Greta Erwell broke her long stride just long enough to run her hands over her chin-length grey hair and straighten her jacket before she burst into the infirmary.
You know, I had hoped to have an hour to drink a cup of coffee and just… put my feet up.
Her meeting with the higher ups had not gone anywhere near well. She could still feel the sting of getting ripped a new one after she’d told them that the last round of fission experiments had failed.
Smile at me, Doctor, and everything will be fine.
Erwell pushed open the door.
Seth and the security woman stood facing each other, both with arms crossed. They looked up. The doctor’s handsome face was tight.
“Ah, Char. You’re here too,” Erwell said. “What have we got?”
Seth took a step over and slid open the curtain around one of the beds.
Erwell leaned in over the bed. The man was at least six and a half feet tall, flagpole-thin. His skin was so pale that she could see bluish veins beneath the surface, like grass in muddy water. The only colour on him was short, silky black hair.
“Okay,” she said.
“So,” Char began, glancing at the doctor. “This fellow told Seth quite the story.”
“Oh?” Seth, was it? She’d worked with him for a year now and he was still Dr. Thompson.
Seth cleared his throat. “He claims to have come from another world through what he calls a ‘bridge.’” He made air quotes.
Erwell raised both eyebrows. “Do go on. What else did he say?”
Seth smiled wryly. “His name is Venn. He is a Na’odani from the ring-world of Nao, and apparently these bridges form where the multiple universes touch.” He took a deep breath. “With the aid of some kind of metal or stone thingy, they’re able to pass through the bridges into other worlds.”
“All right,” Erwell drawled. “And he came here why?”
“He was fleeing these creatures called… Kaa.”
“Kaa.” Erwell nodded slowly. “Hmm.”
“In his defense—“ Char reached over and picked up something from the counter “—we did pull this out of his leg.” She held up an eight-inch, knitting-needle-like object.
“Oh, shit.” Erwell reached for it. Char handed it over and Erwell held it close to her face. It was perfectly smooth and tapered to a sharp point. “It’s like a giant mosquito proboscis.”
The doctor nodded. “Apparently they suck out your insides.”
Erwell screwed up her face. “All right, the proboscis is a problem. Otherwise I’d say he’d French-fried his head on drugs. I do hear drugs are quite the problem in the communities around here.”
“That’s true,” the doctor said dryly, “but he’s definitely not Tlingit.”
Erwell felt a faint burn in her cheeks. “Right. But did you check if he has drugs in his system?”
Seth nodded. “He’s clean.”
She sighed, folded her arms and said to Char, “you didn’t call this in to Juneau?”
“No, uh, I could though,” Char said.
“Don’t,” Erwell said. “I’ll figure this out. I wish you’d called me sooner, though. I should have heard about it as soon as he was spotted.”
“Yeah,” Char mumbled. “I was preoccupied with saving him.”
“If he was Russo-Chinese, saving him wouldn’t matter.”
“Yeah,” Char said again.
What she would have done if she’d been told sooner, Erwell could only imagine. She’d just left a marathon meeting session in Juneau. The fact that she had almost no results whatsoever after two years of energy experiments hadn’t sat well with the board. Telling them they had a security breach of some kind would send them off the charts.
“There is, uh, actually something that came to mind.” Seth began to pull the drapes back around the bed where the stranger lay. “The part about the ring world.” He turned. “I’m trying to recall this legend I heard from an elder once. Something about a man from a world shaped like a hoop. I can’t recall the details.”
They moved over into the waiting area of the infirmary. Erwell hunched over and furrowed her brow. She didn’t want to admit it to the doctor, but something about this was striking a chord with her.
“Well, can you look into that?” Erwell added belatedly. “The legend.”
The doctor nodded.
“Char, maybe cuff this guy to the bed,” Erwell added. “If he’s crazy, we don’t want him taking off. If he is Russo-Chinese, we definitely don’t want him to bolt.”
Char nodded. “I’ll have Linc bring you some, Seth.”
Erwell turned to go. “Char, will you walk with me?”
When the infirmary door had shut behind them, Erwell turned to Char. For a second she just looked her over.
Char was wearing the same utilitarian, multi-pocketed black pants and figure-obscuring layers that the whole security team wore. The other two women on her team had long hair that they wore up at all times. Char had a short, mannish cut that made her small chin and high cheekbones stand out in sharp angles. At least her face looked like a woman’s face.
“Do you know Doctor Thompson?” Erwell asked, finally.
Char half-smiled. “He’s my ex-husband.”
“Oh!” Erwell laughed in genuine shock. “Did you know he was here?”
Char shook her head. “I hadn’t seen him for five years.”
“Your divorce must have been even worse than mine.” Erwell started walking down the curving hall. “Should I be concerned that this will affect your job?”
“No,” Char said. “We’re professionals, and already have agreed to be cordial.”
Erwell smiled to herself. “See that it doesn’t.”
They parted ways as Char went toward the cafeteria and she turned toward her office.
Get your head out of your vagina, Greta. You’ve got bigger fish to fry than cute doctors.
She slammed the door behind herself and slid into her desk chair, then pulled up her keyboard and slid on the glasses that brought up the computer display.
Ring world, huh?
She punched that into the documents search box, and of course nothing happened. Erwell pressed her lips together and tried “interdimensional bridge.” No results. Nothing with portals, bridges or multiverses.
What are you remembering, Greta?
It was the ring world. Something about it brought her back to her university days. What had the doctor called the guy’s people?
She punched in a few different spelling variations until she hit on Na’odani. A paper came up, and as she suspected, it was written by one of her profs, thirty years ago. It had been published by an obscure journal on alien life.
Erwell threw her head back and laughed. “Oh my god,” she said. “This can’t be real. This can’t be real.”
She opened up the file and skimmed through it. It told a second-hand account of a government agent who detained and questioned a humanoid creature that had said it was called a Na’odani.
Erwell felt lightheaded.
She hit print and heard the document spit out of the printer beside the desk. Instead of picking it up, she pulled off her glasses and leaned back.
She wasn’t calling this in.
It was far too much of a coincidence for “Na’odani” to appear twice. She had to test this further, and if she called it now they’d just call it a security breach.
God, if there was a really an interdimensional bridge here somewhere…
Erwell’s pulse accelerated.
She grabbed her comm. “Erwell to Doctor Thompson!”
A second passed.
“Erwell to Doctor Thompson!”
“Yes, Director.” Seth’s soft voice came over the comm.
Erwell took a breath. “Is your alien awake?”
A pause. “No, ma’am.”
“Call me when he wakes up,” she said. “I need to speak with him.”
“Will do, ma’am.”
“Greta, Doctor. Call me Greta.”
Another long pause. “Will do, Greta.”
Erwell lay down the comm and pushed back her chair. A tingle of excitement pulsed through her.