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The next morning, a few minutes after the lights came back on in the Americans’ barracks, ten Na’odani marched in and made them board an aircraft.
Char sat down beside Leander with her chest tight and breath shallow.
The craft lifted above the rows of black dwellings. It wound between the domes and then flew over the city for at least thirty minutes. Char watched the black rows of houses pass almost endlessly, broken here and there by domes of various sizes. Finally, the aircraft’s tiny triangular shadow fell on the yellow sand below and flew along below them, uninterrupted by anything other than black rocky outcroppings.
After ten minutes of flying, the yellow surface of the ring-world broke up into dusty black rock formations, and beyond this the ground blossomed into deep turquoise. A tower spiralled up into the sky.
“Is that water?” Char asked.
“Plants,” the nearest Na’odani said.
The aircraft began to descend gently into the verdant valley. It landed beside the spiraling tower.
At the bottom of the ramp, sweet clean air hit Char’s face. The ground was soft below her feet. It seemed to be covered by springy turquoise moss.
The Na’odani led them down a ramp into the base of the tower and into the same bluish, unnatural light and black walls as the military compound they’d left. The ramp closed with a long, bass vibration. The corridor was briefly silent before Char sensed a deeper, lower hum far below their feet, almost below her range of hearing.
On her left, a guard flinched and rubbed one ear.
The Na’odani led them down the hall to a set of double doors. A female guard stopped and placed her palm on a shiny patch on the black doors. The doors slid outward.
“Leader Char will enter. The rest will stay outside,” the female guard said.
Char walked into a long, narrow room. Seven silver-robed Na’odani sat in low seats along a rectangular sunken floor section. They turned in unison.
“The Na’odani high council,” the guard said softly. “They have translation implants. Speak normally.”
“Welcome.” From the farthest end of the room, a tall female Na’odani stood and pressed her long, slim hands together across her chest. “Envoys from America. Leader Char, come speak to us.”
Char stepped forward and took the indicated empty seat at the end of the sunken rectangle. The seat was made of the same mouldable material as the beds. She sank into it.
She thought she would have more time to formulate an argument than this.
“Leader Char, I am High Councillor Hya.” The female sat down and laid her hands in her lap, palms up. “Bridger Venn and Leader Taig inform me that your world is dying, and you wish to make a trade alliance.”
“Yes.” Char cleared her throat and clenched her sweating palms. “Yes, Councillor Hya.”
“Furthermore, I am told you require energy sources. Did you find anything of use in the world of Kaa?” Hya’s face was completely placid, unreadable.
“We’ve taken many samples,” Char said. “We don’t know if they’re useful.”
Hya’s pearly teeth ran over her pale bottom lip. “And, what say you, do you have anything of use to us?”
Char took a deep breath. “I am told you are in need of arable land.”
“Indeed we are,” Hya said. “Continue.”
“Despite our depleted resources,” Char said slowly, “we have a lot of arable land.”
Hya’s eyes narrowed. “This is worth consideration. However… we have determined we have already been to your world and done a preliminary examination of it. Your leadership was not amenable to cooperation then. Why have they changed their minds?”
Her mouth had already been dry, but it became damn near a desert then. “I don’t know. I am just an envoy.”
Hya regarded her silently for a moment. “Moreover,” the ruler continued, finally. “Bridger Venn informed Leader Taig that a kemzog stone was taken from him.”
“Yes,” Char said. “My leader removed it for testing.”
“Indeed.” Hya’s pale silver eyes stared into hers keenly. “Has Leader Taig explained to you the significance of these kemzog stones?”
“No, ma’am,” Char said softly.
Hya pressed her palms together in the style of praying hands. “Our people have travelled to ninety worlds, and not one of them has this material we call kemzog.”
She paused, as if waiting for something from Char, but Char pressed her lips together.
“In the beginning of days,” Hya continued, “the world-maker embedded a giant stone of kemzog in the ground beneath this very building. The energy of it runs through the ground.”
Was that the humming?
“The world-maker gave us the kemzog that allows us to travel between worlds.” Hya’s voice took on an edge. “It is our birthright as a nation, and we will not give it up.”
Hya spread her hands again. Char took this to mean that she was supposed to say something. “Yes, well, we expected to negotiate about that—“
“Bridger Venn informed leader Taig that you had no intention of engaging with us,” Hya said.
The council watched her with blank faces.
“That is true,” Char began slowly. “We were not ready to engage with the Na’odani…”
C’mon. Think. Think!
“We were under the impression that Kaa was neutral ground,” Char said. “We planned to explore a small portion and consider if it was worth pursuing further before… before we extended us too far.”
Councillor Hya surveyed her. “Indeed.”
“But,” Char forged on, “given leader Taig’s kindness to us when she found us with injured among us, we thought it prudent to speak about making an alliance.”
The council was silent for a minute, but it seemed to stretch infinitely.
“Indeed,” Councillor Hya said, finally. “This does seem prudent.” She paused impressively. “But there can be no deal between us without the return of that stone. kemzog is a sacred resource to us, and is worth more than your lives.” Councillor Hya clapped her hands. “Therefore, the council and I propose to instruct Leader Taig to escort a council representative into America to speak to your own council.”
“Yes, absolutely,” Char said.
Hya’s next words were soft. “It is of utmost importance that the kemzog[N3] is returned to us, and because of that I must insist on insurance.”
Char’s chest clamped. “I suppose that is… understandable.”
“I am told Healer Seth is your vowed one,” Hya said gently. “I will keep him and three of your soldiers. When the kemzog is returned, I will return them to you.”
Char drew a deep breath and forced an even tone. “That isn’t necessary. I give you my word, I will return it.”
Hya’s face twisted ever so slightly. “Leader Char, I do not accept your word as truth. Even if you had not already been somewhat untruthful with us, you have said it yourself. You are but an envoy. You cannot return what you do not have authority over.”
“No, Leader Hya.” Char’s voice gained strength. “But these men and women are mine to protect. I will not leave them three worlds away from home.”
Hya and Char locked eyes.
The ruler tilted her head. “You have my word that they will not be harmed.”
Char sneered at her. “How am I to take your words as truth?”
She and Hya gazed warily at each other.
“I will return them to Leader Taig’s custody,” Hya said. “They will be only one portal away. Either this, or you shall all stay. Are we agreed?”
Char sat silent for as long as she dared.
“Yes,” she said.
Hya stood, and the council stood with her. “You are dismissed.”
A guard marched her out into the hall.
More guards came and shuttled the Americans back onto the aircraft.
“What happened?” Seth asked as they marched up the ramp.
“She’s going to hold half of us hostage and send the rest back to America to negotiate for the return of that stone Erwell took.”
“Shit,” Seth said.
Char gripped his arm for a moment. “We’re all going back to Kaa. At least you won’t stay here.”
“You’re staying in Kaa.” Char dropped onto the bench in the corner. Seth sat on one side. Leander plopped down on her other side. “Seth is staying in Kaa,” Char repeated. “You make for extra leverage. Apparently, Venn told Taig that you were my ‘vowed one’?”
A deep line appeared between Seth’s brows. He didn’t reply.
Back at the Bridger compound, Venn and Jezeen met them on the ramp.
Venn’s face was tight. “We are returning now,” he said. “Do not get off the aircraft.”
Char turned and met Leander’s eyes. “Back on the craft, everyone.”
The guards who were escorting them deplaned, and Venn and Jezeen got on. The instant they were inside, the ramp closed. The aircraft vibrated as the engines fired up. A moment later they were airborne.