Episode 15: The Valley

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The next long Kaa night arrived without incident. They’d worked their way about five kilometres down the ridge, aided by the lighter Kaa gravity. Char had walked alongside Venn as he explained the calculations. She didn’t follow the math, but she understood the conclusion. Venn’s eyes darted toward the valley as he talked. They’d dropped in altitude considerably since they’d emerged from the portal. They were low enough now to see the tops of the red plants. Up close, they reminded Char of bamboo—tall, narrow, but tapering to a sharp point.

Venn told her, although she already knew, that the ridge was coming to an end. It would meet a bend in the valley soon, and either they could turn back or they could cross the valley right there where it was narrower. His breath came quicker as he said this. Char wondered about the trauma he might be carrying, probably not unlike her own.

Their new camp was squashed under a small crag a few feet above the tops of the plants. Char took a post at one end of the camp, alone this time. Venn was tethered to Callum. She leaned against the rock wall out of the wind and donned her night vision goggles. As the others crept into the tents, Seth sidled over to her.

Char pulled down her goggles. In the deepening twilight, he was mostly a dark mass. He tugged down his frost-covered face mask.

“Leander has been harassing me because we were, quote, ‘snuggling’ this morning,” he said softly. “Apparently if I hurt you she will, quote, cut off my balls and feed them to me.”

Char burst out a laugh. “That sounds like something she would say.” She turned and adjusted her gun. “It was cold, okay?”

“Yeah.”

Char tugged one glove off and ran her bare fingers over his cheekbone. “I know we promised to talk this over.” She stroked his cheek, and his eyes flickered shut. “But I’m supposed to be on watch right now, which also means ‘on listen.’”

“Yeah,” he breathed. He opened his eyes and smiled weakly. “So I shouldn’t worry about it right now?”

“No.” She touched his lips and dropped her hand. Her fingers tingled as she tugged her glove back on again. “Go to bed, okay?”

He walked away, and Char blew her breath out in a long, cloudy gust.

A crawling sensation came over her, like she was being watched. She’d felt that way ever since the wind died down and they were able to travel down the ridge.

Intuition said the Na’odani knew they were here. Char wasn’t about to go off-protocol yet, but that hadn’t stopped her from thinking about what she’d do if they showed up.

Lie. Lie through her nose. Something about them being envoys, maybe setting up a treaty. Maybe that would actually get them somewhere. Somehow this had to work out.

The next morning Char awoke nestled up to Seth again. The tent was flapping hard in the wind. She sighed.

Venn sat cross-legged and still cocooned in his sleeping bag. “Today we will cross the valley,” he said flatly. He turned his head to look at her. His eyes were black.

“Leander has been harassing me because we were, quote, ‘snuggling’ this morning,” he said softly. “Apparently if I hurt you she will, quote, cut off my balls and feed them to me.”

“Yes,” Char said. She scooted out of her sleeping bag and away from Seth’s warm side. She pulled her boots out of the sleeping bag where she was keeping them warm and jammed her feet inside. The others in the tent began to stir as Char tugged on her jacket—she’d slept in her thermal pants—and climbed out of the tent with her submachine gun.

Leander eyed her from where she stood on post, a few feet from the tent. “How’d you sleep? Nice and toasty?”

“I slept fine,” she said.

Leander snorted.

Char sighed. “We really have bigger fish to fry right now, Leander.”

Leander squinted at her. “Did something happen that you haven’t told me about?”

“No,” Char said. “It’s just cold at night, all right?” She turned and strode across the tiny plateau as Venn, Seth, and the other members of her team emerged from her tent.

Char cuffed Venn to Jeff the scientist so all soldiers could have their hands free to shoot if need be.

“Oh, like he’s going to stop Venn if he tries to run.” Marlene sneered at her shorter colleague and adjusted her pack.

Venn towered over Jeff, it was true.

“Jeff will slow Venn down long enough for us to shoot him,” Char said as she clipped the cuff shut.

“Yeah,” Jeff said wryly. “I make wonderful dead weight.”

Nearby, Leander and Anna snickered. Jeff grinned.

Venn smiled tightly.

They decamped and set out down the rapidly descending ridge.

They arrived at the edge of the valley as the high, white Kaa sun was reaching its zenith.

From ground-level the strange red grasses towered ten feet in the air. They had thick bases and rose into a smooth point. They swayed in the freezing gale like an overgrown, cardinal-coloured wheat field.

“All right, we’ll have to take it slow because Venn tells me the Kaa burrows open up all over the valley,” Char said. “Venn, Leander, with me at the front. Callum, Jesse, please take rear.”

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Char took a few steps down into the tall red grasses, her rifle at the ready. She could hear Venn close on her heels because of his quick, panting breaths. She had to shove the grasses aside as she walked. Her hands swatted at the fat, flying bugs that kept swarming around them.

“How is it that you have bugs and live plants when it’s so cold?” she asked Venn over her shoulder.

Venn shrugged. “Kaa is Kaa. This is how it is.” He snatched a bug out of the air and examined it for a moment before letting it go.

She found the first burrow after they’d walked about fifty yards. It was a perfectly round hole, about four feet across. Char peered into the hole as she skirted around it. There was a thin layer of organic material, like soil, and then the same obsidian-like black rock.

They kept moving steadily. In the dense forest of red, Char lost all sense of where they were in the valley. They encountered more and more burrow entrances.

After two hours of walking, Char sensed that the ground was beginning to slope upward. Her shoulders were taut from strain. A headache was creeping up from the base of her neck. She turned back to glance at the group.

She made eye contact with Venn, and as she did, the ground vanished from beneath her.

Char screamed. She fell at least six feet before crashing, feet first into solid rock. She pitched forward onto her knees.

“Char!”

Char looked up. Leander’s and Seth’s faces filled the circle of light above her. “I’m okay,” she hissed. “Throw me a rope. Now!”

She wasn’t fine. Pain was shooting in needles from her feet to her knees. Char squeezed her eyes shut and willed back the pain.

As she opened her eyes, a burbling call echoed through the chamber, opening up into a full-throated wail.

She made eye contact with Venn, and as she did, the ground vanished from beneath her.

“Rope!” Char scrabbled at the shiny rock walls around her and tried to stand. Pain rocketed through both legs. She collapsed.

A rope fell down the tunnel, and Leander and Seth appeared again, obscured by the dark spots in Char’s vision.

“Wrap it around your waist,” Leander said.

Char wrapped the rope around her waist. As she knotted it, the cry echoed down the tunnel again, closer. “Hoist me up!”

Her feet had just cleared the ground when the Kaa burst into the open.

“Oh… fuck!” Char stared down the red folds of the creature’s throat, surrounded by the ring of its black pointy teeth. If it had eyes, Char couldn’t find it beneath its shiny black fur.

A gurgle came out of its cavernous maw, and a moment later a gooey black substance shot out and wrapped around Char’s leg. It formed a rubbery string, tugging her downward.

Char screamed with pain as the rope pulled her upward, and the slime pulled her injured leg downward.

Instinctively, she grabbed for the submachine gun, still hanging by its strap around her neck. She hooked her arm around the rope and turned the barrel downward. As she did, another spurt of black fluid came from the creature’s mouth and caught the toe of her boot.

Char pulled the trigger, sending a spray of bullets into the Kaa. It screamed, a long, grating cry, and drew back. Her legs were pulled further out.

“Wait, stop!” She saw black spots, but managed to pull the trigger again. Viscous clear fluid flew from the Kaa’s body as the bullets plowed into it. It jerked, screamed and slumped down. Liquid seeped from every bullet hole.

“Pull!” she shouted. “Pull me up!”

They began to hoist her up again. The bands wrapping her foot and leg drew longer and longer, pulling at her legs. Char wailed in searing agony.

Suddenly the bond snapped. She swung against the side of the hole. Her knees collided with the black rock. Char cried out, and darkness overtook her.

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