth smiled grimly. “I haven’t forgotten how determined you can be.”

“Determined?” Char snorted. “Seth, you know what the stakes of this mission are. I’m not going home because I was stupid enough to step in a goddamn Kaa burrow!”

Seth was about to reply when Venn’s head jerked upright.

Char swung her head toward him. “What?”

“I hear something.”

Seth heard pounding footsteps. The tent flap burst open.

“Char!” Callum’s frosted beard and blue eyes filled the opening. “An aircraft is landing.”

Venn lunged to his feet and launched himself toward the opening, dragging Jeff, before Char or Seth could react. Callum grabbed him by both arms and slung him back to the ground.

“Where you going, alien?” Callum towered over him.

“It is my people,” Venn gasped. “Let me speak to them on your behalf.”

“On our behalf?” Char scoffed. “Can’t they understand us just like you can?” She turned to Seth. “Piggy back. Now!”

Seth pivoted and dropped into a crouch in front of her. Char’s wiry arms wrapped around his neck, her legs around his waist.

“Okay,” she said.

Seth crawled out of the door with her on his back.

Outside of the tent, he stood and settled her more firmly onto his back. He blinked at the triangular craft, about twenty feet from point to point, that sat fifty yards from the camp, partially obscured by the pounding rain.

“It just dropped straight down.” Callum acted out the landing by lowering his palm toward the ground.

Leander and the other soldiers stood with guns drawn, facing the craft.

“Listen,” Char said from Seth’s back. “We approach it slowly. We come in peace. Come, Venn.”

As the group approached the craft, a ramp dropped from its belly. Three tall, slim Na’odani marched down it and toward them. Two wore black robes that billowed around them in the wind. The other wore the same, with a sash of blue draped over it. They all wore black helms that covered their cheeks, leaving only their grey eyes exposed. They carried some sort of short staff in their hands.

“We come in peace,” Char shouted. “We mean no harm.”

The three Na’odani stopped. The one with the blue sash stepped forward. “Who are you, and from where do you come?” It spoke in the same halting fashion as Venn. Its voice was higher and sweeter than his, yet commanding.

“We are explorers from America, which is through a portal back there.” Char pointed back toward the valley. “Venn,” she hissed. “Come here.”

Venn stepped out from behind the soldiers. Jeff walked behind him, white-faced.

“We have one of yours as a guide,” Char shouted.

The three Na’odani advanced toward them and stopped about ten feet away. “Bridger Venn?” The leader spoke to him in his own language, a stream of polysyllabic words full of values. It had a musical quality.

Venn answered quietly.

The leader turned and called back to the ship in its own language. Ten more Na’odani emerged from the ship and ran toward then, staves in hand.

Callum and Anna stepped forward, gripping their weapons. Seth’s breath quickened.

“Stand down,” Char ordered, practically in his ear.

“You will come with us now,” the leader said.

Seth felt Char’s grip tighten until it hurt him. “Do as they say,” she said to the team.

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Episode 15: The Valley

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The next long Kaa night arrived without incident. They’d worked their way about five kilometres down the ridge, aided by the lighter Kaa gravity. Char had walked alongside Venn as he explained the calculations. She didn’t follow the math, but she understood the conclusion. Venn’s eyes darted toward the valley as he talked. They’d dropped in altitude considerably since they’d emerged from the portal. They were low enough now to see the tops of the red plants. Up close, they reminded Char of bamboo—tall, narrow, but tapering to a sharp point.

Venn told her, although she already knew, that the ridge was coming to an end. It would meet a bend in the valley soon, and either they could turn back or they could cross the valley right there where it was narrower. His breath came quicker as he said this. Char wondered about the trauma he might be carrying, probably not unlike her own.

Their new camp was squashed under a small crag a few feet above the tops of the plants. Char took a post at one end of the camp, alone this time. Venn was tethered to Callum. She leaned against the rock wall out of the wind and donned her night vision goggles. As the others crept into the tents, Seth sidled over to her.

Char pulled down her goggles. In the deepening twilight, he was mostly a dark mass. He tugged down his frost-covered face mask.

“Leander has been harassing me because we were, quote, ‘snuggling’ this morning,” he said softly. “Apparently if I hurt you she will, quote, cut off my balls and feed them to me.”

Char burst out a laugh. “That sounds like something she would say.” She turned and adjusted her gun. “It was cold, okay?”

“Yeah.”

Char tugged one glove off and ran her bare fingers over his cheekbone. “I know we promised to talk this over.” She stroked his cheek, and his eyes flickered shut. “But I’m supposed to be on watch right now, which also means ‘on listen.’”

“Yeah,” he breathed. He opened his eyes and smiled weakly. “So I shouldn’t worry about it right now?”

“No.” She touched his lips and dropped her hand. Her fingers tingled as she tugged her glove back on again. “Go to bed, okay?”

He walked away, and Char blew her breath out in a long, cloudy gust.

A crawling sensation came over her, like she was being watched. She’d felt that way ever since the wind died down and they were able to travel down the ridge.

Intuition said the Na’odani knew they were here. Char wasn’t about to go off-protocol yet, but that hadn’t stopped her from thinking about what she’d do if they showed up.

Lie. Lie through her nose. Something about them being envoys, maybe setting up a treaty. Maybe that would actually get them somewhere. Somehow this had to work out.

The next morning Char awoke nestled up to Seth again. The tent was flapping hard in the wind. She sighed.

Venn sat cross-legged and still cocooned in his sleeping bag. “Today we will cross the valley,” he said flatly. He turned his head to look at her. His eyes were black.

“Leander has been harassing me because we were, quote, ‘snuggling’ this morning,” he said softly. “Apparently if I hurt you she will, quote, cut off my balls and feed them to me.”

“Yes,” Char said. She scooted out of her sleeping bag and away from Seth’s warm side. She pulled her boots out of the sleeping bag where she was keeping them warm and jammed her feet inside. The others in the tent began to stir as Char tugged on her jacket—she’d slept in her thermal pants—and climbed out of the tent with her submachine gun.

Leander eyed her from where she stood on post, a few feet from the tent. “How’d you sleep? Nice and toasty?”

“I slept fine,” she said.

Leander snorted.

Char sighed. “We really have bigger fish to fry right now, Leander.”

Leander squinted at her. “Did something happen that you haven’t told me about?”

“No,” Char said. “It’s just cold at night, all right?” She turned and strode across the tiny plateau as Venn, Seth, and the other members of her team emerged from her tent.

Char cuffed Venn to Jeff the scientist so all soldiers could have their hands free to shoot if need be.

“Oh, like he’s going to stop Venn if he tries to run.” Marlene sneered at her shorter colleague and adjusted her pack.

Venn towered over Jeff, it was true.

“Jeff will slow Venn down long enough for us to shoot him,” Char said as she clipped the cuff shut.

“Yeah,” Jeff said wryly. “I make wonderful dead weight.”

Nearby, Leander and Anna snickered. Jeff grinned.

Venn smiled tightly.

They decamped and set out down the rapidly descending ridge.

They arrived at the edge of the valley as the high, white Kaa sun was reaching its zenith.

From ground-level the strange red grasses towered ten feet in the air. They had thick bases and rose into a smooth point. They swayed in the freezing gale like an overgrown, cardinal-coloured wheat field.

“All right, we’ll have to take it slow because Venn tells me the Kaa burrows open up all over the valley,” Char said. “Venn, Leander, with me at the front. Callum, Jesse, please take rear.”

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Char took a few steps down into the tall red grasses, her rifle at the ready. She could hear Venn close on her heels because of his quick, panting breaths. She had to shove the grasses aside as she walked. Her hands swatted at the fat, flying bugs that kept swarming around them.

“How is it that you have bugs and live plants when it’s so cold?” she asked Venn over her shoulder.

Venn shrugged. “Kaa is Kaa. This is how it is.” He snatched a bug out of the air and examined it for a moment before letting it go.

She found the first burrow after they’d walked about fifty yards. It was a perfectly round hole, about four feet across. Char peered into the hole as she skirted around it. There was a thin layer of organic material, like soil, and then the same obsidian-like black rock.

They kept moving steadily. In the dense forest of red, Char lost all sense of where they were in the valley. They encountered more and more burrow entrances.

After two hours of walking, Char sensed that the ground was beginning to slope upward. Her shoulders were taut from strain. A headache was creeping up from the base of her neck. She turned back to glance at the group.

She made eye contact with Venn, and as she did, the ground vanished from beneath her.

Char screamed. She fell at least six feet before crashing, feet first into solid rock. She pitched forward onto her knees.

“Char!”

Char looked up. Leander’s and Seth’s faces filled the circle of light above her. “I’m okay,” she hissed. “Throw me a rope. Now!”

She wasn’t fine. Pain was shooting in needles from her feet to her knees. Char squeezed her eyes shut and willed back the pain.

As she opened her eyes, a burbling call echoed through the chamber, opening up into a full-throated wail.

She made eye contact with Venn, and as she did, the ground vanished from beneath her.

“Rope!” Char scrabbled at the shiny rock walls around her and tried to stand. Pain rocketed through both legs. She collapsed.

A rope fell down the tunnel, and Leander and Seth appeared again, obscured by the dark spots in Char’s vision.

“Wrap it around your waist,” Leander said.

Char wrapped the rope around her waist. As she knotted it, the cry echoed down the tunnel again, closer. “Hoist me up!”

Her feet had just cleared the ground when the Kaa burst into the open.

“Oh… fuck!” Char stared down the red folds of the creature’s throat, surrounded by the ring of its black pointy teeth. If it had eyes, Char couldn’t find it beneath its shiny black fur.

A gurgle came out of its cavernous maw, and a moment later a gooey black substance shot out and wrapped around Char’s leg. It formed a rubbery string, tugging her downward.

Char screamed with pain as the rope pulled her upward, and the slime pulled her injured leg downward.

Instinctively, she grabbed for the submachine gun, still hanging by its strap around her neck. She hooked her arm around the rope and turned the barrel downward. As she did, another spurt of black fluid came from the creature’s mouth and caught the toe of her boot.

Char pulled the trigger, sending a spray of bullets into the Kaa. It screamed, a long, grating cry, and drew back. Her legs were pulled further out.

“Wait, stop!” She saw black spots, but managed to pull the trigger again. Viscous clear fluid flew from the Kaa’s body as the bullets plowed into it. It jerked, screamed and slumped down. Liquid seeped from every bullet hole.

“Pull!” she shouted. “Pull me up!”

They began to hoist her up again. The bands wrapping her foot and leg drew longer and longer, pulling at her legs. Char wailed in searing agony.

Suddenly the bond snapped. She swung against the side of the hole. Her knees collided with the black rock. Char cried out, and darkness overtook her.

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Episode 14: What if it’s sentient?

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Venn watched the healer and the two scientists picking their way across the stony plateau from his vantage point above them. Char stood beside him, surveying the landscape in silence. They were cuffed together again. Her weapon, a stubby sub-machine gun, dangled from her other hand.

The healer sat cross-legged on the ground, holding a tiny plant near to his face.

Char chuckled.

“Those plants grow all over the mountains,” Venn said softly. “They’re not edible nor useful for anything else as we can tell.”

Char turned to him. “You’ve already spent months exploring Kaa. You’re not going to give them any hints, are you?”

Venn shrugged. “How do I know what they look for?”

“Are there any useful elements here?”

Venn shrugged again. “The plants in the valley make good building materials.”

She laughed. “You’re a bastard.”

Venn squinted at her and wondered if this was a euphemism, since he certainly was no bastard. His pedigree was pure, though Leader Char could not have known this he supposed. The Americans seemed fond of vulgar-sounding phrases.

Char shifted her gaze to the winding valley, which from their altitude, looked like a rippling red stream. “What kind of plants are they?”

Venn screwed up his face, searching for an analogy and the English words he needed. “They’re like… tall… thick… grass.”

Char let her gun hang by its sling and cupped her hand to her mouth. “Seth! Venn says that’s a useless plant!”

Seth looked up and grinned. “I like it,” he yelled back. He pulled a sampling bag from his pocket, slipped it in, and deposited in his backpack.

Venn eyed the gun slung over Char’s shoulder.

All night before they bridged he’d considered whether it was better to steal a gun while they were all still incapacitated by the bridge and run off without them, or if he should lead them down the ridge to the narrowest point of the valley and convince them to cross. The Na’odani base, if they were still in Kaa, was tucked behind a ridge on the other side.

But he’d been cuffed to small, wiry Char. And she had not been incapacitated by the bridge, and the gale-force wind sealed his decision. He had an inkling he could still overpower the slender woman, but he’d begun to favor the idea of taking them across the valley.

He still needed to reach his people, and it was not in Char’s protocol to engage the Na’odani. He needed to find some way of drawing Na’odani attention.

Her face registered shock. “What? It’s a bug.”

They spent the day that way, slowly working their way down the ridge of mountains collecting samples. Venn was cuffed to Callum for a while, then back to Char. She seemed not to mind his company.

The scientist Marlene, who in Venn’s mind bore striking resemblance to a Na’odani with her thin frame and face and black eyes, caught some kind of creature that she thought was an insect. Before Venn could stop her, she’d placed it in a vial.

“What if it’s sentient?” he asked. He grabbed the vial from her hands.

Her face registered shock. “What? It’s a bug.”

Venn peered into the container at the creature. It was perfectly elliptical, and appeared to be made of black metal. Its wings were paper thin and seemed too small to propel its body.

Char glanced over at it, and then away again.

It’s not a bug.

It was a surveillance device. He hadn’t seen one quite like it, but they could have received new tech from Eskalon while he was away. It was certainly Na’odani. It had the Na’odani eight-pointed star stamped on the bottom.

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Venn handed it back to her.

“Is it sentient?” She sneered at him.

“Who can say?” he said, affecting a sigh. He spun around.

Night fell swiftly over the valley. They re-pitched the tents on a larger plateau and settled down. Char divided her team in half and formed a guard rotation. She sent Leander and the others to bed in the tents. Seth lingered for a while, talking softly to her, before he also bedded down.

“I’ll stay with you,” Venn said.

Char glanced at him and shrugged. “If you’d like.”

Venn flexed his feet inside the American thermal boots. His feet weren’t warm, but he could feel them fine. He walked to the edge of the plateau and stared down into the valley.

Suddenly a long, high keening cry rang out. A moment later another call responded, farther off.

Venn shuddered. Kaa.

“What was that?” Char hissed.

“Kaa,” Venn said softly. “They’ll stay in the valley. Don’t worry.”

Another Kaa shrieked.

Venn’s stomach compressed inside him. Little flashes of memory spun through his mind—straining against the sticky Kaa bonds, the screams of his dying countrymen.

He swallowed hard.

“Venn,” Char said softly. “When you arrived, you said you were running from the Kaa. Why were they after you?”

Venn licked his cold lips. “I escaped from their dens.”

“They captured you?”

“Yes,” Venn said. “And my team with me. Young explorers.”

“What happened to them?” Char asked. Her tone was gentle.

“They died.” Venn squeezed his eyes shut, grateful for the dark. He could picture each young face—some aspired to be great explorers while others, like him, were there because their families compelled them. All dead.

Little flashes of memory spun through his mind—straining against the sticky Kaa bonds, the screams of his dying countrymen.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I know what that’s like.”

A call echoed through the mountains.

“How are they so loud?” Char shifted from foot to foot.

“Their burrows amplify the sound, I suspect.” Venn swallowed. “May I go to the tent?”

Char walked him over to the tent door, nudged the sleeping Seth and cuffed them together.

Venn lay down in his bedroll and wrapped his free arm around the thin pillow instead of putting it under his head. He shut his eyes and imagined it was Jezeen’s thin, firm body and they were face to face in bed. He pictured her silver eyes staring into his, and his hands on her body.

“Do you remember life in Eskalon?” she murmured. Her eyes drifted shut as he ran his hand down her back.

“Only a little,” Venn said. “I was a child.”

She smiled, eyes still shut. “I wish I’d known you then.”

She’d said that many times, and as always he said, “you wouldn’t have liked me. I was a weakling.”

Usually she’d laugh, but this time she sighed, opened her eyes and caught his wandering hand from her breast. “But now that we’re the strong ones, how will we ever feel that we’re home there?”

Venn laced his fingers into hers. “You are my home.”

Venn awoke from the memory. He raised his head and looked around the dim tent. The guard had changed while he was asleep. Char slept on the other side of Seth, nestled into his side. Beyond them, Anna was a curled ball of sleeping bag. It was nearly dawn.

A soft whirring circled the tent, probably quiet enough that only he could hear it. It must have wakened him.

He lay still, listening to the faint metallic quality of the buzz. Drones.

The whir came nearer. A swarm of the surveillance drones swirled around the tent, tapping against the canvas and looking for a way in.

Suddenly a lone buzz crossed the tent. Venn lifted his head. It came close enough that he could see the small orb hovering over him.

He snapped his hand out and caught it. He held it up to his face so it could get a good look at him, and then let it go. It buzzed away, and in a moment it was gone.

Venn smiled. He was found

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Episode 13: The Bridge

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The persistent beeping of his alarm tugged Seth to wakefulness. He raised his head and rolled over to hit the snooze. As he did, he encountered the warm form in the bed beside him.

Ohhhh, no.

He flopped back. Char raised her head, started and pushed herself up on her elbow.

“Today’s the day,” she mumbled.

“I wasn’t drunk,” Seth said. “Were you?”

“Huh?” Char stared at him for a moment. “Oh! No, no I wasn’t drunk.” She lay back down, keeping wary eye-contact.

He sighed. For better or for worse, what had happened had happened. She was his wife. He hadn’t done anything wrong.

Seth leaned over her and dropped a peck on her lips so she wouldn’t feel that he was regretting their night together. He wasn’t—not really.

She cupped his cheek and kissed him again. “This was nice.”

He nodded.

“But now we have to be professionals again,” she continued. “Can we do that?”

He nodded again.

She kissed him one more time, then rolled away. She sat up and dug around on the floor for her clothes. Seth sat up. His head had that balloon-like feel of two hours of sleep. He found his shorts from the night before and put those on and then sat there, semi-stupefied, watching Char get dressed.

“I’ll see you later,” she said softly and disappeared out the door.

“Get up,” he muttered to himself as the door clicked. He got up and woodenly pulled clean underwear out of his dresser. He pulled on the military-grade thermals he’d been given and layered his usual flannel shirt overtop. Seth tugged open the drawer of his nightstand and pulled out a bundle of letters—notes to Will, Brett, and Shania, and some of the others saying goodbye. He took out a sheaf of little wallet-sized pictures: him and Char on their wedding day, him and Char with a moose they’d shot near Taylor Bay, and finally a picture of his Mom and Dad, taken only weeks before they’d died. He slipped them into a little waterproof bag and tucked it into the inner pocket of his thermals.

His throat tightened.

God, I’m scared.

He made the bed and left the letters on his pillow. Next he cleaned up his clothes, on the floor where he and Char had scattered them. His chair went tucked under his desk. Finally, he took his pack from the corner where it stood ready and carried it from the room. As the door clicked shut, Seth swallowed.

Three hours later, they stood in full thermal gear by the portal, which had been marked with flags of red tape. Seth stood with the two scientists: a short, stocky physicist named Jeff and a thin, hawk-eyed chemist named Marlene. Char, Leander and her six team members huddled in a group, clutching their weapons and carrying heavy packs.

Linc stood with them, holding onto a still-cuffed Venn. Venn wore the same thermal gear as they did and carried a pack of gear. His pale face was serene beneath his black stocking cap, but Seth thought he could detect nervousness in his eyes.

Erwell and one of the other site managers stood, shifting in their crackling down-filled thermals, looking serious and important.

“Right,” Erwell said, checking her watch. A hard wind blew out of the west, reeking of burning synthetic materials. She crossed over to Linc. “Let’s go.”

Venn turned and surveyed them all while Linc unlocked the cuffs. Char stepped over, and Linc locked one cuff on her wrist, and the other on Venn’s.

“All right,” Char said. She glanced back and caught Seth’s eye. Her face was strained but calm. “Let’s go.” She tugged the cuff gently.

Venn stepped toward the portal. Char walked alongside him.

Seth followed, jockeying to be the first in the line of scientists.

Venn reached out toward the space between the flags. As the red streamers blew straight out in the bitter wind, his fingertips disappeared into the portal. He turned back and his silver eyes met Seth’s before his fingers closed around Char’s hand.

Char gripped Venn’s fingers and turned, scanning the crowd until she found her ex-husband. Her face was tight but her eyes burned with excitement. She gave him a little grin, then turned and reached back to take Leander’s hand. Leander, in turn, took the hand behind her. They formed a chain and marched slowly toward the portal.

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Venn slid out of sight like he was vanishing beneath the surface of a lake. Only his hand in Char’s remained. Char followed without hesitating.

Seth’s breath caught as her arm glided from view. There was a moment where her face disappeared and Leander laughed, one harsh “hah!”

When it came to Seth’s turn, he forced himself to move forward, propelled by the still-moving chain into the void. He felt the instant his hand touched the portal. It was like plunging his hand into a frozen lake. The hand went instantly numb, and the numbness crept up his arm to his chest. His view of the frozen Alaskan flatland rippled and disappeared.

It was dark. Seth felt a sucking sensation, and then very suddenly it was light again.

Seth knew he wasn’t in Alaska anymore because the reek of Tokyo smoke was gone. It took a moment for his sight to clear. His head felt simultaneously empty and full of lead. Jeff, then Marlene emerged behind him.

“That’s all of us, Venn.” Char’s voice pierced his fog.

Seth’s vision cleared, and his senses rolled back in.

They stood on a plateau. Beneath them, the valley Venn had spoken of spilled out in a crimson flood. A sharp, frigid wind bore down on them. Petite Char had her feet planted wide, leaning into the gale. Venn stood alongside the portal, still gripping her hand.

A bizarre ringing sound, like a prolonged gong-blast or a deep, metallic ringing, hummed above the roar of the wind.

“What’s that noise?” Seth shouted.

“The wind through that crevasse.” Venn pointed beyond the portal, which lifted Char’s arm along with his. She tugged it back down.

Seth turned and stared up at the mountain that towered over them. Unlike the snowy, craggy mountains of Alaska, it curved upward in a continuous, black, glassy swoop. The sharp point was broken off and split down the middle by a narrow crevice. Mountains stretched in either direction like shiny black teeth.

An icy gust wailed down the mountain. Char wobbled and grabbed Venn.

Jeff and Marlene were both on their hands and knees. Half of Char’s soldiers were in the same position, including Leander.

Callum stood, planting his stocky legs wide and scrubbing at his eyes with his gloved hand. “Boss, do we take cover?”

“Let’s huddle up.” Char shouted. “Hunker down for now until you feel ready to move.”

To Seth’s right, Leander began crawling toward her nearest teammate. Marlene and Jeff the scientists inched toward them. Soon, all of them were huddled together in a clump on the ground. Venn and Char knelt on the edge of the cluster. Seth edged in beside them and tugged his thermal mask up over his face.

His breathing felt slightly laboured, perhaps because of the compressing effect of the portal, or because of the thinner atmosphere in Kaa.

“Bridging makes many first-timers dizzy,” Venn said in Seth’s ear. “Sometimes it takes a day to pass. How are you feeling?”

“Fine,” Seth said. “Only my chest feels heavy.”

“That may also be the portal,” Venn said. He was breathing heavily. “We’ll be safe from the Kaa here.”

The wind slammed suddenly against them, kicking up fine silt in their faces. Marlene yelped.

“We need to shelter in place until we can travel safely,” Char yelled over the howl of the wind. She struggled to stand, dragging Venn with her. Callum and Seth stood, too.

Char glanced at Venn, still tethered to her. “This won’t work,” she said.

She uncuffed Venn and cuffed him to Jesse, who was huddled between Leander and Jeff.

It took them at least half an hour to erect their first tent and stake it out on the slick rock surface. Leander had mostly recovered, but by the time she’d helped shuttle half of the team into the tent, she was wheezing.

Char and Callum were also panting. Char’s chin jutted behind her thermal mask as she picked up the second tent. They wrestled the flapping tent upright and staked it out, then dragged Leander, Anna, Jesse, and Venn into the tent. Seth propelled Marlene and Jeff into the other tent before he dove in after them. Char followed.

Seth sprawled in the space between Char and Jeff, exhausted. For a moment, the only sound was the metallic ringing of the wind through the mountain’s split.

“I need to make sure the others activated their heater,” Char wheezed. She shoved herself to her knees.

“I’ll go,” Seth said.

“They’re my responsibility.” She unzipped the flap and plunged out of the tent.

Seth stuck his head out of the door and watched her bend into the wind until she reached the wobbling tent. A moment later she came back, practically falling into the tent.

“Activate ours,” she gasped.

Seth reached over and depressed the switch on the little infrared heater.

“Huddle up.” Char sank down and flopped against Seth.

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Episode 12: Maybe there’s Still a Spark

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The whopping of a helicopter made Char glance up as she approached the bottom of the corner tower. A big black aircraft descended through the bronze-toned sky. Char squinted at it for a moment before she climbed the ladder into the roofed parapet.

“Incoming,” she said to Linc and Leander, who were leaning out and gazing at the landing chopper.

“Good times,” Leander said. She raised her binoculars. “Are these the bigwigs? Considering what we’re doing tomorrow, you’d think the place would be crawling with them.”

Linc laughed. “Seems fortunate to me.”

As the chopper wound down and fell silent, Char sighed. “Erwell is being very tight-lipped. It’s suspicious, I’ll give you that.”

Leander laughed.

Char sighed. “I’ve been trying to get them to bring in more of us instead but that will take expediting their security clearance checks—“

“Interesting enough, those checks didn’t illuminate the fact that your husband was working on base,” her friend said.

“Or it’s just not a big deal.” Char scowled at her. “What are we, fourteen?”

Linc’s eyes dodged away uncomfortably.

“Yeah, you’re a Seth sycophant. Sorry, Linc.” Leander jabbed him with her elbow.

“Geez, Leander. I came here to get away from assholes, not to find another one,” Char said. “Anyway, Erwell will brief us tonight at 1900 hours. Be there or be square.”

“Should be fun,” Leander said, deadpan.

<>

The conference room was too small to fit both Char’s team and Erwell’s team and but they were in there anyway. Char escorted Venn, cuffed, into the midst of the standing-room only crowd and felt him freeze.

“Easy, there, Venn,” she said softly. “This circus is almost over.”

“What is a circus?” Venn whispered back.

“I’ll explain later,” she answered.

“All right, let’s quiet down,” Erwell called, even though they were all mostly quiet. She had a strange, skull-like grin on her face. “I’ll start going through the protocol.”

Char spotted Seth in the corner, leaning against the wall behind her team. She sidled Venn through the group to stand beside Seth and tucked herself in beside him.

She glanced over at Seth’s tight face and crossed arms. He met her gaze and gave her the barest hint of a smile.

“How are you holding up?” he whispered to her.

“I have a headache.” Her head ached from a potent combination of fatigue, noise, and caffeine.

“I’ll give you something after,” he said.

Erwell flicked on the projected display against the wall and began going through the protocol. They had a week, Alaska time, to complete the scouting mission. Venn’s calculations said that would equal nine and a half days in Kaa.

They’d be measuring everything from the oxygen percentage in the atmosphere to the force of gravity. They’d take samples of the water and every element and plant they could find and carry.

Conspicuously absent, any mention of the Na’odani. Char had brought this up with Erwell the first time she’d read the protocol documents at a table in the corner of the cafeteria.

“Your job will be to avoid them,” Erwell had said.

Char had blinked. “Avoid them? What if we can’t?”

“Avoid them at all costs,” Erwell said. “They’re peaceful. Venn said so. Just stick to taking samples.”

A pit had settled in Char’s stomach then.

The Na’odani stayed out of the protocol.

The security team already been paid handsomely, with more coming when they returned. If they didn’t return, their families would receive compensation. That was one little bit that Char had successfully pushed for. If they didn’t return, their families would never find out what happened to them, but at least they’d be taken care of.

When Erwell’s presentation finished, Char said goodnight to her team and marched Venn back to his cell. Seth followed wordlessly behind until they’d left Venn in his room.

“You want something for the headache?” Seth asked as Char locked the door.

“Avoid them at all costs,” Erwell said. “They’re peaceful. Venn said so. Just stick to taking samples.”

“Yeah,” she said. Her headache radiated from behind her eyes and deep into her shoulders. Her chest was tight with anxiety.

The base had gone into power-saving mode. Every second hall light had turned off, leaving the curving hall in murky grey-green twilight. Seth walked ahead of her and unlocked the door to the infirmary.

“Linc will take care of my plants,” he said.

“Oh, good.” Char felt this was some kind of opening to something—what, she didn’t know.

They stepped in and Seth turned on the light. For a moment, he was busy digging out pain medication from a cabinet.

As Char washed it down, Seth turned to her.

“In case we don’t make it tomorrow,” he began slowly, “I wanted to say once again that I’m very sorry for how things went between us.”

Char sighed. “Yeah, I know you are, Seth.” Her aching brain spun, trying to come up with the right words to say.

“I’m sorry, too,” she stuttered.

Seth’s hands quivered at his side. Was he thinking of reaching for her? A strange quiver went through her.

“I guess you’d probably like to make this split official,” he said.

Oh.

“I sent you the divorce papers,” she said roughly.

“I didn’t get them.”

“I know.” Char ran one hand through her hair and turned away. “Yeah, I guess we should get that done.”

She heard Seth sigh. His fingers brushed her back, lingered there a moment. He stood there, touching her, for a few seconds.

Char opened her mouth to say something, but he walked past her to the door.

“I guess we should get some sleep,” he said.

They parted ways in the hall outside Seth’s bedroom. Char went into her room without turning on the lights and sat down on the bed.

What Seth had said kept running through her mind. What she’d said had hardly encapsulated what she’d wanted to say—that she’d treated him badly, too. That she’d been so goddamn wrapped up in her career that she’d essentially left him before she’d left the marriage. It seemed a little hollow to apologize now that the career she’d built had crumbled and didn’t matter anymore. Of course she was sorry now—now that she’d lost her career.

Char lay down and shut her eyes. Maybe it didn’t matter. If they survived the mission, she’d cut him completely free. He could start over.

His words ran through her head again, his sigh, the brush of his fingers to the small of her back, and the quiver that ran through her when he did.

Char groaned. She felt around in the dark and undid her boots. They clumped to the floor, and she curled up under the thin covers. She tried to think about something else—the mission, stepping through the portal—but the anxious spiral of what Seth thought of her could not be broken.

In an ideal world, she’d go back eight years in time and re-start officer candidate school. Heck, she’d probably not bother with it and be happy with rising up the non-commissioned ranks. She’d go with Seth to Taylor Bay to help him plant trees in the spring. She would spend less time on runs and in the gym and spend more time drinking coffee and reading books with her husband—hell, making love to him.

His words ran through her head again, his sigh, the brush of his fingers to the small of her back, and the quiver that ran through her when he did.

She’d probably have gotten almost as far and not be the anxiety-riddled wreck she was now.

Char rolled onto her back and sank into the pillow, weighed down by a wave of grief mingled with fear.

She tossed back and forth for at least another hour before a strange resolve came over her. She had to talk to him. She stood up and slipped out into the quiet, dim hallway and marched over to his door.

He opened the door after her third soft knock. His dark eyes appeared in the opening. He’d shed his thick sweater and was down to a thin, grey t-shirt and his shorts. His blue-black hair hung loose around his shoulders.

“Seth?” Her voice cracked. She couldn’t quite look him in the eye.

“Yeah?” his voice was also strained.

She reached to push the door open, at the same time that he reached to pull her into the room, grasping her by the wrist. As the door clicked shut, he propelled her into his arms. His mouth came down as hers came up to meet it.

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Their mouths tangled for an eternity. Char dug her fingers into his hair and Seth’s hand tugged her shirt out of her waistband and slid underneath.

“Char.” Seth mouth was hot on her ear, her neck. “Char.”

Her blood surged in her veins. “I’m here, Seth.”

<>

They lay curled up together under the covers. Seth’s fingers stroked her hip in a slow figure eight.

“This wasn’t actually what I came for,” Char slurred.

Seth’s head lifted. “What?”

Char twisted around to look back at him and tucked a strand of his hair behind his ear. “But I’m not mad about it.”

Seth smiled sleepily.

Char faced away from him again and settled back against his warm body.

“Promise me,” Seth said in her ear, “that if we make it through the portal safely, we’ll talk about this.”

Char nodded. “Deal.”

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