It was a cold yet bright morning as the hunters assembled themselves on the banks of the Ori-Haq-Wi River.
“Take a survey,” Perry, the leader of their group command.
Four of the hunters moved to the river’s edge, measuring things like the opacity of the water and the amount of frost that had collected on the tall reeds. Only Dawson and Gonzalez remained standing at Perry’s side, each holding a thick, metal pole the height of a man.
“There’s still a thin film,” O’Reilly confirmed, jotting the results of her measurement into her notebook. “4 millimeters thick and 17 percent interspersed.”
“Only seventeen percent?” Thompson sighed. “Forecast for tomorrow is six degrees colder…so I’d expect this is the last chance of the season.”
Perry nodded but did not yet make a decision. “Do we have an activity level yet?” he asked Swanson.
Swanson was standing four feet into the river, holding a tablet with two wires coming out of it, one running into the water below, the other held out into the air. He was wearing a pair of headphones and held up his hand for quiet before answering.
“It’s not a clear reading,” he announced. “Still too much noise in the in-between…but I’d say at least two category four walkers…I don’t think anything bigger than that.”
“Two?!” Myers scrunched up his nose. “That’s a little more than we’re bargaining for, isn’t it?”
“That’s Gonzalez’s call,” Perry replied.
“Two’s not a problem,” Gonzalez answered immediately.
Perry stared hard at Gonazlez, and Gonzalez held the gaze without betraying any sign of uncertainty.
“Okay,” Perry decided. “We do it, then. Stakes in.”
Gonzalez and Dawson lifted their metal poles and thrust their ends into the frosted earth. Set into the top of each pole were two glass bulbs, which could be moved up and down along a groove on the inside of the pole. The men slid these up and down, creating the four points of a rectangle in the air.
“Little closer than that,” Perry instructed. “Seventeen inches to start with.”
“How tall?” Dawson rotated his pole’s bulbs to extend them forward.
“Keep it narrow for now. Half-inch. Let’s feel it out and stake a claim first.”
“Staking a claim is slow,” Gonzalez frowned.
“I told you I can handle it.”
“You let me do my job and I let you do yours.” He broke eye-contact to call out to the other four still taking their measurements. “You all about finished? Let’s make some space.”
O’Reilly, Thompson, Swanson, and Myers jotted down the last of their notes and moved behind Perry, Gonzalez, and Dawson. Then Gonzalez moved into position, wading a few feet into the river, stopping when the water came to his calves. Perry took his gloves off and rubbed his palms together vigorously.
“Turn it on,” he commanded, and Dawson flicked a switch on each of the poles. The four bulbs lit up, and four thin cords of light stretched between them. Then the rectangle they defined filled in with a soft, golden haze. Perry pressed the tips of his fingers through that film, and they disappeared into it. He gave an involuntary shudder, as if his fingers had been submerged into a bucket of ice.
“Alright, alright, alright,” Perry muttered, closing his eyes and starting to feel back and forth, getting a sense for what his fingers were encountering. “Nothing… nothing… extend it further….”
Dawson spun a dial and the rectangle of light extended outward in a volume, nearly a centimeter thick.
“Alright, alright,” Perry began moving his hands back and forth again, like a concert pianist, feeling and grabbing and rearranging unseen things on the other side of that window. He ranged his hands all the way to the left and all the way to the right, and from time-to-time he gave instructions to shift the window wider, or to extend it deeper.
“Got a tangle here,” he muttered, then gripped with his fingers and hand-over-hand pulled a white, slimy cord out of the light window. As his hands re-emerged into the regular world one could see that his fingers were bizarrely stretched, nearly a foot in length. But then the air touched his skin and his hands returned back to their proper length and the white cord entangled in his fingers evaporated into nothing.
“Okay…okay…” Perry ran his hands up and down the length of light one more time. “That should be good for now. Let’s start staking our claim. Pistons!”
Swanson and Myers set their backpacks on the ground, and each withdrew a half-dozen steel bars, about an inch in diameter and ten inches long. Each of them had two LED lights, one red and one green set into their end.
“Top-left, just a little in from the corner,” Perry instructed. Swanson pressed the first bar into the window of light at the designated spot, pushing it in until only the last two inches and the LED lights were protruding in the normal world. Perry reached inside the window and adjusted the end of the bar on that end.
“Turn it on.”
Swanson tapped his finger to the back and the LED lights flickered back-and-forth until the green LED finally stayed on.
“Good, good. Next one, bottom middle.”
Myers inserted his first bar, but he only got halfway through before it started to get tangled on something inside.
“Give me a little more room to work with.”
Dawson raised the window a couple inches and Perry reached his entire arm into it, grabbing and moving things until the way was clear and the second bar could be fully inserted and activated.
“Yeah, yeah. Now I want this third one about two inches further to the right…but before we do that, I’ve got some rock in the way. Torch it.”
For the first time there was a slight delay before his order was followed.
“You sure about that?” O’Reilly asked. “With a couple stage-four walkers hanging around that doesn’t seem very…discreet.”
“We’re already breached and claimed, O’Reilly! Would you have us extract and move? That would be more disruptive. It’s got to be done.”
O’Reilly bit her lip, but she obediently unstrapped a can of compressed air from the side of her backpack, then attached a long, plastic nozzle to its end. “Alright, I’m ready.”