Leader Taig was not in her quarters when Venn entered. Jezeen sat on the low bench by Taig’s desk. She jumped up when she saw him.
Venn rushed to her side and pulled her close. He buried his face in her silken hair and breathed in the floral scent.
“You smell like the Mangan trees in Eskalon,” he sighed.
“You don’t even remember what those trees smell like,” Jezeen said.
“No, I’m certain they smell like you.”
She laughed huskily.
“Why is Leader Taig here?” Venn muttered into her hair. “What happened to Ryn?”
“After your team disappeared,” Jezeen began slowly, “Councillor Hya made an inquiry into Leader Ryn’s orders to send you with the trainees so deep into the Kaa valley.”
Venn exhaled, half a moan. “And?”
“They found he had done wrong.” She paused. Her voice came out tight with emotion. “Venn, I’m sorry. I—”
The door swung open. Venn and Jezeen leapt away from each other as Leader Taig came in.
Taig clapped her hands together. “Now then, Bridger Venn. Let us talk about these Americans.”
“B-bridger Jezeen was telling me of Leader Ryn,” Venn said as Taig circled her desk and sat down. Indeed, the last time he was in these quarters it was to plead with Ryn not to send him with the trainees into the valley.
Leader Taig fixed her steel-grey eyes on him. “Then you know of the circumstances under which I took command of this base?”
“He knows the beginning of it,” Jezeen said quietly.
Taig folded her long hands. “But you are returned now, and will be required to give account.”
Venn bowed his head in acknowledgement.
“But the Americans are my first concern, and you have effectively brought them to me. Tell me how this has happened.”
Leader Taig sat back and opened her hands in the Na’odani gesture of listening.
“I drew them here,” Venn said. “I knew no other way of returning to you.”
Venn told her the abridged version of how he’d come to escape from the Kaa burrow, how he’d fled up the mountain and through the portal badly injured. He told them about how the American world was dying because they had used most of their resources, and how Director Greta Erwell had been determined to go through the portal to look for resources. Then he told his leader that they had taken one of his kemzog stones.
Her face grew very serious. She folded her hands. “It cannot remain in their hands.” She paused. “Forgive me, Bridger Venn, but from Hya’s perspective the stone is worth as much as your life.”
“I know,” Venn said quietly. “Kindly recall that if I’d stayed in Alaska, they would have possessed six stones.”
“I do note this. I will inform my superior,” Taig said. Her voice lowered. “Before Leader Ryn was reassigned, he personally supervised a mission to retrieve the kemzog stones from the dead bridgers.” She sighed. “They killed many Kaa but did not find them, nor any remains. I’m certain we shall be sent on another search for them.”
Venn took a deep, quivery breath. Jezeen laid her hand in the small of his back.
“I don’t think the Kaa knew what the stones were for,” Venn said. “The Americans do, and they are testing it in their laboratory.”
Taig leaned forward. She spread her hands again. “Venn, what do they really want with us?”
Venn glanced at Jezeen. “They don’t want anything with us. They want resources. They never intended to meet us at all.”
Leader Taig’s lips parted in a wry smile. “Indeed.”
“Leader Ryn put me back into the main barracks,” Jezeen said, drawing Venn along the hall by the hand. “But Leader Taig has given me our old room back.” She turned and pressed her palm against a metal door. It slid open with a soft whoosh and she pulled him inside.
The room was just big enough for a two-person bed and a rectangle of polished stone floor for them to leave their boots on. Venn’s old clothes hung on hooks along the wall.
The door closed behind them. Jezeen turned and pulled him onto the bed. For a moment, they groped at each other’s clothes and fumbled to kiss.
Jezeen laughed with her face against his neck. “Have we lost the way of each other?”
“I’ve found it,” he said. He’d gotten his hand up under her thermal garments and found the smooth flesh on the inside of her thigh.
“I never thought I’d hold you again,” she whispered.
“I’m here now,” Venn said in her ear. “Don’t let me go.”
She tugged his overtunic off, but as his head emerged from the fabric, she paused.
“Wait,” she grabbed his wandering hands. “Contraceptives. Leader Ryn withheld mine after you… left.”
“It’s fine.” Venn tried to kiss her but she turned her head.
“No!” Jezeen wriggled from his grasp. “If I conceive and can’t finish the mission, I must complete another.”
Venn’s senses returned. He wiped one hand over his sweaty face. “Do we have any temporaries?”
“When’s the last time we needed a temporary, Venn?” she snapped.
They both paused, met each other’s eyes, and snickered.
“Since we were young bridglings on Nayulana,” Jezeen said. “By Eskalon, we’re old.”
Her eyes darted around the room. “Stay here.” She activated the door and darted into the hall.
“Jezeen! Your clothes!” Venn laughed as the door shut. He sat down on the bed.
A few moments later she slipped back into the room carrying a silver vial. She sat down on the bed and unsnapped the middle of the container. One half held an opaque silvery liquid. The other held clear. She handed him the opaque and kept the clear. They both drank.
Jezeen made a sound of disgust and tossed the empty vial away. “Temporaries.” She turned and shoved him back on the bed. “Now then.”