Xenolith, Page 57A. Sparrow
Dozens of archers were already assembling at the base of the temple mound when the guard escorted Frank back to his quarters from another long day at the infirmary. In the center of a parade ground as long as a football field and half-again as wide, six Cuerti in full armor, bearing tridentate pikes, encircled one of the xenoliths, ensconced in its sack on a small, fringed rug. Though the sun wouldn’t set for at least another hour, the Eldest Brother seemed to be taking no chances with the accuracy of Tezhay or Eghazi’s predictions.
The archers had formed up in two ranks by the time the night guard led Tezhay and Frank down to the gathering. The first row knelt, resting nocked arrows on their propped shields. The second stood with bows at their sides, each holding an arrow ready to be strung. Their captain stood to one side, an array of signal flags sprouting from a bandolier across his chest.
The Cuerti guard remained in place around xenolith, now exposed and borne atop a small platform with splayed and jointed legs that made Frank think of a cornered cockroach. He half expected it to scurry off with the stone.
As twilight thickened, a soldier made the rounds with an oil lamp, lighting the torches and mirrored cressets mounted on posts all around the parade ground. Hundreds of Crasacs and Cuasars had filtered down from their tents to observe the spectacle taking shape.
The Eldest Brother, pressing through the gaggle, spotted Tezhay and broke from his entourage to share a few words. Eghazi hung back, watching like a wary dog. The old man turned away, smirking, and filed through the archers to the center of the parade ground.
“He invite us to stand with him, but I say no,” explained Tezhay.
“Really? I would have thought you’d want to see this up close,” said Frank.
“I tell him, maybe there will be fighting, so we are a fear. That is not so much true, but is better we stay back. But no worry, I tell him this not for danger, but for … well, you will see.”
Tezhay’s vagueness made Frank nervous. “So when is all of this going to go down?” he said.
“Soon,” said Tezhay, gazing up at an orb that was a perfect replica in size and hue of the moon Frank knew so well, though something about its pattern of craters and plains looked off. “Do you see that star that will be eat by the moon?”
A star hung one diameter east of the shadowed rim of a nearly full moon. “The pinkish one?” said Frank.
“Yes. When that is almost gone, I want you be sick. Can you be?” said Tezhay.
“Sick? What do you mean?”
“Pretend you have trouble with heart or something.”
“Just do it, when I say.”
A murmur arose among the soldiers. The Eldest Brother approached the stone slowly and descended to his knees. He melted against the ground till his forehead and both palms pressed flat against the earth. Dembon and Eghazi stood before the first rank of archers, watching with a Cuerti guard to either side.
The Eldest Brother sustained verse after verse of spoken prayer without seeming to pause for breath. His droning and the rhythmic murmur of soldiers responding to his prayer sent Frank into a bit of a trance.
He dwelt on his day at the infirmary, where somehow he had managed to get through another entire day without skewering anyone. But he couldn’t put it off much longer as the head medic was clearly frustrated with his intransigence. In medical school, he had been notorious for avoiding urinary catheters and other invasive procedures, but his instructors at BU had never threatened him with hard labor and confinement in a muddy pen.
When the Eldest Brother’s prayers culminated, stomps and chants erupted from all assembled, startling Frank and jolting his heart with its violence and volume. It trailed off as suddenly as it began, leaving him relieved but agitated.
Dembon stepped forward and dropped to the ground, repeating the process with his own prayers while the Eldest Brother rejoined Eghazi in front of the archers. Frank saw Eghazi look over his shoulder and scan the crowd until he spotted them.
“It’s like they worship that thing,” Frank muttered.
“They do,” said Tezhay, watching the moon. “The Eldest Brother tells me he think the stone is channel of the will of Cra, and that all stone should belong to Venen. I don’t think Eghazi understand how fanatic they feel. These people will not be satisfy with one stone.”
“How is it they didn’t have one already? Your people seem to have plenty.”
“Oh, nobody know about them but Philosopher until war,” said Tezhay. “Is what Academy has always done – keep dangerous secret from people, from soldier, especially. But there would be no Sesei if we did not have stone. They save many people, create sometimes victory when looks like impossible.”
“So what happens now that these guys have gotten ahold of one?”
“Nothing. If I can help it,” said Tezhay, his eyes flitting up to the moon. “Is time,” Tezhay said, grabbing his arm.
Frank looked up. The shadow of the moon nibbled at the shimmering fringe of the pink star.
Tezhay whispered something to the guard, who grumbled and shrugged him off. Tezhay stepped up his argument. The guard turned reluctantly and slowly led them away from the parade ground.
“Where are we going?” said Frank.
“I tell him you sick. You need for lie down,” said Tezhay.
“Aren’t we going to miss … whatever … if we leave now?”
“Never mind. I guarantee you miss nothing. Just do what I do. You see me go, you go. You can run, yes?”
“Run? Yeah, I can run, but—”
“No argue. Just be sick.”
“I wish you’d tell me what you’re up to.”
They maneuvered around knots of soldiers, slipping between the rows of tents crowding the slope below the temple and turned onto the lane running up to their quarters. But the guard veered off the lane and led them to an open latrine behind the tents: a trench overlain with boards screened from the wind by a few scraps of cloth hanging off a rail.
Tezhay argued with the guard. Again, he prevailed, and they rejoined the lane, continuing up to their quarters behind the temple.
“What now?” said Frank.
“He misunderstand. He think you need toilet. Please. Walk fast. We have no time. Look at sky.”
Frank looked up. The pink star had disappeared.
“Walk faster!” said Tezhay. “Come!” They rushed past the piles of brick and mortar that marked the edge of the Eldest Brother’s servant quarters.
As they turned the corner, a faint glow seemed to rise above the roof line of the Eldest Brother’s house, as if a fire burned. Its color alternated between shades of salmon and violet and chartreuse. It reminded him of a pharmaceutical warehouse that had caught fire in Guatemala City years ago, creating a light show of flames tinged red with lithium, green with barium, purple with potassium.
The sight alarmed the guard, who shouted for help and ran ahead with Tezhay and Frank on his heels. He stopped abruptly at the gate to the Eldest Brother’s garden, gaping at the glowing elliptical hole that had opened up in the wall of his quarters. Two Cuerti carried buckets of water from the garden pool, tossing their contents on the source of the shimmer. But this fire shed no heat. If anything, it seemed to suck energy from the surroundings.
Tezhay, grinning, moved towards the glow, pulling Frank along by his shirt. But the radiance looked unnatural and dangerous, possibly even radioactive. It had already eaten a hole into a solid stone wall and continued to consume it, growing ever wider. He struggled free from Tezhay and shrank away.
But the hole exposed not the interior of the Eldest Brother’s sitting room but small boulders and creosote bushes, the ghost of a prickly pear cactus. A mix of cold and hot air swirled through, condensing into wisps of fog.
“Go!” yelled Tezhay. “Go in. Now!”
He yanked hard on Frank’s arm, catching him off-guard and off-balance. He tried to stop himself from falling, but in doing so, stumbled f
orward. Tezhay gave him a shove that sent him sprawling on his belly, scant meters from the edge of the hole, and dove in headfirst. Frank resisted the invisible force that dragged him closer, reaching back and scraping grooves in the dirt with his fingernails.
Eghazi came running around the corner, eyes ablaze. He barked at the Crasacs, apparently trying to command them into action, but they stood blinking at him, until Dembon arrived. They stalked cautiously towards the glowing ellipse. Eghazi, impatient, blew past them, running headlong, dagger in hand. Frank released his finger hold on this world and let the convergence take him.