Just got here? Start at the beginning.
“Goddamn, that smoke smell though!” Leander said, practically in Char’s ear. She turned, cupped her hands around her mouth and shouted in the direction of the ocean, “Aren’t you all burned up by now, Tokyo?”
The others, standing in a knot on the snow a few feet away, snickered.
“A little farther.” Char peered through the rangefinder at Linc, who stood just shy of a thousand yards down the packed snow.
He took three steps backward.
“One more!” she said into the comm, and watched as he stepped back. “Yes, good.”
The two other soldiers set up targets in line with Linc’s and snowmobiled back to where she, Leander and two others stood waiting.
“All right, then,” Char held up a long-barrelled sniper rifle. “Linc, I know you know how to use this. The rest of you, here’s your chance.” She glanced at Leander, who stood, arms crossed, eyes hidden behind reflective sunglasses. “You wanna take first pop?”
“Sure thing.” Leander held out her hands.
Linc was already taking another rifle and jamming in a magazine.
Leander lay prone on the ground and tinkered with the elaborate scope on the weapon. “How ‘bout you and me use this set of targets and we’ll see who shoots better,” she said.
Char grinned. “You’re on.”
As the first set of shots cracked out across the frozen ground, Char’s comm beeped. “Char, come in?”
“Yeah, doc,” Char said into the pod.
“I’ve cleared Venn to leave the infirmary. Erwell indicated she’d want to test this portal business today.”
“Oh!” Char said. “Did she say how soon?”
“Sorry?” Seth’s voice crackled through the comm.
“Is she doing it right now?”
“She had some stuff to get together.” A pause. “I’m heading out for a bit, but I think she’ll be ready to go soon.”
Char ran her teeth over her bottom lip. “Okay, thanks.”
“I see we’re past the ‘Captain Lee-Thompson’ business,” Leander said, leaning into her scope. Her shot rang out. She chuckled.
“Did you hear what he said?” Char said to Leander’s back. Her blood was beginning to thrum through her veins.
“Yeah.” Leander took another shot, sat up and to adjust one of the dials on the scope. “What do you figure Erwell will do if she finds there really is a portal?”
“She’ll send people through,” Char said without hesitation.
Leander glanced over at the red flag Char had set up as a makeshift wind indicator. She settled back down on the snow. “That’s what I thought too. She’ll want some of us to go with, don’t ya think?”
“God, I hope so.” Char said. “There’s no way in hell I’m turning that down.”
“Agreed.” Leander took the shot.
Char settled down on her knees beside Leander and fixed her binoculars on the target down range. Leander had a nice group of bullet holes in the right-hand target, a tad high, just off centre. “Nice,” she said.
“Good enough for a dead Chinese,” Leander sat back on her haunches and picked up her shell casings. “Your turn, boss.”
Char ejected the spent magazine and popped in another. She lay down in the impression Leander had left.
“I mean, if there is a portal it’s probably a deathtrap,” Leander said as Char peered into the scope.
Char fired. The bullet sliced through the target perfectly on centre, slightly low. The image came into her mind of herself, sprawled in a ditch somewhere in Japan with the body of one of her soldiers splattered all around her.
Get it together.
Char gritted her teeth, adjusted her aim and fired again. This time it was dead on.
“There you go,” Leander said. “I bet that wouldn’t stop half of us. Half of us would walk through the portal right behind you.”
Char shot again. Bullseye. She sat up and rested the rifle across her knees. It was hard to gauge Leander’s expression behind those reflective sunglasses. “Do you think it’s right to ask folks to go into a deathtrap?”
“Boss, this isn’t the army,” Leander said. “You can’t just pull rank. If it’s a suicide mission, folks can say no.”
“But we’re all ex-soldiers.” Char sighed. “Old habits.”
Leander squinted her. “I know you want to be the first American to step into a new dimension.”
“Do you think it’s right to ask folks to go into a deathtrap?”
“Yeah, of course I do. I was just… asking.” Char pulled her knees up and, using one knee as a rest for her elbow, leaned into the rifle again.
Once again, the picture flashed through her memory: a Japanese ditch. A detached foot sitting at arm’s length from her head. Ears ringing.
She took a deep breath and held it for a moment, but the bead was skittering all over the target. She was shaking.
“Shit,” she whispered.
“Hey,” Leander said softly. “We’d follow you anywhere. You know that.”
“Well, probably you shouldn’t,” Char said in what she hoped was a light tone. She pulled the trigger. The shot hit the paper but not the target. “If seeing Seth again has taught me anything, it’s that all I do is screw up lives.” She fired again, hardly aiming. This time the bullet sliced the very top corner of the paper.
Char jumped up.
Leander took the rifle without a word.
Char paced away from her. This was not going to get in her way. She was not going to let a little fake-ass anxiety keep her from exploring another world.
Who cared if she led her platoon on a training exercise right into range of their own shelling?
Who cared that the artillery had been ordered incorrectly, and she’d seen her soldiers blown to pieces around her?
Char’s chest tightened. She struggled to breath.
I didn’t do anything wrong.
She spun around. Linc was following after her.
“What?” She tried to assume a normal expression.
Linc held out a thermos bottle to her.
Char took it and took a gulp of what turned out to be herbal tea. She took another sip. “Thanks.” She handed it back. “What is that?”
“It’s a tea blend Doc makes.” Linc said. He looked at her with a kind expression that reminded her far too much of Seth. “How you doing, boss?”
Linc couldn’t have bought it, but he stood silent for a minute. Behind them, three shots rang out in quick succession. “I guess you wouldn’t let me go through a portal, given my recent… state.”
“It wouldn’t be my first choice.”
“It wouldn’t be because I’m afraid to face my problems.” Linc gave her a weak smile.
“I’ll take that into consideration.” She was still fighting to breath. Char turned and started walking toward the group. Linc followed. “Are all of you talking about this?” she asked.
“Yeah,” Linc said.
They came up on the group.
Leander was sitting back on her heels with a rifle across her knees. Her eyebrows rose above her sunglasses. “Well, boss?”
“I’ll head in,” Char said.
“A’ight,” Leander said. “I’ll clean up with this lot.”
Char trudged back toward the fort, which was about a quarter-mile away. Her feet and head felt like lead. She’d made it about a hundred yards when she heard the trombone-like roar of a snowmobile coming up behind her. A moment later, Seth pulled alongside.
“Lift?” he called.
She climbed on behind him, and he drove back to base, slower so she wouldn’t get too cold without a helmet.
She wobbled a bit as she got off the snowmobile. One hand went to her chest, reflexively.
Seth pulled off her helmet. “Char,” he said softly. “What’s up?”
“I’m fine,” Char wheezed.
“Yeah.” Seth stood in front of her, blocking her way to the door. He bent down to look into her eyes.
Char pushed past him and yanked open the door. From going from the bright outdoor sun to the dim entry, she was momentarily blind. She stood, listening to herself wheeze. Seth came in behind her and laid his hand on the small of her back. Even through the thick thermal gear, she could feel the gentle pressure.
“If you need to talk,” he said in a low voice, “you know I won’t laugh at you.” He paused. “I’ve never laughed at you.”
“I know,” she whispered.
“Should we get a cup of coffee?”
“Why do you care?” she turned, dislodging his hand. “Haven’t you had enough of my shit?”
He opened his mouth, sighed and turned his head away. “If you recall, it was me who begged to come back.”
That was true. He’d had some nurse from the hospital ready to run away with him. Char didn’t know who this woman was, but she knew she was beautiful, thought the world of Seth, and actually wanted to settle down and have a family. But Seth came back to her and begged her—on his knees, mind—to take him back. She’d slammed the door in his face.
Char sighed. “I’ll concede that, but I just need some space.”
Seth drew a deep breath and nodded. “You’ll be there when Erwell makes Venn prove there’s a portal?”
He opened his mouth, sighed and turned his head away. “If you recall, it was me who begged to come back.”
“Let me know how it goes.” Seth’s hand brushed her back again as he passed by her and walked away, down the hall.
Oh Seth. Why do you bother? You know I’ll inevitably burn you.
Char watched him go, swallowing hard against a sudden thickening in her throat.
She could remember this one Christmas—their last. She’d just finished officer candidate school. She had the equivalent of a desk job that occupied twelve hours of her day, and she was determined to maintain the physical conditioning that she’d gone into OCS with. She was used to getting up at 3:30 in the morning, working out for two hours, showering and heading to the base. Seth would get up after she did, and go to work before she was done with her workout. They’d both get home around eight and collapse on the couch to eat dinner in front of the TV.
That had been their relationship—offering each other coffee, asking “how was your day” and falling asleep without touching each other.
Christmas morning, her alarm went off at 3:30. Char sat up robotically, still mostly asleep and running on habit.
“Char,” Seth’s raspy voice came from behind her. His fingertips brushed her back. “Come back to bed. It’s Christmas morning.”
She’d been so tired. She’d could barely remember a time when she wasn’t tired. It was probably well before OCS. She was twenty-nine and she had a thick sprinkle of gray in her hair. She had dark bags under her eyes all the time.
She lay back down, and Seth’s arm slid around her waist and pulled her close. Intertwined with her husband, she fell asleep.
She woke up in a complete fog, unable to identify the warm object she lay against, unable to recognize up or down.
“What time is it?” she mumbled.
“Eight,” Seth said in her ear. “Sleep some more if you like.”
“Eight?” she struggled to sit up.
Seth restrained her gently. “It’s fine. It’s Christmas.”
“Oh.” Char squeezed her blurry eyes shut. “Oh.” Her drowsy brain drew her down toward sleep again. His arms held her warm and secure.
A thought poked through her foggy brain. “I didn’t get you a gift.”
“It’s Christmas.” Char was waking up by then. “I forgot.”
Seth propped himself up on his elbow. “There wasn’t anything I wanted anyway.”
That sounded like a lie, but the truth was Char would have had no idea what to buy him anyway.
“I’m sorry,” Char said. “I’m a shitty wife.” She rolled over to face him.
Seth laughed under his breath. “You’re too hard on yourself.” He smiled tightly. “It’s just nice to have you here.”
“I’ll make you breakfast.” Char meant to drop a quick kiss on his lips, but it took five minutes before she came up for air.
Seth smiled up at her with a dazed expression, and Char knew exactly what Christmas gift she’d be giving him.
They’d had a few good weeks after that. They’d actually talk when she got home. They’d actually kiss and cuddle like the old days. She’d skip a day of working out here and there to spend one more hour with him in the morning.
But it didn’t last, of course, because she fell back into her old ways. That spring Seth had asked her to go to Taylor Bay to plant trees with his family. She’d been gunning hard for first lieutenant and was afraid she’d get passed over if she took two weeks off. So she didn’t, and Seth had said it was fine.
But he’d also travelled with a woman and had a fling with her. So that had really backfired on her. By the next Christmas, they were split up. Five years of booze and navel-gazing later, and Char hadn’t unravelled whose fault it was.
Enjoying your read? Subscribe and get new episodes in your inbox as soon as they post.