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When Seth, Leander, and Callum pulled Char’s limp body from the Kaa’s pit, Seth steeled himself against the sight. Moments before, she’d been firing the assault rifle still dangling from her shoulder. She was alive.
“Take this.” Leander ripped the rifle from Char’s body and handed it to Jesse.
Seth quickly assessed Char’s thermal-clad form and prodded at her legs. “Both broken,” he said to Leander.
A wail echoed up the tube and washed over them.
“Quickly!” Venn hissed.
Seth and Leander met eyes. “I’ll take her,” he said.
Seth threw Char’s arm over his shoulder and flipped her into a fire-fighter’s carry.
Suddenly a Kaa burst from a burrow in front of him—a long sinewy, eel-like body and a toothy, sucking mouth, about four feet long.
Leander fired a burst into it. It flopped to the ground.
Seth felt Char twitch and stir.
“That’s a small one,” Venn said. “Go!”
They plunged forward, winding their way through the dens. Another Kaa, twice the size of the first, launched itself into the air a few feet in front of them. It flipped in mid-air as all seven soldiers open fire. Fur and slime splattered the ground before the creature landed with a heavy thump.
A moment later another one, much smaller, sprang from the burrow right in front of the unarmed Jeff. Venn swung Jeff around by the handcuffs, putting himself between them and the Kaa, and flipped into a graceful kick. He drove his boot into the Kaa’s head and, anchored by Jeff, swung himself around and caught the Kaa again with his other foot.
The creature landed hard on the ground, and Callum leapt forward and jabbed his knife into it. Its teeth let loose of the leg and it fell, streaming pale fluid.
“Go!” Venn shouted. He dragged Jeff forward.
They pressed on. Finally they reached the slick, rocky slope of the mountains. Seth stumbled under the load of Char’s light weight. Callum caught him from behind and boosted him up. They climbed up to a small plateau and stopped. As they did, a splat of thick, oily moisture hit Seth’s face. He had no free hand to wipe it away. Another hit his nose, and in a moment a steady rain of fat drops were falling.
“Is that rain?” Marlene asked. She dropped to her knees and fumbled for a vial in her pack.
Seth laid Char down. She stirred and opened her eyes, snapping to alertness.
“Woah, no, no. Don’t sit up.” He pressed her back against the slick rock. “We’re across the valley.”
“My legs are broken,” Char said.
“I know,” Seth said softly. “I’ll need to splint them.”
“Venn’s hurt too,” Jeff said behind them.
Seth turned, and saw Venn calmly winding a strip of fabric around his foot.
“The Kaa’s teeth perforated my boot,” the alien said.
While the others pitched the tents, Seth gave Char and Venn each a shot of pain medication. The doctor then uncuffed Venn and helped him into the tent. Seth and Jeff carried Char inside and helped her out of her thermal pants. As soon as they removed her boots, her ankles began to balloon.
“It’s your ankles,” Seth said.
“Yeah,” Char grunted.
Seth pulled a military-grade broken bone kit from his pack. In fifteen minutes, he’d bound Char’s ankles with quick-forming polymer casts.
Jeff helped Venn staunch his wound and bind it. The Na’odani lay flat on the floor, still breathing heavily. Jeff sat beside him.
“Thanks,” he said to Venn. “You saved my ass.”
“You’re stronger than you look,” Jeff said. “That was quite the move.”
“It turns out, Venn is a Kung Fu master,” Seth said wryly.
Char didn’t react to this. He wrapped her up again to stay warm, and propped her up against the wall of the tent.
“Get me Leander,” Char said. Her face was pale and sweaty.
Seth ducked out of the tent and returned a moment later, Leander in tow. She down beside Char. “How are you doing, boss?”
Char swiped a hand across her clammy brow. “Is it raining?”
“Yeah,” Leander said.
“Do you have people on watch?” Char asked.
“The protocol says that if one of us is severely injured, we abort immediately,” Char said.
Leander’s face twisted, but she nodded. “I’ll tell the others.”
“Wait,” Char said as Leander began to stand. Her hands stirred in her lap. “We just got here. There has to be a way to stick this out.”
Leander squatted back down. “If we use this is a base, you can stay here and we can fan out to collect more samples.”
“What about getting back across the valley?” Seth asked softly.
“That detail hasn’t escaped me,” Char snapped. “Just seems like a fucking waste to go back because of a non-life-threatening injury.”
She cut him off. “I’ll take the rest of the day to think of it. The rest of you can make yourself useful.”
A curtain of icy rain had descended over the mountain, reducing their line of sight to the small ring of their encampment. Seth watched Char fight the drowsiness brought on by the pain medication. He didn’t tell her to rest.
The valley, where the Kaa had attacked not an hour before, lay eerily silent. The wind began to blow, howling through the mountain crevice in a hollow moan.
Venn sat silent, awake and alert, listening.
Seth sat down beside Char, and she leaned against him. Her body was rigid.
She tipped her head against his shoulder and shut her eyes. “I’m not an idiot,” she muttered. “Don’t try to talk me into going home. I know what we’re up against.”
Seth smiled grimly. “I haven’t forgotten how determined you can be.”
“Determined?” Char snorted. “Seth, you know what the stakes of this mission are. I’m not going home because I was stupid enough to step in a goddamn Kaa burrow!”
Seth was about to reply when Venn’s head jerked upright.
Char swung her head toward him. “What?”
“I hear something.”
Seth heard pounding footsteps. The tent flap burst open.
“Char!” Callum’s frosted beard and blue eyes filled the opening. “An aircraft is landing.”
Venn lunged to his feet and launched himself toward the opening, dragging Jeff, before Char or Seth could react. Callum grabbed him by both arms and slung him back to the ground.
“Where you going, alien?” Callum towered over him.
“It is my people,” Venn gasped. “Let me speak to them on your behalf.”
“On our behalf?” Char scoffed. “Can’t they understand us just like you can?” She turned to Seth. “Piggy back. Now!”
Seth pivoted and dropped into a crouch in front of her. Char’s wiry arms wrapped around his neck, her legs around his waist.
“Okay,” she said.
Seth crawled out of the door with her on his back.
Outside of the tent, he stood and settled her more firmly onto his back. He blinked at the triangular craft, about twenty feet from point to point, that sat fifty yards from the camp, partially obscured by the pounding rain.
“It just dropped straight down.” Callum acted out the landing by lowering his palm toward the ground.
Leander and the other soldiers stood with guns drawn, facing the craft.
“Listen,” Char said from Seth’s back. “We approach it slowly. We come in peace. Come, Venn.”
As the group approached the craft, a ramp dropped from its belly. Three tall, slim Na’odani marched down it and toward them. Two wore black robes that billowed around them in the wind. The other wore the same, with a sash of blue draped over it. They all wore black helms that covered their cheeks, leaving only their grey eyes exposed. They carried some sort of short staff in their hands.
“We come in peace,” Char shouted. “We mean no harm.”
The three Na’odani stopped. The one with the blue sash stepped forward. “Who are you, and from where do you come?” It spoke in the same halting fashion as Venn. Its voice was higher and sweeter than his, yet commanding.
“We are explorers from America, which is through a portal back there.” Char pointed back toward the valley. “Venn,” she hissed. “Come here.”
Venn stepped out from behind the soldiers. Jeff walked behind him, white-faced.
“We have one of yours as a guide,” Char shouted.
The three Na’odani advanced toward them and stopped about ten feet away. “Bridger Venn?” The leader spoke to him in his own language, a stream of polysyllabic words full of values. It had a musical quality.
Venn answered quietly.
The leader turned and called back to the ship in its own language. Ten more Na’odani emerged from the ship and ran toward then, staves in hand.
Callum and Anna stepped forward, gripping their weapons. Seth’s breath quickened.
“Stand down,” Char ordered, practically in his ear.
“You will come with us now,” the leader said.
Seth felt Char’s grip tighten until it hurt him. “Do as they say,” she said to the team.
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