“Sorenson, you’re up first. Proceed at your discretion.” The way Lieutenant Williams said it made it sound like she meant him to go now, not when he felt like it.
Alex stepped up to the line, a long piece of red tape that marked off a ‘no go’ area in front of the portal. He had been eager for this moment. His desire to return to the shell world and pry away at it until it gave away its secrets had gnawed at the back of his mind since he and Carbon had left it months ago.
Now that he was here in person, he found his heart pounding in his ears and mouth dry. The last trip through had ended in searing pain, like a burning coal being pressed into his chest, as a tracking tag was fused to the bone of his sternum. There was no other damage, not so much as a microsurgery scar. The scientists attached to the program had a few theories on how it had been done, none of which made him feel better.
Alex absently rubbed the thick protective chestplate of his encounter suit and shook his head clear. The field beyond the portal had been vibrant and green a few months ago, now blanketed by a deep layer of pure white snow. Steel grey clouds blotted out the blue sky. A quick thought to his suit brought the helmet up around his head, he set his jaw, and stepped through the arch that defined the portal's boundaries.
There were a few things they expected to happen. Comms dropped, the portal allowing only a narrow band around the visible spectrum through. Ambient temperatures outside the suit fell as well, just under freezing. Alex patted his encounter suit down, manually checking that he'd arrived intact. Finding all limbs and equipment accounted for, he popped the scanner from its cradle on his thigh and flipped it open, giving himself a more thorough inspection. Nothing new this time.
He turned back to the rest of the scout party, still waiting in the staging area, and gave them a thumbs up. Lieutenant Williams glanced down at the console she was standing at and returned it. Everything as expected on their end, too. Alex lifted a box from the equipment cart that had already been sent through and set it in front of the portal, a single camera lens staring through to a matching box on the other side. It shimmied around for a few seconds, lining itself up with its twin, then the facing sides lit up. A few seconds later, communications across the portal came up. “Hey Lieutenant. Everything seems good here.”
“Copy. Looks like you got a return ticket, Mr. Sorenson.” Williams looked down and scanned her screens, nodding to herself. “Feeds from the drones are live and clear. We’re good to continue this stage of the operation.”
“Bit frosty over here this time, Shipmaster.” Alex looked at Carbon with an easy smile and gestured for the Tsla’o to come through. “I’m sure you’ll like it.”
She stepped up to the portal, wrapped in the same intricately carved combat armor she’d worn last time they were here, and gave him a flash of a wry smile. Alex hadn’t really looked at her since they had arrived. They still had secrets to keep, or at least act like they did. They understood that the Confed’s Office of Naval Intelligence knew about their relationship. They didn’t know if the Office understood Carbon’s place in the Tsla’o royal family, or how Alex had been installed into it primarily to make her happy, or if any of that information had been disseminated to the team they were working with. They had discussed this more often and with more people than either of them cared to.
Carbon prepared herself, lips on her blunt muzzle pulled tight, blue-black furred head protected behind overlapping layers of shields in lieu of a helmet. She stepped through, her face relaxing a moment later. “Running a scan now... No change.”
“Confirmed, Shipmaster. Thank you. Who’s next?”
Carbon opened a private channel after several seconds of silence on the open comm. “That was much less invasive.”
Alex nodded in agreement. “I’m not disappointed.”
“I am not, as well.”
Everyone knew what had happened the first time Alex and Carbon had passed through the portal, and no one was excited about the prospect of having an alien structure implant things in them.
“It’s said that fortune favors the bold.” The Tsla’o Sergeant Zenshen cleared her throat. She was attached to the operation specifically because she'd worked with humans extensively. She spoke English with only a hint of the sibilant tones that marked a Tsla’o accent and had the cadence of a native speaker. Somewhere along the way, she'd picked up a human attitude, too. “Isn’t that right, Lieutenant?”
Williams cracked a smile. “It is, Stana.” They had worked together before.
“Then it will have no choice,” Zenshen said as she pushed off the console she had been leaning on, her combat armor’s shields coming on with a gentle pop. The Tsla'o stopped just short of the portal and turned on her heel, arms spread wide and wearing a toothy grin. “It will have to favor me.”
She stepped back, armored boots crunching on the frosty ground, the smug countenance draining into worry as she patted the hard armor plate over her chest. “Oh, that is uncomfortable. How bad is it going to get? Wait, I spoke too soon - it seems to be getting better.”
“Are you kidding me with this?” Alex flipped back to the open line, “do you not feel pain or something, Zenshen?”
“There, it has passed.” She said, brightening up and ignoring Alex’s comments. “You have my telemetry, lieutenant?”
“Like crystal. Confirm implant, confirm second counter from the Tsla’o tally missing.” Williams waved the remaining handful of Human and Tsla'o scientists towards the portal. “A couple of you go through now. I want to see how it handles a group.”
Alex turned his comms back to the private link with Carbon just as the protestations started up. “How are you doing?”
“I am unsure. I wish to know more about this place, but it still unsettles me.” She gave a little shrug. “You seem more riled than normal.”
“You saw what she did.” He gestured at Stana. “Like it wasn't anything. It knocked the wind out of me! Brought me to my knees.”
“Perhaps her constitution is superior. She is much younger than you, a trained soldier...” Carbon looked back over the frozen lake, a smirk curling up the corner of her lips. “You will recall it did not bring me to my knees.”
“You used me as a crutch!”
“And I remained standing.” The smirk stayed put.
He stewed for a few seconds before changing the subject. “When did you get your armor fixed up?”
The delicate silver carvings that decorated the armor plate on her suit had been embellished with gold, then covered in glossy lacquer. “I did not.”
“It was not.”
“Who else- oh, Sharadi.” Dear old dad.
She made an affirmative sound that was positively venomous.
“How'd he even get that done? Did someone give Shenna his sigil back?” Shenna was Sharadi’s personal assistant, of a sort, legally recognized as Sharadi himself when wearing the family sigil. Alex was getting better at navigating how the Tsla'o Zeshen system worked, but still lacked the experience of someone who had grown up with it. “Would she even need the sigil?”
“Eleya told me that he communicated the request to the quartermaster himself a few days ago. The timing prevented me from requisitioning new plates, so I believe he was assisted by Shenna. The alternative being a remarkable coincidence.”
“She was in the meetings when we were ordered to keep this stuff secret. I understand when she tries to piss me off, but this was from Eleya’s mouth.” He checked the gaggle of scientists, now loosely formed into two mixed groups. “Is she gonna die?”
“No.” She tipped her head and reconsidered that. “Perhaps she will wish it so, Eleya was very upset. A Lan is allowed to have carved armor, but not this. Now we must bring more of our people into a greater number of lies to maintain this secrecy.”