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Xenolith, Page 22

A. Sparrow

  Chapter 15: Fragments

  Vul and Canu sprawled on flattened paper boxes in the loft’s sun-streaked shadows. Seor eased down beside them, propping her back against a wall of chipped and sooty brick. Fatigue gnawed at her bones too, but her mind churned too turbulently to nap.

  She worried about Ren, who had gone off to look for food, and had yet to return; about Alic and his wounds; for the six who had crossed into Sesei without them. Having a squad divided between worlds with no way to know the other group’s fate disturbed her immeasurably.

  Seor gazed through the dirty lower panes at a blurred landscape of factory buildings, smokestacks and trees. Beyond the complex, rose a hillside with tier after tier of houses and fenced yards. Being so deeply embedded in Ur’s populace complicated setting things right.

  She slumped and hugged her arms against herself and let her eyes drift over the seven exotic stones arrayed before her, settling on the singularity that was the xenolith.

  In the dimness, and as long as they weren’t handled, the other stones made adequate enough impostors. Each bore a grey matrix splashed with blotches of purple, rust and gold. But only the xenolith displayed the uncanny blue of a frigid winter’s dusk; the sickly green of wheat grass sprouting in blighted soil. And while the others lay static, the xenolith changed its clothes like a débutante late to the ball, its greyness blooming hues, its blooms fading to grey.

  Touching it allowed no mistake. Solely the xenolith cycled between heat and cold in sudden transitions that defied nature. And lifting it was like hoisting a box full of squirrels; with a center of gravity that wobbled unpredictably.

  Sunlight released by a passing cloud beamed through a missing pane in the otherwise blacked-out upper windows. It washed over the xenolith highlighting a transition between a smooth, satiny surface to something a bit grainier. Seor plucked the stone off the floor, and ran her finger along the subtle line interrupting its curve.

  “Crap!” she said loudly. “It’s broken. It’s been split.”

  Canu sighed, and rolled over. “Wasn’t … wasn’t me,” he moaned.

  “What’d he break this time?” mumbled Vul, raising one eyelid.

  “Nothing!” Canu whined, writhing, still half-asleep on the cardboard mat. “It wasn’t me. I had nothing to do with it.”

  “Stop your whimpering.” Vul pushed up off the floor and cuffed Canu lightly on the shoulder. He crawled over beside Seor.

  Seor held the stone out. “See here? This surface looks no less weathered than the outside, but feel how rough it is." Vul took the stone and rasped his thumb against it. Tiny bits of grit rubbed off the freshly exposed surface.

  “Yes, one side is rougher,” said Vul. “But maybe it’s supposed to be?”

  “I don’t think so,” said Seor. “This stone’s a thousand years old, at least.”

  “Doesn’t look split. It’s not at all small,” said Vul.

  “It’s broken, Vul,” said Seor, flatly. “This explains why the convergences came early. Their mass determines how frequently they cycle. That’s how they’re tuned to their tabulators. And damage to one affects the other. They’re matched, like sisters, as the Philosophers say.”

  “Maybe it’s a good thing,” said Canu, rising off his mat. “Maybe the convergence will come early again. We won’t have to wait as long.”

  Seor tensed her lips. “I wouldn’t count on it. If the stone’s damaged badly enough … we might not get another convergence.” She set the xenolith down carefully away from the other stones.

  A door creaked open downstairs. Seor’s hand slid reflexively to her blade. A chirpy whistle echoed through the empty loft – Ren, returning from her foray. She bounded up the stairs, eyes bright, teeth beaming. As she entered the loft, her smile blinked out like a candle. She stared back, clutching a large paper sack. “Why do you all look so dour?”

  Ren wore a billed cap and a voluminous, one-piece, grey uniform, cinched tightly at the waist with a length of rope. Yellow embroidery embellished the cap and one of the shirt pockets.

  “The stone. It’s damaged,” said Seor.

  “Canu broke it,” said Vul, smirking, prompting a glare and a sigh from Canu.

  “Not funny, Vul,” said Seor, glaring.

  “It’s broken?” Ren walked over and stared down at the stone that Seor had set aside. “But it looks … fine. It brought us a portal, didn’t it?”

  “Too soon,” said Vul. “And too short.”

  Seor sniffed at the Ren’s bag. “What did you bring us? Smells like bread.”

  “Yes, bread and some other things,” said Ren, handing over the bag along with some remnants of currency from the wad Vul had liberated. “It was easy. I just pointed and held my fingers up and they prepared all of these for us. They kept asking me: ‘Tos. Ted? Tos. Ted?’ Does anyone know what that means?”

  “You know as much Urep’o as I do,” said Seor. She unrolled the lip of the sack and pulled out an object wrapped in a waxy, white paper. “What exactly is it?”

  “Round breads, with some kind of pink meat and thick cream,” said Ren. “I had one. It’s not bad. Better than most of what we ate in Gi.”

  Seor tossed one each to Vul and Canu and took one for herself. “We need to find that other fragment,” she said, pausing to swallow. “Because it looks like … from the size of this fracture plane, it could be large enough to open a portal on its own.”

  “Back to the shop?” said Vul.

  “But we’ve already searched there. Twice,” said Canu.

  “Yes, but I stopped looking once I found these,” said Seor. “I certainly didn’t expect it to be in pieces. Did you?”

  “Do you suppose that merchant witnessed a convergence?” said Vul, picking daintily at the paper wrapping.

  “I doubt it,” said Seor. “If he had, would he be selling a xenolith alongside these simple stones?”

  “Unless he saw one but didn’t know it had anything to do with a stone,” offered Ren.

  “That means exile,” said Vul. “Or execution.”

  “What?” said Seor.

  “If the merchant saw a portal, he should be exiled, no?” said Vul. “Protocol.”

  “No one witnessed our convergence,” said Seor. “There’s no evidence—”

  “But what about the other half? He might have had it somewhere else.” Vul reached for his axe. “Let me pay him a visit.”

  “I think not,” said Seor. “Not yet, anyway.”

  Vul gagged and scrunched his face. “What kind of meat is this?”

  “Fish, I think,” said Ren. “Preserved with smoke.”

  “Tastes like slime,” said Vul. He struggled to swallow what he had taken into his mouth.

  “I’ll eat yours, if you won’t,” said Canu. “I kind of like it.”

  “Canu and I will return to the shop,” said Seor. “I want you to go back upriver, Vul.”

  “Me? Why not Ren?”

  “Ren’s less likely to attract attention to us,” said Seor. “I want you to bring this food to the others. See how Alic’s doing. Then, maybe, you can return and we’ll discuss what other actions we need to take. Understood?”

  “As you wish,” said Vul, grabbing the sack of round breads. He opened a container of thick cream, swiped a glob onto his finger and licked it.

  Seor rose up off the floor, feeling older and stiffer than her years. Ren was already at her side, ready to go. Seor stooped for the broken xenolith and flicked her chin at Canu, lounging comfortably on his mat. “Come,” she said to Canu.