The persistent beeping of his alarm tugged Seth to wakefulness. He raised his head and rolled over to hit the snooze. As he did, he encountered the warm form in the bed beside him.
He flopped back. Char raised her head, started and pushed herself up on her elbow.
“Today’s the day,” she mumbled.
“I wasn’t drunk,” Seth said. “Were you?”
“Huh?” Char stared at him for a moment. “Oh! No, no I wasn’t drunk.” She lay back down, keeping wary eye-contact.
He sighed. For better or for worse, what had happened had happened. She was his wife. He hadn’t done anything wrong.
Seth leaned over her and dropped a peck on her lips so she wouldn’t feel that he was regretting their night together. He wasn’t—not really.
She cupped his cheek and kissed him again. “This was nice.”
“But now we have to be professionals again,” she continued. “Can we do that?”
He nodded again.
She kissed him one more time, then rolled away. She sat up and dug around on the floor for her clothes. Seth sat up. His head had that balloon-like feel of two hours of sleep. He found his shorts from the night before and put those on and then sat there, semi-stupefied, watching Char get dressed.
“I’ll see you later,” she said softly and disappeared out the door.
“Get up,” he muttered to himself as the door clicked. He got up and woodenly pulled clean underwear out of his dresser. He pulled on the military-grade thermals he’d been given and layered his usual flannel shirt overtop. Seth tugged open the drawer of his nightstand and pulled out a bundle of letters—notes to Will, Brett, and Shania, and some of the others saying goodbye. He took out a sheaf of little wallet-sized pictures: him and Char on their wedding day, him and Char with a moose they’d shot near Taylor Bay, and finally a picture of his Mom and Dad, taken only weeks before they’d died. He slipped them into a little waterproof bag and tucked it into the inner pocket of his thermals.
His throat tightened.
God, I’m scared.
He made the bed and left the letters on his pillow. Next he cleaned up his clothes, on the floor where he and Char had scattered them. His chair went tucked under his desk. Finally, he took his pack from the corner where it stood ready and carried it from the room. As the door clicked shut, Seth swallowed.
Three hours later, they stood in full thermal gear by the portal, which had been marked with flags of red tape. Seth stood with the two scientists: a short, stocky physicist named Jeff and a thin, hawk-eyed chemist named Marlene. Char, Leander and her six team members huddled in a group, clutching their weapons and carrying heavy packs.
Linc stood with them, holding onto a still-cuffed Venn. Venn wore the same thermal gear as they did and carried a pack of gear. His pale face was serene beneath his black stocking cap, but Seth thought he could detect nervousness in his eyes.
Erwell and one of the other site managers stood, shifting in their crackling down-filled thermals, looking serious and important.
“Right,” Erwell said, checking her watch. A hard wind blew out of the west, reeking of burning synthetic materials. She crossed over to Linc. “Let’s go.”
Venn turned and surveyed them all while Linc unlocked the cuffs. Char stepped over, and Linc locked one cuff on her wrist, and the other on Venn’s.
“All right,” Char said. She glanced back and caught Seth’s eye. Her face was strained but calm. “Let’s go.” She tugged the cuff gently.
Venn stepped toward the portal. Char walked alongside him.
Seth followed, jockeying to be the first in the line of scientists.
Venn reached out toward the space between the flags. As the red streamers blew straight out in the bitter wind, his fingertips disappeared into the portal. He turned back and his silver eyes met Seth’s before his fingers closed around Char’s hand.
Char gripped Venn’s fingers and turned, scanning the crowd until she found her ex-husband. Her face was tight but her eyes burned with excitement. She gave him a little grin, then turned and reached back to take Leander’s hand. Leander, in turn, took the hand behind her. They formed a chain and marched slowly toward the portal.
Venn slid out of sight like he was vanishing beneath the surface of a lake. Only his hand in Char’s remained. Char followed without hesitating.
Seth’s breath caught as her arm glided from view. There was a moment where her face disappeared and Leander laughed, one harsh “hah!”
When it came to Seth’s turn, he forced himself to move forward, propelled by the still-moving chain into the void. He felt the instant his hand touched the portal. It was like plunging his hand into a frozen lake. The hand went instantly numb, and the numbness crept up his arm to his chest. His view of the frozen Alaskan flatland rippled and disappeared.
It was dark. Seth felt a sucking sensation, and then very suddenly it was light again.
Seth knew he wasn’t in Alaska anymore because the reek of Tokyo smoke was gone. It took a moment for his sight to clear. His head felt simultaneously empty and full of lead. Jeff, then Marlene emerged behind him.
“That’s all of us, Venn.” Char’s voice pierced his fog.
Seth’s vision cleared, and his senses rolled back in.
They stood on a plateau. Beneath them, the valley Venn had spoken of spilled out in a crimson flood. A sharp, frigid wind bore down on them. Petite Char had her feet planted wide, leaning into the gale. Venn stood alongside the portal, still gripping her hand.
A bizarre ringing sound, like a prolonged gong-blast or a deep, metallic ringing, hummed above the roar of the wind.
“What’s that noise?” Seth shouted.
“The wind through that crevasse.” Venn pointed beyond the portal, which lifted Char’s arm along with his. She tugged it back down.
Seth turned and stared up at the mountain that towered over them. Unlike the snowy, craggy mountains of Alaska, it curved upward in a continuous, black, glassy swoop. The sharp point was broken off and split down the middle by a narrow crevice. Mountains stretched in either direction like shiny black teeth.
An icy gust wailed down the mountain. Char wobbled and grabbed Venn.
Jeff and Marlene were both on their hands and knees. Half of Char’s soldiers were in the same position, including Leander.
Callum stood, planting his stocky legs wide and scrubbing at his eyes with his gloved hand. “Boss, do we take cover?”
“Let’s huddle up.” Char shouted. “Hunker down for now until you feel ready to move.”
To Seth’s right, Leander began crawling toward her nearest teammate. Marlene and Jeff the scientists inched toward them. Soon, all of them were huddled together in a clump on the ground. Venn and Char knelt on the edge of the cluster. Seth edged in beside them and tugged his thermal mask up over his face.
His breathing felt slightly laboured, perhaps because of the compressing effect of the portal, or because of the thinner atmosphere in Kaa.
“Bridging makes many first-timers dizzy,” Venn said in Seth’s ear. “Sometimes it takes a day to pass. How are you feeling?”
“Fine,” Seth said. “Only my chest feels heavy.”
“That may also be the portal,” Venn said. He was breathing heavily. “We’ll be safe from the Kaa here.”
The wind slammed suddenly against them, kicking up fine silt in their faces. Marlene yelped.
“We need to shelter in place until we can travel safely,” Char yelled over the howl of the wind. She struggled to stand, dragging Venn with her. Callum and Seth stood, too.
Char glanced at Venn, still tethered to her. “This won’t work,” she said.
She uncuffed Venn and cuffed him to Jesse, who was huddled between Leander and Jeff.
It took them at least half an hour to erect their first tent and stake it out on the slick rock surface. Leander had mostly recovered, but by the time she’d helped shuttle half of the team into the tent, she was wheezing.
Char and Callum were also panting. Char’s chin jutted behind her thermal mask as she picked up the second tent. They wrestled the flapping tent upright and staked it out, then dragged Leander, Anna, Jesse, and Venn into the tent. Seth propelled Marlene and Jeff into the other tent before he dove in after them. Char followed.
Seth sprawled in the space between Char and Jeff, exhausted. For a moment, the only sound was the metallic ringing of the wind through the mountain’s split.
“I need to make sure the others activated their heater,” Char wheezed. She shoved herself to her knees.
“I’ll go,” Seth said.
“They’re my responsibility.” She unzipped the flap and plunged out of the tent.
Seth stuck his head out of the door and watched her bend into the wind until she reached the wobbling tent. A moment later she came back, practically falling into the tent.
“Activate ours,” she gasped.
Seth reached over and depressed the switch on the little infrared heater.
“Huddle up.” Char sank down and flopped against Seth.
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