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Venn watched the healer and the two scientists picking their way across the stony plateau from his vantage point above them. Char stood beside him, surveying the landscape in silence. They were cuffed together again. Her weapon, a stubby sub-machine gun, dangled from her other hand.
The healer sat cross-legged on the ground, holding a tiny plant near to his face.
“Those plants grow all over the mountains,” Venn said softly. “They’re not edible nor useful for anything else as we can tell.”
Char turned to him. “You’ve already spent months exploring Kaa. You’re not going to give them any hints, are you?”
Venn shrugged. “How do I know what they look for?”
“Are there any useful elements here?”
Venn shrugged again. “The plants in the valley make good building materials.”
She laughed. “You’re a bastard.”
Venn squinted at her and wondered if this was a euphemism, since he certainly was no bastard. His pedigree was pure, though Leader Char could not have known this he supposed. The Americans seemed fond of vulgar-sounding phrases.
Char shifted her gaze to the winding valley, which from their altitude, looked like a rippling red stream. “What kind of plants are they?”
Venn screwed up his face, searching for an analogy and the English words he needed. “They’re like… tall… thick… grass.”
Char let her gun hang by its sling and cupped her hand to her mouth. “Seth! Venn says that’s a useless plant!”
Seth looked up and grinned. “I like it,” he yelled back. He pulled a sampling bag from his pocket, slipped it in, and deposited in his backpack.
Venn eyed the gun slung over Char’s shoulder.
All night before they bridged he’d considered whether it was better to steal a gun while they were all still incapacitated by the bridge and run off without them, or if he should lead them down the ridge to the narrowest point of the valley and convince them to cross. The Na’odani base, if they were still in Kaa, was tucked behind a ridge on the other side.
But he’d been cuffed to small, wiry Char. And she had not been incapacitated by the bridge, and the gale-force wind sealed his decision. He had an inkling he could still overpower the slender woman, but he’d begun to favor the idea of taking them across the valley.
He still needed to reach his people, and it was not in Char’s protocol to engage the Na’odani. He needed to find some way of drawing Na’odani attention.
Her face registered shock. “What? It’s a bug.”
They spent the day that way, slowly working their way down the ridge of mountains collecting samples. Venn was cuffed to Callum for a while, then back to Char. She seemed not to mind his company.
The scientist Marlene, who in Venn’s mind bore striking resemblance to a Na’odani with her thin frame and face and black eyes, caught some kind of creature that she thought was an insect. Before Venn could stop her, she’d placed it in a vial.
“What if it’s sentient?” he asked. He grabbed the vial from her hands.
Her face registered shock. “What? It’s a bug.”
Venn peered into the container at the creature. It was perfectly elliptical, and appeared to be made of black metal. Its wings were paper thin and seemed too small to propel its body.
Char glanced over at it, and then away again.
It’s not a bug.
It was a surveillance device. He hadn’t seen one quite like it, but they could have received new tech from Eskalon while he was away. It was certainly Na’odani. It had the Na’odani eight-pointed star stamped on the bottom.
Venn handed it back to her.
“Is it sentient?” She sneered at him.
“Who can say?” he said, affecting a sigh. He spun around.
Night fell swiftly over the valley. They re-pitched the tents on a larger plateau and settled down. Char divided her team in half and formed a guard rotation. She sent Leander and the others to bed in the tents. Seth lingered for a while, talking softly to her, before he also bedded down.
“I’ll stay with you,” Venn said.
Char glanced at him and shrugged. “If you’d like.”
Venn flexed his feet inside the American thermal boots. His feet weren’t warm, but he could feel them fine. He walked to the edge of the plateau and stared down into the valley.
Suddenly a long, high keening cry rang out. A moment later another call responded, farther off.
Venn shuddered. Kaa.
“What was that?” Char hissed.
“Kaa,” Venn said softly. “They’ll stay in the valley. Don’t worry.”
Another Kaa shrieked.
Venn’s stomach compressed inside him. Little flashes of memory spun through his mind—straining against the sticky Kaa bonds, the screams of his dying countrymen.
He swallowed hard.
“Venn,” Char said softly. “When you arrived, you said you were running from the Kaa. Why were they after you?”
Venn licked his cold lips. “I escaped from their dens.”
“They captured you?”
“Yes,” Venn said. “And my team with me. Young explorers.”
“What happened to them?” Char asked. Her tone was gentle.
“They died.” Venn squeezed his eyes shut, grateful for the dark. He could picture each young face—some aspired to be great explorers while others, like him, were there because their families compelled them. All dead.
Little flashes of memory spun through his mind—straining against the sticky Kaa bonds, the screams of his dying countrymen.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I know what that’s like.”
A call echoed through the mountains.
“How are they so loud?” Char shifted from foot to foot.
“Their burrows amplify the sound, I suspect.” Venn swallowed. “May I go to the tent?”
Char walked him over to the tent door, nudged the sleeping Seth and cuffed them together.
Venn lay down in his bedroll and wrapped his free arm around the thin pillow instead of putting it under his head. He shut his eyes and imagined it was Jezeen’s thin, firm body and they were face to face in bed. He pictured her silver eyes staring into his, and his hands on her body.
“Do you remember life in Eskalon?” she murmured. Her eyes drifted shut as he ran his hand down her back.
“Only a little,” Venn said. “I was a child.”
She smiled, eyes still shut. “I wish I’d known you then.”
She’d said that many times, and as always he said, “you wouldn’t have liked me. I was a weakling.”
Usually she’d laugh, but this time she sighed, opened her eyes and caught his wandering hand from her breast. “But now that we’re the strong ones, how will we ever feel that we’re home there?”
Venn laced his fingers into hers. “You are my home.”
Venn awoke from the memory. He raised his head and looked around the dim tent. The guard had changed while he was asleep. Char slept on the other side of Seth, nestled into his side. Beyond them, Anna was a curled ball of sleeping bag. It was nearly dawn.
A soft whirring circled the tent, probably quiet enough that only he could hear it. It must have wakened him.
He lay still, listening to the faint metallic quality of the buzz. Drones.
The whir came nearer. A swarm of the surveillance drones swirled around the tent, tapping against the canvas and looking for a way in.
Suddenly a lone buzz crossed the tent. Venn lifted his head. It came close enough that he could see the small orb hovering over him.
He snapped his hand out and caught it. He held it up to his face so it could get a good look at him, and then let it go. It buzzed away, and in a moment it was gone.
Venn smiled. He was found
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