Episode 25: The final bridge

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By eight in the morning, Char had heard nothing from Erwell, so she called her on the comm.

“Any word from the higher ups?” Char said into the device. She sat on the edge of Seth’s bed with his pillow clutched in one arm. She was glad Erwell couldn’t see her. Better she think they were still on the other side of a messy divorce.

Erwell didn’t answer for almost a minute.

“Nothing definite.” The director’s voice sounded strained.

“How are the Na’odani?” Char fingered the seam of the pillowcase.

“I have them talking to some of my scientists,” Erwell answered. “That will keep them quiet for now.”

“Keep me posted,” Char said.

“Okay,” Erwell replied, slightly crackled by the comm.

Char sighed and clipped the comm to her belt. She slipped out into the hall, grabbed some thermals from her room, and went outside.

She found Linc in a corner tower, pacing to keep warm.

“Hey, Boss,” Linc said as she climbed onto the platform. “How’s it going?”

“I’m jet-lagged,” she answered dryly. “Listen, Linc. Did you do what I asked?”

“Yeah.” Linc stood closer to her. “I went to go see the Na’odani.”

“And?”

“They asked me some strange questions.” Linc’s eyes narrowed. “Like about my range of hearing, and the material the compound is made of.” He grinned. “Concrete was hard to explain.”

“Huh,” she mused. “Go peek in on them at noon, will you?”

Linc gave her a sloppy salute. “I’ll report when I do.”

Char climbed down, but paused at the base of the ladder. “Hearing? Materials?” she muttered. She rubbed her gloved hand over the back of her neck and blew out her breath.

She broke into a jog toward the compound, drawing up short by the door.

There was a fifty-fifty chance Erwell would have the Na’odani killed for their kemzog. If so, she would never see Leander, Seth and the others again. But if it came to that, it would mean powering the fading American cities—probably save millions of lives.

Char was shivering as she entered the hall, blinking in the dim light. “Shit,” she whispered. “If only Seth and Leander were here.”

Leander would say to let her go and save more lives.

Her throat thickened. “Yes, but everyone who cares about me is on the other side of that fucking portal.”

Char squared her shoulders and marched down the hall toward Erwell’s offices.

Erwell didn’t answer the door on her first knock. Char’s hand froze mid-air before she could knock again. Her drew a deep breath.

I won’t let them kill the Na’odani.

Her breath shuddered out. The door opened.

“Oh.” Erwell’s face was pale. “Char. Good.”

“What’s the plan?” Char asked in a low voice.

“We’re going to take the kemzog.” Erwell pushed past her into the hall.

Char followed. “You’ll kill them?”

“Yes,” the director said without looking back. “They don’t want news about this spreading.”

Char blinked. “But the—”

“I’m sorry, Char.” The woman didn’t look at her.

Char’s outburst caught in her throat.

Erwell trotted down the stairs into the lower level where the Na’odani were held. Char followed. She’d think of something.

Several soldiers—army, not security—were already there. Char saw Leader Taig’s face at the window of their holding room. They met eyes.

Char widened her eyes and made a little slashing motion across her throat.

The alien’s face froze. She nodded.

Erwell opened the door. “Leader Taig, our leadership has come to a decision.”

“Indeed.” Taig’s pale eyebrows rose.

“We won’t enter into a trade agreement,” Erwell said. “We will remove your kemzog stones, save one. After that, you will go back through the portal.”

Taig’s eyes darkened to jet black. “Indeed,” she said again. “That will not be acceptable.”

“If you don’t cooperate, we’ll kill you,” Erwell said flatly.

Taig’s gaze went over the director’s shoulder to Char. Her eyes darted to the stairs.

Char blinked.

Taig’s eyes went to the stairs again. Char took a step back and edged in that direction.

The room was eerily quiet behind her for a moment. As Char drew abreast with the door at the top of the stairs, she rather felt than heard a high-pitched sound. Char threw herself through the entry and to the floor and covered her head with her arms.

The floor bulged in a wave beneath her. A deep groan went through the building. Dust and pebbles of concrete fell on her arms and back. A moment later, a pair of long hands gripped her arms.

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“Leader Char, are you all right?” Venn asked.

“Yeah,” Char slurred.

Venn heaved her to her feet and spurred her forward. “How do we get out of here?”

She wiped the dust from her eyes. Her ears rang. “Follow me,” she gasped.

She got the Na’odani from that pod into the hall that led up and out before two soldiers burst into the hall ahead of them, guns drawn.

Char, still off balance from the sound wave, threw herself to the side. She felt the high-pitched sound pierce her. A moment later the soldiers flew backward. Venn propelled her forward, up the ramp.

She saw Venn talking, but all she heard was garbled noise. They lunged into bright sunshine. Char trained her swirling eyes on the gate, noting the soldiers that stood between them and escape.

“Fire the thing again!” she thought she said the words aloud, but she could barely hear her own voice. Nevertheless, she felt the shockwave bowl over her again, knocking the soldiers to the ground. Char and the group ran unobstructed up to the gate.

She saw Linc half-running, half-staggering toward them. “Open the gate!” she yelled at him. She saw Venn motion to the Na’odani not to attack Linc.

Linc slammed open the panel at the metal gates and punched in the code.

A moment later, the first shot cracked overhead. Char, Linc and the Na’odani were already running down the slope toward the portal.

Char felt the zing of a bullet past her face, and then another. They were almost to the red flags marking the portal.

“Oof!” Char was knocked off her feet. She felt nothing, but she knew she’d been shot. The first Na’odani disappeared through the portal, and then the next. Linc went through, gripped by leader Taig. Venn ran past her.

“Venn!” she screamed, struggling to get up. Her legs weren’t working.

He turned back, eyes huge in his pale face. He grabbed her under the arms and dragged her to the portal.

She felt the sucking sensation, and Alaska disappeared as her world faded to black.

Char woke up in an aircraft over the Kaa valley. Her head lay in Linc’s lap.

“You’re going to be okay, boss.” Linc’s usually bronze face was grey-tinged. “Hold on.”

“I don’t feel anything,” Char wheezed. She could hear him again, but faintly. “Where am I hit?”

“In the lower back,” Linc said. “Taig stabilized you herself. You’ll be okay.”

“Seth,” she groaned.

“We’ll see him soon.” Linc smoothed her hair back roughly. “Just lie still.”

<>

Char woke again in Healer Kaz’s infirmary, laid out on one of the table-beds. Seth curled up beside her. His arm warmed her belly. She felt heat and tingling from the waist down.

“Seth,” she whispered.

His head lifted. “Char,” he breathed. He kissed her face, her mouth.

“How bad am I hurt?” Char tried to lift her head, but it felt lead-like.

Seth propped himself up on his elbow and ran his fingers over her cheek. “The bullet severed your spinal cord.” He swallowed. “But Healer Kaz is working on it, and it may heal.”

“So I’m—?” Char’s throat clamped. “Crippled?”

“We don’t know that,” Seth soothed. His dark eyes held her fast. “They can mend broken bones. Leader Taig suspects Kaz’s treatment will repair it.”

Her breath shuddered. “And we are what now?”

Seth settled back down beside her and pulled her close. “The Na’odani have staked out the portal. One of their own was killed, so Erwell has six kemzog stones now. They’re waiting on the counsel to decide if they’ll retrieve them or not.” He sighed. “Leader Taig assures us that since you and Linc helped them escape, we will not be harmed.”

“So we just…” Char took a deep breath. “We wait.”

Seth nodded and pressed his face into her neck. “But this is all I care about right now,” he murmured.

Char clutched his hand against her cheek and shut her eyes.

END


Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed Bridger, you may also enjoy this excerpt from Sons of Earth, a dystopian novel about a clone whose fight to take down an evil corporation leads him to question his humanity.

PROLOGUE

He was watching her. Though he never made eye contact, from under his long, dark lashes, he watched. His perfect lips curled, almost too minute to perceive. It made a full body exam decidedly awkward.

But she was done. Khalia pointed to his clothes, folded neatly on the table, and with the same obedience she expected, he picked them up and began pull them on. Even with her eyes on her clipboard, she could still feel his gaze. She glanced up. The bluish fluorescent light sent glints off his eyes as he dropped them.

MFP25A12 was her third and last examination of the morning. The other two had been in perfect condition. She’d recorded every parameter, all within limits, almost exactly on target. Not A12. Vitals, in limits. Height, 183 cm—in limits. Weight, 80.73 kg—drastically out of limits. At his age, he should be not less than 90kg. Khalia scanned the parameter sheets of the last two months. His weight gain had leveled off two weeks ago, even after adjustments to his diet.

Thud. Khalia glanced up. The MFP was, for once, not looking at her. He’d dropped his shoe onto the concrete floor. She shook her head, and flipped through his records.

He was reject—garbage.

Khalia sighed and took one last glance across the pages. As she flipped back to the first page, her eyes lit on a section titled “Intelligence Quotient. Limits 100-120,” and below it, the number 183.

Her head snapped up. A12, now dressed in his black garments, didn't bother to lower his gaze. He stared at her, full on.

"Hey." She pointed with two fingers toward the floor. His chin tilted downward in obedience but his lip curled again.

Khalia shivered. What rogue gene had slipped through, gracing this specimen with genius IQ?

She should test him. Maybe it was a mistake, a transcription error. Who had tested him? The signature was Adam’s. She needed to ask, even if by all physical signs MFP25A12 was destined to be rejected. Barjinder would want to know how this happened.

Khalia grabbed a blue tag from one of the many hooks beside the light switches. It read “Further Testing Required”, the one right beside the red “Reject” tag, stark crimson against the snow-white wall. She stuck it to the Velcro patch on A12’s sleeve.

“Come.”

She opened the door and led him into the wide, fluorescent lit hall, past the rows of exam-room doors, and into the airlock. She shed her shoe covers and lab coat and pushed him ahead of her into the warm yellow light of the corridor. "I'm taking this one for further testing,” she said to the forms clerk. She signed the sheet that was handed to her, and then led her charge two doors over to the genetics lab.

Barjinder’s desk was empty. She’d get the MFP situated, then go find him.

Khalia opened the door of the holding room, an eight by eight room with a cot and a toilet, and let her charge pass by her. She turned and set the clipboard in the folder by the door and grabbed the log book to fill it out. Her pen had just formed the letters “M F P” when she heard a slight rustle.

Her head turned, and she was nose to nose with the MFP. She squeaked, and then his hands were on her throat. She thrashed, he pushed her against the wall, pinning her. Her lungs burned empty, her head swam. She made one last effort to jerk free. He was a brick wall.

Black spots grew larger and larger.

The last thing Khalia saw before she lost consciousness was his dark eyes, gazing deep into hers. His lip was still curled.

Find Sons of Earth on Amazon.


Episode 24: Welcome to America

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Instead of the long hike across the valley and along the mountain ridge, they took the aircraft to the plateau where the portal to Alaska was.

Char’s throat was tight with the emotions unexpressed when she left Seth, Leander, and her soldiers. She stood in the center of the plateau under the wing of the aircraft as Taig spoke to her soldiers. Marlene huddled almost right in her armpit, shivering in the cold.

“Too bad it’s also winter in Alaska,” Marlene muttered.

Taig turned from her group of soldiers. “Leader Char, are your people ready?”

“Yes,” Char said flatly. She wasn’t sure she was.

She’d hoped having sex with Seth would distract her long enough to sleep. He slept. She lay awake rehearsing what she would tell Erwell.

“Good,” Taig said. “Come, then.” She smoothed down her blue sash. Her eyes were pale in her porcelain face. She held out her hand.

Char gripped her cold fingers and advanced with her toward the portal.

The now-familiar sucking sensation greeted her. Char felt her whole body compress, then stretch out to immense lengths.

Then everything snapped back together. Char couldn’t see anything for a moment, but she smelled something familiar: burning garbage.

Her eyes opened. The black night sky swirled with stars above her. She heard the soft whir of the wind turbines and took a breath of smoky air.

“Welcome to America,” she said.

Leader Taig stood still beside her, eyes shut. “Your air smells sick.”

A half-second later the spotlights glared in their eyes.

An amplified voice boomed over the snowy ground. “Don’t move!”

Char raised her hands above her head and stepped to the front of the group. Anxiety rose up like bile in her throat.

<>

Leader Taig with her black robes and blue sash towered over Erwell and the two government officials. The eleven Na’odani had been forced to relinquish their staves, but even so they filled the boardroom with their presence. Except for Venn, who stood with Char, his face pale and drawn. His eyes flicked between his leader’s face, and the faces of the soldiers packed into the room around them.

Actual army. The security detail was on patrol.

Two government men and Erwell stood at the end of the boardroom table with their eyes still set in shock and their faces moulded into rigid masks.

Char drew a deep breath and felt her chest muscles resist. Erwell hadn’t said it yet, but Char had a bad feeling that whatever deceptions she’d pulled to get them into Kaa hadn’t worked out for her.

Erwell cleared her throat. “Tell us why you’ve brought these… um… people with you, Charlane.”

“Director Erwell,” Char began, her tone more commanding than she felt. “I recognize that the protocol we were given did not involve engaging with the Na’odani people. However, after an incident with the inhabitants of Kaa, the Na’odani found us in foul weather and with injuries and took us in.”

“Indeed,” Erwell said sharply. “But why did they come here?”

“We have come,” Leader Taig interjected, “to speak to you about the kemzog stone you have taken from Bridger Venn, and also about the conditions under which you Americans can come into Kaa.”

Erwell and the officials stood silent, blinking up at Taig.

“I am sorry.” Taig spread her hands in the same gesture Leader Hya had used. “But on behalf of the high council of Eskalon, capital of Na’o, I cannot allow you to enter Kaa until the kemzog stone has been returned and conditions have been settled upon.”

Erwell cleared her throat. “We aren’t authorized to negotiate, uh—”

“But you did have authority to send these people into Kaa,” Taig said flatly. “I am authorized to negotiate. Take me to your leader.”

There was a moment of silence, and then Erwell burst out a laugh. “Yeah, okay.”

“Director,” Char began slowly.

Taig gripped Char’s wrist and pointed to Erwell. “What is her name?”

“Director Greta Erwell,” Char said.

“Director Greta Erwell,” Taig said. “I have been told your world is dying. Your air smells sick, and so I believe this is true. If you desire to save your world, perhaps you would do well to listen to me. If you desire to see your soldiers again, I suggest you listen to me.”

“Right.” The director gave a little nod. “Then I suppose we should contact our leadership so we can do that. Let’s find you a place to stay while we do that.”

Char knew immediately what that meant. She pressed her lips together.

Soldiers stepped up and escorted the Na’odani out. Erwell grabbed Char as she began to go with them.

Taig glanced back, caught Char’s eye, and nodded before she was shuttled out of sight.

“What the fuck, Char?” Erwell’s eyes were bright with anger.

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Char dropped into one of the boardroom chairs. The two officials sat down across from her. She summarized everything they’d seen in Kaa and Na’o—the technology, the landscape, and once again, how the Na’odani had found them.

“They’re open to negotiating,” Char finished. “But they want that stone back.”

“Listen,” one of the officials said. “How many of those stones do they have with the right now?”

Char glanced at him. “Meaning?”

“Meaning,” Erwell said, “that while you’ve been gone we’ve been running tests on the metal and we are not giving it back. When submitted to certain sound frequencies, it puts out a tremendous surge of energy. That must be why it causes the bridge. If we keep it under frequency, we could power Juneau with that little piece.”

She paused.

“Venn has five more,” Erwell said. “What about those soldiers?”

Char tried to picture the Na’odani. “I don’t know if any of the soldiers have Kemzog stones. Taig is a bridger. She probably has as many stones as Venn does.”

“Then we need to get them,” the director said.

“Erwell,” Char said in a low voice, “don’t forget that there are four prisoners back in Kaa.”

“Right,” she said absently. “Do they have more of that stuff in Kaa?”

“I don’t know,” Char said. “Whatever the bridgers have, I guess.”

“How many of them are there?”

Char had no idea. They’d been kept isolated.

“Why don’t they use kemzog?”

“It’s sacred, apparently,” Char said.

“Huh,” Erwell said. “Well, ten bridgers could power the country.”

Char sat silently, processing this.

The officials and Erwell also sat in silence. The director fiddled with her cuffs, hovering on the edge of her chair.

“I’ll tell you what.” Erwell stood. “The aliens are secure. Let’s take time to think over our next course of action.”

Char opened her mouth to say something—what, she was not sure—but nothing came out.

“Very well.” One of the officials stood. “Thank you, Ms. Lee-Thompson. You may go.”

“All right,” Char said softly. She stood to go.

“Don’t—“ Erwell thrust one finger at her “—speak one damn word to the Na’odani.”

Char nodded and slipped into the hall and started toward the officers’ pod. She ran her hand down the familiar curved wall. She hesitated by the turn that led toward the infirmary.

“Boss, you’re back.”

Char looked up and saw Linc walking toward her, carrying a small potted plant.

“Yeah,” Char said softly. “Seth isn’t here. I’m sorry.”

Linc’s eyes widened.

“The Na’odani kept him prisoner.” A lump filled Char’s throat. “Now Erwell and her gang are trying to decide if we should make nice with the Na’odani or kill them and steal their kemzog stones.”

“Oh, yeah.” Linc leaned on the wall and stared down into his plant. “The kemzog. They almost blew up the bottom lab with that stuff.”

Char’s eyebrows rose.

“Listen.” She took a step closer to the young soldier, lowering her voice. “Can you just go find out where they’re keeping the Na’odani?”

He nodded. “Yeah, of course.”

“Don’t call me on the comm,” Char said. “Tell me in person.”

Linc gave her a knowing look. “Got it.” He held out the plant to her. “Hang onto this for me. It’s just basil for the cook.”

She took the plant, and Linc trotted off.

Back in her room, Char lay on her back on the bed just enjoying the standard, military-issue mattress for a moment.

Linc came back five minutes later, retrieved his basil, and told her that the Na’odani were kept in several rooms in the same area that Venn had been held before. They seemed at ease, he said.

Char lay back down when he was gone. She wasn’t about to sleep. It was morning when she left Kaa. She tossed and turned for a while, paced for another while, and then finally picked up her comm and went out into the hall.

Seth’s door wasn’t locked. She slipped into his room.

His bed was perfectly made. Running shoes sat against the wall by the door. An old parka hung on a hook. His snowmobile helmets sat on top of his dresser. A bundle of papers sat on the bedside table. Char picked them up and opened the first. It was a letter to say goodbye to Uncle Will.

The lump in her throat nearly strangled Char.

She flopped down on the bed and rolled to push her face into Seth’s pillow, breathing in his scent.

“Seth,” she whispered. “I’m going to get you back.”



Episode 23: Back to Alaska

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They landed in the dark.

From the heat of Na’o, the cold when the ramp opened went straight to Char’s bones. Venn and Jezeen shuttled them straight into the base.

Two other Na’odani took Char to her private room, leaving the others to go to the holding room they’d occupied before.

Char sat down on her bench bed. Her spine felt post-rigid. Her chest muscles felt like solid plastic.

Erwell will never give back that stone.

She just wanted to get them home. She wanted bring home the faithful soldiers that had followed her through worlds. She wanted to bring Seth home.

Actually, she wanted to take Seth home to Taylor Bay, to make stealthy love in his parents’ spare bedroom, to hike with him along the bay in the cool morning, to hold his hand and listen to the waves crash on the rocky shore.

That couldn’t happen, she knew that. Still, the thought of leaving Seth in Kaa indefinitely made her feet nauseous and empty.

Failure.

She could almost hear her mother say it, with that throaty smoker’s voice.

Mom, lying in the hospital bed, lung cancer draining the life out of her. “Divorced, eh? Figures. What the hell were you thinking, marrying that Indian?”

“Shut up!” Char spat. “It wasn’t my fault.”

“Yeah?” Mom lifted her head weakly. “Charlane, did nothing about mine and your father’s marriage teach you anything? Did none of that get through your head? God!”

Mom flopped back against the pillow. “Well, look on the bright side. Without that dead weight, maybe you’ll finally do something with your life.”

That stung. She’d just been promoted to captain.

“Yeah, whatever.” Char hunched her shoulders and turned away. “I’ve got to go.”

The whoosh of the door opening snapped Char to present.

Leader Taig stood in the opening.

“Leader Char.” Taig bowed her head in greeting. “We will discuss our plans for tomorrow’s bridge. Please come with me.”

Taig escorted her to the holding room where her people were. It was a smaller version of the bunk room where they’d stayed in Eskalon.

Her soldiers stood when she came in.

Char caught Seth’s eye. His mouth quirked, a slight smile.

“Leader Char will discuss with you who will stay and who will go,” Taig said. “Leader Hya has already declared that Healer Seth will stay. Four of you must come. This I shall leave to you.”

Char cleared her throat. She found Seth’s eyes again. “There is no easy person to leave behind,” she said. “I’m sorry it’s come to this.”

“It’s not your fault,” Seth said. “We all know that.”

Marlene, seated on her bunk in the corner, spoke up. “Well, you’ve got to send the scientists back with the samples, right?” Her face was haggard.

“Yeah, at least one of you,” Leander said.

“No, you should send both of us.” Marlene shuffled her feet on the black floor. “We’re civilians. You’ve got to protect us, right?”

Jesse snorted. “We’re all civilians.”

“Not really.” Leander spun to face him. “I mean, I’ve done time in a Russo-Chinese prison. You think I’m not better prepared to stay in Kaa than Marlene the squint is?”

Marlene muttered something unintelligible.

Jesse jabbed one finger at Leander. “You have no one to go back to. I have a mom who will be on her own if I don’t come back.”

“Guys,” Char raised both hands. “Let’s roll this back. Is there anyone here who will volunteer to stay?”

“Yeah, me,” Leander growled.


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Char swept her gaze around the circle. Jeff, the slight scientist, was frowning so deeply his eyebrows were disappearing behind the rims of his glasses.

“Yeah, I will,” he said. He lifted his gaze to Leader Taig. “I want to study with your healer. Seth does, too.”

Taig’s impassive face relaxed slightly. “Perhaps that can be arranged.”

Char shifted her eyes back to the soldiers. “Anyone else? I need two more.”

Jesse crossed his arms. His face was tight, eyes troubled. “Boss, my mom…”

“Others of us have families too, Jesse,” Char said softly.

Anna uncrossed her arms, revealing her missing hand, and straightened. “I’ll stay, Boss. I’ve done worse.”

“Thanks, Anna.” Char said.

The room was silent for a long time.

“I’ll stay,” Callum said from behind the rest of them. “I’ve done time, too. I’m not scared.”

“Thanks.” Char turned to Leader Taig. “Are you satisfied?”

Jesse swung around and pushed through the rest of them to the bunks. He disappeared into his little cubicle.

Taig cleared her throat. Her eyes had lightened to translucent silver. “Eskalon has sent me ten soldiers. They will travel with us. I will escort you. Venn will come. Jezeen will not.”

“You’ve seen our weapons,” she added softly. “You know our capacity. Venn has told me of your weapons. Any conflict between us would mean great loss of life.”

Char nodded.

“Without a treaty in place,” Taig said, “there will be no tolerance if your people enter Kaa. They will be killed without hesitation. I have no desire to see this happen. Can you trust me in this?”

“Yes,” Char said.

Taig bowed her head. “We will leave at first light.” She turned to go, reaching to propel Char out before her.

“Leader Taig.” Char said quietly. “Allow me to keep my vowed one with me for the night.”

To her left, Leander raised her eyebrows and suppressed a smile.

Taig nodded. “As you will. Come, Healer Seth.”

A few minutes later, the door of Char’s room slid shut behind Taig. Char and Seth were alone.

Seth turned to her, his hands stuffed in his pockets. He was back in his American clothes.

“It will be okay,” he said.

“Yeah,” she replied.

Seth ducked his head to make eye contact with her. “They could form a treaty and everything will work out.”

“Maybe.” Char took a step toward him. “My gut says it won’t. I don’t trust Erwell. She seemed downright in denial that the Na’odani were even part of this mission, and now they’re going to come out of a portal to talk to her.”

Seth rolled his eyes but said nothing.

Char closed the gap between them. She shoved her face into him and slapped both palms against his chest. Her brain couldn’t form a coherent thing to say.

His hands rested on her wrists for a moment and then moved to her back. He wrapped her in his arms and rested his chin on her shoulder.

“Once again, we may never see each other again,” Seth said in her ear. “I need to be truthful about something else.”

She nodded against his chest.

“If we both make it through this,” he said slowly, “I want to get back together. I want to work things out.”

Char took a deep breath and avoided looking him in the eyes.

“You don’t have to give me an answer.” Seth rubbed her back with one hand. “I just wanted you to know.”

“If we meet again,” she said, “then I’ll give you one.” Char lifted her head and met his gentle eyes.

He half-smiled and bent down to press his lips to hers.

Episode 22: Deal or no deal

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The next morning, a few minutes after the lights came back on in the Americans’ barracks, ten Na’odani marched in and made them board an aircraft.

Char sat down beside Leander with her chest tight and breath shallow.

The craft lifted above the rows of black dwellings. It wound between the domes and then flew over the city for at least thirty minutes. Char watched the black rows of houses pass almost endlessly, broken here and there by domes of various sizes. Finally, the aircraft’s tiny triangular shadow fell on the yellow sand below and flew along below them, uninterrupted by anything other than black rocky outcroppings.

After ten minutes of flying, the yellow surface of the ring-world broke up into dusty black rock formations, and beyond this the ground blossomed into deep turquoise. A tower spiralled up into the sky.

“Is that water?” Char asked.

“Plants,” the nearest Na’odani said.

The aircraft began to descend gently into the verdant valley. It landed beside the spiraling tower.

At the bottom of the ramp, sweet clean air hit Char’s face. The ground was soft below her feet. It seemed to be covered by springy turquoise moss.

The Na’odani led them down a ramp into the base of the tower and into the same bluish, unnatural light and black walls as the military compound they’d left. The ramp closed with a long, bass vibration. The corridor was briefly silent before Char sensed a deeper, lower hum far below their feet, almost below her range of hearing.

On her left, a guard flinched and rubbed one ear.

The Na’odani led them down the hall to a set of double doors. A female guard stopped and placed her palm on a shiny patch on the black doors. The doors slid outward.

“Leader Char will enter. The rest will stay outside,” the female guard said.

Char walked into a long, narrow room. Seven silver-robed Na’odani sat in low seats along a rectangular sunken floor section. They turned in unison.

“The Na’odani high council,” the guard said softly. “They have translation implants. Speak normally.”

“Welcome.” From the farthest end of the room, a tall female Na’odani stood and pressed her long, slim hands together across her chest. “Envoys from America. Leader Char, come speak to us.”

Char stepped forward and took the indicated empty seat at the end of the sunken rectangle. The seat was made of the same mouldable material as the beds. She sank into it.

She thought she would have more time to formulate an argument than this.

“Leader Char, I am High Councillor Hya.” The female sat down and laid her hands in her lap, palms up. “Bridger Venn and Leader Taig inform me that your world is dying, and you wish to make a trade alliance.”

“Yes.” Char cleared her throat and clenched her sweating palms. “Yes, Councillor Hya.”

“Furthermore, I am told you require energy sources. Did you find anything of use in the world of Kaa?” Hya’s face was completely placid, unreadable.

“We’ve taken many samples,” Char said. “We don’t know if they’re useful.”

Hya’s pearly teeth ran over her pale bottom lip. “And, what say you, do you have anything of use to us?”

Char took a deep breath. “I am told you are in need of arable land.”

“Indeed we are,” Hya said. “Continue.”

“Despite our depleted resources,” Char said slowly, “we have a lot of arable land.”

Hya’s eyes narrowed. “This is worth consideration. However… we have determined we have already been to your world and done a preliminary examination of it. Your leadership was not amenable to cooperation then. Why have they changed their minds?”

Her mouth had already been dry, but it became damn near a desert then. “I don’t know. I am just an envoy.”

Hya regarded her silently for a moment. “Moreover,” the ruler continued, finally. “Bridger Venn informed Leader Taig that a kemzog stone was taken from him.”

“Yes,” Char said. “My leader removed it for testing.”

“Indeed.” Hya’s pale silver eyes stared into hers keenly. “Has Leader Taig explained to you the significance of these kemzog stones?”

“No, ma’am,” Char said softly.

Hya pressed her palms together in the style of praying hands. “Our people have travelled to ninety worlds, and not one of them has this material we call kemzog.”

She paused, as if waiting for something from Char, but Char pressed her lips together.

“In the beginning of days,” Hya continued, “the world-maker embedded a giant stone of kemzog in the ground beneath this very building. The energy of it runs through the ground.”

Was that the humming?

“The world-maker gave us the kemzog that allows us to travel between worlds.” Hya’s voice took on an edge. “It is our birthright as a nation, and we will not give it up.”

Hya spread her hands again. Char took this to mean that she was supposed to say something. “Yes, well, we expected to negotiate about that—“

“Bridger Venn informed leader Taig that you had no intention of engaging with us,” Hya said.

Char froze.

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The council watched her with blank faces.

“That is true,” Char began slowly. “We were not ready to engage with the Na’odani…”

C’mon. Think. Think!

“We were under the impression that Kaa was neutral ground,” Char said. “We planned to explore a small portion and consider if it was worth pursuing further before… before we extended us too far.”

Councillor Hya surveyed her. “Indeed.”

“But,” Char forged on, “given leader Taig’s kindness to us when she found us with injured among us, we thought it prudent to speak about making an alliance.”

The council was silent for a minute, but it seemed to stretch infinitely.

“Indeed,” Councillor Hya said, finally. “This does seem prudent.” She paused impressively. “But there can be no deal between us without the return of that stone. kemzog is a sacred resource to us, and is worth more than your lives.” Councillor Hya clapped her hands. “Therefore, the council and I propose to instruct Leader Taig to escort a council representative into America to speak to your own council.”

“Yes, absolutely,” Char said.

Hya’s next words were soft. “It is of utmost importance that the kemzog[N3] is returned to us, and because of that I must insist on insurance.”

Char’s chest clamped. “I suppose that is… understandable.”

“I am told Healer Seth is your vowed one,” Hya said gently. “I will keep him and three of your soldiers. When the kemzog is returned, I will return them to you.”

Char drew a deep breath and forced an even tone. “That isn’t necessary. I give you my word, I will return it.”

Hya’s face twisted ever so slightly. “Leader Char, I do not accept your word as truth. Even if you had not already been somewhat untruthful with us, you have said it yourself. You are but an envoy. You cannot return what you do not have authority over.”

“No, Leader Hya.” Char’s voice gained strength. “But these men and women are mine to protect. I will not leave them three worlds away from home.”

Hya and Char locked eyes.

The ruler tilted her head. “You have my word that they will not be harmed.”

Char sneered at her. “How am I to take your words as truth?”

She and Hya gazed warily at each other.

“I will return them to Leader Taig’s custody,” Hya said. “They will be only one portal away. Either this, or you shall all stay. Are we agreed?”

Char sat silent for as long as she dared.

“Yes,” she said.

Hya stood, and the council stood with her. “You are dismissed.”

A guard marched her out into the hall.

More guards came and shuttled the Americans back onto the aircraft.

“What happened?” Seth asked as they marched up the ramp.

“She’s going to hold half of us hostage and send the rest back to America to negotiate for the return of that stone Erwell took.”

“Shit,” Seth said.

Char gripped his arm for a moment. “We’re all going back to Kaa. At least you won’t stay here.”

“I won’t…?”

“You’re staying in Kaa.” Char dropped onto the bench in the corner. Seth sat on one side. Leander plopped down on her other side. “Seth is staying in Kaa,” Char repeated. “You make for extra leverage. Apparently, Venn told Taig that you were my ‘vowed one’?”

A deep line appeared between Seth’s brows. He didn’t reply.

Back at the Bridger compound, Venn and Jezeen met them on the ramp.

Venn’s face was tight. “We are returning now,” he said. “Do not get off the aircraft.”

Char turned and met Leander’s eyes. “Back on the craft, everyone.”

The guards who were escorting them deplaned, and Venn and Jezeen got on. The instant they were inside, the ramp closed. The aircraft vibrated as the engines fired up. A moment later they were airborne.


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

Just got here? Start at Episode 1

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

Just got here? Start at Episode 1

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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