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The lights came on, and a moment later the door to the room opened. Char sat up.
“Leader Char, please get up. Leader Taig has called for you.” Venn glanced from Char to Seth and met her eyes without a hint of surprise. “I will wait for you outside.”
The door shut.
“I told you they’d barge in,” she groaned. She swung her legs off the bed and peeled off Seth’s shirt. She had her back to him, but she could feel his gaze on her body. Char smiled.
Knobby knees and skinny ankles be damned, an ass was an ass.
Char ate breakfast with Leader Taig, Leander, and Seth in Taig’s apartment. It was just a slightly larger version of her own room with a table and a window that looked down over the red valley. They drank a hot, sweet, creamy beverage that had a floral taste to it. Their food looked like army rations to Char—items that seemed like dried fruit, and a hard, savoury bread.
After a white-robed Na’odani cleared away the breakfast, Leader Taig pulled a thin, letter-sized sheet of metal from her robe and lay it on the table. She tapped it, and the dark surface shifted. Some kind of markings appeared.
“A message came from my superiors in Eskalon,” she said. “You will state your case to the high council.”
Char swallowed. “I-I’m not authorized to make deals. I’m just an envoy.”
Taig stared at her stone-faced. “You may state your case, and the high council will decide if we will negotiate or keep you prisoner.” She folded her hands. “Venn tells me your people intend to come into Kaa.”
Damn it. Why did we let Venn hear the protocol?
“Yes,” Char said.
“We will bridge to Eskalon soon. Go to your team and prepare them.” Leader Taig got up[N1] . The door opened and Jezeen and another Na’odani stepped in.
“Take Leader Char to her people,” Leader Taig said. “I will call for the aircraft.”
“You slept with him.”
Char sat pinned in the corner of the packed aircraft with Leander beside her. Seth sat on the opposite side of the triangular craft talking to Callum.
Leander drilled her with a stare. “Did you?”
Char ignored her.
“Did you?” The other woman barked.
Char glanced around the aircraft. “Can you be quiet?”
Leander raised her eyebrows.
“Yes,” she hissed. “We fucked and I’m not sorry.”
Leander faced front again and peered at Char from the corner of her eye. “Are you out of your mind?”
“He’s an attractive man who’s dynamite in the sack. Do I sound crazy?”
Leander glanced at her. “Hmf.”
“It doesn’t mean anything.” Char regretted saying it as soon as it left her mouth, but she didn’t take it back. Seth was out of earshot.
The aircraft began to rise gently above the compound.
Char thought they were going to land and walk through the portal, but as their craft flew over a high, black pinnacle, she suddenly felt a sucking sensation. Around her the craft seemed to contract, then expand rapidly, bursting forth into open air.
Char sucked in a breath. The craft floated in blackness, but through the portholes she saw that around them were bright strands of blue and purple light, loosely woven together like reeds in a basket.
“What is this?” Leander asked.
Taig turned from a window. “This is Habbas. We have yet one more jump to make.”
“What am I seeing?” Char leaned back to peer from the porthole behind her head. They were passing close to a strand. Char thought she saw shapes like trees.
“This is called a…” Taig faltered, waiting for her translator to catch up.
“Frame world,” Venn said from the opposite corner.
“Yes,” Taig said. “We’ve had a trade arrangement here for a long time. The inhabitants here fly between the strands of the frame.”
“Weird,” Leander said.
The craft picked up speed. The strands flew by in long purple and blue ribbons. Ten minutes later the craft slowed. Char caught sight of a structure on one of the strands. It spiraled up like an antelope horn.
She poked Leander. “Is that a building?”
The sucking sensation interrupted her. Char felt her body stretch out longer and longer. Her thoughts felt further and further apart.
The aircraft snapped back together.
Char’s stomach leapt toward her throat, and she heaved her breakfast onto the metal floor of the ship.
“Woah,” Leander said.
Char straightened, wiping her mouth. She turned to look through the porthole and saw a distant, peach-coloured sky. Another aircraft zipped past the window; beyond that, the horizon curled up into the fog.
“A ring world,” Char breathed.
They flew for another fifteen minutes and began to descend gently. Char spotted a sprawling compound shaped like an eight-pointed star made of black metal. The ground in every direction had a golden-yellow cast.
The aircraft landed in a cloud of canary dust. The ramp lowered with a gentle hiss and warm air pooled in.
“Come now.” Leader Taig beckoned them from the top of the ramp. The other Na’odani, including Venn and Jezeen, flanked the Americans and walked them off the aircraft.
“You didn’t say it was warm,” Leander muttered as their feet hit the dusty ground. She craned her neck toward the sky.
Char followed her gaze. Above them, the world crossed over them in a narrow strip. The wind blew in their faces, kicking up yellow dust that stuck in Char’s mouth. It tasted metallic and salty.
She was instantly baking in her thermals. The air was hot and oppressive, thick with dust.
Seth began to cough behind her.
Leader Taig turned to face them. “Welcome to Eskalon.”
By the time they entered the wide doors of the compound, Char’s face was coated in dust. She touched the tip of her tongue to her lip and tasted salt.
Two tall, slim Na’o in white robes walked toward them and bowed from the waist.
“These men will take you to your rooms,” Taig said. “I’ll have cooler garments brought to you.”
“It’s a desert,” Seth murmured to her as they followed the Na’odani. “I didn’t see any green from the plane.”
“Their plants might not be green,” Char said. She pulled her damp collar away from her neck and felt the fine dust filter down into her bra.
“I didn’t see water, either.”
The two Na’odani led the group into a triangular, black-walled room. One side of the room was made up of little cubicles, stacked on top of each other like crates. Char realized they were beds. Little closets like the one in her room on Kaa, the one that had the shower, were tucked into the narrow point of the room.
The Na’odani turned and shut the doors behind themselves without ceremony.
“No segregation for us,” Leander said wryly. “I call the first shower.” She sauntered over to one of them and peeked in. “It’s big. Group showers?”
Char snorted and turned to eye the bunks. “I call bottom bunk.” She walked over to the nearest bottom bunk and began to peel off her outer thermal layers. Golden dust sifted out onto the floor. Seth’s hand brushed the small of her back as he passed and sat down in the cubicle next to hers.
“The warm weather is nice,” he said softly. “I wish there was a beach.”
“This isn’t a vacation.” Char caught his eye around the edge of the wall between them. “Any time now I have to make a convincing case for an American-Na’odani trade alliance.”
“We can offer water,” he muttered.
Instead of the white-robed Na’odani, Venn and Jezeen entered the room an hour later. Jezeen grinned, her teeth flashing white in her face. She and Venn had shed their warm Kaa clothes and wore loose black robes without the tight-fitting thermals beneath. Jezeen wore a wine-coloured scarf draped over her head and around her neck. Venn had mustard-yellow scarf slung around his neck.
They handed bags of clothes to Char and Leander. Inside they found similar loose robes and scarves.
“For the dust,” Jezeen said.
The soldiers began to strip out of their dusty clothes. The scientists glanced at each other and found corners of the room to change in.
Char drew on a slim under-tunic and pulled the robe over it. It was incredibly light and airy. Her scarf was the same red hue as Jezeen’s.
“You look ridiculous,” Leander said behind her.
Char turned. The clothes were tighter on muscular Leander. They left her ankles exposed. Her scarf was green.
“Hey, they know what green is,” Char said.
“We haven’t been to Eskalon in—“ Jezeen tilted her face toward the ceiling as she led the Americans out of the room.
“Twenty ka’dons,” Venn said. “Na’o time. In total time, between jumps it is actually more like thirty ka’dons.” He turned back and caught Char’s eye. “This is, by my math, twenty-four American years. The time on Earth and Na’o passes very similarly. A tad faster.”
“Venn is good at math,” Jezeen said, deadpan.
“Why haven’t you come back?” Seth asked quietly.
“Because we were on campaigns to other worlds,” Jezeen said. She touched Venn’s shoulder. They shared a glance.
They came to a bend in the hall formed by the meeting of two star points. Without them pushing any buttons, a door in the center of the wall slid open [N2] in front of Venn and Jezeen.
Hot air hit them like they’d opened the door of an oven, and dust came with it. Char tugged her scarf up over her nose. A triangular aircraft flew low over them and into the hazy distance. They were back into the center of the compound.
“Leader Phais wishes to show you something,” Jezeen said. “He is the commander of this base.”
“Is this the main military base?” Char asked.
“No,” Jezeen said.
The open area in the centre of the compound was a good hundred yards across. At the far side, a group of black-robed Na’odani stood in a loose group. Three brown-grey masses huddled on the ground nearby.
As they drew closer, Char saw they were long-limbed, hairy creatures with faces that were somewhere between a lion and a gorilla.
Jezeen called out to the Na’odani, who turned to watch them approach. The alien woman spoke to them in their own language, pointing to the Americans and at the creatures on the ground. One of the Na’odani, who Char suspected was a male based on its squarer features, strolled over to one of the creatures and delivered a sharp poke to its side with the staff he held.
A whining cry, dog-whistle high, emitted from the creature. It cowered.
Jezeen turned to Char. “These are envoys from the world of Trea-Ess. They were caught attempting to steal weapons.”
Two more Na’odani went over to the creatures and forced them to stand. Upright, the creatures were even taller than the Na’odani, probably between seven and eight feet tall. They shuffled under the poke and prod of the Na’odani’s staves until they were against the black metal wall.
The Na’odani backed away. Two others came over, carrying thicker, shorter staves. They stood about twenty feet from the creatures and lifted their staves.
A bright flash of light burst from the end of each staff, and with it came a metallic clank. For a moment it seemed nothing had happened, then the hairy creatures froze in place. Their brownish hair turned black, and then as if they were balloons and someone stuck them with a pin, they simply burst. Fine dust flew in every direction and dispersed. The two creatures were gone.
“Holy fuck,” Leander said.
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