Episode 21: The domes

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Char stood squinting at the scuffed dust where the three Trea-Ess had stood moments before.

Message received, Na’odani.

Damned if she was going to show it, though. She turned to her alien escort. Beside Jezeen, Venn’s brow had a deep furrow down the middle. Char paused and took note of this. Jezeen’s face was placid and unconcerned as she turned to meet Char’s gaze.

“Now that this is done,” Jezeen said, “Jai will show us the city.”

Char raised her eyebrows. “Um, yeah. Okay.”

They exited the star-shaped compound via the large front gates that, like the other doors inside, opened without any door handle or lock. It revealed a wide thoroughfare made of the same yellow dust. The thoroughfare was bounded on either side by high, black metal walls with periodic round portholes. The walls curved inward over the street.

Venn caught Char’s eye and pointed to the windows. “Living quarters. This is new. The city has grown.” A faint frown crossed his face and disappeared beneath its placid surface. He dropped back and fell in step with Char and Seth.

Jai, a slightly shorter, bright-eyed Na’odani walked alongside Jezeen, talking in long strings of unintelligible syllables.

“How many people—uh, Na’odani—live here?” Seth asked.

Venn shrugged. “Many.”

“Is this the largest city in Na’o?” Char tucked the tail of her scarf into her collar and took a deep breath of the hot air.

“It is the only city,” Venn said. He frowned again. “It covers half of our world.”

“Half!” Leander caught up to them. “For real?”

“Yes,” Venn said tonelessly.

They were still passing along the flat black wall. Seth went over to the wall and laid his hand against it. His brow furrowed. “It’s cool,” he said. “I thought it would be warm.”

“The city has grown so large that the planet can’t sustain itself anymore.” Venn’s voice rung hollow. “This is why we bridge to other worlds. One day we will need a new one to inhabit, I suppose.”

He sighed. “It’s hot. I nearly miss Kaa.”

Leander laughed. “But where are the people?”

“I asked Jai this too,” Venn said. “They are inside, he says.”

He stopped and bent down to trail his fingers in the dusty street. Jai and a few of the Americans walked on.

“This dust?” Venn said. “It falls from the sky. It’s killing Na’o slowly. Last I was here, there were still plants growing along the street. Jai says plants only grow under the domes now.”

“Domes?” Seth interjected.

Venn pointed.

Char could just detect a reflective glimmer in the sky a long way off. She squinted, and the faint outline of a massive, transparent dome came into focus. It might have been the size of a football stadium.

“Like your greenhouse, doctor,” Venn said, standing up slowly.

Char swept her eyes over the black walls and the yellow dirt, then to the glassy dome in the distance. “So your world is dying, too?”

Venn glanced back at Jezeen. “Yes.”

“That’s why you need the other worlds.” Seth’s face twisted. “God, your world is just a parasite, isn’t it?”

Venn’s face was blank. He didn’t answer.

Char met Seth’s eyes.

“And Kaa?” Seth asked wearily. “How is Kaa helping you?”

Venn pointed to the receding Jai and the others . They began walking again.

“The plants,” Venn said. “The plants can grow in very hostile conditions. We may be able to hybridize them with ours.”

Jezeen turned around suddenly. “Let’s take the next shuttle to the domes, Venn. It’s hot.”

The shuttle was a small version of the triangular aircraft they’d flown from Kaa. It didn’t have a pilot, but flew rapidly only about two feet from the ground. It deposited them at the base of one of the domes—there were five of them in a group. The dome towered fifty feet above them, sheer glass, no frame or metal. It wasn’t perfectly round, but egg-shaped.

Char turned and watched Seth squint up at it.

“Do you feel like we’re touring Europe?” she muttered to him. “Like you always wanted to?”

“It’s not Westminster Abbey.” Seth’s lips formed a wry smile. He brushed one finger across her cheek above the scarf.

Over Seth’s shoulder, Char caught the eye of Leander who wrinkled her nose and shook her head.

Inside the dome, Venn and Jezeen stopped sharply, reaching out to catch each other’s hand.

A tree grew in the centre of the dome, reaching up with smooth, straight limbs toward the top of the glass. Instead of leaves, it sprouted fine, yellow, hair-like strands from its branches.

“Mangan trees. These used to grow everywhere,” Venn said softly. “The domes protect them now.”

They stepped forward, and Char and the Americans followed. They stepped from the hard, black stone surface onto a springy, red-brown moss-like plant. Char’s feet sank into it, almost like beach sand.

“Look up,” Jezeen said.

Char tilted her head back. High above them in the tree, green vines hung down with some sort of yellow orbs hanging from them.

“Fruit. The same kind you ate dried in Kaa.” Jezeen’s tongue darted out over her teeth. “Delicious, and hard to come by unless you are a bridger.”

“Why?” Seth said.

“Because we can’t grow many of them, and there are—“ she drew in a deep breath and frowned “—seven hundred million Na’odani in Eskalon, I think.”

“Closer to eight-hundred million,” Venn said softly. “Most citizens eat food farmed off-world.” He turned slowly in a circle, gazing up into limbs of the tree. “We had one of these by the house where I grew up. I used to climb it and sit up in the branches for hours.”

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Jezeen brushed her fingers over Venn’s arm.

“Jai tells me they are putting up more domes,” Venn continued, “and planting more trees.”

“I think we could farm on your world,” Jezeen said. “Venn has told me about it. In fact, I would suggest you offer it to the high council tomorrow.”

Char snorted. “I can’t authorize that! Every bit of arable land is government-farmed now.”

Jezeen shrugged.

Jai led them further into the dome to a round pool of water cut into the black rock. A fountain burbled in the center of the pool. The sat down along the edge. Venn lay down on his side and trailed his hand through the water.

“Venn,” Seth said softly. “Do you think there is anything in all of your world that we can take back to save our world? Your world is on its last legs.”

Venn swished his fingers, rippling the surface of the water. “Truly, Healer Seth, I don’t know. I suspect so, but in the past, you have been quite hostile to the idea of draining one world to save another.”

“I am,” Seth said sharply. “Perhaps we should go home and die with dignity.”

Venn squinted at him. “It’s too late for that, Healer Seth. You are here. You must speak to the council.”

Seth turned and met Char’s eyes. He sighed.

Venn and Jezeen seemed loath to leave the dome. They wandered away, leaving Char and the others with Jai. He couldn’t talk to them, but he could climb the tree and bring them fruit to taste. It was almost overpoweringly sweet, reminiscent of dates, but with a sharp tang.

As Char handed Jai the core of her fruit, she caught sight of Jezeen and Venn kissing beneath the outer fringe of the tree. Char’s mouth twisted into a half-smile as she sighed.

They returned back to the base as the slow rotation of the ring planet plunged it into the one of the first of the two short nights Jezeen called the medir.

Once the Americans were alone in their sleeping quarters, Jeff, and Seth huddled together in a corner, examining leaves and twigs from the dome while Maureen scrutinized samples of the yellow dust.

Char sat down on her bunk and watched the others shake sand from their clothes and snack on the dried fruit and bread that was left for them.

After a moment, Leander ambled over and handed her a piece of the bread. “Don’t suppose we could have a word?” she asked.

Char glanced around. “You mean privately?” She peered into her bed cubicle. “Let’s go in here.”

They crawled in and propped themselves up on their elbows, facing each other.

“What?” Char said in a low voice.

“When are you going to tell me what the hell is going on between you and Seth?”

“What, are we fourteen?” Char wriggled a little.

“What, are we withholding information from each other now?” Leander snapped. “Did I not drink with you almost every night after you kicked him out? Did you not help me clean my husband’s brains off my walls?”

Char exhaled softly. “I don’t know, okay? I don’t know what’s going on.”

“Well, start from the beginning.”

Char trained her gaze on the thin metal walls somewhere above Leander’s head. “The night before we bridged to Kaa, I was afraid I was going to die without making nice with him. So I went to his room, and one thing led to another, and…” She shrugged her shoulders as best she could in her reclined position.

Leander harrumphed.

A faint buzz filled the room. An instant later the lights turned off.

“Oh, come on!” Marlene howled in the corner.

“Look,” Leander said under her breath. “I’m not saying I’m opposed to it. I think we can both agree that Seth isn’t the monster that we’ve been calling him for the last five years.”

“No,” Char said.

“But exactly where would getting back together go?”

“We’re not back together!” It had come out far louder than Char intended. She was glad for the dark. “We’re not back together,” she repeated in an undertone. “Because that would be cruel and unusual punishment for Seth.”

“Oh, come on.” Leander’s eye-roll was almost audible. “I don’t give a fuck about him. I’m worried about you. This mission could be big for you, and if it is, do you want to drag the doctor along behind you?”

That sounded like something her mother would say. Char shut her eyes. “Leander, we have to get back safely first. I have the goddamn Na’odani council to deal with tomorrow. Let’s not count our chickens.”

“I’m not ready to change the subject yet.” The other woman’s strong fingers gripped her arm. Her voice lowered, became husky. “Look, if there were an alternate universe in which we got back to Alaska safely and were hailed as pioneers, and then Chris showed up alive and I had to choose between being with him and being famous? I’d choose him.”

She paused, but before Char could reply, she forged on. “And that all being said, you know I’ll support you whatever you choose. You’re my best friend.”

Leander crawled out of the bed, leaving this pronouncement to sit with Char.

Leander would never see her husband again because Chris was dead. That wasn’t a fair comparison.

And moreover, this was entirely beside the point. Seth had to wait. She had to get them back first.