Episode 10: I'll Lead the Team

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“Venn,” Char said as she stood by the door of his cell, ready to lock him in. “Be honest with me.”

Venn nodded and raised his eyebrows.

“What do you expect will happen if we pass through that portal?” Char folded her arms and glanced back at Linc.

Venn exhaled gently. “We’ll have to travel along the top of the mountain ridge to avoid the Kaa. They are dangerous.”

“If we travel down the ridge, we can avoid these Kaa creatures?”

Venn nodded.

“What about your people?” Char asked. “How will they feel about visitors?”

Venn tilted his head. “My people are a peaceful people.”

Char glanced at Linc. “All right then.” She swung the door shut and locked it.

“How peaceful can they possibly be?” Seth straightened with a handful of trimming from the sage plants. “Their civilization seems to depend on conquering and colonizing other worlds.”

“Yeah, exactly.” Char ran her fingers through a short clump of lavender and sniffed her fingertips to catchy the spicy, woody scent.

“Erwell’s on it like a shark on blood,” Leander said behind her. “I’m not sure she’ll see it that way.”

Seth leaned against the metal garden bed and met her gaze. “Do you think she’ll get clearance to go through?”

“Yeah,” Leander said.

Char nodded. Caution was becoming more and more expensive as the years wore on. They’d thrown two million soldiers at the Russo-Chinese federation, after all, and what had that got them?

“I’d bet that if she does get clearance, using private security soldiers would help erase the paper trail if things didn’t go well,” Seth muttered. He tossed the leaves into a compost bin in the corner. “You do want to go through that portal, don’t you?”

“Hell yes!” Char burst out. She raked her lavender-scented hand through her hair. “Of course I do. I just don’t want to drag all my guys into a death trap.”

Seth glanced between them and nodded slowly.

Leander jutted out her jaw and crossed her arms. “Well, you can take me with you. I don’t care if I’m walking into a death trap. I’ve done that before.”

“And you’re not tired of it by now?” Seth asked. He crossed his arms over his chest and smiled wearily. “For what it’s worth, I’m not keen on you walking into a death trap either, Char.”

“Oh fuck you,” Leander turned to him. “What do you care? You haven’t checked in on Char in five years.”

“Leander, you—“ Char began.

Seth held up his hands. “That’s not true. I sent her ten letters, two per year. I sent them to every place I could think of and you never answered.”

Leander turned to her. “Did you get them?”

Leander jutted out her jaw and crossed her arms. “Well, you can take me with you. I don’t care if I’m walking into a death trap. I’ve done that before.”

“Yeah,” Char said softly. “I got one. My mom gave it to me.”

“That was the second one I sent,” Seth said softly. “But perhaps it arrived too soon.”

Char licked her lips and recalled a scene that involved drinking half a bottle of cheap synthetic whisky and pinning it to the wall with a chef’s knife. She looked down at her feet.

“Okay, fine.” Leander snorted and spun around to go. “Not sure that qualifies you to make bedroom eyes at Char.”

Seth made a little choking noise.

It was Char’s turn to snort. “If Seth remembers anything about me, it’s that I’m impervious to his bedroom eyes.”

Leander paused in the doorway of the little greenhouse and eyed them both.

Char rolled her eyes and followed her down the little hall into the infirmary.

“Look,” Leander said in a low voice. “Erwell probably won’t play us straight on this one, but I think the risk might be worth it.”

Char eyed her friend’s bronzed face. She had a linear scar across her cheekbone from a bullet that winged her in last deployment. Leander’s black eyes were hard and tired. The skin beneath bore dark smudges.

Leander’s husband had also been a soldier. He’d killed himself shortly after he returned from deployment in China. That was two years ago now.

Leander had nothing to lose either—Char dared think, less than she did.

Seth’s footsteps approached behind then.


“Listen,” Char whispered. “Let’s present a united front on this, okay? We’ll go, as long as it’s a win for both us and Erwell. Maybe we can make some good money.”

“Deal.” Leander slipped out the door.

“Char?” Seth said behind her.

Char paused with her hand on the door handle and turned. “Yeah. You want to go, too? I can sell cheap tickets.”

Seth gave her a half smile and nodded. He shoved his hands into his jeans pockets. “Yes. I want to go, but that wasn’t what I was going to say.”

Char released the door handle. “Okay.”

“I wasn’t making bedroom eyes at you,” Seth said. A line appeared between his eyes. “I don’t want you to think I’m being nice to you because I want to sleep with you.”

“I wasn’t flattering myself,” Char said tightly. “I thought you were being nice because you’re a half-decent person, Seth.”

He smiled weakly.

She returned the rictus-like gesture and retreated from the infirmary, wondering why she felt slightly crestfallen. In her room, she sat on her bed, tucked her blanket around her, opened her computer, and tried to file her payroll for the week. Her mind kept on coming back to Seth’s denial.

It felt, really, like a rejection.

“I wasn’t making bedroom eyes at you,” Seth said. A line appeared between his eyes. “I don’t want you to think I’m being nice to you because I want to sleep with you.”

Before and after Seth, she’d had a few casual partners, but he was the first and last to make her feel truly desirable.

They’d met in the hospital after she’d returned from China with a badly infected leg injury. She was sick and wasted away from the illness and long deployment on short rations when they met. Char had thought he was just being nice to her when he stuck around to chat after his shifts.

That changed when he showed up on the doorstep of the hospice, where she’d gone to finish recovery after her discharge from the hospital. She took him to her room, since that was her only privacy. They’d lounged on her bed and talked for an hour before he leaned in and kissed her.

Char returned the kiss and sank into his arms, but when his hand slid under her shirt, over the ridges of her ribs and toward her nearly non-existent breasts, she pulled away.

“Don’t,” she said.

He pulled his hands away and drew back. His short black hair stood in clumps where she’d run her hands through. “I’m sorry. I thought…”

She sat up and crossed her arms over her chest. She was panting.

“Char.” He leaned toward her.

She shied away. “You don’t want this right now.”

“Want what?” Seth asked softly.

“I’m basically a skeleton,” she hissed. She threw her legs off the side of the bed and got up.

“I know.”

The bed creaked as Seth got up. In a moment Char felt his breath on the back of her head.

His hand rested gently on her bony shoulders. “I met you in the hospital, remember? Would I be here if I thought you were ugly?” He slid his arm around her waist. “It’s okay. We don’t have to.”

She knew she wanted him, but the anxiety of what he’d see if she took off her clothes made her feel like someone was sitting on her chest.

She fought to muscle back the panic, but it wouldn’t move, so she stayed there, standing in his arms.

She wouldn’t tell him until a year later that her mother’s pet names for her was “scarecrow” and try as she might, even when she was healthy, she couldn’t see anything else in the mirror.

So years later, when she found out he’d had an affair, it only took her a few clicks in a search engine to find the woman’s picture. She was a gorgeous Tlingit woman. Char lost it. That was the day she threw him out.

In her Fort Situk room, Char sighed and shut down her computer. She imagined Seth’s strong, capable hands holding her, skimming over her body.

She felt her pulse spike and laughed softly.

Rarely in five years had she fantasized about being with Seth. Why she was doing it now, she didn’t know.

Well, she wasn’t about to apologize for being attracted to Seth. He was a good-looking man and she hadn’t slept with anyone for a couple of years. It was too bad there was so much emotional baggage involved. If he were a complete stranger she’d have no qualms about it.

Char sat back against the wall and sighed. She ran her hand through her short hair and thought absently that she needed a shower. Maybe a cold shower.

Erwell was grilling Venn right now. Probably by tomorrow she’d be making plans and badgering her superiors to let them mount an expedition. She didn’t have time to day-dream about Seth. Char needed to come up with her own game-plan, and fast.