Episode 11: Clearance

Just got here? Start at Episode 1.

Previous Episode

“Venn?”

Venn kept his eyes closed a moment longer. He leaned into his deep stretch, pushing his weight into his hands on the cool concrete floor. A deep ache settled into his hamstrings.

“Oh look,” a female voice said. “He’s working out.”

Venn straightened, and stood still as the blood rushed from his head. The healer and the taller, dark-skinned soldier woman stood in the open door. “Hello, healer Seth. Hello, soldier woman.”

“Ah, Mr. Venn, I love it when you call me that.” The female batted her eyelashes at him and laughed. “Let me know when you want out, doc.”

Seth stepped in and the woman closed the door. “Her name is Leander,” he said.

“Leander,” Venn repeated.

“I see you’ve rested from your expedition yesterday,” Seth said. He crossed his arms across his chest.

“I have.” Venn got up slowly. “I’m testing my strength.” His garments were drenched with sweat even from his simple stretches. He suspected he was at about half-strength yet, perhaps as strong as an ordinary citizen of the city of Eskalon.

“How does it feel?” Seth looked him up in down with his dark, cagey eyes.

“I’m not as strong as I was,” Venn said. “But also, Director Greta Erwell spoke to me for much time. I am tired.”

“I’m sure she did,” Seth said wryly. He smiled. “Let me look at your leg.”

Venn removed his pants and lay down on the bed.

Seth went through his usual ritual of draping the body-parts he didn’t need to see, then bent down to examine the wound on Venn’s thigh.

“It’s healing well,” he said, finally. “Very nearly shut.” He applied a lighter dressing, rearranged his draping, and moved to examine the wound in Venn’s belly.

“Does it hurt?” Seth asked as he squinted at it.

“It pulls,” Venn said. Lying down he could just see the healer’s serious face and creased brow out of the corner of his eye. “Any use of my abdominal muscle pulls at it.”

“No pain in your gut?”

“No,” Venn said.

Seth dressed this wound also, then straightened. Venn sat up and surveyed the healer’s drawn face.

“Something troubles you, Healer Seth.” Venn said.

Seth met his eyes frankly. “How did the director question you? About what?”

Everything. Venn smiled ruefully. He had kept very little hidden from the director—just Jezeen, the location of his people, and the portal to Na’o, and much about their culture. She wasn’t interested in their culture.

“Everything about the atmosphere and terrain of Kaa,” Venn answered. “It was difficult to translate much of it, for my research has been in the numbers and figures of my people.” He paused. “She says your world is dying.”

“It is dying.” Seth folded his arms and frowned at his feet.

“Why?” He had seen nothing of this world but the white ground and the few plants, which seemed dead. He’d smelled the fetid air and felt the world must be at very least sick.

“We’ve sucked the life out of it.” Seth’s lip curled. “I suppose your people get around that by sucking other worlds dry?”

Venn fought to keep his face like stone. Not dry, but drained certainly. Telling the healer this probably would not sway the director, who was determined to explore Kaa. Not even hinting strongly at his people’s military might had seemed to deter her. Venn had seen their weapons and asked Leader Char’s soldiers as many questions about them as he dared. He’d tried to tell Erwell that he thought the Americans would be vastly outmatched if things went badly, but his words didn’t seem to reach her ears.

“We study their resources and technology and form trade agreements where we can,” Venn said finally. “But yes, this is to prolong the life of Na’o.”

“In the experience of my people, that’s the same thing.” Seth straightened. “I don’t like the idea of going into another world to save ours, but there are millions of people engaged in a war to win the last little bit of natural resources on this planet. If we lose, which we might, a bunch of people I care about will starve or freeze to death.”

Venn nodded slowly. The director had said as much. She had not asked if his people would tolerate this intrusion, or share whatever resources Kaa offered.

“Do you know who Char is?” Seth asked softly.

Venn shook his head.

“She’s my wife, my vowed one as you say.” Seth’s voice took on a hard edge. “I care about her, and she is going to go through the portal too. Is she going to die?”

Char was his vowed one? They interacted like near strangers.

“Is she going to die?” Seth said, louder.

Jezeen flashed before his eyes.

Seth’s voice took on a hard edge. “I care about her, and she is going to go through the portal too. Is she going to die?”

“We may all die,” Venn said finally. “As long as we’re on the mountain, the Kaa won’t attack us, but we can’t stay on the mountain forever. Not if you want a proper exploration.”

“What about your people?”

Venn felt his resolve slipping as he met Seth’s deep, dark eyes. “My people?”

“What will they think of having American visitors?”

“My people are a peaceful people,” Venn said softly. “They will hear you out.”

Seth blew out his breath and nodded. “I suppose it doesn’t matter to Erwell. As I said, the world is dying.”

He turned to go. “All right. Can I bring you anything?”

Venn straightened, relieved. “May I have another book?”

“I’ll find you something.” 


<>

Seth called Leander on the comm and a few minutes later, she let him out.

He marched straight to Erwell’s office door and knocked hard. No one came to the door, but he could hear her voice inside.

He knocked again until the door rattled. The door swung open.

“Do you mind? I’m on a call!” Erwell’s face registered recognition and then consternation. “Oh. Seth. Did you need something?”

“Ma’am, I was just speaking to Venn—“

“Hey!” she hissed, interrupting him. She jerked her head toward her computer in the background.

“Oh.”

“I’ll come see you in the infirmary in half an hour,” Erwell said softly.

Seth nodded.

She backed in and shut the door.

Seth sat on one of the beds in the empty infirmary. He’d gone to her office in a burst of adrenaline, ready to ask her to send him through the portal. He hadn’t given much thought to what he was going to say.

Erwell came into the infirmary with a coy little smile on her face. She crossed her arms and cocked her head. “What can I do for you, doctor?”

Seth took a deep breath. “Greta, there’s something I need to ask you.”

Thumbnail11.jpg


Erwell’s eyebrows rose. “Really?” she drawled. The same grin played around her lips.

She’d looked at him like this before, but this time its meaning registered.

Oh.

Fuck.

“I…” Seth sighed. “I want to go through the portal.”

He thought he saw disappointment in her eyes, maybe anger. Seth felt a strange prickle of fear.

It took her far too long to answer. Finally, Erwell laughed under her breath. “You can’t be serious.”

“I am,” Seth said softly. “I’m two years into a correspondence degree in botany. You have no botanists here, and between you and me, I don’t think you’re all that interested in asking to be sent one.”

Erwell’s nostrils flared. “Are you suggesting that I’m wrong in my leadership, Doctor Thompson?”

“No,” Seth said. “I’m saying I suspect you’re telling the selective truth to your bosses to expedite the process.”

“Oh, fuck you.” Erwell sneered at him and turned around.

Seth took a slow breath against the surge of anger. Was she angry at him for not being into her? Had he ever given her any encouragement? Ever?

“I’m suggesting that we may be of mutual benefit to each other,” he said.

Erwell turned and stared at him. Her blue eyes were bloodshot and flat, emotionless. “Maybe. You want to go with your wife, I guess.”

Seth’s hands clenched at his side. “Leave Char out of this. Do you want a paperwork-free botanist or not?”

“What makes you think I’m going to get clearance to send you?” Erwell snapped.

“Please,” Seth said. “In May you thought we were on the edge of breaking through in the fission experiments, and suddenly the whole base was crawling with bureaucrats. I haven’t seen a single suit on base since we discovered the portal.”

Erwell’s face went white. “Fine.” She turned sharply and swung the door open.

As the door slammed, Seth let out his breath.

<>

By evening, Director Erwell announced she’d been given clearance to send them through the portal. She told, not asked, Char that they she would be assisting with putting together a mission protocol.

Char didn’t ask for more details, she just assembled her team in the cafeteria.

Char gazed at her assembled team from her perch on a cafeteria table. Twenty-four faces stared back at her.

“Director Erwell has asked us to accompany a team of scientists through the portal into Venn’s world,” she said.

A hubbub arose instantly.

“Hey! Hey.” Char held up her hands. “Take this goddamn seriously. This isn’t a holiday. We don’t know what we’re stepping into. We don’t know if we’re coming back. Erwell asked for eight people. I will be one of them, and so will Leander. That leaves six openings.”

Char took a long, impressive pause. “One by one, please tell me if you would like to stay or go and why.”

One by one, each man and woman on the team made their case to either stay or go. In twenty-four, only five said they would not go.

After she’d dismissed them, Char looked over at Leander. “Now we narrow this down.” She pulled out a small computer tablet and brought up the profiles of her team members. Except for Linc, she’d worked with these men and women for almost a year.

Mike Callum, 36. The burly Irish-American from the east coast. He’d fought through the streets and alleys of Manila as the American Federation had wrested control of the Philippines back from the Russo-Chinese. He a was skilled hand-to-hand fighter. Char sparred with him every few days to keep up her own skills. Bit of a temper, but she’d never had problems with him. He took orders well.

“Him,” Char said.

Leander nodded. “Yeah, definitely Cal.”

Anna McGregor, 29. Anna was an ex-marine who’d left the service after she’d lost her hand in combat. She’d taught herself to shoot one-handed by modifying her rifle-stock. She’d been a sergeant and squad leader. Char often relied on her to lead security shifts.

“You’re thinking Anna?” Leander asked, taking a sip of coffee.

“Yeah,” Char said.

“I agree.”

They also chose Jesse Costello, 43, one of the few non-military members of the team. Jesse had been a police officer in downtown Vancouver. He had a knack for reading people and situations that allowed him to see conflicts coming before they started.

They chose two other team members before landing on Linc’s profile. Char stared at the photo on the screen. Linc’s eyes twinkled. He was supressing a smile. Linc was a former sniper, but more than that he was a woodsman and a survivalist. Taking him into the cold wilderness of Kaa seemed like a natural fit, and yet…

“We can’t take him,” Char said.

Leander eyed her. “Why?”

“Because he’s not…” She’d never told her friend about this. “Seth has been treating him for depression.”

“So?” Leander threw back the last of her coffee.

“So, I don’t think he’s in a good place to make a life or death decision like this,” Char said.

Leander squinted at her. “Because he’s mentally ill?”

“Yeah.”

“Don’t you still sometimes have anxiety attacks?”

Char felt irritation bubble up. “Yes, yes I do. Thanks for reminding me. Have you seen it stop me?”

“No,” Leander muttered.

“I’m irreversibly fucked up,” Char snapped. “Linc is young. He’ll get better. He’s not coming.”

Leander held up her hands. “Your call.”

“Absolutely not.”

“I’m irreversibly fucked up,” Char snapped. “Linc is young. He’ll get better. He’s not coming.”

“All right,” Leander said. “I’d say Spurgeon, then.”

Char jerked a nod. “That will do.”

“Look, I was just saying,” Leander said. “I’m not trying to be a bitch.”

“Yeah, I know.” Char stood up and feigned a relaxed stretch. “We have two days left in the real world. Sleep well.”

Char was still vibrating with irrational anger when she met Seth in the hall on the way to her bedroom. They paused in the center of the hall an arm’s length from each other. “Well,” she said softly, “we’re going through the day after tomorrow.”

“Yeah.” Seth brushed his braid over his shoulder and met her eyes. “I am too.”

“What?” Char drew back.

“I’ll be taking botanical samples.” He half-smiled.

Char wheezed a laugh. “Why, Seth? Fifty-fifty this is a death trap. You said so yourself.”

“Or it’s a chance to find resources that can save a lot of people,” Seth said.

Char shook her head. “I can’t believe Erwell agreed to that.”

Seth’s mouth formed a rueful smile. “She might be hoping I die.”

Char snorted. “Why?”

Seth shrugged and moved to step past her.

“Why?” she grabbed his arm and swung him around. For a second they were nearly nose to nose.

His breath smelled like mint. Up close, she could see filaments of silver in his black hair. His lips parted. He turned away.

“I’ve offended her,” he sighed. “I’d rather not go into the details.” He took a step back and walked away.

Char pushed open the door of her room and sat down on the edge of the bed.

Erwell, you bitch.

Damn him, was this some kind of ploy? Some kind of long-ass way of telling her for the umpteenth time that he was sorry for cheating on her?

Because if so, he could stop now. She accepted his apology. After all, she was kind of a piece of shit. Who wouldn’t cheat on her?

Char rubbed her face. “Snap out of it,” she muttered.

Episode 10: I'll Lead the Team

Just got here? Start at the first episode.

Previous Episode

“Venn,” Char said as she stood by the door of his cell, ready to lock him in. “Be honest with me.”

Venn nodded and raised his eyebrows.

“What do you expect will happen if we pass through that portal?” Char folded her arms and glanced back at Linc.

Venn exhaled gently. “We’ll have to travel along the top of the mountain ridge to avoid the Kaa. They are dangerous.”

“If we travel down the ridge, we can avoid these Kaa creatures?”

Venn nodded.

“What about your people?” Char asked. “How will they feel about visitors?”

Venn tilted his head. “My people are a peaceful people.”

Char glanced at Linc. “All right then.” She swung the door shut and locked it.


“How peaceful can they possibly be?” Seth straightened with a handful of trimming from the sage plants. “Their civilization seems to depend on conquering and colonizing other worlds.”

“Yeah, exactly.” Char ran her fingers through a short clump of lavender and sniffed her fingertips to catchy the spicy, woody scent.

“Erwell’s on it like a shark on blood,” Leander said behind her. “I’m not sure she’ll see it that way.”

Seth leaned against the metal garden bed and met her gaze. “Do you think she’ll get clearance to go through?”

“Yeah,” Leander said.

Char nodded. Caution was becoming more and more expensive as the years wore on. They’d thrown two million soldiers at the Russo-Chinese federation, after all, and what had that got them?

“I’d bet that if she does get clearance, using private security soldiers would help erase the paper trail if things didn’t go well,” Seth muttered. He tossed the leaves into a compost bin in the corner. “You do want to go through that portal, don’t you?”

“Hell yes!” Char burst out. She raked her lavender-scented hand through her hair. “Of course I do. I just don’t want to drag all my guys into a death trap.”

Seth glanced between them and nodded slowly.

Leander jutted out her jaw and crossed her arms. “Well, you can take me with you. I don’t care if I’m walking into a death trap. I’ve done that before.”

“And you’re not tired of it by now?” Seth asked. He crossed his arms over his chest and smiled wearily. “For what it’s worth, I’m not keen on you walking into a death trap either, Char.”

“Oh fuck you,” Leander turned to him. “What do you care? You haven’t checked in on Char in five years.”

“Leander, you—“ Char began.

Seth held up his hands. “That’s not true. I sent her ten letters, two per year. I sent them to every place I could think of and you never answered.”

Leander turned to her. “Did you get them?”

Leander jutted out her jaw and crossed her arms. “Well, you can take me with you. I don’t care if I’m walking into a death trap. I’ve done that before.”

“Yeah,” Char said softly. “I got one. My mom gave it to me.”

“That was the second one I sent,” Seth said softly. “But perhaps it arrived too soon.”

Char licked her lips and recalled a scene that involved drinking half a bottle of cheap synthetic whisky and pinning it to the wall with a chef’s knife. She looked down at her feet.

“Okay, fine.” Leander snorted and spun around to go. “Not sure that qualifies you to make bedroom eyes at Char.”

Seth made a little choking noise.

It was Char’s turn to snort. “If Seth remembers anything about me, it’s that I’m impervious to his bedroom eyes.”

Leander paused in the doorway of the little greenhouse and eyed them both.

Char rolled her eyes and followed her down the little hall into the infirmary.

“Look,” Leander said in a low voice. “Erwell probably won’t play us straight on this one, but I think the risk might be worth it.”

Char eyed her friend’s bronzed face. She had a linear scar across her cheekbone from a bullet that winged her in last deployment. Leander’s black eyes were hard and tired. The skin beneath bore dark smudges.

Leander’s husband had also been a soldier. He’d killed himself shortly after he returned from deployment in China. That was two years ago now.

Leander had nothing to lose either—Char dared think, less than she did.

Seth’s footsteps approached behind then.


thumbnail10.jpg

“Listen,” Char whispered. “Let’s present a united front on this, okay? We’ll go, as long as it’s a win for both us and Erwell. Maybe we can make some good money.”

“Deal.” Leander slipped out the door.

“Char?” Seth said behind her.

Char paused with her hand on the door handle and turned. “Yeah. You want to go, too? I can sell cheap tickets.”

Seth gave her a half smile and nodded. He shoved his hands into his jeans pockets. “Yes. I want to go, but that wasn’t what I was going to say.”

Char released the door handle. “Okay.”

“I wasn’t making bedroom eyes at you,” Seth said. A line appeared between his eyes. “I don’t want you to think I’m being nice to you because I want to sleep with you.”

“I wasn’t flattering myself,” Char said tightly. “I thought you were being nice because you’re a half-decent person, Seth.”

He smiled weakly.

She returned the rictus-like gesture and retreated from the infirmary, wondering why she felt slightly crestfallen. In her room, she sat on her bed, tucked her blanket around her, opened her computer, and tried to file her payroll for the week. Her mind kept on coming back to Seth’s denial.

It felt, really, like a rejection.

“I wasn’t making bedroom eyes at you,” Seth said. A line appeared between his eyes. “I don’t want you to think I’m being nice to you because I want to sleep with you.”

Before and after Seth, she’d had a few casual partners, but he was the first and last to make her feel truly desirable.

They’d met in the hospital after she’d returned from China with a badly infected leg injury. She was sick and wasted away from the illness and long deployment on short rations when they met. Char had thought he was just being nice to her when he stuck around to chat after his shifts.

That changed when he showed up on the doorstep of the hospice, where she’d gone to finish recovery after her discharge from the hospital. She took him to her room, since that was her only privacy. They’d lounged on her bed and talked for an hour before he leaned in and kissed her.

Char returned the kiss and sank into his arms, but when his hand slid under her shirt, over the ridges of her ribs and toward her nearly non-existent breasts, she pulled away.

“Don’t,” she said.

He pulled his hands away and drew back. His short black hair stood in clumps where she’d run her hands through. “I’m sorry. I thought…”

She sat up and crossed her arms over her chest. She was panting.

“Char.” He leaned toward her.

She shied away. “You don’t want this right now.”

“Want what?” Seth asked softly.

“I’m basically a skeleton,” she hissed. She threw her legs off the side of the bed and got up.

“I know.”

The bed creaked as Seth got up. In a moment Char felt his breath on the back of her head.

His hand rested gently on her bony shoulders. “I met you in the hospital, remember? Would I be here if I thought you were ugly?” He slid his arm around her waist. “It’s okay. We don’t have to.”

She knew she wanted him, but the anxiety of what he’d see if she took off her clothes made her feel like someone was sitting on her chest.

She fought to muscle back the panic, but it wouldn’t move, so she stayed there, standing in his arms.

She wouldn’t tell him until a year later that her mother’s pet names for her was “scarecrow” and try as she might, even when she was healthy, she couldn’t see anything else in the mirror.

So years later, when she found out he’d had an affair, it only took her a few clicks in a search engine to find the woman’s picture. She was a gorgeous Tlingit woman. Char lost it. That was the day she threw him out.

In her Fort Situk room, Char sighed and shut down her computer. She imagined Seth’s strong, capable hands holding her, skimming over her body.

She felt her pulse spike and laughed softly.

Rarely in five years had she fantasized about being with Seth. Why she was doing it now, she didn’t know.

Well, she wasn’t about to apologize for being attracted to Seth. He was a good-looking man and she hadn’t slept with anyone for a couple of years. It was too bad there was so much emotional baggage involved. If he were a complete stranger she’d have no qualms about it.

Char sat back against the wall and sighed. She ran her hand through her short hair and thought absently that she needed a shower. Maybe a cold shower.

Erwell was grilling Venn right now. Probably by tomorrow she’d be making plans and badgering her superiors to let them mount an expedition. She didn’t have time to day-dream about Seth. Char needed to come up with her own game-plan, and fast.

Episode 9: Is there a portal?

Just got here? Start at the beginning.

Previous Episode

Greta Erwell’s breath shuddered as she marched down the tunnel behind the alien and his two escorts. His tall, slim figure towered over Char and the other soldier as he walked meekly between them. He kept sneaking furtive glances at each open door and back at the two scientists walking behind her. His silver eyes would catch hers from behind the rim of his hood.

God, it felt like someone was standing on her chest. She was so hyped.

The cold air and sunlight hit her then simultaneously. Erwell heard the alien suck in a choking breath.

Yeah. It’s cold. Erwell flipped up her hood.

“Why does it smell like burning flesh?” the alien said to Char. He burrowed deep into his borrowed, over-sized, down jacket.

“There is a city burning across the sea, behind us,” Char replied softly.

“Why?”

“Because we are at war.”

They marched the alien across the crunchy snow to where Linc said they’d found him. All traces of his tracks and blood had long since been erased by wind and snow. The alien stood still with his pale brow furrowed and his eyes slightly rolled back.

“Are we close?” Char asked him.

He nodded.

“You can hear it?” She circled to face him.

He nodded again.

Char glanced significantly at Erwell.

“All right,” Erwell said to the two scientists, Jeff and Marlene, who were following her.

They crouched down and began unpacking their sound metres and computers.

“Does it have a physical location?” Char asked the alien, off to the side. “The portal?”

“Yes,” the alien said. He extended a hand slightly, then drew it back. He pulled off his mitten, revealing slim, fair fingers. He took two steps forward. “Can I?”

Char nodded and took a few more steps with him, with one hand hovering as if to grab him.

“Sound metre is up,” Marlene said. Erwell hunkered down beside her and watched the computer begin to chart all the waves the sensitive device was picking up. Beside them, the Jeff had set up a magnetometer and was typing at his computer.

Erwell glanced up to check Char and the alien’s progress. They’d walked about ten feet forward.

“It’s right here,” the alien said to Char. He extended his bare hand.

It vanished.

Char yelped.

Erwll sucked in a sharp breath and slapped the arm of the scientist beside her. “Marlene. Look.”

The alien stood there, one arm completely invisible.

“Holy fuck,” Marlene said. She swallowed hard.

“I’ll be damned.” Erwell leapt up and jogged over to where Char and Venn stood.

Venn jerked his hand back, and once again it came into view. He eyed her.

“So you could step through right now,” Erwell said.

He nodded.

“Put your hand through again,” Erwell ordered.

He extended his arm. Instantly, his hand vanished up past his wrist. Erwell waved her hand where his was. Nothing happened.

“Director Greta Erwell,” the alien said. “If you would give me your hand.”

Erwell pulled off a glove and stuck out her hand.

The faintest smirk crossed his mouth. He took her bare fingers, and she shivered. His skin was icy cold. “Now put your other hand by mine.”

Erwell extended her trembling hand.

It felt like plunging her hand into a frozen lake. Her hand disappeared in the exact same fashion, sliding out of sight like into water. Her heart was nearly exploding in her chest. “Oh, shit! It’s cold!”


BG11.jpg

“It is also winter in Kaa,” Venn said quietly, but with a definite ring of amusement.

“Is my hand hanging in mid-air in Kaa?” Erwell stared up at him, half laughing. Across from her, Char was also laughing in breathless amazement.

“No, it is yet in the portal. It…” he bit his lip in thought. “It… becomes shorter in the portal. It…” He released her hand.

Suddenly her invisible hand snapped back into view, with a sucking sensation, tingling with cold and some sensation she couldn’t quite place. She stared at her fingers. They looked normal. “Woah!”

Erwell turned on the two scientists. “Did your instruments pick up anything?”

“Uh…” Jeff gulped. He turned and loped back to the computers.

Erwell turned to Char and grinned. The soldier grinned back.

The instruments had picked up something—the faintest disturbance in the magnetic field, and a pattern of high frequency sound waves. The alien tried to explain that there were mathematical methods of finding portals, but try as he might he couldn’t make his reasoning make sense to them.

They marched Venn back into the compound and into the empty cafeteria and sat down at a table in the corner.

“Venn, you said you could take people through,” Erwell said.

Venn rubbed his slim hands together and wrapped them around his cup of coffee. “I can take you through.”

“What kind of environment is on the other side?”

“The portal opens onto a mountainside. It’s made of a smooth, shiny rock and there is little vegetation,” Venn said. He sipped his coffee and squinted at it skeptically. “On the mountainside, the Kaa don’t go, but below there’s a valley full of thick red—” he contemplated his for a moment “—grass. This is where the Kaa burrows are.”

“They live in burrows?” Jeff asked.

“Yes. Caves under the ground.”

“Jeff, are you writing this down?” Erwell asked sharply.

“No,” Jeff said.

“Okay, so what we need to do is interview Mr. Venn.” She pushed back from the table, rattling the coffee cups. “We need to know everything he knows about this Kaa place and we need to make a plan.”

“A plan to what?” Jeff asked. “Go through?”

“Yeah, go through,” Erwell snapped. “We need to know what’s there. We need to know if there’s anything there we can use, because America will die if we don’t.”

Jeff and all the others, aside from Char, blinked.

Anger fired through her. “Oh, you don’t think I’m serious? I’m fucking serious. You think I can pass up the chance to explore an entire new world? Meanwhile, that stone—“ Erwell waved her finger toward Venn’s chest “—emits some kind of energy. We haven’t determined how or why yet, but it gives off energy. It’s an element that’s not on our periodic table and its composition is like nothing I’ve seen.” Her breath staggered. “New elements, guys. This could crack our future wide open. This could—“ She cut herself off. Jeff and Char were both nodding. The others were just staring with a deer in the headlights expression.

“No, I agree,” Char said sharply. She’d slumped down a little in her seat. “Can you get this authorized?”

Erwell kept her face perfectly straight.

Maybe. It would take months, probably. Her base would be crawling with government bigwigs. Her superiors would come and take over.

These are desperate times.

Erwell nodded. “I can get authorization.”

“Good,” Char said. “We can’t pass on this kind of opportunity.”

If they could enter this Kaa place, they could explore, mine, maybe even colonize in a way that wouldn’t take the vast fuel reserves the failed expeditions to Mars burned up.

“This could win us the war,” Erwell said. A faint thought of it being too good to be true passed through her mind. She shoved it aside like spoiled food. “All right. I need to interview Mr. Venn. Char, take him to his cell. I need my computer.”

Venn eyed her with a strange, nearly amused expression on his face. “I wish I could have been so excited on the eve of my first bridge. Alas, it was not so.” He stood before Char could compel him. “Please, director, will you give me a few moments to rest? I’m not so strong since my injury, and your gravity is stronger than that of Kaa.”

“Yes,” Erwell said absently. “Take him.”

Char unfolded her small frame from the seat. “You’ll want soldiers to go with, right?”

Erwell eyed the small, wiry woman. “Of course.”

Char nodded, and she and her fellow soldier escorted the alien away.

Enjoying your read? Subscribe and get new episodes in your inbox as soon as they post.

Episode 8: All I Do is Mess Up My Life

Just got here? Start at the beginning.

Previous episode.

“Goddamn, that smoke smell though!” Leander said, practically in Char’s ear. She turned, cupped her hands around her mouth and shouted in the direction of the ocean, “Aren’t you all burned up by now, Tokyo?”

The others, standing in a knot on the snow a few feet away, snickered.

“A little farther.” Char peered through the rangefinder at Linc, who stood just shy of a thousand yards down the packed snow.

He took three steps backward.

“One more!” she said into the comm, and watched as he stepped back. “Yes, good.”

The two other soldiers set up targets in line with Linc’s and snowmobiled back to where she, Leander and two others stood waiting.

“All right, then,” Char held up a long-barrelled sniper rifle. “Linc, I know you know how to use this. The rest of you, here’s your chance.” She glanced at Leander, who stood, arms crossed, eyes hidden behind reflective sunglasses. “You wanna take first pop?”

“Sure thing.” Leander held out her hands.

Linc was already taking another rifle and jamming in a magazine.

Leander lay prone on the ground and tinkered with the elaborate scope on the weapon. “How ‘bout you and me use this set of targets and we’ll see who shoots better,” she said.

Char grinned. “You’re on.”

As the first set of shots cracked out across the frozen ground, Char’s comm beeped. “Char, come in?”

“Yeah, doc,” Char said into the pod.

“I’ve cleared Venn to leave the infirmary. Erwell indicated she’d want to test this portal business today.”

“Oh!” Char said. “Did she say how soon?”

“Sorry?” Seth’s voice crackled through the comm.

“Is she doing it right now?”

“She had some stuff to get together.” A pause. “I’m heading out for a bit, but I think she’ll be ready to go soon.”

Char ran her teeth over her bottom lip. “Okay, thanks.”

“I see we’re past the ‘Captain Lee-Thompson’ business,” Leander said, leaning into her scope. Her shot rang out. She chuckled.

“Did you hear what he said?” Char said to Leander’s back. Her blood was beginning to thrum through her veins.

“Yeah.” Leander took another shot, sat up and to adjust one of the dials on the scope. “What do you figure Erwell will do if she finds there really is a portal?”

“She’ll send people through,” Char said without hesitation.

Leander glanced over at the red flag Char had set up as a makeshift wind indicator. She settled back down on the snow. “That’s what I thought too. She’ll want some of us to go with, don’t ya think?”

“God, I hope so.” Char said. “There’s no way in hell I’m turning that down.”

“Agreed.” Leander took the shot.

Char settled down on her knees beside Leander and fixed her binoculars on the target down range. Leander had a nice group of bullet holes in the right-hand target, a tad high, just off centre. “Nice,” she said.

“Good enough for a dead Chinese,” Leander sat back on her haunches and picked up her shell casings. “Your turn, boss.”

Char ejected the spent magazine and popped in another. She lay down in the impression Leander had left.

“I mean, if there is a portal it’s probably a deathtrap,” Leander said as Char peered into the scope.

Char fired. The bullet sliced through the target perfectly on centre, slightly low. The image came into her mind of herself, sprawled in a ditch somewhere in Japan with the body of one of her soldiers splattered all around her.

Get it together.

Char gritted her teeth, adjusted her aim and fired again. This time it was dead on.

“There you go,” Leander said. “I bet that wouldn’t stop half of us. Half of us would walk through the portal right behind you.”

Char shot again. Bullseye. She sat up and rested the rifle across her knees. It was hard to gauge Leander’s expression behind those reflective sunglasses. “Do you think it’s right to ask folks to go into a deathtrap?”

“Boss, this isn’t the army,” Leander said. “You can’t just pull rank. If it’s a suicide mission, folks can say no.”

“But we’re all ex-soldiers.” Char sighed. “Old habits.”

Leander squinted her. “I know you want to be the first American to step into a new dimension.”

“Do you think it’s right to ask folks to go into a deathtrap?”

“Yeah, of course I do. I was just… asking.” Char pulled her knees up and, using one knee as a rest for her elbow, leaned into the rifle again.

Once again, the picture flashed through her memory: a Japanese ditch. A detached foot sitting at arm’s length from her head. Ears ringing.

She took a deep breath and held it for a moment, but the bead was skittering all over the target. She was shaking.

“Shit,” she whispered.

“Hey,” Leander said softly. “We’d follow you anywhere. You know that.”

“Well, probably you shouldn’t,” Char said in what she hoped was a light tone. She pulled the trigger. The shot hit the paper but not the target. “If seeing Seth again has taught me anything, it’s that all I do is screw up lives.” She fired again, hardly aiming. This time the bullet sliced the very top corner of the paper.

Char jumped up.

Leander took the rifle without a word.

Char paced away from her. This was not going to get in her way. She was not going to let a little fake-ass anxiety keep her from exploring another world.

Who cared if she led her platoon on a training exercise right into range of their own shelling?

Who cared that the artillery had been ordered incorrectly, and she’d seen her soldiers blown to pieces around her?

Char’s chest tightened. She struggled to breath.

I didn’t do anything wrong.

“Hey.”

She spun around. Linc was following after her.

“What?” She tried to assume a normal expression.

Linc held out a thermos bottle to her.

Char took it and took a gulp of what turned out to be herbal tea. She took another sip. “Thanks.” She handed it back. “What is that?”

“It’s a tea blend Doc makes.” Linc said. He looked at her with a kind expression that reminded her far too much of Seth. “How you doing, boss?”

“I’m fine.”

Linc couldn’t have bought it, but he stood silent for a minute. Behind them, three shots rang out in quick succession. “I guess you wouldn’t let me go through a portal, given my recent… state.”

“It wouldn’t be my first choice.”

“It wouldn’t be because I’m afraid to face my problems.” Linc gave her a weak smile.


thumbnail6.jpg

“I’ll take that into consideration.” She was still fighting to breath. Char turned and started walking toward the group. Linc followed. “Are all of you talking about this?” she asked.

“Yeah,” Linc said.

They came up on the group.

Leander was sitting back on her heels with a rifle across her knees. Her eyebrows rose above her sunglasses. “Well, boss?”

“I’ll head in,” Char said.

“A’ight,” Leander said. “I’ll clean up with this lot.”

Char trudged back toward the fort, which was about a quarter-mile away. Her feet and head felt like lead. She’d made it about a hundred yards when she heard the trombone-like roar of a snowmobile coming up behind her. A moment later, Seth pulled alongside.

“Lift?” he called.

She climbed on behind him, and he drove back to base, slower so she wouldn’t get too cold without a helmet.

She wobbled a bit as she got off the snowmobile. One hand went to her chest, reflexively.

Seth pulled off her helmet. “Char,” he said softly. “What’s up?”

“I’m fine,” Char wheezed.

“Yeah.” Seth stood in front of her, blocking her way to the door. He bent down to look into her eyes.

Char pushed past him and yanked open the door. From going from the bright outdoor sun to the dim entry, she was momentarily blind. She stood, listening to herself wheeze. Seth came in behind her and laid his hand on the small of her back. Even through the thick thermal gear, she could feel the gentle pressure.

“If you need to talk,” he said in a low voice, “you know I won’t laugh at you.” He paused. “I’ve never laughed at you.”

“I know,” she whispered.

“Should we get a cup of coffee?”

“Why do you care?” she turned, dislodging his hand. “Haven’t you had enough of my shit?”

He opened his mouth, sighed and turned his head away. “If you recall, it was me who begged to come back.”

That was true. He’d had some nurse from the hospital ready to run away with him. Char didn’t know who this woman was, but she knew she was beautiful, thought the world of Seth, and actually wanted to settle down and have a family. But Seth came back to her and begged her—on his knees, mind—to take him back. She’d slammed the door in his face.

Char sighed. “I’ll concede that, but I just need some space.”

Seth drew a deep breath and nodded. “You’ll be there when Erwell makes Venn prove there’s a portal?”

“Yeah.”

He opened his mouth, sighed and turned his head away. “If you recall, it was me who begged to come back.

“Let me know how it goes.” Seth’s hand brushed her back again as he passed by her and walked away, down the hall.

Oh Seth. Why do you bother? You know I’ll inevitably burn you.

Char watched him go, swallowing hard against a sudden thickening in her throat.

She could remember this one Christmas—their last. She’d just finished officer candidate school. She had the equivalent of a desk job that occupied twelve hours of her day, and she was determined to maintain the physical conditioning that she’d gone into OCS with. She was used to getting up at 3:30 in the morning, working out for two hours, showering and heading to the base. Seth would get up after she did, and go to work before she was done with her workout. They’d both get home around eight and collapse on the couch to eat dinner in front of the TV.

That had been their relationship—offering each other coffee, asking “how was your day” and falling asleep without touching each other.

Christmas morning, her alarm went off at 3:30. Char sat up robotically, still mostly asleep and running on habit.

“Char,” Seth’s raspy voice came from behind her. His fingertips brushed her back. “Come back to bed. It’s Christmas morning.”

She’d been so tired. She’d could barely remember a time when she wasn’t tired. It was probably well before OCS. She was twenty-nine and she had a thick sprinkle of gray in her hair. She had dark bags under her eyes all the time.

She lay back down, and Seth’s arm slid around her waist and pulled her close. Intertwined with her husband, she fell asleep.

She woke up in a complete fog, unable to identify the warm object she lay against, unable to recognize up or down.

“What time is it?” she mumbled.

“Eight,” Seth said in her ear. “Sleep some more if you like.”

“Eight?” she struggled to sit up.

Seth restrained her gently. “It’s fine. It’s Christmas.”

“Oh.” Char squeezed her blurry eyes shut. “Oh.” Her drowsy brain drew her down toward sleep again. His arms held her warm and secure.

A thought poked through her foggy brain. “I didn’t get you a gift.”

“Hmm.”

“It’s Christmas.” Char was waking up by then. “I forgot.”

Seth propped himself up on his elbow. “There wasn’t anything I wanted anyway.”

That sounded like a lie, but the truth was Char would have had no idea what to buy him anyway.

“I’m sorry,” Char said. “I’m a shitty wife.” She rolled over to face him.

Seth laughed under his breath. “You’re too hard on yourself.” He smiled tightly. “It’s just nice to have you here.”

“I’ll make you breakfast.” Char meant to drop a quick kiss on his lips, but it took five minutes before she came up for air.

Seth smiled up at her with a dazed expression, and Char knew exactly what Christmas gift she’d be giving him.

They’d had a few good weeks after that. They’d actually talk when she got home. They’d actually kiss and cuddle like the old days. She’d skip a day of working out here and there to spend one more hour with him in the morning.

But it didn’t last, of course, because she fell back into her old ways. That spring Seth had asked her to go to Taylor Bay to plant trees with his family. She’d been gunning hard for first lieutenant and was afraid she’d get passed over if she took two weeks off. So she didn’t, and Seth had said it was fine.

But he’d also travelled with a woman and had a fling with her. So that had really backfired on her. By the next Christmas, they were split up. Five years of booze and navel-gazing later, and Char hadn’t unravelled whose fault it was.

Next Episode

Enjoying your read? Subscribe and get new episodes in your inbox as soon as they post.

Episode 7: Taylor Bay

Here for the first time? Start at Episode 1.

Previous Episode

It was at least four hours before dawn when Char left her room. Seth had called her on the comm and told her it was minus forty degrees outside, and his snowmobile, parked inside an unheated shed, wouldn’t start.

“I’ll have it running in half an hour,” he said. “Stay inside where it’s warm.”

For once she’d taken his advice and curled up under the covers for another ten minutes.

When she marched out into the yard, the fort was still conserving power by keeping all unnecessary lights off. The headlight of Seth’s sled illuminated her path. Seth stood beside the snowmobile, every inch covered with thermal gear. He handed her a helmet.

“Are you re-thinking the snowmobile?” Char asked.

“Yes,” Seth said dryly. “You can tether your comm with the helmet so we can talk if we need.”

“We won’t,” Char said. “It’s five in the morning and I have nothing to say to you.”

Char slid behind Seth on the seat and considered if she could get away without hanging onto him. She really didn’t want to hang onto him, but she kind of did.

“Ready?” Seth’s voice crackled through her helmet.

Char nodded.

Seth called over the comm for someone to open the gate and cracked the throttle. She had to grip his waist to not be thrown backward. The snowmobile spit snow behind them as they left Fort Situk behind.

Seth carved the snowmobile up through the passes through the treeless mountains by the light of the headlight. Every time they reached a high point, the bluish glow in the east grew brighter. Finally, as they approached the valley rim where the village of Taylor Bay was, the rim of the sun peeked over the horizon.

The wind had shifted again to the west. The sun rose red-tinted, suspended in smoky air.

They’d been travelling through a barren wasteland of rock and snow for an hour. Suddenly there were trees. Mostly small, waist-height trees with the odd, gnarled, tall pine protruding from the crowd like an adult among kindergarteners.

The town was a loosely arranged group of small houses and mobile homes with packed snow paths between them. Char scanned the edge of town for Seth’s parents’ cozy timber-frame house she remembered so well. Where she was certain it should stand, there was only an empty space. He drove right past it, over a small rise and toward a square house, surrounded by scrubby evergreens, clad with deep red siding and smoke rising from the chimney.

Seth’s uncle’s house. Char tucked her head behind Seth again.

The door opened, and a dark-haired man with a flashing smile stood in the entry, waving.

Char released Seth’s waist and fumbled with cold fingers to undo her helmet. Seth swung off the snowmobile and pulled off his helmet.

“I brought a guest, Uncle Will,” he called.

“Good. Come in and have some coffee.” Uncle Will disappeared into the house and shut the door.

Inside the house, Seth pulled off his toque and his braid fell out. “Uncle Will,” he said, gesturing to Char, who was climbing out of her snowmobile suit. “You remember Charlane?”

“Yeah.” Uncle Will eyed her with the faintest crease between his eyes. “You still like coffee, Charlane?”

“Sure do.”

“It’s the real deal,” Will said, turned and hobbling to the two-burner stove to poke at the tin percolator. “I’ve been shepherding along the stuff you brought me, Seth. Tastes so good compared to the synthetic stuff.”

“Yeah, perks of living with government folks.” Seth glanced sheepishly at her.

“Hold your hands over here, Charlane,” Will pointed to the stove. “It’s shit-cold out there, yeah?”

“Your trees are coming along pretty well,” she said.

“Yeah, seems they’re making it.” Will pulled two miss-matched mugs out of the cupboard over the sink. “We’ll put in some more in the spring if we can.”

They made small talk over cups of black coffee and gluey mass-manufactured bread with cheese spread. Sometime during the conversation, Seth made mention of going to visit the grave. A strange sense of dread came over her.

Charlie and Lisa Thompson had always been good to her. She wasn’t sure they liked her, but they’d been good to her when she and Seth came to visit. She had good memories of sleeping with him under real down duvet in their guest bedroom and waking up to open gifts on Christmas morning. Charlie had given her a hand-tooled leather belt that she still wore occasionally. Real leather cost a fortune these days.

Sometime during the conversation, Seth made mention of going to visit the grave. A strange sense of dread came over her.

“So now…” Will got up, threw two more slices of bread into the toaster and depressed the creaking springs. “This ring planet that you mentioned.”

“Yeah, do you remember the story?”

Uncle Will sat down and steepled his hands beneath his chin. “Well, the whole ring planet thing didn’t ring a bell.” A grin split his weathered face. “But I was thinking about a totem pole I saw down in Handler Falls. It has this creature with kind of big ears and a smooth face like you said. We could go down there and speak to the elders.”

“Yeah, we should,” Char said. She glanced at Seth. “Right?”

Seth took a gulp of coffee and nodded. “Once Char’s thawed out.”

Char flexed her toes down in her thick socks. “I miss the military-grade socks. They have those filaments in them that keep you warm.”

“Private security can’t afford that?” Seth asked.

“The military hoards the material,” Char said, bending down to examine the developing hole in her toe. No wonder a chill had snuck in. “What don’t they hoard? They won’t even guard their own goddamn research base. Too busy fighting.”

“Wasn’t you in the army?” Uncle Will raised an eyebrow.

“I was, yeah,” Char said. “I, um…” she glanced at Seth. “I couldn’t do it anymore.”

The toast popped. Uncle Will got up to get them. “Who could blame you.”

Who could blame her? Just a few parents of a few dead kids, that’s all. Char glanced to the side, only to catch Seth’s kind eyes.

She felt a prickle of anger.

“I’ll finish my toast,” Uncle Will said. “Seth, you go on and start my snow machine.”

It took them another forty-five minutes to leave the village. As they got on their snowmobiles, a cousin of Seth’s walked over from the house next door.

Like Will, if he was surprised to see her, he hid it well.

BG1.jpg

“Hey, Brett,” she said as he came over, hand extended.

“You still shoot?” he asked, his grin a flash of white teeth in his deeply tanned face. A braid like Seth’s was slung over his shoulder against his parka.

“Better than you.” Char grinned. Yep. That was how she’d bonded with Seth’s cousins—by outshooting them at any distance with any weapon the day she’d first come to Taylor Bay.

“We’re going on down to Handler,” Uncle Will said. “I guess we’ll be back around dark.”

“Come on in for supper when you get here.” Brett waved to them and disappeared back toward his house.

“Brett brought in a moose two days past,” Uncle Will said. He arranged his balaclava and pulled his helmet on. From the muffled depths, he said, “Shania promised me stew.”

Char paired her comm with her helmet and pulled the helmet over her head. “Can Uncle Will hear the comm?” she asked Seth once he’d put on his own helmet.

“No,” Seth said as he settled in front of her on the seat.

She waited a few minutes until they’d cleared the town and were following along a snowy pathway between the scrubby trees. “Seth,” she began slowly. “Did your parents…?”

“Die?” His voice rung hollow in her helmet, but it might have just been the comms. “Yeah. House fire early last winter.”

“I’m…” She faltered, clinging to Seth’s waist, struggling for words. “I’m really sorry. They were good people.”

“Yeah,” Seth said. He gunned the engine to catch up to Will, saving her from having to say anything more.

Mary Thompson was a distant relative of Seth’s, a tall and broad woman with a waist-length silver braid and a flowing skirt down to her snow boots. They stood in her front yard, and she listened to Seth’s explanation with her arms crossed, squinting at the ground.

“I know the one.” She looked up and glanced between Char and Seth. “You’re right about the story—he was the creature from the hoop-shaped world. The story goes that hunters found him in the woods. He stayed for a few days and then he disappeared with the chief’s virgin daughter.”

“Does the story say anything about his appearance?” Char asked. “Or about what he called himself?”

“The name he is given translates ‘he whose eyes change,’” Mary said.

The name he is given translates ‘he whose eyes change,’” Mary said.

“Venn’s eyes change colour,” Seth said softly, shifting from foot to foot in the shallow snow. “When was this, Aunt Mary?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know. Generations ago. The totem is more than a two-hundred years old if it’s a day. Come see it.”

The totem poles stood a short piece from the village in a circle of mature trees. Aunty Mary pointed out a figure halfway up one of the most weathered poles. It looked, more or less, like a man’s face with large ears.

“It’s not conclusive,” Char said to Seth as they walked back to the snowmobiles. The Alaskan sun was already sinking down behind the mountain peaks.

“The evidence is piling up,” he answered. “But it needn’t mean what Venn says it means.”

“Except then what would it mean?” She glanced over at him as they walked.

Seth just shook his head.

<>

It was dark when they got back to Taylor Bay. Seth took a flashlight and said he was going to visit the grave site. Char hesitated. Will hiked toward Brett’s house as if he expected her to follow Seth, so she did—trailing after the bobbing ring of light ahead of him.

The grave was a simple stone marker with their names on it, set among the headstones of the Catholic members of the community just behind the little church. Seth stuck the flashlight in the snow so it illuminated the stone and dropped to his knees in front of it.

He looked small and forlorn then. Char had the urge to kneel beside him and wrap her arms around him. Instead she hunkered down at arm’s length and stayed there in silence. The soft sounds of the village behind him and the rustle of the wind in the young trees filtered in.

“It’s not home without them,” Seth said.

Char didn’t know what to say so she kept silent. She reached out and slid her hand into the crook of his arm. He didn’t flinch or pull away.

“Did you come here after we… split up?” she asked. Her hand was still tucked under his arm.

“No,” he said softly. His head tipped back slightly. The upended flashlight cast an odd glow over his chin but left his face in the dark. “I worked in Vancouver for the rest of the year, then in Juneau until about eighteen months ago. I stayed here after that until I got the job at Situk.”

“Were you here when…?”

Seth shook his head.

They got back to Fort Situk as Leander’s shift was taking the evening watch. Char was fighting to keep herself from leaning her head against Seth’s broad back as they drove. The cold had sucked the energy from her. Seth parked the snowmobile and they walked in together.

“Why did you leave the army?” he asked suddenly as they opened the door to enter the base.

Char let the door slam behind them and looked up at him. “Like I said, I couldn’t do it anymore.”

“But the court martial found you not responsible for the death of the soldiers.” Seth leaned one hand against the wall. He loomed over her, weary-eyed.

“I know,” Char said. “But I—“ she tugged off one glove with more force than she needed. “At that point, what did it matter? Everyone thought it was my fault—“

“And you thought it was your fault,” Seth added in a low voice.

He still knew her, then. “Yeah.”

“I’m sorry.” Seth turned to go. “I know that job meant a lot to you.”

Char wanted to say something dismissive, but as she followed him down the hall, her throat thickened with emotion. It had meant everything to her. Seth knew that better than anyone.

Enjoying yourself so far? Subscribe and get new episodes in your inbox as soon as they post.

Episode 6: Explorer of Worlds

Just dropping in? Start at Chapter 1.

Previous episode

Seth set down the comm and glanced at his patient.

Venn opened one eye.

“Ah,” Seth sighed. “You are awake.” He poured a glass of water and carried it over to Venn’s bedside.

Venn gulped down the water. “Your water is good here,” he said, his mouth dripping.

“So there is water in your world?”

“I haven’t yet found a world where it was not,” Venn said, “but in Kaa it tastes like…” he pressed his lips together and squinted into the distance. “There is no word for this. It is a—“ he waved one long hand in the air “—a metallic element that has a strange taste.”

Seth pulled a chair over and straddled it, facing Venn with his arms crossed over the chair back. “You do this a lot, then?”

With a perfectly straight face, Venn nodded. “It’s what I have done since I was young.”

“Why?”

Venn’s face worked for a moment. Seth could imagine whatever his translation implant did going on behind his eyes.

“It is what my people do,” Venn said slowly. “We explore other worlds.”

“And do what?”

Venn lifted a hand. “We… study them and if they’re inhabited by sentient species, and if they have resources that are useful, we try to create trade alliances.”

Seth narrowed his eyes. “You colonize them?”

“We don’t set up colonies. We set up exploration bases which become trade bases in time.”

“Yeah, same diff,” Seth muttered. “I’m sure Erwell will be all over that. New resources from other worlds? For sure.” Seth slapped his hands on the top of the chair. “Get your story straight because she’s going to grill you.”

“Grill… me?” Venn sat up straighter. A faint flush came into his pale face, the first sign of emotion.

Seth turned his face, hiding a grin. “Question you. She’s going to question you.” He turned back. “If there is a portal, could you take people back through it?”

Venn’s eyes narrowed. He regarded Seth for a few moments. “Yes.”

“Prepare to be asked to test that, then.”

“It is what my people do,” Venn said slowly. “We explore other worlds.”

“I don’t need to test it,” Venn said quietly. “It will work.”

“Right,” Seth said slowly. At any rate, Venn didn’t seem to by lying on purpose. He might have to do some tests.

He picked up the comm. “Director? The patient is awake.”

“Coming,” Erwell replied within a second.

Seth punched in Char’s code. “Cap… Char. Director Erwell is coming to interrogate Venn. Would you like to sit in?”

Her voice came over the comm, breathless and distorted by wind. “I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

Seth paused, holding the comm. He was beginning to get used to hearing her voice again, even starting to look forward to having her pop into the infirmary. Yesterday she’d slid into the bench across from him while he was eating dinner in the cafeteria. Sure, it was to ask for an update on Linc, but she’d voluntarily talked to him. Five years ago, she wouldn’t even come to the door when he tried to apologize to her one more time.

God, I thought I was done being bitter.

Erwell breezed in the door, for once without smiling at him and trying to chat him up. She whipped back the curtain around Venn, only pausing once to glance at the handcuff locking one of Venn’s wrists to the metal bed frame.

She tugged a chair over. “All right, Mr. Venn. It turns out there is some weight to your story.”

Seth eased himself between Erwell and the wall and helped Venn sit up.

Erwell didn’t miss a beat. “I found evidence to suggest that the Na’odani have been here before.”

“That is possible,” Venn replied, settling back against the pillows. “When?”

“Thirty years ago. It was a female Na’odani. She arrived in Arizona, that’s quite far south of here.”

“This means nothing to me.” Venn’s face remained placid. “But time passes quite differently in Nao than it does here, and so it is possible.”

The infirmary door swung open. Char clumped in, tracking snow. She dragged a chair toward them.

“What do you mean?” Seth interjected before Erwell had a chance to sweep past that statement.

“Well,” Venn’s grey brow furrowed. “By watching your clock, I’ve determined that one minute is equal to 2.654 Na’odani ea, which multiplied by the Eskalon constant suggests that your time moves at approximately four times the speed of Na’odani time, however since an ea on Kaa is equal to three Na’odani eas, your time in fact moves at two-thirds the speed of Kaa time... approximately.”

“Oh geez,” Char muttered. She sat down and pulled off her toque.

“Fascinating!” Erwell whispered, leaning forward.

“But that was timing your clock instrument to my pulse,” Venn said, “and doing the math in my mind, so it is hardly exact.”

“Right.” Erwell shook her head as if dislodging the thought. “What I’m saying is that I’m open to believing you.”

“Yes,” Venn said, deadpan. He stared unblinking at Erwell.

Erwell leaned in. “Can you prove to me that there is a portal to another universe near this base?”

“I can hear it from here,” Venn said.

“You can hear it from here,” Erwell repeated.

“Yes.” Venn tilted his head slightly. “It has three distinct tones.” He pursed his lips as if whistling, and after a moment, Seth heard a high, dog-whistle note.

“I didn’t hear anything,” Erwell said. “Right. So if they produce sounds, we’d be able to pick that up on a sound metre?”

“That’s an instrument that measures sound waves,” Seth added.

Venn nodded. “I’m sure you could.”

“Could we pass through it?” Erwell’s tone took on urgency.

“No,” Venn said. “Not without Kemzog stones.”

“Are those what you have embedded in your chest?” Seth asked.

Venn’s silver eyes darkened slightly. “That’s correct, but without the correct equipment or simple experience, it’s unlikely that you could calculate the exact point of the portal—“

thumbnail6.jpg

Erwell jerked her chair back and stood. “But you could take someone through?”

Venn’s eyes lightened to silver. “I could.”

Erwell turned to Seth. “Doctor, when can I take my prisoner?”

“When I’m satisfied that his wound won’t re-open, ma’am.” Seth sighed. “I’d like a couple more days.”

“In that case, I’d like you to take one of these Kemzog stones from Mr. Venn and allow one of my guys to analyze it.”

“No.” Venn sat up straight. His eyes darkened to near black.

“You need the whole set for them to work?” Erwell spun around.

“N-no, but I have one for each exploration mission. They’re valuable.” He pressed his lips together and swallowed. “They’re… sacred.”

Erwell set her jaw. “Seth, take one out. Send it to Lab E. In two days Mr. Venn will have the chance to prove his story.” She turned and marched out of the room.

Seth glanced at Char just as she shook her head.

“You know her better than I do,” Char said. “Has Erwell lost her mind?”

Seth blew out his breath and grimaced. “Want to help me with another surgery?”

“Please,” Venn held out his un-cuffed hand. “Don’t cut it out of me.”

Seth dropped into the seat Erwell had vacated. “Why?”

“Because,” Venn glanced at Char and then back at him, “they are valuable and guarded fiercely by the high council. My life isn’t worth that stone.”

“Really?” Char said. “That’s fine. We kill you and take the stones.”

Seth sighed. “I have to take it, Venn. Maybe we can negotiate to get it back to you after we’re done studying it.”

Venn crossed his unbound arm over his chest. “If I return to Kaa without it, the Na’odani will come back for it.”

Seth and Char glanced at each other.

“Take it,” Char said.

Seth turned to Venn. “I’m sorry, but I have orders. I suspect you understand that.”

Venn’s jaw tightened, and so did his crossed arm.

Seth turned around and grimaced.

Venn didn’t say another word, but as Seth brought over his instruments to remove the stone, he kept his thin arm crossed tightly over his chest.

Seth set down the tray of tools on the bedside table.

“Give me a hand?” he said to Char, who stood arms crossed at the foot of the bed.

“Sure thing.” Char slid to Venn’s side and grabbed his wrist.

Venn strained to keep the arm in place, but Char made some sort of twisting move and got his arm cranked behind his back.

Seth smiled. God, she was strong for such a small woman.

Seth smiled. God, she was strong for such a small woman.

“Hmm,” she said. “The hospital gown opens from the back.”

“Everything opens from the front when you have scissors,” Seth muttered. He picked up the shears from the tray.

“If I am compliant, would you allow me to choose which one you remove?” Venn’s voice was strained.

“What’s the difference?” Char asked, adjusting Venn’s arm.

Venn winced. “The order that I received them. The large one in the center is the original. Please don’t take that one.”

“Alright.” Seth peeled back the gown, exposing Venn’s translucent skin and the six raised ovals across his chest.

Venn relaxed and allowed him to select the right-most stone. Seth slit the skin and removed the flat, oval stone. He set it on the tray and stitched the wound. The alien patient didn’t resist.

When Venn was stitched and dressed in a t-shirt and sweatpants instead of a hospital gown, Seth pulled the curtain around him again and carried the stone over to his office. Char followed.

“Is this guy bullshitting us?” Char squinted at the stone.

“Aside from the ‘I came from a different dimension?’” Seth asked he dunked the stone under the open faucet. He held it up to his eye. “Which part is throwing you?”

“Does he seem crazy, based on your expert medical opinion?” Char raised both eyebrows in an expression he recognized well.

God, she made that sound sarcastic even when she didn’t mean to.

“No, I see no indication that he’s crazy,” Seth said with a sigh. “But I haven’t tested him. I will.”

He set the stone on a stainless-steel tray. “Erwell said she found a paper about a female Na’odani appearing in Arizona.”

Char’s face froze into a grimace for a moment as she contemplated this. After a moment, she turned and leaned against the counter. “What about that legend you were talking about. Are you going to look into that?”

He’d meant to call his Uncle Will to ask about that, but he hadn’t gotten around to it. He’d hoped to take his snowmobile over and spend the day there. “Yeah, I planned to go there on Sunday.”

“I’ll come with you. We can take one of my jeeps.”

“It would be a lot faster to go by snowmobile,” Seth said slowly. “If you’ll condescend to ride with me, you can still come. I have a good-sized sled.”

She blinked and lifted her chin. “Okay, sure. I’ll come.”

“Alright,” Seth said.

“Alright. Linc can watch our friend.” Char crossed her arms and jutted out her delicate chin.

God, why are you punishing me?

“I’ll be ready to go at five,” Seth sighed.

“Fine,” Char said.

Next Episode

Enjoying yourself so far? Subscribe to get new episodes in your inbox as soon as they post.

Episode 5: The Ring Planet

First time here? Start at Episode 1.

Previous Episode

Greta Erwell broke her long stride just long enough to run her hands over her chin-length grey hair and straighten her jacket before she burst into the infirmary.

You know, I had hoped to have an hour to drink a cup of coffee and just… put my feet up.

Her meeting with the higher ups had not gone anywhere near well. She could still feel the sting of getting ripped a new one after she’d told them that the last round of fission experiments had failed.

Smile at me, Doctor, and everything will be fine.

Erwell pushed open the door.

Seth and the security woman stood facing each other, both with arms crossed. They looked up. The doctor’s handsome face was tight.

“Ah, Char. You’re here too,” Erwell said. “What have we got?”

Seth took a step over and slid open the curtain around one of the beds.

Erwell leaned in over the bed. The man was at least six and a half feet tall, flagpole-thin. His skin was so pale that she could see bluish veins beneath the surface, like grass in muddy water. The only colour on him was short, silky black hair.

“Okay,” she said.

“So,” Char began, glancing at the doctor. “This fellow told Seth quite the story.”

“Oh?” Seth, was it? She’d worked with him for a year now and he was still Dr. Thompson.

Seth cleared his throat. “He claims to have come from another world through what he calls a ‘bridge.’” He made air quotes.

Erwell raised both eyebrows. “Do go on. What else did he say?”

Seth smiled wryly. “His name is Venn. He is a Na’odani from the ring-world of Nao, and apparently these bridges form where the multiple universes touch.” He took a deep breath. “With the aid of some kind of metal or stone thingy, they’re able to pass through the bridges into other worlds.”

“All right,” Erwell drawled. “And he came here why?”

“He was fleeing these creatures called… Kaa.”

“Kaa.” Erwell nodded slowly. “Hmm.”

“In his defense—“ Char reached over and picked up something from the counter “—we did pull this out of his leg.” She held up an eight-inch, knitting-needle-like object.

“Oh, shit.” Erwell reached for it. Char handed it over and Erwell held it close to her face. It was perfectly smooth and tapered to a sharp point. “It’s like a giant mosquito proboscis.”

The doctor nodded. “Apparently they suck out your insides.”

Erwell screwed up her face. “All right, the proboscis is a problem. Otherwise I’d say he’d French-fried his head on drugs. I do hear drugs are quite the problem in the communities around here.”

“That’s true,” the doctor said dryly, “but he’s definitely not Tlingit.”

Erwell felt a faint burn in her cheeks. “Right. But did you check if he has drugs in his system?”

Seth nodded. “He’s clean.”

She sighed, folded her arms and said to Char, “you didn’t call this in to Juneau?”

“No, uh, I could though,” Char said.

“Don’t,” Erwell said. “I’ll figure this out. I wish you’d called me sooner, though. I should have heard about it as soon as he was spotted.”

“Yeah,” Char mumbled. “I was preoccupied with saving him.”

“If he was Russo-Chinese, saving him wouldn’t matter.”

“Yeah,” Char said again.

What she would have done if she’d been told sooner, Erwell could only imagine. She’d just left a marathon meeting session in Juneau. The fact that she had almost no results whatsoever after two years of energy experiments hadn’t sat well with the board. Telling them they had a security breach of some kind would send them off the charts.

“There is, uh, actually something that came to mind.” Seth began to pull the drapes back around the bed where the stranger lay. “The part about the ring world.” He turned. “I’m trying to recall this legend I heard from an elder once. Something about a man from a world shaped like a hoop. I can’t recall the details.”

They moved over into the waiting area of the infirmary. Erwell hunched over and furrowed her brow. She didn’t want to admit it to the doctor, but something about this was striking a chord with her.

“Well, can you look into that?” Erwell added belatedly. “The legend.”

The doctor nodded.

“Char, maybe cuff this guy to the bed,” Erwell added. “If he’s crazy, we don’t want him taking off. If he is Russo-Chinese, we definitely don’t want him to bolt.”

Char nodded. “I’ll have Linc bring you some, Seth.”

Erwell turned to go. “Char, will you walk with me?”

When the infirmary door had shut behind them, Erwell turned to Char. For a second she just looked her over.

Char was wearing the same utilitarian, multi-pocketed black pants and figure-obscuring layers that the whole security team wore. The other two women on her team had long hair that they wore up at all times. Char had a short, mannish cut that made her small chin and high cheekbones stand out in sharp angles. At least her face looked like a woman’s face.

BG7.jpg


“Do you know Doctor Thompson?” Erwell asked, finally.

Char half-smiled. “He’s my ex-husband.”

“Oh!” Erwell laughed in genuine shock. “Did you know he was here?”

Char shook her head. “I hadn’t seen him for five years.”

“Your divorce must have been even worse than mine.” Erwell started walking down the curving hall. “Should I be concerned that this will affect your job?”

“No,” Char said. “We’re professionals, and already have agreed to be cordial.”

So yes?

Erwell smiled to herself. “See that it doesn’t.”

They parted ways as Char went toward the cafeteria and she turned toward her office.

Get your head out of your vagina, Greta. You’ve got bigger fish to fry than cute doctors.

She slammed the door behind herself and slid into her desk chair, then pulled up her keyboard and slid on the glasses that brought up the computer display.

Ring world, huh?

She punched that into the documents search box, and of course nothing happened. Erwell pressed her lips together and tried “interdimensional bridge.” No results. Nothing with portals, bridges or multiverses.

What are you remembering, Greta?

It was the ring world. Something about it brought her back to her university days. What had the doctor called the guy’s people?

She punched in a few different spelling variations until she hit on Na’odani. A paper came up, and as she suspected, it was written by one of her profs, thirty years ago. It had been published by an obscure journal on alien life.

Erwell threw her head back and laughed. “Oh my god,” she said. “This can’t be real. This can’t be real.”

She opened up the file and skimmed through it. It told a second-hand account of a government agent who detained and questioned a humanoid creature that had said it was called a Na’odani.

Erwell felt lightheaded.

She hit print and heard the document spit out of the printer beside the desk. Instead of picking it up, she pulled off her glasses and leaned back.

She wasn’t calling this in.

It was far too much of a coincidence for “Na’odani” to appear twice. She had to test this further, and if she called it now they’d just call it a security breach.

God, if there was a really an interdimensional bridge here somewhere…

Erwell’s pulse accelerated.

She grabbed her comm. “Erwell to Doctor Thompson!”

A second passed.

“Erwell to Doctor Thompson!”

“Yes, Director.” Seth’s soft voice came over the comm.

Erwell took a breath. “Is your alien awake?”

A pause. “No, ma’am.”

“Call me when he wakes up,” she said. “I need to speak with him.”

“Will do, ma’am.”

“Greta, Doctor. Call me Greta.”

Another long pause. “Will do, Greta.”

Erwell lay down the comm and pushed back her chair. A tingle of excitement pulsed through her.

Next episode

Want to read more? Subscribe and get new episodes in your inbox as soon as they post.

Episode 4: Survive Long Enough

First time here? Start at Episode 1

Previous Episode

A choking scream echoed through the cavern. Venn jerked at the viscous webbing with all his strength.

It had released—just a little it had released. Venn strained with all his might. The web began to stretch. His arm extended further and further from his body.

“I’m coming,” he grunted.

A long way off, his fellow explorer cried out again.

Venn’s face contorted with effort. The membranous binding stretched thin. Soon it would break.

His arm reached its full length. The thread was only a hair now. Ven jerked his hand down. Suddenly the webbing snapped back, and his own hand slapped him in the face. He tasted blood.

The scream rattled him, thinner, weaker. Suddenly it cut off.

Venn lay pinned beneath the web, willing the man to scream again. A minute passed in silence.

“No!” Venn cried. “No!”

“Hey. Hey!”

Something touched his arm.

Venn’s eyes snapped open.

The healer creature stood over him, gazing down with pity.

Venn suppressed a scream of rage. Here he was in this unknown place, safe indefinitely and completely alone in that safety.

By Eskalon, he’d rather be dead, but he was not dead and therefore he had no choice but to go on and take this creature’s pity.

“I’m sorry,” Venn said. “It was a dream.”

“I guessed as much. I could give you something to help you sleep.” The healer gazed down with eyes as dark as Kemzog stones. For a moment, Venn was distracted by the shiny, black tail attached the back of the creature’s head. It was hair, wasn’t it?

“But on second thought, there’s no guarantee it works with your body chemistry,” the healer continued.

“You are likely to be right,” Venn said. “Thank you.”

Venn rolled carefully onto his side and pulled the spare pillow toward him, wrapping his arms around it. His eyes shut and he willed himself to filter out every ambient sound—a gusty roar of some sort of ventilation system, every swish of clothing from the healer, every breath, voices far away, the gusting wind outside. Gradually all of them fell away and he heard it: the three melodic tones of the portal. It wasn’t that hard to home in on them. He’d lain in the Kaa lair listening to them for three nights.

Once his leg was healed, perhaps he could get free of the healer and whoever else was in this building. He could leap through the portal, and maybe without the others he had a chance to make it back to base.

He’d face his leader, but he would also have the chance to make his peace with Jezeen.

Gradually all of them fell away and he heard it: the three melodic tones of the portal.

Jezeen! Venn’s throat thickened as he remembered their last night together, back to back instead of in each other’s arms. How unfortunate that he was right—Leader Ryn should not have sent him into uncharted territory with such inexperienced bridgers. Jezeen would regret her words to him now, but he was certain he regretted his just as much.

Venn stuffed his face into the odd-smelling pillow and tried to imagine it smelled like her. When that failed he just tried to remember what she smelled like—her sweat, and the flower oil she dabbed behind her ears. He shut his eyes and imagined his arms were around her long, muscular body.

He had begun to worry she was tired of him. She was the natural explorer, a strong woman who’d actually wanted to be a bridger. He was forced into the position by his father, and while he was known for his skill in locating portals and in translating indigenous speech, he was also known for his incredible caution. She was known for her courage and instinct.

We just have to finish this mission. Don’t be a coward, she’d said. Just do as Leader Ryn says.

Finally, she spoke her true mind, Venn had accused her.

In hindsight, he knew differently. Leader Ryn was wearing her down. He was a harsh taskmaster and their lack of progress with the Kaa was only causing him to push harder. Jezeen just wanted it to be over.

After all, it was their seventh and final bridge. When this mission was complete, they were supposed to return to their homeworld of Nao and retire. They’d lain together at night dreaming about it for the last two missions.

Emotion burned in the back of Venn’s throat. He had to survive long enough to get back to the portal.

Thumbnail5.jpg

Venn struggled to sit up. The healer heard the noise and turned to glance at him.


“What is this world?” Venn asked.

The healer laughed softly. “This is Earth.”

Venn was amazed by how quickly his translation chip was responding. He knew nothing of earth, but his chip seemed to know the language. That meant some bridger, sometime, had been to earth.

“Specifically,” the healer continued, “you are at Fort Situk, a government research facility in Alaska. We are about half a mile from the ocean. It’s winter, and it’s about minus forty outside.”

“It was very cold,” Venn said. “It isn’t the coldest world I’ve been to.”

He watched the healer’s forehead furrow as he took in this information. It was so good to be on a world with creatures not unlike the Na’odani. He could watch the healer’s face and recognize the faint signs of emotion play across his features. So vastly different from the Kaa.

“What shape does your world take?” Venn asked.

The healer’s eyebrows lifted. “It’s a globe.”

“Quite a large globe then,” Venn said. “From what I recall, it appears nearly flat.”

“Yes. How large, I can’t recall.” The healer paused and crossed his arms. “So, you are saying that you have been to other worlds—many, in fact, and that some of them are not globes?”

“In the multitude of world there are many kinds.” Venn sat up straighter. The bed creaked beneath him. “There are globe worlds such as yours, ring worlds, nebula worlds, frame worlds, and flat worlds. Perhaps there are more.”

The healer’s face vacillated between what Venn interpreted as skepticism and curiosity. He uncrossed his arms and crossed over to Venn’s bed, lowering himself to a small metal seat. “What’s a frame world?”

Venn shut his eyes, imagining his first bridge. He was practically a child—certain he would die—when he arrived on the bizarre new world. He pictured his first sight of it. “It’s like a—“ he struggled for an analogy that the healer would understand. He opened his eyes and scanned the room until his eye lit on some sort of metallic basket on the desk. “Like that.” He pointed. “Globular, and yet not solid. Made of connected strands. Quite disorienting for the first while.”

“So, you are saying that you have been to other worlds—many, in fact, and that some of them are not globes?”

“And your world?”

“A ring-world. Like a hoop, flat on the inside, which is where the vegetation and inhabitants are. Solid metal and rock on the outside.”

The healer squinted at him.

“Are you an indigenous species?” Venn asked.

The healer paused and then smiled slowly. “I am. I’m a member of a Tlingit band near here.”

“Ah, so you are a Tlingit. Are the others I have seen also Tlingits or they another species?”

The healer grinned. “They are various sorts of Caucasians, except for Linc who is Haida and Leander who is, I think, some mix of African and Latino. But we’re all the same species, which is human.”

He could see by the wry twist to the healer’s mouth that he wasn’t persuading him of anything. Venn was tired. His head felt heavy and his stomach was empty. The heavy gravity of the world was exhausting compared to the light field on Kaa, and apparently his muscles had lost some of their tone.

“What do I call you?” he said to the healer.

“Besides human?” the healer’s eyes twinkled.

“Like I am Venn, and you are…?”

“Seth.” He extended a hand.

Venn looked down at it.

Seth dropped his hand. “Are you hungry?”

Venn nodded.

Seth stood and walked into the other room. Venn slumped back against the pillows. Well, perhaps he didn’t need the man to believe him. He just needed Seth to fix his wounds and let him out so he could return to the portal. His chances, once he reached the portal, would depend on how much time had passed, and if it was still the warm season, or the cold season in which the Kaa stayed underground.

I’ll stay alive, Venn vowed to Jezeen. I’ll come back. We will return to Na’o together.

Next Episode

Want to read more? Subscribe and get new episodes in your inbox as soon as they post.

Episode 3: Venn

Just dropping in? Read Episode 1 and get caught up.

Previous Episode.

“You can see the blood in the snow there.” Linc pointed at the drifted snow a few yards away. “He was crawling before we saw him, I guess.”

They came alongside the crimson patch. Char squinted at the smears in the wind-packed snow, which was flecked the ash and soot that blew in the wind. “He was dragging the one leg.” They followed the tracks down the slope away from Fort Situk.

“He fell here.” Char squatted down beside an imprint in the snow, speckled with blood, and eyed the clear handprints in the snow.

“The footprints stop here,” Linc said from a few yards away near a scruffy bunch of trees.

“Stop?” Char stood and walked toward him.

“Yeah.” Linc turned around and pulled off his sunglasses. His eyes were bloodshot with dark bags beneath them. “I guess they blew shut?”

They spread out in a ten-yard radius, searching for the tracks to begin again. They found nothing.

“So he fell from an airplane?” Linc said wryly.

Char sighed. “Look in the bushes. Maybe he holed up in there.”

“They don’t do human experiments here, do they?” Linc muttered as they circled around the little bluff, spreading the tree branches and searching for any sign the man had spent time there.

“Do you think they’d tell me if they did?” Char asked. “I mean, they told me that they’re trying to find new fuel and energy sources, but I don’t know.”

“If only they could power cars with snow, right?” Linc said. He scanned the barren landscape. “Anyway, it doesn’t look like he was here.”

Char shook her head.

As they turned to hike back to the base, the whopping of a helicopter made them both look up.

Erwell’s bird.

“You’re in for a grilling now.” Linc grinned at her.

Char rolled her eyes.

<>

The pillow crunched under his head as Seth rolled over on the thin infirmary mattress. His strange patient lay on the next bed over in exactly the same position as Seth had left him.

Seth licked his dry lips and threw his legs over the side of the bed. The bedframe groaned as he stood up and reached for his stethoscope.

As he checked the patient’s vitals, his brow furrowed. They weren’t great, but they weren’t worrisome, either.

He leaned over the bed and stared into the man’s face—at the long, oval face and high, sharp cheekbones. Seth squinted at the ears, which lacked the ordinary folds and ridges. They reminded him of oyster shells.

Everything about the man was long and narrow, including the rib cage with two extra bones.

Seth pressed his lips together. He picked up his comm and carried it over to the desk. “Captain Lee-Thompson, come in?”

The comm crackled. “Yes, doc.”

“Has your team investigated where our guest came from?”

“Yes,” Char replied. “Nothing conclusive to say. Any change in the patient?”

“No, ma’am.”

“All right.”

Seth grimaced.

You have to talk to her.

Ah, God, why now?

He could almost imagine the Man Upstairs saying, “You prayed for a year to get her back.”

He’d prayed a lot of things that year.

Seth slammed the comm onto the desk and after a quick glance at the patient, returned to the exam room, which had been their makeshift operating room during the night. The pieces of the man’s garment still lay in a tub on the counter. Seth brought them into his little laboratory and snipped off a little sample to examine.

To the touch, the fabric felt something like a buttery-soft synthetic leather. Under the microscope, the fabric was incredibly tightly-woven synthetic knit of some kind, interwoven with metallic strands.

Seth sat back. That told him very little. They had some very sophisticated fabrics in the military.

He’s got to be some kind of experiment.

Seth got up and returned to the patient. He stood there staring down at the man in the bed.

He’d just turned and stepped away when he heard a rustle behind him. Seth turned. The man’s eyes had opened. His irises were such a pale silver as to be almost invisible, but as Seth watched they darkened into murky grey.

His irises were such a pale silver as to be almost invisible, but as Seth watched they darkened into murky grey.

“Oh!” Seth said.

The patient’s eyes locked on his.

“Good—“ Before Seth could finish the greeting, the man launched upward out of the bed. His fist collided with Seth’s cheek. Seth reeled for a second, and in the moment the man bolted past him toward the door.

Seth bounded toward him. He caught the man with both arms and attempted to drag him backward. The man bucked against his arms with an animal growl. They slammed against the wall. Seth’s grip broke.

Now freed, the man threw himself toward the door.

“Hey!” Seth snagged him by the hospital gown, which slowed the patient long enough for the doctor to wrap him in a tight hold. The other man strained to break free while Seth wrestled him back toward the bed.

“Take it easy!” Seth said. “You’re safe. It’s all right.”

They slammed against an empty bed. The man cried out and his legs buckled. Seth caught him before he hit the floor.

“It’s alright,” Seth panted. “You’re safe. It’s alright.”

The patient had gone still but for his heavy breathing. He said something, two words that were more vowels than consonants and completely unintelligible.

“Okay, okay,” Seth soothed. “C’mon. Let’s put you back into the bed.”

The man let himself be propelled toward the bed and seated on the edge.

Seth looked down and sighed. A bloodstain was slowly spreading across the bottom of the man’s hospital gown.

“You’re hurt.” Seth made eye contact with the patient. “Please, just lie still. I’m trying to help you.”

BG8.jpg

The man stared at him for a second, then slowly nodded.

The wound was seeping blood as Seth unwrapped it. “You’ve broken the stitches open.”

The patient hissed with pain as Seth pulled out the broken stitches. Seth added more hemostatic agent and prepared to stitch it again.

“Thank you,” the patient said in a low, rough-edged voice. His words came out slow, slightly disjointed. “I am sorry. I was not sure you were a friend.”

“I am friend enough to keep you from bleeding to death,” Seth said. “What’s your name?”

“Venn,” the patient said. His breath caught as Seth’s needle broke his skin.

“Where did you come from?” Seth asked as he completed the stitch. “Which community did you walk out of?”

“I came through the portal at the bottom of the hill,” Venn said. He met Seth’s eyes. His irises were murky grey again.

Seth’s needle hovered over Venn’s pale skin. “What do you mean?”

“Of the multitude of worlds, the world of Kaa meets this one in a bridge.” His tone was pedantic, tired. “I came through that bridge as I was fleeing the inhabitants of Kaa. They made these wounds.”

“Oh,” Seth said.

Venn eyed him with an expression that suggested he didn’t expect the doctor to believe him. Something about the look in his murky eyes made Seth say, “You were fleeing animals of some kind?”

It took a couple of seconds before Venn answered. “We haven’t determined if they’re sentient yet.”

Seth formed another stitch. “Who is we?”

“The others of my race. We came from another world into Kaa to explore it.”

“Right,” Seth said slowly as he tied off the final stitch. As he swabbed away the blood, he asked, “So, do your people speak English?”

A pause. “No. I have a translation implant in my head.”

“Oh.” Seth nodded slowly. “I see.” He stood up and carried the tray with the bloody swabs and tools back to the counter.

He stood with his back to Venn, his hands planted on the counter and his lips pressed tightly together.

After a moment, he grabbed the comm and flipped to the security team’s channel. “Captain, come in.”

“Yeah, doc,” Char’s husky voice came in, obscured by the roar of wind interference.

Seth bit the inside of his lip. “The patient’s awake.”

<>

“That’s a weird-ass story,” Char muttered as Seth shut the curtain around Venn. She stood with melting snow dripping off her boots and her hands planted on her hips. “I almost want to believe the bugger. I mean, what Russo-Chinese spy would tell that kind of tale?”

“Unless that’s the deal. Make it too unbelievable,” Seth said, turning to face her.

“That’s not a strategy.” Her sunglasses passed from one hand to the other. Around her eyes, the skin was pale in a perfect glasses imprint. Her short, chestnut hair stood up in clumps, and her teeth kneaded her bottom lip.

Somehow, she managed to look delicate even in heavy, black thermal gear.

Somehow, she managed to look delicate even in heavy, black thermal gear.

But then, wasn’t that how he’d been drawn in the first time? Something to do with haunted hazel eyes in a waifish face, despite that “don’t fuck with me” attitude.

‘Cause I’m a sucker.

Still a sucker, damnit.

“Erwell is here,” Char said. “She’ll want me to brief her before long. I’m supposed to tell her this bullshit?”

“You can take the stinger thing to show her,” Seth said. “He said that was from one of the Kaa creatures.”

Suddenly Char laughed, which lit up her entire face. “Oh good god, Seth. This was supposed to be a straightforward security gig, and now I’m dealing with some kind of mental hospital escapee. Erwell is going to kill me.”

Seth chuckled nervously.

“Look.” Char turned to him. “I’m sorry I bit your head off this morning. This has all been rather unexpected. Um… meeting you here, I mean.”

“Yeah.” Seth gave her a half smile.

“We’re professionals. We can manage a working relationship, right?”

Seth nodded.

Char’s shoulders relaxed, though her face remained poker-straight. “Okay, because the contract is just a year and then I’ll be out of your hair.” She squinted at him. “And speaking of that, you grew your hair out.”

“Yeah.” Seth grabbed the tail of his braid and threw it over his shoulder. He’d begun growing it out about a month after she’d left him. That he’d wanted to keep it short was just one of a few things he’d told her that weren’t quite true.

“I bet your mom likes that.”

“She did,” Seth said.

“Well, it suits you.” Char crossed her arms and squinted at him.

Seth blinked.

She gave him a rueful smile. “But also, I’m not a captain anymore so you can stop calling me that.”

“Yeah, I know.” Seth crossed his arms. “I followed the story on the news.” He paused. “I didn’t take any pleasure in it, if you were wondering.”

She eyed him.

“I didn’t know what else to call you,” he finished lamely.

“Char is fine,” she said with a sigh. “Anyway, I gotta go. Wish me luck.”

“Good luck,” he said half-heartedly. He leaned against the doorframe and watched her go.

Next Episode

Want to read more? Subscribe to get episodes as they post.

Episode 2: A Blast of Guilt

Just dropping in? Read Episode 1 to catch up.

Char stood in the center of her room for a whole minute, staring at the blood smeared down her front, willing herself to move.

Panic was rising up inside her like a fast-incoming tide. Vague visions of a ditch, soldiers dead around her.

She stood there staring at her trembling hands.

“Get it the hell together,” she muttered finally. “It’s just blood.”

She unclenched her hands and pulled her sweater over her head. She dropped it in the corner and sat down on the bed and took deep breaths until the anxiety passed.

They’d worked well together, she and Seth. Who’da thunk it?

She was surprised he hadn’t said anything about it, but then she’d been at Fort Situk for a week and the ice remained unbroken.

She shut her eyes and recalled the moment she saw him.

“The infirmary wing is on the other side of the command module.” Site director Greta Erwell didn’t point or wait, she just kept walking.

Leander rolled her eyes in Char’s direction. Char smirked.

Their footsteps echoed down the curving, concrete hallway as they followed the silver-haired director. They came to the juncture where the module joined with the central hall of the living quarters, and Erwell swung open a door labeled “infirmary.”

“It’s a four-bed facility,” Erwell said as the door closed behind them, leaving them in a square room lit with bright white LEDs. A few chairs were clustered in one corner. Four beds stood empty and waiting, ready to be partitioned off with curtains.

“There’s an exam room through here,” Erwell continued as she led them forward, “and then there’s actually a small greenhouse that the doctor uses to grow medicinal herbs.”

“Oh!” Leander smirked. “That kind of doctor?”

Erwell smiled tightly. “Mostly for his own interest, as I understand. He’s very capable, I assure you.”

She led them down a short passage, which opened up into a tiny greenhouse made of thick plexiglass. The wan Alaskan sun shone down on rows of plants. A man stood at the back, stooped over a bench of what looked like grass. A dark braid hung between his shoulders.

“Doctor?” Erwell said.

He lifted his head, and his smile faltered.

Char felt as if someone had dumped icy water over her head. Her pulse spiked.

Seth Thompson.

How had she gone through the whole contracting process of bringing her security force to Fort Situk without coming across the name of her ex-husband on a roster somewhere?

“Oh hey, doc,” Leander said. “Fancy seeing you here.”

Char felt as if someone had dumped icy water over her head. Her pulse spiked.

Erwell turned her grey-blue gaze toward Leander. “Have you met?”

Leander glanced at Char. “Met? No.”

Seth made eye contact with Char. Panic skittered through his eyes.

She kept her mouth shut.

Thirty minutes later, the tour of the command pod was done and Erwell dropped Char and Leander off in the cafeteria.

“Whew!” Leander slid onto one of the stainless-steel benches clutching a cup of coffee. “Should’ve brought those divorce papers.”

Char laughed harshly. “What the hell? What is he even doing here? What do they need a surgeon for?”

Leander shrugged. “It’s been five years. Anything could’ve happened in that time. Maybe he moved back up to Taylor Bay, shacked up with a nice Tlingit woman and had nice Tlingit babies.”

“Oh my god, Leander.” A pang went through Char’s chest. Yeah, maybe he had. She sure as hell hadn’t given him any.

In that pause, the door at the far side of the cafeteria opened, and a line of scientists in their monochromatic black and grey uniforms marched in toward the food line.

“He’s definitely better looking in person.” Leander smirked over her coffee cup. “Hot damn.”

“You know what, Leander?” Char pretended she was going to toss Leander’s coffee in her face.

Leander cackled.

“It’s not funny,” Char said. “That’s my fucking ex-husband. Well, not even ex because, oh yeah, he never signed the divorce papers.” She slapped her hands on the table.

Leander’s face straightened. “Okay,” she set down her coffee cup. “What do we do?”

“Do?” Char snorted. “Nothing. I’m a professional. I’m here to secure the base, not to interact with Seth fricking Thompson.”

That hadn’t lasted long.

Two days later, she’d received a call over her comm as she was coming off a morning inspection. She was just entering the cafeteria for a cup of coffee to thaw herself out.

thumbnail3.jpg

“Captain Lee-Thompson?” Seth’s voice crackled through the comm.

Char felt a twist of discomfort. She peeled off her gloves and tucked them in her belt. “Come in, doctor,” she replied.

“Can I see you in the infirmary?” Seth said. “It’s about one of your guys.”

“I’ll be there in five minutes.”

Char poured some coffee from the machine into a paper cup, stirred in some powdered whitener and carried it with her down the hall to the infirmary.

When she arrived in the infirmary, Seth was seated in the corner beside his desk bent over a book in an incredibly familiar pose—the book balanced on top of his knee, one hand clutching a plastic coffee mug. When he saw her, he clapped the book shut and pointed to chair across from him.

Char slid into the chair and took a swig of her coffee. “What happened?”

Seth ran his hand over his hair, now in a hasty knot at the nape of his neck.

You grew it out. Did you want to grow it out the whole time you were with me?

“Linc has visited me two nights in a row,” Seth said. “He’s having trouble sleeping and having stomach problems. Today I asked him a few more questions.” His brow furrowed. “Were you aware that he broke up with his partner the night before you came up here?”

Char’s eyebrows lifted. “No. No, I wasn’t.”

“As I understand, Linc was blindsided,” Seth said softly, “so it’s no surprise that he’s depressed.” He paused. “He admitted to suicidal ideation.”

Char sat back and breathed in slowly. “He should have said something. I would have given him leave.”

Seth blinked his big, dark eyes. “He said he was afraid you’d make him stay in Juneau.”

“Oh.” Char raked her hands through her hair and felt a pang of guilt.

Linc was so new to her team. The young Haida man with the smile that flashed in his bronze face had joined her security team after one deployment to China with the army. He’d only worked with her a month.

“Poor kid,” she said, finally.

“Yeah.” Seth squinted at her ruefully.

“So, what are you saying?” Char asked.

“Um,” Seth ran his teeth over his bottom lip. “He wants to stay here. It certainly wouldn’t be wise to send him home unsupervised, but I can make arrangements to have a counsellor supervise him.” He was still looking at her, face tight.

Why was he looking at her like that? Was this some kind of test?

Why was he looking at her like that? Was this some kind of test?

“Work might be what he needs,” Char said.

When she’d thrown Seth out, she’d clung to work like a guideline in a blizzard. Fort Situk wasn’t a busy army base in Vancouver, but it wasn’t sitting at home wondering how you’d managed to fuck your life up so bad.

“Sitting around,” she said. “Not exactly helpful.”

“If you want him to stay,” Seth said gently, “we can keep an eye on him.”

Char nodded tightly. “I’ll talk to him.”

Char rubbed her eyes and brought herself to the present. So Linc stayed, and she’d been left wondering if somehow either Seth or the universe was trying to tell her something.

In eight days, Linc had glommed onto Seth like he was Jesus Christ himself. She’d swapped him onto her patrol and heard “Seth said” over and over until she wanted to punch the kid in the mouth.

But she and Seth hadn’t said more than two or three sentences to each other, and they certainly hadn’t broken the ice. She knew more about the complex fission experiments they were doing at Situk than she did about Seth’s life post-split.

Char stood up and grabbed her parka from the hook beside the bed. She’d hit the cafeteria and go out to the site where they’d found the stranger.

Her boots clumped hollowly past Seth’s door and brought the image of him straight out of bed, looking delicious as hell and making her feel like garbage.

You have to talk to him. Be the bigger person. Break the ice. At least apologize for snapping at him.

Char paused in the doorway of the cafeteria and scanned the black and grey uniforms. Her team was already done eating, and Seth wasn’t there.

Okay, I’ll do it, just not now.

Nest Episode

Want to read more? Subscribe to get episodes as they post.