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A. Sparrow

  Chapter 12: Shelter

  A patchwork of houses and yards graced the distant hillsides. Directly above, a slope of tangles and barrens rose in terraces to steep talus bounded at the top by a metal rail. Unseen vehicles whooshed and roared and rumbled by at unearthly velocities. The slope screened them from the roadway, but any pedestrian could have looked down and seen seven scraggly men and women so obviously not of their world.

  “Terrible place to post a stone,” said Canu. “Why didn’t they just hand them to the Urep’o?”

  “It wasn’t always so settled here,” said Ren. “How long have these stones been here?”

  “Four hundred years,” said Seor, the image of a xenolith tucked among the fancy stones in that shop, pestering like a gnat.

  “Let’s get out of view, at least,” said Vul.

  Pari put the final touches on a protective sheath of cloth and husks around Alic’s most visible wound.

  “Can he be moved?” said Seor.

  “Gently, would do no harm,” said Pari.

  “I need four to carry Alic,” said Seor, and four stepped up. Seor looked across the river at a berm fronted by trees that would provide them sufficient cover.

  “Straight across and up that bank,” she directed. She studied the dour faces surrounding her. How many stories had they shared about what they would do first when they returned to Sesei: who they would visit, what delicacies they would sample. She watched as they clasped hands and lifted Alic. He rose in their arms like a spirit and hovered across the riffles.

  In retrospect, they should have stayed behind in Gi. The first sign of corruption in the portal should have been enough. Her bad judgment had split her squad and gotten Alic hurt, yet another black mark on her already blackened record of leadership.

  Though, on the other hand, if they hadn’t made the passage, they wouldn’t have learned what was wrong, and thus would not have had the capability of making things right. Thus, it provided Seor a way to salvage the mission and redeem herself. The idea pleased her much. If they would be spending time in Ur, they could at least use it productively.

  Beyond the berm and twin rails was a little dell of sand tufted with tall grass. It struck Seor as a cozy place to bide their time and care for Alic. Vul was already dragging along a dead sapling he had found to start a shelter.

  The others let Alic down against a tussock. He was conscious, but obviously pained, but at least he had good color and pace of breath. Though Seor deferred to Pari on matters of health, it looked to her like Alic would recover. He had better, she thought. Otherwise, how would she ever reconcile the death of a comrade by her own hand?

  “We were late getting here,” said Cudi. “That was the problem. If only we had been here to pass as soon as it opened, all would be fine.”

  “We weren’t late,” said Seor. “The stone was early.”

  “Whatever,” said Cudi. “It’s the same result. Point is, we’re here where we can keep a close watch on it. And when it opens again we can whisk right through. No harm done, just a bit of delay.” His eyes drifted to the tabulator in Seor’s hands. “So when might we expect the next one?” he said.

  Seor glared down at the ugly confabulation of bronze and wood. “Don’t expect this to tell us much useful,” she said. “The stones are corrupted, making this useless.”

  “Doesn’t hurt to check,” said Cudi. “Maybe it’ll give us a hint.”

  Seor sighed and undid the leather thong holding the device together. She unfolded its two limbs to make a cross and zeroed the twin concentric dials between them. She then pulled the quadrant out and took a reading, leveling it first with its dangling pendulum. A couple spins of the dials, and she had an answer for Cudi, for however little it was worth.

  “Five days,” she said, flatly.

  “Oh,” said Cudi. “That’s not so bad.”

  “It’s meaningless,” said Seor. “I wouldn’t put any faith in it. The convergence might come tomorrow or today … or never.”

  “But … it was only off by a day in Gi,” said Cudi. “Maybe we can just subtract a day.”

  “It’s not just when it comes but how it comes that matters,” said Seor. “The last two convergences have been exceedingly weak. And you saw how unstable they were.”

  “Like I said,” said Cudi. “We go through quick and early and we should be fine.”

  “Perhaps,” said Seor, watching the shelter take shape against a ledge as the others pitched in with Vul. “Let’s see how it looks when it comes again next. If … it comes again.” Vul had stopped and was staring off into the distance.

  “All those houses,” he said. “I wonder if we can find some food?”

  “I suppose we’ll need to,” said Seor, her face scrunched in contemplation.

  “I’m happy to go,” said Vul. “The others can finish the lean-to.”

  “Hold on, Vul,” said Seor. “Food’s not all we need to get. Some of us need to go back into town. “I’m going with you. Maybe Ren and Canu as well.”

  “Why … so many?” said Vul. “Won’t a large group draw attention?”

  “Maybe,” said Seor. “But the task I’m thinking of requires all of us. We’re getting our xenolith back.”