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A choking scream echoed through the cavern. Venn jerked at the viscous webbing with all his strength.
It had released—just a little it had released. Venn strained with all his might. The web began to stretch. His arm extended further and further from his body.
“I’m coming,” he grunted.
A long way off, his fellow explorer cried out again.
Venn’s face contorted with effort. The membranous binding stretched thin. Soon it would break.
His arm reached its full length. The thread was only a hair now. Ven jerked his hand down. Suddenly the webbing snapped back, and his own hand slapped him in the face. He tasted blood.
The scream rattled him, thinner, weaker. Suddenly it cut off.
Venn lay pinned beneath the web, willing the man to scream again. A minute passed in silence.
“No!” Venn cried. “No!”
Something touched his arm.
Venn’s eyes snapped open.
The healer creature stood over him, gazing down with pity.
Venn suppressed a scream of rage. Here he was in this unknown place, safe indefinitely and completely alone in that safety.
By Eskalon, he’d rather be dead, but he was not dead and therefore he had no choice but to go on and take this creature’s pity.
“I’m sorry,” Venn said. “It was a dream.”
“I guessed as much. I could give you something to help you sleep.” The healer gazed down with eyes as dark as Kemzog stones. For a moment, Venn was distracted by the shiny, black tail attached the back of the creature’s head. It was hair, wasn’t it?
“But on second thought, there’s no guarantee it works with your body chemistry,” the healer continued.
“You are likely to be right,” Venn said. “Thank you.”
Venn rolled carefully onto his side and pulled the spare pillow toward him, wrapping his arms around it. His eyes shut and he willed himself to filter out every ambient sound—a gusty roar of some sort of ventilation system, every swish of clothing from the healer, every breath, voices far away, the gusting wind outside. Gradually all of them fell away and he heard it: the three melodic tones of the portal. It wasn’t that hard to home in on them. He’d lain in the Kaa lair listening to them for three nights.
Once his leg was healed, perhaps he could get free of the healer and whoever else was in this building. He could leap through the portal, and maybe without the others he had a chance to make it back to base.
He’d face his leader, but he would also have the chance to make his peace with Jezeen.
Gradually all of them fell away and he heard it: the three melodic tones of the portal.
Jezeen! Venn’s throat thickened as he remembered their last night together, back to back instead of in each other’s arms. How unfortunate that he was right—Leader Ryn should not have sent him into uncharted territory with such inexperienced bridgers. Jezeen would regret her words to him now, but he was certain he regretted his just as much.
Venn stuffed his face into the odd-smelling pillow and tried to imagine it smelled like her. When that failed he just tried to remember what she smelled like—her sweat, and the flower oil she dabbed behind her ears. He shut his eyes and imagined his arms were around her long, muscular body.
He had begun to worry she was tired of him. She was the natural explorer, a strong woman who’d actually wanted to be a bridger. He was forced into the position by his father, and while he was known for his skill in locating portals and in translating indigenous speech, he was also known for his incredible caution. She was known for her courage and instinct.
We just have to finish this mission. Don’t be a coward, she’d said. Just do as Leader Ryn says.
Finally, she spoke her true mind, Venn had accused her.
In hindsight, he knew differently. Leader Ryn was wearing her down. He was a harsh taskmaster and their lack of progress with the Kaa was only causing him to push harder. Jezeen just wanted it to be over.
After all, it was their seventh and final bridge. When this mission was complete, they were supposed to return to their homeworld of Nao and retire. They’d lain together at night dreaming about it for the last two missions.
Emotion burned in the back of Venn’s throat. He had to survive long enough to get back to the portal.
Venn struggled to sit up. The healer heard the noise and turned to glance at him.
“What is this world?” Venn asked.
The healer laughed softly. “This is Earth.”
Venn was amazed by how quickly his translation chip was responding. He knew nothing of earth, but his chip seemed to know the language. That meant some bridger, sometime, had been to earth.
“Specifically,” the healer continued, “you are at Fort Situk, a government research facility in Alaska. We are about half a mile from the ocean. It’s winter, and it’s about minus forty outside.”
“It was very cold,” Venn said. “It isn’t the coldest world I’ve been to.”
He watched the healer’s forehead furrow as he took in this information. It was so good to be on a world with creatures not unlike the Na’odani. He could watch the healer’s face and recognize the faint signs of emotion play across his features. So vastly different from the Kaa.
“What shape does your world take?” Venn asked.
The healer’s eyebrows lifted. “It’s a globe.”
“Quite a large globe then,” Venn said. “From what I recall, it appears nearly flat.”
“Yes. How large, I can’t recall.” The healer paused and crossed his arms. “So, you are saying that you have been to other worlds—many, in fact, and that some of them are not globes?”
“In the multitude of world there are many kinds.” Venn sat up straighter. The bed creaked beneath him. “There are globe worlds such as yours, ring worlds, nebula worlds, frame worlds, and flat worlds. Perhaps there are more.”
The healer’s face vacillated between what Venn interpreted as skepticism and curiosity. He uncrossed his arms and crossed over to Venn’s bed, lowering himself to a small metal seat. “What’s a frame world?”
Venn shut his eyes, imagining his first bridge. He was practically a child—certain he would die—when he arrived on the bizarre new world. He pictured his first sight of it. “It’s like a—“ he struggled for an analogy that the healer would understand. He opened his eyes and scanned the room until his eye lit on some sort of metallic basket on the desk. “Like that.” He pointed. “Globular, and yet not solid. Made of connected strands. Quite disorienting for the first while.”
“So, you are saying that you have been to other worlds—many, in fact, and that some of them are not globes?”
“And your world?”
“A ring-world. Like a hoop, flat on the inside, which is where the vegetation and inhabitants are. Solid metal and rock on the outside.”
The healer squinted at him.
“Are you an indigenous species?” Venn asked.
The healer paused and then smiled slowly. “I am. I’m a member of a Tlingit band near here.”
“Ah, so you are a Tlingit. Are the others I have seen also Tlingits or they another species?”
The healer grinned. “They are various sorts of Caucasians, except for Linc who is Haida and Leander who is, I think, some mix of African and Latino. But we’re all the same species, which is human.”
He could see by the wry twist to the healer’s mouth that he wasn’t persuading him of anything. Venn was tired. His head felt heavy and his stomach was empty. The heavy gravity of the world was exhausting compared to the light field on Kaa, and apparently his muscles had lost some of their tone.
“What do I call you?” he said to the healer.
“Besides human?” the healer’s eyes twinkled.
“Like I am Venn, and you are…?”
“Seth.” He extended a hand.
Venn looked down at it.
Seth dropped his hand. “Are you hungry?”
Seth stood and walked into the other room. Venn slumped back against the pillows. Well, perhaps he didn’t need the man to believe him. He just needed Seth to fix his wounds and let him out so he could return to the portal. His chances, once he reached the portal, would depend on how much time had passed, and if it was still the warm season, or the cold season in which the Kaa stayed underground.
I’ll stay alive, Venn vowed to Jezeen. I’ll come back. We will return to Na’o together.
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