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Xenolith, Page 26

A. Sparrow

  Chapter 18: House Arrest

  The building and its environs seemed too Spartan for a drug lord’s hacienda, but that brought Frank no closer to knowing where he had been taken or why. The accumulated evidence – the arid climate, the bland pilafs and nut pastes – made it clear that he was no longer in Belize. But where would that be? Argentina? Chile?

  Those strange trees with sword-like leaves. That hiccupy language everyone spoke. They made him wonder whether he was someplace even farther afield. Maybe even overseas. North Africa, perhaps? Western Asia?

  His mind spun off one improbable hypothesis after another: that this might be some sort of CIA social experiment or, more simply, that he was taken hostage by terrorists, or by guerrillas in need of medical expertise.

  He had little confidence in any of his hunches, but they were far less preposterous than Tezhay’s insistence that he had left the universe of his birth. Why did his captors feel the need to concoct such a ridiculous story? What end did that serve?

  He feigned acceptance as best he could, in hopes that it might placate them enough to consider lengthening his leash. At least the place was no Alcatraz. They locked his door at night with a bolt, but his window opened only two flights up from a street. His only guard was Elkaton, a gnome-like man with a nasty-looking halberd, who made his home directly below Frank’s window at what appeared to be the main entrance of the building.

  Elkaton, unfortunately, was an insomniac. During Frank’s first night in the room, every time he went to the window Elkaton would be down there arranging game tiles on a table by candlelight, or standing and stretching, or cooking something in a little pot over charcoal. For now, he bided his time, sequestering the rations he would need when the time came to make his break.

  Besides Tezhay and Elkaton, whose main job seemed to be escorting Frank to the latrines, Frank encountered few people other than Mer, the pre-teen who swept his floor and brought him food. On rare occasions, a contingent in long blouses and billowy pantaloons would pass his open door, whispering, trying not to stare. It felt more like a cancer ward than a prison. At night, it felt like a mausoleum.

  He spent his days staring out the window, seeking clues to his location. There was not much to go on – stone walls and stucco buildings opposite the structure that confined him, scrubby hills in the distance.

  Usually, the streets were deserted. People occasionally passed, mainly on foot, sometimes in carriages drawn by scrawny horses. Never did he see or hear any cars.

  The most frequent visitors, a ragtag group of children, came to play in the puddles that collected in gaps in the cobbles, using seed pods as toy boats, scratching pictures in the dirt, sleeping in the shade of doorways.

  Elkaton would shoo them away whenever their squabbling annoyed him. Tezhay explained that they were war orphans, left behind in the mass evacuations that had rendered the city mostly vacant.

  Tezhay came once a day to tutor him, usually in the late afternoon. One day, his evening meal arrived early, in the midst of one of Tezhay’s interrogation/tutorials. At least they weren’t trying to starve him. The food was generally edible, though the portions were small.

  Frank lifted the upper bowl that capped it, releasing a puff of steam.

  “Mind if I eat while it’s hot?” said Frank.

  “Eat,” said Tezhay. “You know how to say eat in Sesep’o?”

  The word hovered in Frank’s mind. He snatched it. “Uchen.”

  “Is right!”

  “Don’t act so surprised. I’m not a dunce.” He gestured towards his bowl.

  “Want some?”

  “No, no thank you,” said Tezhay, unable to disguise his distaste. “I have my dinner later.”

  Frank looked into the bowl. Instead of the mashed tubers he usually found, the bowl contained a pile of something puffy and fried. “Whattaya know? A new chef.” He broke one of the puffs in half to reveal a creamy pink interior “What the heck is it?”

  Tezhay leaned forward. “It is fish cake,” he said. “This is special meal. We in Ubabaor have not so much fish as before.”

  “Oh? Why’s that?” Frank broke a flake off one of the filets and used it to scoop some of the wheat up. They never seemed to give him any utensils, as if he would attack Tezhay if they gave him a spoon.

  “Venep’o make us cut off from sea,” said Tezhay. “Even from big river, Suul river. No more fish monger come to market. Just we have little pond fish.”

  “Oh, so this is that siege you were telling me about.” Frank played along. It was pretty obvious when Tezhay lapsed into fiction. He would make some mention of the great Venep’o army and some preposterous geography involving cross-continental travel through magical portals. Did he think Frank was a child?

  “Maybe the Venep’o would let you all through just to go fishing. Have you asked them?”

  “You are being … fa … fa … cetious. Again,” said Tezhay. “Why so hard for you to believe me?”

  “I don’t know, because most of it doesn’t make any sense.” He had polished off the fish and worked his way through the wheat. Having only two meals a day made him ravenous at meal time, particularly since he was saving the little hard biscuits they gave him with his morning meal for his escape.

  “The Venep’o mean to destroy us. You are lucky you come to Ubabaor when there is little fighting. We have truce now, but I think it will not last.”

  “So what do they want from you all? How’d you become enemies?”

  “They take slave. We are enemies merely by existing, by refusing to be their slave.”

  “I see. And will the UN Security Council be handling this dispute? Have you notified the High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva?”

  “You are being this thing again. “Fa … fa—”

  “Facetious? No, this time I’m being sarcastic.”

  Tezhay looked pained. “Doctor, if you no accept my… truth… it only makes longer your detention. I only have little time to be with you. I am busy man. I have other works.”

  “So, what do you suggest I do?” said Frank. “Do you have a switch I can flip? A pill I can take to bring my mind into your make-believe world?”

  “No,” said Tezhay, settling back in his chair. “Just … open your eyes.”