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Xenolith, Page 40

A. Sparrow

  Chapter 32: Diverted

  This time, no dead spouses came to scold or comfort Frank in his dreams. He awoke on his back, staring at up a shifting sea of grey, a drizzle misting his face. He had the most putrid taste in his mouth but couldn’t generate enough saliva to spit it out. He rolled over and rose onto his knees. The spiking pains in his head and hips and ribs made him feel as if he had been trampled by horses.

  For a moment he thought he knelt on the trail to the quarry in Chiqibul, back in Belize, but the wind felt too cool, the air too dry despite the rain. When Tezhay came up to him with a scoop of murky water in a splintered gourd, his memory and senses resolved to this far less pleasant reality.

  “Oh God, what now?”

  “We are prisoner,” said Tezhay. “For real. Both you and me this time.”

  Frank swished a bit of water around in his fouled mouth and spat it out. It came out filthier than it went in.

  “Can you tell me why my mouth full of mud and shit?”

  “Bolovo,” said Tezhay. “Your heart went for a gallop without you.”

  “I blanked out, didn’t I?” said Frank as his memory returned. “Who were those guys? The one’s that got us?”

  “Cuasars,” said Tezhay. “Venep’o cavalry. The same ones I tell you are surround my city and for you not to go out.”

  Frank studied Tezay’s expression for signs of anger. He saw plenty of righteousness and oodles of pity, but Tezhay’s eyes bore no signs of desperation.

  “I’m sorry, but I couldn’t know that was true.”

  “You know now, yes? Happy?”

  “No, I’m not happy,” said Frank. “And I don’t feel any smarter. I’m still confused.”

  “Believe. And be happy you live,” said Tezhay.

  Frank sighed. He clasped one hand over his chest, put two fingers over his carotid to check his pulse. “Never mind atenolol, I think I might need an implant. An internal defibrillator. That’s not going to happen here, is it?”

  “I don’t understand what you say,” said Tezhay.

  “Never mind,” Frank said, shrugging. “That drug you gave me. Is there any more of it?”

  “No,” said Tezhay.

  Frank propped himself up creakily. They were confined inside something like a very large, dome-shaped jungle gym made of thick vines and bent saplings. On the other side of the structure, about twenty yards away, a group of scared-looking people wept beside an old man who lay hacking his lungs out in the mud.

  Tezhay sat legs folded on a small mat woven from strips of bark he had peeled off the enclosure. He handed another that he had been weaving to Frank.

  “Thanks,” he said, reluctant to soil it with his filthy bottom. Tezhay had somehow kept himself looking relatively pristine.

  “What now?” said Frank.

  “I don’t know,” said Tezhay. “They take us for work, if we lucky.”

  “What if we’re not lucky?”

  “We stay here until we die. Which, maybe, is lucky thing, too.”

  It took hours for Frank’s head to fully defog. Clarity turned out to be a mixed blessing. The ground was fouled with human waste. As the day wore on, his senses, assaulted by the fetor, withdrew. He set his mat of bark down on a relatively clean spot next to Tezhay and sat.

  Tezhay spoke little, but Frank noticed him carefully studying every piece of wood and vine that had been fastened together to make the pen. His attention flew to anyone who passed. He kept categorical tallies of the activity in the camp using the sharp edge of a small stone on a piece of wood.

  At the end of the day, the guards led a dozen or so prisoners back to the holding pen. They dumped in several buckets of scrapings and peels, a few bones, and wilted greens as if they were slopping hogs. Tezhay pestered him to eat something, but he saw nothing in the pile that he could imagine putting in his mouth. At that point, not even filet mignon and chocolate cake could have stirred an appetite.

  They slept that night sitting up on their little mats of woven bark, weaving their arms into the frame of the cage for support. In the morning, a heavyset man in a long apron arrived at the guardhouse to select a group of laborers for the day’s work detail. He gave Tezhay and Frank a once-over, but quickly passed, choosing the same group of laborers as the day before, plus the few who had accompanied the old man.

  “Hmm. I wonder why he didn’t pick us,” wondered Frank.

  “Me, because I am too skinny,” said Tezhay. “For you, if you could see how you look right now, you would understand.”

  Frank smoothed his thinning hair, peeling off chunks of mud that had caked onto it. “What do you mean? I feel fine. Strong.”

  “Don’t complain. Believe me, we’re better off not doing this work.”

  “Is that so? Then what’s the point of them keeping us?” said Frank.

  “Patience,” said Tezhay. “Every minute we stay healthy is a victory,” said Tezhay.

  Later that morning, when the drizzle had burned away, Tezhay walked over to the old man still lying in the mud. He had been racked with coughing earlier when his family had been taken away to work, but had fallen silent now for several hours. Frank followed Tezhay over.

  Tezhay held a hand in front of the man’s face. “I think he’s dead.”

  Frank cupped his hand over his ear and placed it against the old man’s chest. “Not quite,” said Frank. “But I think he’s on his way out. He feels cold. His heart’s going forty beats a minute, if even that.”

  He propped his head up on a piece of muddy cloth and turned him more onto his side. “There, that should help him breathe a little better.”

  “What you think is wrong with him?”

  Frank lifted the man’s shirt and checked his neck and spine. “Not sure. He’s got no really bad trauma. No fever, so it’s not pneumonia.”

  He stood up and looked out over the plains spreading below. Mesas stretched near and far, though the land near the horizon seemed completely flat.

  “Would Piliar be out that direction?”

  “Yes,” said Tezhay. “You cannot see ocean. But it is there, beyond the flat.”

  The landscape at the base of the mesa was a patchwork of fields both plowed and planted, much different from the fallowness so prevalent outside of Ubabaor. Curls of smoke trailed away from the roofs of intact farmhouses.

  “Look at all those farms down there,” said Frank. “I guess your war didn’t hit those ones as hard?”

  “Those farm is not Sesep’o,” said Tezhay. “Those farm is colonist coming and growing in our field. They take all Sesep’o farmer for slavery or exterminate.”

  “I see. Well, that’s not good.”

  He turned slowly and started towards his mat. He stopped, startled. A man in cobalt blue robes was staring at them through the meshwork.

  “Now I know what it feels like to be a monkey living in a zoo.”

  “What?” said Tezhay turning, entranced by the sight of the man in blue. “He is a Sinkor Initiate.”

  “A what? Who is he?”

  “Sinkor is religion. This man learn to be priest. He wears the blue clothes.”

  The Initiate walked over to the shack and spoke with the guards. The one-armed man came hustling out and unbolted the gate of the pen. He pointed at Tezhay.

  “Looks like someone’s got himself a job,” said Frank.