Episode 12: Maybe there’s Still a Spark

Just got here? Start at Episode 1.

The whopping of a helicopter made Char glance up as she approached the bottom of the corner tower. A big black aircraft descended through the bronze-toned sky. Char squinted at it for a moment before she climbed the ladder into the roofed parapet.

“Incoming,” she said to Linc and Leander, who were leaning out and gazing at the landing chopper.

“Good times,” Leander said. She raised her binoculars. “Are these the bigwigs? Considering what we’re doing tomorrow, you’d think the place would be crawling with them.”

Linc laughed. “Seems fortunate to me.”

As the chopper wound down and fell silent, Char sighed. “Erwell is being very tight-lipped. It’s suspicious, I’ll give you that.”

Leander laughed.

Char sighed. “I’ve been trying to get them to bring in more of us instead but that will take expediting their security clearance checks—“

“Interesting enough, those checks didn’t illuminate the fact that your husband was working on base,” her friend said.

“Or it’s just not a big deal.” Char scowled at her. “What are we, fourteen?”

Linc’s eyes dodged away uncomfortably.

“Yeah, you’re a Seth sycophant. Sorry, Linc.” Leander jabbed him with her elbow.

“Geez, Leander. I came here to get away from assholes, not to find another one,” Char said. “Anyway, Erwell will brief us tonight at 1900 hours. Be there or be square.”

“Should be fun,” Leander said, deadpan.

<>

The conference room was too small to fit both Char’s team and Erwell’s team and but they were in there anyway. Char escorted Venn, cuffed, into the midst of the standing-room only crowd and felt him freeze.

“Easy, there, Venn,” she said softly. “This circus is almost over.”

“What is a circus?” Venn whispered back.

“I’ll explain later,” she answered.

“All right, let’s quiet down,” Erwell called, even though they were all mostly quiet. She had a strange, skull-like grin on her face. “I’ll start going through the protocol.”

Char spotted Seth in the corner, leaning against the wall behind her team. She sidled Venn through the group to stand beside Seth and tucked herself in beside him.

She glanced over at Seth’s tight face and crossed arms. He met her gaze and gave her the barest hint of a smile.

“How are you holding up?” he whispered to her.

“I have a headache.” Her head ached from a potent combination of fatigue, noise, and caffeine.

“I’ll give you something after,” he said.

Erwell flicked on the projected display against the wall and began going through the protocol. They had a week, Alaska time, to complete the scouting mission. Venn’s calculations said that would equal nine and a half days in Kaa.

They’d be measuring everything from the oxygen percentage in the atmosphere to the force of gravity. They’d take samples of the water and every element and plant they could find and carry.

Conspicuously absent, any mention of the Na’odani. Char had brought this up with Erwell the first time she’d read the protocol documents at a table in the corner of the cafeteria.

“Your job will be to avoid them,” Erwell had said.

Char had blinked. “Avoid them? What if we can’t?”

“Avoid them at all costs,” Erwell said. “They’re peaceful. Venn said so. Just stick to taking samples.”

A pit had settled in Char’s stomach then.

The Na’odani stayed out of the protocol.

The security team already been paid handsomely, with more coming when they returned. If they didn’t return, their families would receive compensation. That was one little bit that Char had successfully pushed for. If they didn’t return, their families would never find out what happened to them, but at least they’d be taken care of.

When Erwell’s presentation finished, Char said goodnight to her team and marched Venn back to his cell. Seth followed wordlessly behind until they’d left Venn in his room.

“You want something for the headache?” Seth asked as Char locked the door.

“Avoid them at all costs,” Erwell said. “They’re peaceful. Venn said so. Just stick to taking samples.”

“Yeah,” she said. Her headache radiated from behind her eyes and deep into her shoulders. Her chest was tight with anxiety.

The base had gone into power-saving mode. Every second hall light had turned off, leaving the curving hall in murky grey-green twilight. Seth walked ahead of her and unlocked the door to the infirmary.

“Linc will take care of my plants,” he said.

“Oh, good.” Char felt this was some kind of opening to something—what, she didn’t know.

They stepped in and Seth turned on the light. For a moment, he was busy digging out pain medication from a cabinet.

As Char washed it down, Seth turned to her.

“In case we don’t make it tomorrow,” he began slowly, “I wanted to say once again that I’m very sorry for how things went between us.”

Char sighed. “Yeah, I know you are, Seth.” Her aching brain spun, trying to come up with the right words to say.

“I’m sorry, too,” she stuttered.

Seth’s hands quivered at his side. Was he thinking of reaching for her? A strange quiver went through her.

“I guess you’d probably like to make this split official,” he said.

Oh.

“I sent you the divorce papers,” she said roughly.

“I didn’t get them.”

“I know.” Char ran one hand through her hair and turned away. “Yeah, I guess we should get that done.”

She heard Seth sigh. His fingers brushed her back, lingered there a moment. He stood there, touching her, for a few seconds.

Char opened her mouth to say something, but he walked past her to the door.

“I guess we should get some sleep,” he said.

They parted ways in the hall outside Seth’s bedroom. Char went into her room without turning on the lights and sat down on the bed.

What Seth had said kept running through her mind. What she’d said had hardly encapsulated what she’d wanted to say—that she’d treated him badly, too. That she’d been so goddamn wrapped up in her career that she’d essentially left him before she’d left the marriage. It seemed a little hollow to apologize now that the career she’d built had crumbled and didn’t matter anymore. Of course she was sorry now—now that she’d lost her career.

Char lay down and shut her eyes. Maybe it didn’t matter. If they survived the mission, she’d cut him completely free. He could start over.

His words ran through her head again, his sigh, the brush of his fingers to the small of her back, and the quiver that ran through her when he did.

Char groaned. She felt around in the dark and undid her boots. They clumped to the floor, and she curled up under the thin covers. She tried to think about something else—the mission, stepping through the portal—but the anxious spiral of what Seth thought of her could not be broken.

In an ideal world, she’d go back eight years in time and re-start officer candidate school. Heck, she’d probably not bother with it and be happy with rising up the non-commissioned ranks. She’d go with Seth to Taylor Bay to help him plant trees in the spring. She would spend less time on runs and in the gym and spend more time drinking coffee and reading books with her husband—hell, making love to him.

His words ran through her head again, his sigh, the brush of his fingers to the small of her back, and the quiver that ran through her when he did.

She’d probably have gotten almost as far and not be the anxiety-riddled wreck she was now.

Char rolled onto her back and sank into the pillow, weighed down by a wave of grief mingled with fear.

She tossed back and forth for at least another hour before a strange resolve came over her. She had to talk to him. She stood up and slipped out into the quiet, dim hallway and marched over to his door.

He opened the door after her third soft knock. His dark eyes appeared in the opening. He’d shed his thick sweater and was down to a thin, grey t-shirt and his shorts. His blue-black hair hung loose around his shoulders.

“Seth?” Her voice cracked. She couldn’t quite look him in the eye.

“Yeah?” his voice was also strained.

She reached to push the door open, at the same time that he reached to pull her into the room, grasping her by the wrist. As the door clicked shut, he propelled her into his arms. His mouth came down as hers came up to meet it.

thumbnail12.jpg

Their mouths tangled for an eternity. Char dug her fingers into his hair and Seth’s hand tugged her shirt out of her waistband and slid underneath.

“Char.” Seth mouth was hot on her ear, her neck. “Char.”

Her blood surged in her veins. “I’m here, Seth.”

<>

They lay curled up together under the covers. Seth’s fingers stroked her hip in a slow figure eight.

“This wasn’t actually what I came for,” Char slurred.

Seth’s head lifted. “What?”

Char twisted around to look back at him and tucked a strand of his hair behind his ear. “But I’m not mad about it.”

Seth smiled sleepily.

Char faced away from him again and settled back against his warm body.

“Promise me,” Seth said in her ear, “that if we make it through the portal safely, we’ll talk about this.”

Char nodded. “Deal.”

Enjoying your read? Subscribe, and get episodes sent to you as soon as they post.