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Venn kept his eyes closed a moment longer. He leaned into his deep stretch, pushing his weight into his hands on the cool concrete floor. A deep ache settled into his hamstrings.
“Oh look,” a female voice said. “He’s working out.”
Venn straightened, and stood still as the blood rushed from his head. The healer and the taller, dark-skinned soldier woman stood in the open door. “Hello, healer Seth. Hello, soldier woman.”
“Ah, Mr. Venn, I love it when you call me that.” The female batted her eyelashes at him and laughed. “Let me know when you want out, doc.”
Seth stepped in and the woman closed the door. “Her name is Leander,” he said.
“Leander,” Venn repeated.
“I see you’ve rested from your expedition yesterday,” Seth said. He crossed his arms across his chest.
“I have.” Venn got up slowly. “I’m testing my strength.” His garments were drenched with sweat even from his simple stretches. He suspected he was at about half-strength yet, perhaps as strong as an ordinary citizen of the city of Eskalon.
“How does it feel?” Seth looked him up in down with his dark, cagey eyes.
“I’m not as strong as I was,” Venn said. “But also, Director Greta Erwell spoke to me for much time. I am tired.”
“I’m sure she did,” Seth said wryly. He smiled. “Let me look at your leg.”
Venn removed his pants and lay down on the bed.
Seth went through his usual ritual of draping the body-parts he didn’t need to see, then bent down to examine the wound on Venn’s thigh.
“It’s healing well,” he said, finally. “Very nearly shut.” He applied a lighter dressing, rearranged his draping, and moved to examine the wound in Venn’s belly.
“Does it hurt?” Seth asked as he squinted at it.
“It pulls,” Venn said. Lying down he could just see the healer’s serious face and creased brow out of the corner of his eye. “Any use of my abdominal muscle pulls at it.”
“No pain in your gut?”
“No,” Venn said.
Seth dressed this wound also, then straightened. Venn sat up and surveyed the healer’s drawn face.
“Something troubles you, Healer Seth.” Venn said.
Seth met his eyes frankly. “How did the director question you? About what?”
Everything. Venn smiled ruefully. He had kept very little hidden from the director—just Jezeen, the location of his people, and the portal to Na’o, and much about their culture. She wasn’t interested in their culture.
“Everything about the atmosphere and terrain of Kaa,” Venn answered. “It was difficult to translate much of it, for my research has been in the numbers and figures of my people.” He paused. “She says your world is dying.”
“It is dying.” Seth folded his arms and frowned at his feet.
“Why?” He had seen nothing of this world but the white ground and the few plants, which seemed dead. He’d smelled the fetid air and felt the world must be at very least sick.
“We’ve sucked the life out of it.” Seth’s lip curled. “I suppose your people get around that by sucking other worlds dry?”
Venn fought to keep his face like stone. Not dry, but drained certainly. Telling the healer this probably would not sway the director, who was determined to explore Kaa. Not even hinting strongly at his people’s military might had seemed to deter her. Venn had seen their weapons and asked Leader Char’s soldiers as many questions about them as he dared. He’d tried to tell Erwell that he thought the Americans would be vastly outmatched if things went badly, but his words didn’t seem to reach her ears.
“We study their resources and technology and form trade agreements where we can,” Venn said finally. “But yes, this is to prolong the life of Na’o.”
“In the experience of my people, that’s the same thing.” Seth straightened. “I don’t like the idea of going into another world to save ours, but there are millions of people engaged in a war to win the last little bit of natural resources on this planet. If we lose, which we might, a bunch of people I care about will starve or freeze to death.”
Venn nodded slowly. The director had said as much. She had not asked if his people would tolerate this intrusion, or share whatever resources Kaa offered.
“Do you know who Char is?” Seth asked softly.
Venn shook his head.
“She’s my wife, my vowed one as you say.” Seth’s voice took on a hard edge. “I care about her, and she is going to go through the portal too. Is she going to die?”
Char was his vowed one? They interacted like near strangers.
“Is she going to die?” Seth said, louder.
Jezeen flashed before his eyes.
Seth’s voice took on a hard edge. “I care about her, and she is going to go through the portal too. Is she going to die?”
“We may all die,” Venn said finally. “As long as we’re on the mountain, the Kaa won’t attack us, but we can’t stay on the mountain forever. Not if you want a proper exploration.”
“What about your people?”
Venn felt his resolve slipping as he met Seth’s deep, dark eyes. “My people?”
“What will they think of having American visitors?”
“My people are a peaceful people,” Venn said softly. “They will hear you out.”
Seth blew out his breath and nodded. “I suppose it doesn’t matter to Erwell. As I said, the world is dying.”
He turned to go. “All right. Can I bring you anything?”
Venn straightened, relieved. “May I have another book?”
“I’ll find you something.”
Seth called Leander on the comm and a few minutes later, she let him out.
He marched straight to Erwell’s office door and knocked hard. No one came to the door, but he could hear her voice inside.
He knocked again until the door rattled. The door swung open.
“Do you mind? I’m on a call!” Erwell’s face registered recognition and then consternation. “Oh. Seth. Did you need something?”
“Ma’am, I was just speaking to Venn—“
“Hey!” she hissed, interrupting him. She jerked her head toward her computer in the background.
“I’ll come see you in the infirmary in half an hour,” Erwell said softly.
She backed in and shut the door.
Seth sat on one of the beds in the empty infirmary. He’d gone to her office in a burst of adrenaline, ready to ask her to send him through the portal. He hadn’t given much thought to what he was going to say.
Erwell came into the infirmary with a coy little smile on her face. She crossed her arms and cocked her head. “What can I do for you, doctor?”
Seth took a deep breath. “Greta, there’s something I need to ask you.”
Erwell’s eyebrows rose. “Really?” she drawled. The same grin played around her lips.
She’d looked at him like this before, but this time its meaning registered.
“I…” Seth sighed. “I want to go through the portal.”
He thought he saw disappointment in her eyes, maybe anger. Seth felt a strange prickle of fear.
It took her far too long to answer. Finally, Erwell laughed under her breath. “You can’t be serious.”
“I am,” Seth said softly. “I’m two years into a correspondence degree in botany. You have no botanists here, and between you and me, I don’t think you’re all that interested in asking to be sent one.”
Erwell’s nostrils flared. “Are you suggesting that I’m wrong in my leadership, Doctor Thompson?”
“No,” Seth said. “I’m saying I suspect you’re telling the selective truth to your bosses to expedite the process.”
“Oh, fuck you.” Erwell sneered at him and turned around.
Seth took a slow breath against the surge of anger. Was she angry at him for not being into her? Had he ever given her any encouragement? Ever?
“I’m suggesting that we may be of mutual benefit to each other,” he said.
Erwell turned and stared at him. Her blue eyes were bloodshot and flat, emotionless. “Maybe. You want to go with your wife, I guess.”
Seth’s hands clenched at his side. “Leave Char out of this. Do you want a paperwork-free botanist or not?”
“What makes you think I’m going to get clearance to send you?” Erwell snapped.
“Please,” Seth said. “In May you thought we were on the edge of breaking through in the fission experiments, and suddenly the whole base was crawling with bureaucrats. I haven’t seen a single suit on base since we discovered the portal.”
Erwell’s face went white. “Fine.” She turned sharply and swung the door open.
As the door slammed, Seth let out his breath.
By evening, Director Erwell announced she’d been given clearance to send them through the portal. She told, not asked, Char that they she would be assisting with putting together a mission protocol.
Char didn’t ask for more details, she just assembled her team in the cafeteria.
Char gazed at her assembled team from her perch on a cafeteria table. Twenty-four faces stared back at her.
“Director Erwell has asked us to accompany a team of scientists through the portal into Venn’s world,” she said.
A hubbub arose instantly.
“Hey! Hey.” Char held up her hands. “Take this goddamn seriously. This isn’t a holiday. We don’t know what we’re stepping into. We don’t know if we’re coming back. Erwell asked for eight people. I will be one of them, and so will Leander. That leaves six openings.”
Char took a long, impressive pause. “One by one, please tell me if you would like to stay or go and why.”
One by one, each man and woman on the team made their case to either stay or go. In twenty-four, only five said they would not go.
After she’d dismissed them, Char looked over at Leander. “Now we narrow this down.” She pulled out a small computer tablet and brought up the profiles of her team members. Except for Linc, she’d worked with these men and women for almost a year.
Mike Callum, 36. The burly Irish-American from the east coast. He’d fought through the streets and alleys of Manila as the American Federation had wrested control of the Philippines back from the Russo-Chinese. He a was skilled hand-to-hand fighter. Char sparred with him every few days to keep up her own skills. Bit of a temper, but she’d never had problems with him. He took orders well.
“Him,” Char said.
Leander nodded. “Yeah, definitely Cal.”
Anna McGregor, 29. Anna was an ex-marine who’d left the service after she’d lost her hand in combat. She’d taught herself to shoot one-handed by modifying her rifle-stock. She’d been a sergeant and squad leader. Char often relied on her to lead security shifts.
“You’re thinking Anna?” Leander asked, taking a sip of coffee.
“Yeah,” Char said.
They also chose Jesse Costello, 43, one of the few non-military members of the team. Jesse had been a police officer in downtown Vancouver. He had a knack for reading people and situations that allowed him to see conflicts coming before they started.
They chose two other team members before landing on Linc’s profile. Char stared at the photo on the screen. Linc’s eyes twinkled. He was supressing a smile. Linc was a former sniper, but more than that he was a woodsman and a survivalist. Taking him into the cold wilderness of Kaa seemed like a natural fit, and yet…
“We can’t take him,” Char said.
Leander eyed her. “Why?”
“Because he’s not…” She’d never told her friend about this. “Seth has been treating him for depression.”
“So?” Leander threw back the last of her coffee.
“So, I don’t think he’s in a good place to make a life or death decision like this,” Char said.
Leander squinted at her. “Because he’s mentally ill?”
“Don’t you still sometimes have anxiety attacks?”
Char felt irritation bubble up. “Yes, yes I do. Thanks for reminding me. Have you seen it stop me?”
“No,” Leander muttered.
“I’m irreversibly fucked up,” Char snapped. “Linc is young. He’ll get better. He’s not coming.”
Leander held up her hands. “Your call.”
“I’m irreversibly fucked up,” Char snapped. “Linc is young. He’ll get better. He’s not coming.”
“All right,” Leander said. “I’d say Spurgeon, then.”
Char jerked a nod. “That will do.”
“Look, I was just saying,” Leander said. “I’m not trying to be a bitch.”
“Yeah, I know.” Char stood up and feigned a relaxed stretch. “We have two days left in the real world. Sleep well.”
Char was still vibrating with irrational anger when she met Seth in the hall on the way to her bedroom. They paused in the center of the hall an arm’s length from each other. “Well,” she said softly, “we’re going through the day after tomorrow.”
“Yeah.” Seth brushed his braid over his shoulder and met her eyes. “I am too.”
“What?” Char drew back.
“I’ll be taking botanical samples.” He half-smiled.
Char wheezed a laugh. “Why, Seth? Fifty-fifty this is a death trap. You said so yourself.”
“Or it’s a chance to find resources that can save a lot of people,” Seth said.
Char shook her head. “I can’t believe Erwell agreed to that.”
Seth’s mouth formed a rueful smile. “She might be hoping I die.”
Char snorted. “Why?”
Seth shrugged and moved to step past her.
“Why?” she grabbed his arm and swung him around. For a second they were nearly nose to nose.
His breath smelled like mint. Up close, she could see filaments of silver in his black hair. His lips parted. He turned away.
“I’ve offended her,” he sighed. “I’d rather not go into the details.” He took a step back and walked away.
Char pushed open the door of her room and sat down on the edge of the bed.
Erwell, you bitch.
Damn him, was this some kind of ploy? Some kind of long-ass way of telling her for the umpteenth time that he was sorry for cheating on her?
Because if so, he could stop now. She accepted his apology. After all, she was kind of a piece of shit. Who wouldn’t cheat on her?
Char rubbed her face. “Snap out of it,” she muttered.