Xenolith, Page 84A. Sparrow
All kept vigil beside a miserable shelter of leaned-together spruce boughs they built to keep the rain off Ren. When Ara hinted that they would be stronger and better able to care for Ren if at least some tried to rest, it was as if she spoke alone to the wind. She knew not to press. She stayed with the group and tried to stay awake, lest she seem callous.
Windblown rain battered them deep into the night. When its drumbeats stopped, abruptly, like the end of a ritual, it became obvious that Ren’s breath, too, had ceased. Pari did her best to resuscitate her, but when a softer rain resumed, Ren remained still. Weary, beaten, they leaned against each other, chin over shoulder, legs and arms in a tangle, a single sobbing organism until, hours later, exhaustion overcame them.
Ara hovered in an odd limbo: weary but agitated; eager to join with her new friends, but acutely aware of the barriers separating them. An emptiness gnawed at her. Though Ren’s death and Seor’s loss upset her, she was unable to evoke the depths of grief that came naturally to the others. How could she, having known the departed only a few days?
But she feared her lack of empathy might stem from something more intrinsic. A shotgun blast had felled one of her cadre mates, either Lev or Kera, in the shed. Surely one was dead. She felt distress when it happened, but why did she not cry? Was it because she didn’t know exactly who had fallen, and thus could not focus her grief? Or did she lack something basic and human?
If Baas had died, she would expect no tears. But even Baas, for all his brutality, remained human and capable of kindness to those he considered his fellows. Why should he deserve less from her?
Ara sat with the others, but she may as well have been sitting alone. All night, Canu had offered not a word or glance or a touch to dispel that notion. When the rains again paused just after dawn, she disentangled herself and walked over to the edge of the bog, sitting beneath a dripping tree, hugging her knees to herself as shivers racked her body.
She missed her cadre; its moments of camaraderie and esprit, more the idea of it than her actual service. The commissioning, when it had come, had filled the empty space she felt after abandoning the Academy, providing a badly needed dose of self-affirmation. It provided no cure, but eased much of what had ailed her.
Baren valued her skills and it caused the others in the cadre to overcome their skepticism, to accept and reflect Baren’s regard. She didn’t blame them for their hesitance. How could they accept her as one of their own, when she had joined their ranks on the whim of an officer, avoiding all the effort and sacrifice they had made to attain cadre status?
Cloudbursts assailed the treeless slopes above like gangs of marauders. Warm gusts, driven upslope by the storm, parted the grass and whipped her sodden hair. Ara stared into the xenolith’s lair, internally calm, stirred only by wind and spatters of deferred rain knocked loose from boughs. Thinking no one was awake to stop her, she decided to retrieve the stone and do what needed to be done. She went to the edge of the bog.
A figure rose near the shelter, startling and stopping her. Canu’s gaze whipped across the landscape, searching. Relief softened his face when he spotted Ara. He zigzagged through the sparse and stunted spruce to join her, eyes wary, reading her expression and posture.
Ara met his gaze. “I’m so sorry about Ren,” she said, her words causing his already reddened eyes to spout anew. He crouched down beside her.
“Did you not sleep?” he said, quietly.
“No,” said Ara.
Canu’s eyes lingered awkwardly, until he averted them “I wish we could make a fire,” he said, squeezing water from a fistful of moss. Ara said nothing, moved not a finger.
“That stone in there … we have to destroy it,” whispered Canu, insistently. “I kept worrying the damned portal would open during the night.”
Ara leaned forward, startled by his pronouncement. “But … the others?”
Canu shrugged. “If we do it, it’s done. And we have to kill it. Too many bad things wait to cross.” He slid forward and slipped his legs into the bog. “Pari will understand. Vul … not so much.”
“They blame me for leaving Seor behind,” said Ara, intending it as a question.
She hoped for some token of reassurance. Canu’s hesitation confirmed her fear. “What happened, happened,” he mumbled, pushing through tangles of water lilies. His eyes swung up and locked into hers. “Do you suppose Seor made out any better than Ren?”
Ara’s lips started to form a no, but she remembered some of the broken people she had seen go into Urep’o emergency rooms, only to emerge on the streets of Montpelier months later, whole. “Maybe,” she said.
“I don’t see how,” said Canu, grimly. He waded into the open water. “If I know Vul, he will sit here, waiting for the next convergence. He won’t care what waits to cross; who has taken the stone or where. The only way this stone gets destroyed is if we do it now, ourselves.”
Ara crinkled her brow. “Well, you won’t find anything over there. You’re searching on the wrong side.”
Canu’s head snapped up. “No, I’m not.”
Ara sighed, pulled off her shoes and entered the bog. She strode straight for the spot that had boiled with the last vestiges of the convergence and poked her toes into the squishy mud, disturbing a sleek, twitchy beast she hoped was only a fish. She shuffled sideways, until her heel dislodged something sharp and frigid. She bent over and reached down deep into the bottom of the bog with both hands, dunking her hair in the tea-colored water.
She brought up a stone the size of two large fists; its coarse facets splotched saffron, teal and violet. Pristine, as if freshly mined, no snail or nymph dared traverse it; no algae or stain marred its surface despite its long residence in the bottom of the bog. Its coldness stung her fingers.
The stone looked too precious, too potent to destroy. Ara climbed out of the water and set it on the shore in a patch of trampled wildflowers: tiny, white bells dangling from arching stems leafed with alternating daggers. She threw a glance towards the shelter. Vul and Pari remained slumped beside it.
Canu watched wordlessly, poised to intervene, but seemed to understand both Ara’s reluctance, and that the xenolith’s moratorium was temporary. He turned away and waded over to the red car, using its bumper to pull himself out of the bog. Ara left the xenolith steaming in the grass, and strolled over to join him. Her eyes kept straying back to Vul, and the stone.
“We’re fools,” said Canu. “We should have set Ren up in here. Looks cozy. Dry.”
“Not sure it would have helped much,” said Ara, puzzling over the symbols adorning the car’s bumper: a stylized fish with feet, a rural landscape pouring forth from an open O as if it were a portal. She knew the fish as a religious symbol, though the feet baffled her, as did the O.
“What happened to the driver, do you suppose?” She peeked in the back seat at an empty Burger King bag and a Starbucks coffee cup.
“He’s here, somewhere,” said Canu. “If he didn’t starve or freeze to death or get himself picked up by Cuasars.” Canu clambered onto the roof and dangled his legs over the side. “Poor bastard, stuck in a place like this.” He sighed. “I thought I was done with Gi. But here I am.”
“Gi’s not so bad,” said Ara.”It would be a beautiful land if only it had peace. Baren made it sound like peace was imminent, that the treaty would be finalized. There would be festivals in Ubabaor. I could continue my studies.”
“So are you disappointed we mucked up your peace plan?” Canu leered down on her like an imp. Ara wished he would stop treating her like the opposition.
“I never felt right about giving stones to Venen. It made me wonder; if our leaders would give up such stones, what else would they surrender?”
“Is it because you went to Academy that you can’t break it?”
“I can break it. I will break it,” said Ara. “I just need more time.”
sp; “I’ll do it, them,” said Canu, sliding off the roof.
“No. Let me do it. That way I can take the blame,” said Ara, stepping in front of him.
Canu’s smirk shriveled under her glare. He leaned back against the car.
“So what then? Once it’s broken and we can’t go home. Do we start a farm here in Gi? Raise goats? Grow potatoes?”
“What are you talking about?” she said. “Are we not soldiers? Is there not war?”
Canu chuffed. “What good are we? So few?”
“Enough to make a difference,” said Ara. “We already have. A big one. And there’s more we can do.”
“How?” said Canu. “What army do we have? Which one will take us? And who do we fight? Who are our enemies now?”
“It’s not so complicated as you make it,” said Ara. “While our forces sit, Crasacs and Cuasars have had their way with Gi. I know plenty of militia and cadre willing to fight them.” Ara paced along the car, plucking at the lance-like seed heads of the tall grass. “And as far as they know, I am still cadre.”
“What are you proposing?” The derision in Canu’s tone had shifted to genuine curiosity.
Ara’s mind was too preoccupied to answer. “Look at that. They left the key,” she said, peering into the driver’s side window at the slim rectangle occupying a slot beside the steering wheel. She went around back and pulled on the lid of the trunk. It clicked open.
In a compartment hidden beneath a woven, grey mat, she found the angled length of steel that she knew would be there - hexagonal socket on the dog leg, long end tapering to a blade at the tip. She hefted it in her right hand, and stalked purposefully up to the stone, sitting among the white bells like a lamb, unaware of its imminent slaughter.