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A. Sparrow

  Chapter 6: Retrograde


  Shreds of cloud hung, tails tethered to the earth, wandering the bogs and glades like ghouls. Seor rested with her squad in a copse of wind-stunted firs. They had climbed many hours to reach these heights. Home lay but two portals away now: one to take them from Gi to Ur, the land of machines, followed by a traverse that would bring them back to Ubabaor.

  In garrison, cozy with her blankets on a mat of straw, with a ration of sour bread and roastings twice a day, the prospect of a month-long mission had not seemed so onerous. In the backwoods of Gi, perpetually lost, hungry and ill, with enemies always on their trail, each day never seemed to end.

  Seor slung her crossbow and satchel and rose from the duff. She passed through her squad, expectant of the smirks and whispers that would betray their lost confidence. How could they not doubt her after such a parade of miseries, and all for naught? Thirty days they had wasted, haunted by fevers, traversing a baffling mosaic of drumlins and marshes. Rivers, if found, flowed opposite the direction marked on faulty maps. Queries posed clumsily, purportedly in local dialect, drew only stares from farmers. The lost cadre they sought remained hidden as phantoms.

  Twelve she had brought to Gi, and all twelve still breathed, but their hardships had exacted a toll. Their faces, young but so gaunt after a month of poor rations and pestilence forced upon Seor a vision of their future decrepitude, or worse, how they might look lying in their coffins. Seor, almost ten years older than all but Vul, could only imagine how withered and frightful she looked to them.

  At least none of her crew had died; no simple feat in a landscape thick with the enemy. Their lone skirmish, instigated when they had blundered onto a Venep’o heliograph station, had surprised them more than the Crasac detachment guarding it. An impromptu assault somehow succeeded in flushing the remote outpost and relieving it of its provisions, but brought what seemed like an entire army hounding after them. They had escaped through a swamp through which the heavily armored Cuasar cavalry could not follow. Ripped by thorns, they came away, miraculously, otherwise intact. If Seor managed nothing else proper, she would steer them home safely the rest of the way.

  Perched again on Ur’s threshold, Seor couldn’t help but be excited, not only for the proximity of home, but for the passage through Ur itself. None of her crew seemed to share her curiosity, treating xenoliths like mere pasture gates and Ur but a footpath between them. But Seor couldn’t help but wonder what lay beyond the relays.

  The diversity alone, of what she had witnessed in training astounded her. One stone had opened unto forests with air so thick and warm it resisted breath and filled her lungs like liquid. Another had led to a treeless land of un-climbable mountains with inscrutable peaks. On the night they entered Gi, Seor and her patrol had transited a densely inhabited place with constant caravans of red and white lights, an ever present rumble and glowing skies. Unlike the other, wilder relays, this one seemed too strange to be real, thus all the more fascinating.

  Canu emerged from a copse with an armload of tinder and strips of bark. Of course it would be Canu to test her will.

  “A fire, Canu? You know better than that,” said Seor.

  “Not even a small one?” said Canu, locks grown too long hanging down over his eyes. “A few embers are all we need.”

  Seor knew a cup of warm broth would go far in raising morale and easing the chill that settled over these hills, and her scouts were skilled in building fires that burned hot and shed little smoke. But her eyes kept drifting to scuff marks in the moss.

  “Not worth the risk,” she said. “Folk use this track. Not often, but it looks like someone came through a couple days ago. Giving away a portal would be a fine way to top off this mission, no?”

  Canu scrunched his mouth and tossed the bark and tinder into the bracken.

  Seor left her band muttering over their cold lunch: a stiff paste of bitter nuts and rancid fish – the remnants of plunder from their accidental raid. She carried a portion wrapped in leaves for Ren, who stood watch by the xenolith.

  She poked through a cordon of saplings with her crossbow. Its short wings, a composite of horn and wood, made it well-suited for maneuvering through forest. The weapon had little range, but generated enough velocity to take down an unarmored person across a clearing. It reloaded quickly, with a hopper of bolts that fed into its slot with a pull of a ratchet bar. Weary of her squad’s constant complaining over food and hungry herself, she hoped to flush some game and bring them some of the meat they longed for, even if they had to eat it raw.

  Seor chose as random a route as possible up the pristine slope, weaving between tree and bramble. No path marred the hillside below the small bog where Ren stood watch. Doctrine required xenoliths be positioned away from camps and roads, fixed in place, but untraceable by any pattern of travel.

  Upslope, the conifers grew sparser, more misshapen. Barkless and grey victims of sodden ground contrasted with the verdant mosses at their feet. Ren’s voice wafted through this fey vision, tracing a minor pentatonic melody. A fickle wind pulled her song this way and that, plangent one moment, then muffled under rustle of glossthorn.

  Seor’s bile sizzled. First Canu, now Ren. Ren knew better than to sing on watch. But the nature of Ren’s song arrested Seor’s irritation. It was something her little girl Dima used to sing when she rounded up the does for their evening milking. It was a common enough tune, known to every child in Suul. Hearing it, stung.

  Dima would be nine now, if she still lived. She was seven when Seor left her in her cousin’s care and went off to Croega to fight with the local militia. Seor’s man, Ialo, had already been gone a year by that time, perishing in a bold but disastrous defense of Diomet in the early days of the Venep’o invasion. His beaten comrades had come by the homestead bearing Ialo’s pierced and bloodied waist coat – a token of remembrance in lieu of his remains. Seor didn’t know what was worse, knowing Ialo’s precise fate or only guessing what had happened to Dima.

  In the invasion’s second wave, Venep’o berserkers hit Croega like a storm front, collapsing fortifications before they could be completed, intercepting columns of refugees before they could reach the road to Ubabaor. One wave of shock troops sufficed to shatter all that remained of Seor’s life. By the time the enemy's regulars arrived, only dogs resisted.

  Rumors flew of an escape to the south, a fleet of overloaded fishing boats bearing families safely across the Suelva Strait to the fortress island of Piliar. At night as she lay, Seor imagined Dima on one of those boats. It was the only way she could find sleep.

  Seor found Ren crouched at the edge of the bog, unaware of her commander’s presence. Chin tucked over bunched knees, Ren swirled her staff in the water as if stirring a pretend cauldron. Seor felt embarrassed for her. Such disregard of watch protocol, especially for Ren, was aberrant. Proximity to home had intoxicated everyone and caused them all to slacken their guard.

  Before Seor could rebuke her, a bubble burst on the surface of the bog, releasing a puff of mist. Seor tensed and studied the dark water, tinted by tannins the shade of over brewed tea. Specks danced, dimpling the surface, whirling beneath, a vital spice of springtails and copepods. Mats of algae and moss concealed larger beasts lurking below unseen, quakes and ripples divulging their presence. The xenolith embedded in its muck rendered it a potent potion.

  A larger bubble rose up and burst with a gurgle. It was too soon for the xenoliths to become active. Fermentation perhaps? Or the flailings of some creature within? More bubbles broke the surface, releasing mist. The middle of the bog began to boil.

  "Ren!" she said. “The bog!”

  Startled, Ren whirled to face her, dagger in hand, stumbling over a root and falling on her bottom. Seor called a general alarm, filling her lungs and letting loose a piercing, ululating shriek that cleared the immediate forest of birds.

  “Look!” said Seor to the wide-eyed Ren. A smile bloomed bright on her face.

sp; “We’re going home!” said Ren.

  Vul burst through the trees, bedroll slung, axe and crossbow tucked – as though he had anticipated Seor’s alarm. The others straggled behind, packing their satchels on the run, speculating, arguing in hushed voices. As they came in sight of the bog, they fanned out through the ferns, weapons drawn.

  “The convergence," said Seor, capturing Vul’s eyes. “It’s coming.”

  “How?” he said, shifting the load on his shoulders. “The tabulator said—”

  “I don’t know, but it’s here and it’s coming fast. Too fast.” Seor wrung and rubbed her calloused fingers, lingering on a knuckle split during the raid, not quite healed.

  The rest of the squad accumulated around the bog, all jolly and joking at the sight of the bubbles. They acted like children receiving an unexpected gift. But Seor took the early convergence as a sign of something dreadful, like the slump and slur that presage the hammer fall of stroke, like blood in urine or a spreading black mole. Its appearance signaled disturbance and danger.

  “Everyone! Tactical positions,” she said. “Draw your arms. Now!” They hesitated for an instant, confused. But as soon as Vul's bedroll hit the ground and he withdrew his axe, they drew weapons and dispersed two layers deep around the bog.

  The center of the bog erupted in a cold, feeble geyser. A tiny water snake oscillated across the surface and fled into the sedge. An envelope of refracted light appeared, its edges oscillating erratically, its core narrower than she remembered. Odd, angular shapes manifested in the mists. Seor braced for what miscarried monster these premature contractions would disgorge.