Episode 24: Welcome to America

Just got here? Start at Episode 1

Instead of the long hike across the valley and along the mountain ridge, they took the aircraft to the plateau where the portal to Alaska was.

Char’s throat was tight with the emotions unexpressed when she left Seth, Leander, and her soldiers. She stood in the center of the plateau under the wing of the aircraft as Taig spoke to her soldiers. Marlene huddled almost right in her armpit, shivering in the cold.

“Too bad it’s also winter in Alaska,” Marlene muttered.

Taig turned from her group of soldiers. “Leader Char, are your people ready?”

“Yes,” Char said flatly. She wasn’t sure she was.

She’d hoped having sex with Seth would distract her long enough to sleep. He slept. She lay awake rehearsing what she would tell Erwell.

“Good,” Taig said. “Come, then.” She smoothed down her blue sash. Her eyes were pale in her porcelain face. She held out her hand.

Char gripped her cold fingers and advanced with her toward the portal.

The now-familiar sucking sensation greeted her. Char felt her whole body compress, then stretch out to immense lengths.

Then everything snapped back together. Char couldn’t see anything for a moment, but she smelled something familiar: burning garbage.

Her eyes opened. The black night sky swirled with stars above her. She heard the soft whir of the wind turbines and took a breath of smoky air.

“Welcome to America,” she said.

Leader Taig stood still beside her, eyes shut. “Your air smells sick.”

A half-second later the spotlights glared in their eyes.

An amplified voice boomed over the snowy ground. “Don’t move!”

Char raised her hands above her head and stepped to the front of the group. Anxiety rose up like bile in her throat.

<>

Leader Taig with her black robes and blue sash towered over Erwell and the two government officials. The eleven Na’odani had been forced to relinquish their staves, but even so they filled the boardroom with their presence. Except for Venn, who stood with Char, his face pale and drawn. His eyes flicked between his leader’s face, and the faces of the soldiers packed into the room around them.

Actual army. The security detail was on patrol.

Two government men and Erwell stood at the end of the boardroom table with their eyes still set in shock and their faces moulded into rigid masks.

Char drew a deep breath and felt her chest muscles resist. Erwell hadn’t said it yet, but Char had a bad feeling that whatever deceptions she’d pulled to get them into Kaa hadn’t worked out for her.

Erwell cleared her throat. “Tell us why you’ve brought these… um… people with you, Charlane.”

“Director Erwell,” Char began, her tone more commanding than she felt. “I recognize that the protocol we were given did not involve engaging with the Na’odani people. However, after an incident with the inhabitants of Kaa, the Na’odani found us in foul weather and with injuries and took us in.”

“Indeed,” Erwell said sharply. “But why did they come here?”

“We have come,” Leader Taig interjected, “to speak to you about the kemzog stone you have taken from Bridger Venn, and also about the conditions under which you Americans can come into Kaa.”

Erwell and the officials stood silent, blinking up at Taig.

“I am sorry.” Taig spread her hands in the same gesture Leader Hya had used. “But on behalf of the high council of Eskalon, capital of Na’o, I cannot allow you to enter Kaa until the kemzog stone has been returned and conditions have been settled upon.”

Erwell cleared her throat. “We aren’t authorized to negotiate, uh—”

“But you did have authority to send these people into Kaa,” Taig said flatly. “I am authorized to negotiate. Take me to your leader.”

There was a moment of silence, and then Erwell burst out a laugh. “Yeah, okay.”

“Director,” Char began slowly.

Taig gripped Char’s wrist and pointed to Erwell. “What is her name?”

“Director Greta Erwell,” Char said.

“Director Greta Erwell,” Taig said. “I have been told your world is dying. Your air smells sick, and so I believe this is true. If you desire to save your world, perhaps you would do well to listen to me. If you desire to see your soldiers again, I suggest you listen to me.”

“Right.” The director gave a little nod. “Then I suppose we should contact our leadership so we can do that. Let’s find you a place to stay while we do that.”

Char knew immediately what that meant. She pressed her lips together.

Soldiers stepped up and escorted the Na’odani out. Erwell grabbed Char as she began to go with them.

Taig glanced back, caught Char’s eye, and nodded before she was shuttled out of sight.

“What the fuck, Char?” Erwell’s eyes were bright with anger.

thumbnail24.jpg

Char dropped into one of the boardroom chairs. The two officials sat down across from her. She summarized everything they’d seen in Kaa and Na’o—the technology, the landscape, and once again, how the Na’odani had found them.

“They’re open to negotiating,” Char finished. “But they want that stone back.”

“Listen,” one of the officials said. “How many of those stones do they have with the right now?”

Char glanced at him. “Meaning?”

“Meaning,” Erwell said, “that while you’ve been gone we’ve been running tests on the metal and we are not giving it back. When submitted to certain sound frequencies, it puts out a tremendous surge of energy. That must be why it causes the bridge. If we keep it under frequency, we could power Juneau with that little piece.”

She paused.

“Venn has five more,” Erwell said. “What about those soldiers?”

Char tried to picture the Na’odani. “I don’t know if any of the soldiers have Kemzog stones. Taig is a bridger. She probably has as many stones as Venn does.”

“Then we need to get them,” the director said.

“Erwell,” Char said in a low voice, “don’t forget that there are four prisoners back in Kaa.”

“Right,” she said absently. “Do they have more of that stuff in Kaa?”

“I don’t know,” Char said. “Whatever the bridgers have, I guess.”

“How many of them are there?”

Char had no idea. They’d been kept isolated.

“Why don’t they use kemzog?”

“It’s sacred, apparently,” Char said.

“Huh,” Erwell said. “Well, ten bridgers could power the country.”

Char sat silently, processing this.

The officials and Erwell also sat in silence. The director fiddled with her cuffs, hovering on the edge of her chair.

“I’ll tell you what.” Erwell stood. “The aliens are secure. Let’s take time to think over our next course of action.”

Char opened her mouth to say something—what, she was not sure—but nothing came out.

“Very well.” One of the officials stood. “Thank you, Ms. Lee-Thompson. You may go.”

“All right,” Char said softly. She stood to go.

“Don’t—“ Erwell thrust one finger at her “—speak one damn word to the Na’odani.”

Char nodded and slipped into the hall and started toward the officers’ pod. She ran her hand down the familiar curved wall. She hesitated by the turn that led toward the infirmary.

“Boss, you’re back.”

Char looked up and saw Linc walking toward her, carrying a small potted plant.

“Yeah,” Char said softly. “Seth isn’t here. I’m sorry.”

Linc’s eyes widened.

“The Na’odani kept him prisoner.” A lump filled Char’s throat. “Now Erwell and her gang are trying to decide if we should make nice with the Na’odani or kill them and steal their kemzog stones.”

“Oh, yeah.” Linc leaned on the wall and stared down into his plant. “The kemzog. They almost blew up the bottom lab with that stuff.”

Char’s eyebrows rose.

“Listen.” She took a step closer to the young soldier, lowering her voice. “Can you just go find out where they’re keeping the Na’odani?”

He nodded. “Yeah, of course.”

“Don’t call me on the comm,” Char said. “Tell me in person.”

Linc gave her a knowing look. “Got it.” He held out the plant to her. “Hang onto this for me. It’s just basil for the cook.”

She took the plant, and Linc trotted off.

Back in her room, Char lay on her back on the bed just enjoying the standard, military-issue mattress for a moment.

Linc came back five minutes later, retrieved his basil, and told her that the Na’odani were kept in several rooms in the same area that Venn had been held before. They seemed at ease, he said.

Char lay back down when he was gone. She wasn’t about to sleep. It was morning when she left Kaa. She tossed and turned for a while, paced for another while, and then finally picked up her comm and went out into the hall.

Seth’s door wasn’t locked. She slipped into his room.

His bed was perfectly made. Running shoes sat against the wall by the door. An old parka hung on a hook. His snowmobile helmets sat on top of his dresser. A bundle of papers sat on the bedside table. Char picked them up and opened the first. It was a letter to say goodbye to Uncle Will.

The lump in her throat nearly strangled Char.

She flopped down on the bed and rolled to push her face into Seth’s pillow, breathing in his scent.

“Seth,” she whispered. “I’m going to get you back.”