Episode 15: The Valley

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I slept fine,” she said.

Leander snorted.

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

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

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

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

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

Venn towered over Jeff, it was true.

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

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

Nearby, Leander and Anna snickered. Jeff grinned.

Venn smiled tightly.

They decamped and set out down the rapidly descending ridge.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Char!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wrap it around your waist,” Leander said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Pull!” she shouted. “Pull me up!”

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

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

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Episode 14: What if it’s sentient?

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Venn watched the healer and the two scientists picking their way across the stony plateau from his vantage point above them. Char stood beside him, surveying the landscape in silence. They were cuffed together again. Her weapon, a stubby sub-machine gun, dangled from her other hand.

The healer sat cross-legged on the ground, holding a tiny plant near to his face.

Char chuckled.

“Those plants grow all over the mountains,” Venn said softly. “They’re not edible nor useful for anything else as we can tell.”

Char turned to him. “You’ve already spent months exploring Kaa. You’re not going to give them any hints, are you?”

Venn shrugged. “How do I know what they look for?”

“Are there any useful elements here?”

Venn shrugged again. “The plants in the valley make good building materials.”

She laughed. “You’re a bastard.”

Venn squinted at her and wondered if this was a euphemism, since he certainly was no bastard. His pedigree was pure, though Leader Char could not have known this he supposed. The Americans seemed fond of vulgar-sounding phrases.

Char shifted her gaze to the winding valley, which from their altitude, looked like a rippling red stream. “What kind of plants are they?”

Venn screwed up his face, searching for an analogy and the English words he needed. “They’re like… tall… thick… grass.”

Char let her gun hang by its sling and cupped her hand to her mouth. “Seth! Venn says that’s a useless plant!”

Seth looked up and grinned. “I like it,” he yelled back. He pulled a sampling bag from his pocket, slipped it in, and deposited in his backpack.

Venn eyed the gun slung over Char’s shoulder.

All night before they bridged he’d considered whether it was better to steal a gun while they were all still incapacitated by the bridge and run off without them, or if he should lead them down the ridge to the narrowest point of the valley and convince them to cross. The Na’odani base, if they were still in Kaa, was tucked behind a ridge on the other side.

But he’d been cuffed to small, wiry Char. And she had not been incapacitated by the bridge, and the gale-force wind sealed his decision. He had an inkling he could still overpower the slender woman, but he’d begun to favor the idea of taking them across the valley.

He still needed to reach his people, and it was not in Char’s protocol to engage the Na’odani. He needed to find some way of drawing Na’odani attention.

Her face registered shock. “What? It’s a bug.”

They spent the day that way, slowly working their way down the ridge of mountains collecting samples. Venn was cuffed to Callum for a while, then back to Char. She seemed not to mind his company.

The scientist Marlene, who in Venn’s mind bore striking resemblance to a Na’odani with her thin frame and face and black eyes, caught some kind of creature that she thought was an insect. Before Venn could stop her, she’d placed it in a vial.

“What if it’s sentient?” he asked. He grabbed the vial from her hands.

Her face registered shock. “What? It’s a bug.”

Venn peered into the container at the creature. It was perfectly elliptical, and appeared to be made of black metal. Its wings were paper thin and seemed too small to propel its body.

Char glanced over at it, and then away again.

It’s not a bug.

It was a surveillance device. He hadn’t seen one quite like it, but they could have received new tech from Eskalon while he was away. It was certainly Na’odani. It had the Na’odani eight-pointed star stamped on the bottom.

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Venn handed it back to her.

“Is it sentient?” She sneered at him.

“Who can say?” he said, affecting a sigh. He spun around.

Night fell swiftly over the valley. They re-pitched the tents on a larger plateau and settled down. Char divided her team in half and formed a guard rotation. She sent Leander and the others to bed in the tents. Seth lingered for a while, talking softly to her, before he also bedded down.

“I’ll stay with you,” Venn said.

Char glanced at him and shrugged. “If you’d like.”

Venn flexed his feet inside the American thermal boots. His feet weren’t warm, but he could feel them fine. He walked to the edge of the plateau and stared down into the valley.

Suddenly a long, high keening cry rang out. A moment later another call responded, farther off.

Venn shuddered. Kaa.

“What was that?” Char hissed.

“Kaa,” Venn said softly. “They’ll stay in the valley. Don’t worry.”

Another Kaa shrieked.

Venn’s stomach compressed inside him. Little flashes of memory spun through his mind—straining against the sticky Kaa bonds, the screams of his dying countrymen.

He swallowed hard.

“Venn,” Char said softly. “When you arrived, you said you were running from the Kaa. Why were they after you?”

Venn licked his cold lips. “I escaped from their dens.”

“They captured you?”

“Yes,” Venn said. “And my team with me. Young explorers.”

“What happened to them?” Char asked. Her tone was gentle.

“They died.” Venn squeezed his eyes shut, grateful for the dark. He could picture each young face—some aspired to be great explorers while others, like him, were there because their families compelled them. All dead.

Little flashes of memory spun through his mind—straining against the sticky Kaa bonds, the screams of his dying countrymen.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I know what that’s like.”

A call echoed through the mountains.

“How are they so loud?” Char shifted from foot to foot.

“Their burrows amplify the sound, I suspect.” Venn swallowed. “May I go to the tent?”

Char walked him over to the tent door, nudged the sleeping Seth and cuffed them together.

Venn lay down in his bedroll and wrapped his free arm around the thin pillow instead of putting it under his head. He shut his eyes and imagined it was Jezeen’s thin, firm body and they were face to face in bed. He pictured her silver eyes staring into his, and his hands on her body.

“Do you remember life in Eskalon?” she murmured. Her eyes drifted shut as he ran his hand down her back.

“Only a little,” Venn said. “I was a child.”

She smiled, eyes still shut. “I wish I’d known you then.”

She’d said that many times, and as always he said, “you wouldn’t have liked me. I was a weakling.”

Usually she’d laugh, but this time she sighed, opened her eyes and caught his wandering hand from her breast. “But now that we’re the strong ones, how will we ever feel that we’re home there?”

Venn laced his fingers into hers. “You are my home.”

Venn awoke from the memory. He raised his head and looked around the dim tent. The guard had changed while he was asleep. Char slept on the other side of Seth, nestled into his side. Beyond them, Anna was a curled ball of sleeping bag. It was nearly dawn.

A soft whirring circled the tent, probably quiet enough that only he could hear it. It must have wakened him.

He lay still, listening to the faint metallic quality of the buzz. Drones.

The whir came nearer. A swarm of the surveillance drones swirled around the tent, tapping against the canvas and looking for a way in.

Suddenly a lone buzz crossed the tent. Venn lifted his head. It came close enough that he could see the small orb hovering over him.

He snapped his hand out and caught it. He held it up to his face so it could get a good look at him, and then let it go. It buzzed away, and in a moment it was gone.

Venn smiled. He was found

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Episode 13: The Bridge

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The persistent beeping of his alarm tugged Seth to wakefulness. He raised his head and rolled over to hit the snooze. As he did, he encountered the warm form in the bed beside him.

Ohhhh, no.

He flopped back. Char raised her head, started and pushed herself up on her elbow.

“Today’s the day,” she mumbled.

“I wasn’t drunk,” Seth said. “Were you?”

“Huh?” Char stared at him for a moment. “Oh! No, no I wasn’t drunk.” She lay back down, keeping wary eye-contact.

He sighed. For better or for worse, what had happened had happened. She was his wife. He hadn’t done anything wrong.

Seth leaned over her and dropped a peck on her lips so she wouldn’t feel that he was regretting their night together. He wasn’t—not really.

She cupped his cheek and kissed him again. “This was nice.”

He nodded.

“But now we have to be professionals again,” she continued. “Can we do that?”

He nodded again.

She kissed him one more time, then rolled away. She sat up and dug around on the floor for her clothes. Seth sat up. His head had that balloon-like feel of two hours of sleep. He found his shorts from the night before and put those on and then sat there, semi-stupefied, watching Char get dressed.

“I’ll see you later,” she said softly and disappeared out the door.

“Get up,” he muttered to himself as the door clicked. He got up and woodenly pulled clean underwear out of his dresser. He pulled on the military-grade thermals he’d been given and layered his usual flannel shirt overtop. Seth tugged open the drawer of his nightstand and pulled out a bundle of letters—notes to Will, Brett, and Shania, and some of the others saying goodbye. He took out a sheaf of little wallet-sized pictures: him and Char on their wedding day, him and Char with a moose they’d shot near Taylor Bay, and finally a picture of his Mom and Dad, taken only weeks before they’d died. He slipped them into a little waterproof bag and tucked it into the inner pocket of his thermals.

His throat tightened.

God, I’m scared.

He made the bed and left the letters on his pillow. Next he cleaned up his clothes, on the floor where he and Char had scattered them. His chair went tucked under his desk. Finally, he took his pack from the corner where it stood ready and carried it from the room. As the door clicked shut, Seth swallowed.

Three hours later, they stood in full thermal gear by the portal, which had been marked with flags of red tape. Seth stood with the two scientists: a short, stocky physicist named Jeff and a thin, hawk-eyed chemist named Marlene. Char, Leander and her six team members huddled in a group, clutching their weapons and carrying heavy packs.

Linc stood with them, holding onto a still-cuffed Venn. Venn wore the same thermal gear as they did and carried a pack of gear. His pale face was serene beneath his black stocking cap, but Seth thought he could detect nervousness in his eyes.

Erwell and one of the other site managers stood, shifting in their crackling down-filled thermals, looking serious and important.

“Right,” Erwell said, checking her watch. A hard wind blew out of the west, reeking of burning synthetic materials. She crossed over to Linc. “Let’s go.”

Venn turned and surveyed them all while Linc unlocked the cuffs. Char stepped over, and Linc locked one cuff on her wrist, and the other on Venn’s.

“All right,” Char said. She glanced back and caught Seth’s eye. Her face was strained but calm. “Let’s go.” She tugged the cuff gently.

Venn stepped toward the portal. Char walked alongside him.

Seth followed, jockeying to be the first in the line of scientists.

Venn reached out toward the space between the flags. As the red streamers blew straight out in the bitter wind, his fingertips disappeared into the portal. He turned back and his silver eyes met Seth’s before his fingers closed around Char’s hand.

Char gripped Venn’s fingers and turned, scanning the crowd until she found her ex-husband. Her face was tight but her eyes burned with excitement. She gave him a little grin, then turned and reached back to take Leander’s hand. Leander, in turn, took the hand behind her. They formed a chain and marched slowly toward the portal.

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Venn slid out of sight like he was vanishing beneath the surface of a lake. Only his hand in Char’s remained. Char followed without hesitating.

Seth’s breath caught as her arm glided from view. There was a moment where her face disappeared and Leander laughed, one harsh “hah!”

When it came to Seth’s turn, he forced himself to move forward, propelled by the still-moving chain into the void. He felt the instant his hand touched the portal. It was like plunging his hand into a frozen lake. The hand went instantly numb, and the numbness crept up his arm to his chest. His view of the frozen Alaskan flatland rippled and disappeared.

It was dark. Seth felt a sucking sensation, and then very suddenly it was light again.

Seth knew he wasn’t in Alaska anymore because the reek of Tokyo smoke was gone. It took a moment for his sight to clear. His head felt simultaneously empty and full of lead. Jeff, then Marlene emerged behind him.

“That’s all of us, Venn.” Char’s voice pierced his fog.

Seth’s vision cleared, and his senses rolled back in.

They stood on a plateau. Beneath them, the valley Venn had spoken of spilled out in a crimson flood. A sharp, frigid wind bore down on them. Petite Char had her feet planted wide, leaning into the gale. Venn stood alongside the portal, still gripping her hand.

A bizarre ringing sound, like a prolonged gong-blast or a deep, metallic ringing, hummed above the roar of the wind.

“What’s that noise?” Seth shouted.

“The wind through that crevasse.” Venn pointed beyond the portal, which lifted Char’s arm along with his. She tugged it back down.

Seth turned and stared up at the mountain that towered over them. Unlike the snowy, craggy mountains of Alaska, it curved upward in a continuous, black, glassy swoop. The sharp point was broken off and split down the middle by a narrow crevice. Mountains stretched in either direction like shiny black teeth.

An icy gust wailed down the mountain. Char wobbled and grabbed Venn.

Jeff and Marlene were both on their hands and knees. Half of Char’s soldiers were in the same position, including Leander.

Callum stood, planting his stocky legs wide and scrubbing at his eyes with his gloved hand. “Boss, do we take cover?”

“Let’s huddle up.” Char shouted. “Hunker down for now until you feel ready to move.”

To Seth’s right, Leander began crawling toward her nearest teammate. Marlene and Jeff the scientists inched toward them. Soon, all of them were huddled together in a clump on the ground. Venn and Char knelt on the edge of the cluster. Seth edged in beside them and tugged his thermal mask up over his face.

His breathing felt slightly laboured, perhaps because of the compressing effect of the portal, or because of the thinner atmosphere in Kaa.

“Bridging makes many first-timers dizzy,” Venn said in Seth’s ear. “Sometimes it takes a day to pass. How are you feeling?”

“Fine,” Seth said. “Only my chest feels heavy.”

“That may also be the portal,” Venn said. He was breathing heavily. “We’ll be safe from the Kaa here.”

The wind slammed suddenly against them, kicking up fine silt in their faces. Marlene yelped.

“We need to shelter in place until we can travel safely,” Char yelled over the howl of the wind. She struggled to stand, dragging Venn with her. Callum and Seth stood, too.

Char glanced at Venn, still tethered to her. “This won’t work,” she said.

She uncuffed Venn and cuffed him to Jesse, who was huddled between Leander and Jeff.

It took them at least half an hour to erect their first tent and stake it out on the slick rock surface. Leander had mostly recovered, but by the time she’d helped shuttle half of the team into the tent, she was wheezing.

Char and Callum were also panting. Char’s chin jutted behind her thermal mask as she picked up the second tent. They wrestled the flapping tent upright and staked it out, then dragged Leander, Anna, Jesse, and Venn into the tent. Seth propelled Marlene and Jeff into the other tent before he dove in after them. Char followed.

Seth sprawled in the space between Char and Jeff, exhausted. For a moment, the only sound was the metallic ringing of the wind through the mountain’s split.

“I need to make sure the others activated their heater,” Char wheezed. She shoved herself to her knees.

“I’ll go,” Seth said.

“They’re my responsibility.” She unzipped the flap and plunged out of the tent.

Seth stuck his head out of the door and watched her bend into the wind until she reached the wobbling tent. A moment later she came back, practically falling into the tent.

“Activate ours,” she gasped.

Seth reached over and depressed the switch on the little infrared heater.

“Huddle up.” Char sank down and flopped against Seth.

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Episode 12: Maybe there’s Still a Spark

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The whopping of a helicopter made Char glance up as she approached the bottom of the corner tower. A big black aircraft descended through the bronze-toned sky. Char squinted at it for a moment before she climbed the ladder into the roofed parapet.

“Incoming,” she said to Linc and Leander, who were leaning out and gazing at the landing chopper.

“Good times,” Leander said. She raised her binoculars. “Are these the bigwigs? Considering what we’re doing tomorrow, you’d think the place would be crawling with them.”

Linc laughed. “Seems fortunate to me.”

As the chopper wound down and fell silent, Char sighed. “Erwell is being very tight-lipped. It’s suspicious, I’ll give you that.”

Leander laughed.

Char sighed. “I’ve been trying to get them to bring in more of us instead but that will take expediting their security clearance checks—“

“Interesting enough, those checks didn’t illuminate the fact that your husband was working on base,” her friend said.

“Or it’s just not a big deal.” Char scowled at her. “What are we, fourteen?”

Linc’s eyes dodged away uncomfortably.

“Yeah, you’re a Seth sycophant. Sorry, Linc.” Leander jabbed him with her elbow.

“Geez, Leander. I came here to get away from assholes, not to find another one,” Char said. “Anyway, Erwell will brief us tonight at 1900 hours. Be there or be square.”

“Should be fun,” Leander said, deadpan.

<>

The conference room was too small to fit both Char’s team and Erwell’s team and but they were in there anyway. Char escorted Venn, cuffed, into the midst of the standing-room only crowd and felt him freeze.

“Easy, there, Venn,” she said softly. “This circus is almost over.”

“What is a circus?” Venn whispered back.

“I’ll explain later,” she answered.

“All right, let’s quiet down,” Erwell called, even though they were all mostly quiet. She had a strange, skull-like grin on her face. “I’ll start going through the protocol.”

Char spotted Seth in the corner, leaning against the wall behind her team. She sidled Venn through the group to stand beside Seth and tucked herself in beside him.

She glanced over at Seth’s tight face and crossed arms. He met her gaze and gave her the barest hint of a smile.

“How are you holding up?” he whispered to her.

“I have a headache.” Her head ached from a potent combination of fatigue, noise, and caffeine.

“I’ll give you something after,” he said.

Erwell flicked on the projected display against the wall and began going through the protocol. They had a week, Alaska time, to complete the scouting mission. Venn’s calculations said that would equal nine and a half days in Kaa.

They’d be measuring everything from the oxygen percentage in the atmosphere to the force of gravity. They’d take samples of the water and every element and plant they could find and carry.

Conspicuously absent, any mention of the Na’odani. Char had brought this up with Erwell the first time she’d read the protocol documents at a table in the corner of the cafeteria.

“Your job will be to avoid them,” Erwell had said.

Char had blinked. “Avoid them? What if we can’t?”

“Avoid them at all costs,” Erwell said. “They’re peaceful. Venn said so. Just stick to taking samples.”

A pit had settled in Char’s stomach then.

The Na’odani stayed out of the protocol.

The security team already been paid handsomely, with more coming when they returned. If they didn’t return, their families would receive compensation. That was one little bit that Char had successfully pushed for. If they didn’t return, their families would never find out what happened to them, but at least they’d be taken care of.

When Erwell’s presentation finished, Char said goodnight to her team and marched Venn back to his cell. Seth followed wordlessly behind until they’d left Venn in his room.

“You want something for the headache?” Seth asked as Char locked the door.

“Avoid them at all costs,” Erwell said. “They’re peaceful. Venn said so. Just stick to taking samples.”

“Yeah,” she said. Her headache radiated from behind her eyes and deep into her shoulders. Her chest was tight with anxiety.

The base had gone into power-saving mode. Every second hall light had turned off, leaving the curving hall in murky grey-green twilight. Seth walked ahead of her and unlocked the door to the infirmary.

“Linc will take care of my plants,” he said.

“Oh, good.” Char felt this was some kind of opening to something—what, she didn’t know.

They stepped in and Seth turned on the light. For a moment, he was busy digging out pain medication from a cabinet.

As Char washed it down, Seth turned to her.

“In case we don’t make it tomorrow,” he began slowly, “I wanted to say once again that I’m very sorry for how things went between us.”

Char sighed. “Yeah, I know you are, Seth.” Her aching brain spun, trying to come up with the right words to say.

“I’m sorry, too,” she stuttered.

Seth’s hands quivered at his side. Was he thinking of reaching for her? A strange quiver went through her.

“I guess you’d probably like to make this split official,” he said.

Oh.

“I sent you the divorce papers,” she said roughly.

“I didn’t get them.”

“I know.” Char ran one hand through her hair and turned away. “Yeah, I guess we should get that done.”

She heard Seth sigh. His fingers brushed her back, lingered there a moment. He stood there, touching her, for a few seconds.

Char opened her mouth to say something, but he walked past her to the door.

“I guess we should get some sleep,” he said.

They parted ways in the hall outside Seth’s bedroom. Char went into her room without turning on the lights and sat down on the bed.

What Seth had said kept running through her mind. What she’d said had hardly encapsulated what she’d wanted to say—that she’d treated him badly, too. That she’d been so goddamn wrapped up in her career that she’d essentially left him before she’d left the marriage. It seemed a little hollow to apologize now that the career she’d built had crumbled and didn’t matter anymore. Of course she was sorry now—now that she’d lost her career.

Char lay down and shut her eyes. Maybe it didn’t matter. If they survived the mission, she’d cut him completely free. He could start over.

His words ran through her head again, his sigh, the brush of his fingers to the small of her back, and the quiver that ran through her when he did.

Char groaned. She felt around in the dark and undid her boots. They clumped to the floor, and she curled up under the thin covers. She tried to think about something else—the mission, stepping through the portal—but the anxious spiral of what Seth thought of her could not be broken.

In an ideal world, she’d go back eight years in time and re-start officer candidate school. Heck, she’d probably not bother with it and be happy with rising up the non-commissioned ranks. She’d go with Seth to Taylor Bay to help him plant trees in the spring. She would spend less time on runs and in the gym and spend more time drinking coffee and reading books with her husband—hell, making love to him.

His words ran through her head again, his sigh, the brush of his fingers to the small of her back, and the quiver that ran through her when he did.

She’d probably have gotten almost as far and not be the anxiety-riddled wreck she was now.

Char rolled onto her back and sank into the pillow, weighed down by a wave of grief mingled with fear.

She tossed back and forth for at least another hour before a strange resolve came over her. She had to talk to him. She stood up and slipped out into the quiet, dim hallway and marched over to his door.

He opened the door after her third soft knock. His dark eyes appeared in the opening. He’d shed his thick sweater and was down to a thin, grey t-shirt and his shorts. His blue-black hair hung loose around his shoulders.

“Seth?” Her voice cracked. She couldn’t quite look him in the eye.

“Yeah?” his voice was also strained.

She reached to push the door open, at the same time that he reached to pull her into the room, grasping her by the wrist. As the door clicked shut, he propelled her into his arms. His mouth came down as hers came up to meet it.

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Their mouths tangled for an eternity. Char dug her fingers into his hair and Seth’s hand tugged her shirt out of her waistband and slid underneath.

“Char.” Seth mouth was hot on her ear, her neck. “Char.”

Her blood surged in her veins. “I’m here, Seth.”

<>

They lay curled up together under the covers. Seth’s fingers stroked her hip in a slow figure eight.

“This wasn’t actually what I came for,” Char slurred.

Seth’s head lifted. “What?”

Char twisted around to look back at him and tucked a strand of his hair behind his ear. “But I’m not mad about it.”

Seth smiled sleepily.

Char faced away from him again and settled back against his warm body.

“Promise me,” Seth said in her ear, “that if we make it through the portal safely, we’ll talk about this.”

Char nodded. “Deal.”

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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.”

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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.


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“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!”


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“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.

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Episode 8: All I Do is Mess Up My Life

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“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.


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“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

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Episode 7: Taylor Bay

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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.

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“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.

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Episode 6: Explorer of Worlds

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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—“

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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

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