Episode 3: Venn

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“You can see the blood in the snow there.” Linc pointed at the drifted snow a few yards away. “He was crawling before we saw him, I guess.”

They came alongside the crimson patch. Char squinted at the smears in the wind-packed snow, which was flecked the ash and soot that blew in the wind. “He was dragging the one leg.” They followed the tracks down the slope away from Fort Situk.

“He fell here.” Char squatted down beside an imprint in the snow, speckled with blood, and eyed the clear handprints in the snow.

“The footprints stop here,” Linc said from a few yards away near a scruffy bunch of trees.

“Stop?” Char stood and walked toward him.

“Yeah.” Linc turned around and pulled off his sunglasses. His eyes were bloodshot with dark bags beneath them. “I guess they blew shut?”

They spread out in a ten-yard radius, searching for the tracks to begin again. They found nothing.

“So he fell from an airplane?” Linc said wryly.

Char sighed. “Look in the bushes. Maybe he holed up in there.”

“They don’t do human experiments here, do they?” Linc muttered as they circled around the little bluff, spreading the tree branches and searching for any sign the man had spent time there.

“Do you think they’d tell me if they did?” Char asked. “I mean, they told me that they’re trying to find new fuel and energy sources, but I don’t know.”

“If only they could power cars with snow, right?” Linc said. He scanned the barren landscape. “Anyway, it doesn’t look like he was here.”

Char shook her head.

As they turned to hike back to the base, the whopping of a helicopter made them both look up.

Erwell’s bird.

“You’re in for a grilling now.” Linc grinned at her.

Char rolled her eyes.

<>

The pillow crunched under his head as Seth rolled over on the thin infirmary mattress. His strange patient lay on the next bed over in exactly the same position as Seth had left him.

Seth licked his dry lips and threw his legs over the side of the bed. The bedframe groaned as he stood up and reached for his stethoscope.

As he checked the patient’s vitals, his brow furrowed. They weren’t great, but they weren’t worrisome, either.

He leaned over the bed and stared into the man’s face—at the long, oval face and high, sharp cheekbones. Seth squinted at the ears, which lacked the ordinary folds and ridges. They reminded him of oyster shells.

Everything about the man was long and narrow, including the rib cage with two extra bones.

Seth pressed his lips together. He picked up his comm and carried it over to the desk. “Captain Lee-Thompson, come in?”

The comm crackled. “Yes, doc.”

“Has your team investigated where our guest came from?”

“Yes,” Char replied. “Nothing conclusive to say. Any change in the patient?”

“No, ma’am.”

“All right.”

Seth grimaced.

You have to talk to her.

Ah, God, why now?

He could almost imagine the Man Upstairs saying, “You prayed for a year to get her back.”

He’d prayed a lot of things that year.

Seth slammed the comm onto the desk and after a quick glance at the patient, returned to the exam room, which had been their makeshift operating room during the night. The pieces of the man’s garment still lay in a tub on the counter. Seth brought them into his little laboratory and snipped off a little sample to examine.

To the touch, the fabric felt something like a buttery-soft synthetic leather. Under the microscope, the fabric was incredibly tightly-woven synthetic knit of some kind, interwoven with metallic strands.

Seth sat back. That told him very little. They had some very sophisticated fabrics in the military.

He’s got to be some kind of experiment.

Seth got up and returned to the patient. He stood there staring down at the man in the bed.

He’d just turned and stepped away when he heard a rustle behind him. Seth turned. The man’s eyes had opened. His irises were such a pale silver as to be almost invisible, but as Seth watched they darkened into murky grey.

His irises were such a pale silver as to be almost invisible, but as Seth watched they darkened into murky grey.

“Oh!” Seth said.

The patient’s eyes locked on his.

“Good—“ Before Seth could finish the greeting, the man launched upward out of the bed. His fist collided with Seth’s cheek. Seth reeled for a second, and in the moment the man bolted past him toward the door.

Seth bounded toward him. He caught the man with both arms and attempted to drag him backward. The man bucked against his arms with an animal growl. They slammed against the wall. Seth’s grip broke.

Now freed, the man threw himself toward the door.

“Hey!” Seth snagged him by the hospital gown, which slowed the patient long enough for the doctor to wrap him in a tight hold. The other man strained to break free while Seth wrestled him back toward the bed.

“Take it easy!” Seth said. “You’re safe. It’s all right.”

They slammed against an empty bed. The man cried out and his legs buckled. Seth caught him before he hit the floor.

“It’s alright,” Seth panted. “You’re safe. It’s alright.”

The patient had gone still but for his heavy breathing. He said something, two words that were more vowels than consonants and completely unintelligible.

“Okay, okay,” Seth soothed. “C’mon. Let’s put you back into the bed.”

The man let himself be propelled toward the bed and seated on the edge.

Seth looked down and sighed. A bloodstain was slowly spreading across the bottom of the man’s hospital gown.

“You’re hurt.” Seth made eye contact with the patient. “Please, just lie still. I’m trying to help you.”

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The man stared at him for a second, then slowly nodded.

The wound was seeping blood as Seth unwrapped it. “You’ve broken the stitches open.”

The patient hissed with pain as Seth pulled out the broken stitches. Seth added more hemostatic agent and prepared to stitch it again.

“Thank you,” the patient said in a low, rough-edged voice. His words came out slow, slightly disjointed. “I am sorry. I was not sure you were a friend.”

“I am friend enough to keep you from bleeding to death,” Seth said. “What’s your name?”

“Venn,” the patient said. His breath caught as Seth’s needle broke his skin.

“Where did you come from?” Seth asked as he completed the stitch. “Which community did you walk out of?”

“I came through the portal at the bottom of the hill,” Venn said. He met Seth’s eyes. His irises were murky grey again.

Seth’s needle hovered over Venn’s pale skin. “What do you mean?”

“Of the multitude of worlds, the world of Kaa meets this one in a bridge.” His tone was pedantic, tired. “I came through that bridge as I was fleeing the inhabitants of Kaa. They made these wounds.”

“Oh,” Seth said.

Venn eyed him with an expression that suggested he didn’t expect the doctor to believe him. Something about the look in his murky eyes made Seth say, “You were fleeing animals of some kind?”

It took a couple of seconds before Venn answered. “We haven’t determined if they’re sentient yet.”

Seth formed another stitch. “Who is we?”

“The others of my race. We came from another world into Kaa to explore it.”

“Right,” Seth said slowly as he tied off the final stitch. As he swabbed away the blood, he asked, “So, do your people speak English?”

A pause. “No. I have a translation implant in my head.”

“Oh.” Seth nodded slowly. “I see.” He stood up and carried the tray with the bloody swabs and tools back to the counter.

He stood with his back to Venn, his hands planted on the counter and his lips pressed tightly together.

After a moment, he grabbed the comm and flipped to the security team’s channel. “Captain, come in.”

“Yeah, doc,” Char’s husky voice came in, obscured by the roar of wind interference.

Seth bit the inside of his lip. “The patient’s awake.”

<>

“That’s a weird-ass story,” Char muttered as Seth shut the curtain around Venn. She stood with melting snow dripping off her boots and her hands planted on her hips. “I almost want to believe the bugger. I mean, what Russo-Chinese spy would tell that kind of tale?”

“Unless that’s the deal. Make it too unbelievable,” Seth said, turning to face her.

“That’s not a strategy.” Her sunglasses passed from one hand to the other. Around her eyes, the skin was pale in a perfect glasses imprint. Her short, chestnut hair stood up in clumps, and her teeth kneaded her bottom lip.

Somehow, she managed to look delicate even in heavy, black thermal gear.

Somehow, she managed to look delicate even in heavy, black thermal gear.

But then, wasn’t that how he’d been drawn in the first time? Something to do with haunted hazel eyes in a waifish face, despite that “don’t fuck with me” attitude.

‘Cause I’m a sucker.

Still a sucker, damnit.

“Erwell is here,” Char said. “She’ll want me to brief her before long. I’m supposed to tell her this bullshit?”

“You can take the stinger thing to show her,” Seth said. “He said that was from one of the Kaa creatures.”

Suddenly Char laughed, which lit up her entire face. “Oh good god, Seth. This was supposed to be a straightforward security gig, and now I’m dealing with some kind of mental hospital escapee. Erwell is going to kill me.”

Seth chuckled nervously.

“Look.” Char turned to him. “I’m sorry I bit your head off this morning. This has all been rather unexpected. Um… meeting you here, I mean.”

“Yeah.” Seth gave her a half smile.

“We’re professionals. We can manage a working relationship, right?”

Seth nodded.

Char’s shoulders relaxed, though her face remained poker-straight. “Okay, because the contract is just a year and then I’ll be out of your hair.” She squinted at him. “And speaking of that, you grew your hair out.”

“Yeah.” Seth grabbed the tail of his braid and threw it over his shoulder. He’d begun growing it out about a month after she’d left him. That he’d wanted to keep it short was just one of a few things he’d told her that weren’t quite true.

“I bet your mom likes that.”

“She did,” Seth said.

“Well, it suits you.” Char crossed her arms and squinted at him.

Seth blinked.

She gave him a rueful smile. “But also, I’m not a captain anymore so you can stop calling me that.”

“Yeah, I know.” Seth crossed his arms. “I followed the story on the news.” He paused. “I didn’t take any pleasure in it, if you were wondering.”

She eyed him.

“I didn’t know what else to call you,” he finished lamely.

“Char is fine,” she said with a sigh. “Anyway, I gotta go. Wish me luck.”

“Good luck,” he said half-heartedly. He leaned against the doorframe and watched her go.

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