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Xenolith, Page 11

A. Sparrow

  Chapter 7: The Displaced Portal

  The convergence dilated like a pupil gazing into darkness. Its oily, many-hued sheen hovered over the bog, obscuring the collection of sharp and bulky shapes lurking beyond. Its blurry center bulged and split with a crackle. Edges peeled apart, opening a clear, spindle-shaped wedge into Ur. Bursting through the shimmer came a credenza of pale wood, with polished knobs on labeled drawers.

  Seor, startled, had expected to glimpse the tor of glacial erratics and stunted trees through which they had entered Gi. Instead, as the crevice expanded, a glass-fronted cabinet with clawed feet appeared, alongside a wooden chair, with spindles of honeyed oak fanning like rays between a contoured seat and a bowed frame.

  “What is this?” said Vul. “Someone’s house?”

  “A dinner party … just for us,” said Canu, snickering. Chuckles erupted among the shadows.

  “Silence!” said Seor, sweeping her glare like a spotlight across the faces arrayed behind her. “This is bad. It means we’ve been found out. Someone in Ur has the other xenolith.”

  Her squad quieted instantly, their faces spanning a continuum from Ren’s utter shock to Pana’s mild bemusement. As they awaited her guidance, Seor sensed a queer mixture of trust and blame emanating from them. She hovered, queasy in the thrall of indecision. Instinct told her to back off, but how could they reject an open portal? They were already late in returning to Ubabaor. If the xenolith was controlled by another, who knew when or even if the next convergence would appear?

  “We’re going through,” she said. “Get to your places. The usual order. Now!”

  They formed a haphazard line along the edge of the bog. Some began stowing their blades. “Keep your weapons out,” said Seor. “You might need them.”

  The sheath of shimmering light surrounding the portal contracted. The chair faded from view. “Is it weakening?” said Pana, staring into the shimmer. “Already?”

  Seor rushed down the line, ushering stragglers into position. Vul stood closest to the convergence, both hands clutching his axe.

  “Ready, Vul?”

  Vul nodded, his face devoid of expression.

  “Then go!”

  Without so much as a blink, Vul plunged in, followed closely by Pana and Pari. Distorted cries echoed back. Salin paused. Those yet to pass looked to Seor anxiously.

  “Quickly!” she urged. “Keep it going! Be ready to fight or flee."

  The passages resumed, each squad member adding voice to the chaos across the portal. To Seor’s ear, whatever was happening at the other end, it did not sound like carnage.

  When the last of her twelve had passed, Seor palmed the hilt of her long dagger and splashed through the matted weeds. The convergence oscillated wildly. It was almost too late to pass. Its frigid grip sucked at her breath, seized her and pulled her in. A dull, rolling pressure clamped down and rippled through her bones, tensing and releasing in spasms.

  Seor strained ahead. The portal resisted like stiff and sticky porridge. Her momentum stopped, reversed. She oozed back towards the bog. Suddenly, briefly, it relaxed. She shot forward and dropped onto a hard floor, her chin colliding with someone's shoulder. Bodies jostled elbow to elbow in a small, dim room. A shelf collapsed. A basket of cabochons spilled and scattered, joining a clutter of geodes and fossils already fallen.

  Seor scrambled to her feet, finding her squad crammed into what appeared to be a small shop. Beyond a wall of glass, artificial lights mounted on tall posts splashed over an empty street. The road led down to a small bridge passing over a river. Could it be the river they had crossed between relays several months ago?

  Salin rattled the glass door. It was locked, with no visible latch, and wouldn’t budge. He slipped the blade of his short sword into the jamb and pried. A garish light burst forth above their heads. A clanging commenced like hail on helms, as loud as the flashes were bright. The din sent Seor’s heart fleeing from her ribs.

  The bob had tipped. They were fish in a net waiting for the fishermen.

  Seor shoved her way over to Ren and Canu as they pawed through the drawers of the credenza where the convergence had centered.

  “Get it and go! Hurry!” she said.

  “Can’t find it,” said Canu.

  “I thought I saw a glow before,” said Ren. “But now it’s gone.”

  Canu yanked open drawer after drawer, revealing trays of amber of every tint and opacity, maroon crystals thick as fingers, grey stones speckled with iridescence, arrayed in boxes like soldiers on parade.

  “Take them!” said Seor, her mind scrambled with panic, heart clawing at its cage.

  “Which ones?” said Canu.

  “All of them.”

  “How? There are too many to carry,” said Canu.

  “Touch them. Find the coldest,” said Ren.

  “They‘re all cold,” said Canu. “The convergence chilled them all.”

  A siren sounded on the streets. Murmurs grew among the squad. Panic knotted Seor’s gut. “Never mind,” she blurted. “Let’s get out of here.”

  “I can smash our way through,” Vul tapped the glass lightly with the head of his axe.

  “No need,” called Pana, peering behind a curtain in the back of the room. “I see another exit. This one has a latch.”

  “Everyone, follow Pana,” said Seor. She squeezed past her comrades, leaping onto and over a counter. She pushed through the curtain into a back room cluttered with boxes and papers. Pana fiddled with the lock and swung the door open into the night air.

  They all poured out onto a barren, lighted pavement backed by a brick wall that kept a copse of weedy trees at bay. The pre-dawn sky had paled enough to outline the buildings of a small city below them, framed closely by the low, rocky walls of a narrow valley.

  “I remember that,” said Cudi, pointing at a dark bluff to the south, topped with a vacant flagpole.

  “Yes,” said Seor. “It’s much closer now, isn’t it?”

  “To the North, then,” said Canu.

  The siren suddenly notched up in volume. A blue glow flashed through an alley.

  “Over the wall!” said Seor. Her squad swarmed up the brick like lizards. Seor hung onto the other side, peering over the top as a vehicle rolled into the lot, its top bearing a slab of flashing blue lights. A man stepped out and went to the door of the shop, his hand on a weapon strapped to his waist.

  Seor dropped down and slipped among her milling fighters. “Follow me,” she whispered. “Quietly.” She led them through the thick undergrowth into a stream bed, following a rivulet through a shallow defile to the river.

  “Pana and Salin will scout ahead,” said Seor. “Everyone else, keep together. Stay close enough to support them.”

  They turned upriver, running low to the ground, under the bridge and past another paved lot. Where buildings blocked their way, they moved out from the river and turned into a wide alley lined by buildings with walls of soot-marred brick and banks of opaque or broken windows. A stray dog stood erect in the lane, nose to the wind, growling. The squad converged on it without hesitation. It turned and ran with tail tucked.

  Halfway up the row, an intermittent squeak sent them scattering like mice amidst debris piles and weed patches. A shaggy-haired man rounded a corner, pushing a metal cart with a sticky wheel. He passed within inches of Pana and Salin but they remained unseen. Seor held her squad until the squeaks had faded down the lane before giving the sign to proceed. Twelve scuttled out and continued northward.

  The sky grew as bright as a sky can get without a risen sun. If the tabulator was to be trusted, the sister stone would be activating within the hour. They risked being stranded in Ur if they failed to locate it in time.

  A fence of heavy metal mesh topped with loops of spurred wire blocked the end of the lane. As Pana and Salin contemplated the best way to climb it, Canu came up and yanked a section out of the soil, holding it up until everyone had squeezed under. Vul reached through and returned the
favor from the other side.

  Trash-strewn scrub gave way to a spinney with evergreens so dense; none of the soft dawn light could penetrate. At ease in the forest, they dashed between trees as nimbly as deer, keeping close to the river. Between fragments of thicket, clearings exposed them to view from the busy roads draping the hillside across the river, but Seor kept them running. Time was short. She had no idea how far upriver the other portal lay.

  The landscape grew familiar. Rounding a bend, a rocky hill reared up. Seor recognized it as the place where the other xenolith should have brought them. The ford they had crossed to reach it on their way to Gi was just ahead.

  Salin came charging back from the river’s edge with panicked eyes. “It’s here! This one’s early, too.”

  Seor’s spine jangled. “Everyone, across the river. Now!”

  “How can this be?” said Vul.

  “Never mind. Just go!” said Seor.

  They rushed toward the river, in full view of a steady procession of vehicles across the way, maintaining no pretense of stealth or concealment. Passing a double ribbon of steel set on thick planks over sharp gravel, they burst through the fringe of willows crowding the riverbank and skidded down into the marge.

  The convergence lay directly across the water, opening wide against a scar of gravel and grit. Even from this distance Seor could smell the resinous savannas of home. A flat-topped tree curled softly out of the portal like a dream. The plains of Ubabaor beckoned.

  Seor stayed back, securing the rear as the others bolted across the rocky ford. Eyes manic, they crossed without care, stumbling on the loose stone underfoot. Pana had already reached the edge of the portal. He looked back dutifully.

  “Don’t wait. Just go!” Seor shouted. “Everyone, go through. Quickly!”

  Pana disappeared through the quivering breach. Salin waited for the oscillations to settle before stepping through as the others bunched around, ignoring their usual decorum. After Salin passed, the convergence rippled wildly, like a very small pond struck by a very large stone. The field contracted abruptly. The oscillations persisted.

  “Hold on,” said Seor. “Something’s wrong.”

  The spectral tree turned to vapor like a leaf in a fire. The wind through the portal went from a roar to a squeal.

  “It’s closing! Stop!” said Seor, charging into the river. “Don’t go through!”

  Either no one heard her or pretended not. No one seemed to notice or care about the changes in the portal. Lipa ran in, her crazed eyes fixated homeward after three months of deprivation. Her momentum stalled, but she slid slowly through the rift. Strom hesitated, and then leaped in headfirst. His legs hung up, but he too managed to wriggle through.

  “Everyone, stop! The convergence is closing.”

  Her words finally registered. Disappointment and disbelief filled her comrades’ faces. No one passed until Alic, hovering behind the others, bolted for the portal, eluding Vul’s grasp as he dove into its rippling maw.

  “No, Alic!”

  The rupture ratcheted shut, clamping Alic in its spasms, one leg in, one leg out. He grunted and writhed. His head disappeared then reappeared along the portal’s flapping fringe. Vul rushed forward and gave him a shove, but the convergence had solidified like clay.

  "Don’t push. Pull him!" hissed Seor. She ran up and grabbed Alic’s leg. Vul and Canu joined her and together they dug their heels into the soft sand and hauled. The convergence pulsed erratically like a failing heart, relaxing between spasms. Each compression drew a groan from Alic.

  “Pull when it’s at its widest,” said Canu and they timed their efforts to coincide with the portal’s maximum dilation. But Alic stayed stuck like a breeched infant.

  Seor remembered a cadre tutor warning her about dangers of closing portals, relating an incident in which a Traveler had been pinched in two like a lump of dough after failing to heed the signs of divergence.

  Her remembrance stirred a memory of another lesson, but this one gave her hope. “Give me space!” she shouted. Her comrades kept hold of Alic, but shifted out of her way.

  Seor unsheathed her long dagger and leaned into the portal. Its edges nibbled and tugged at her skin, alternately pushing and pulling like a magnet reversing its poles. She aimed her blade carefully between Alic’s chest and the field that gripped him. The dagger wiggled like a dowsing rod, threatened to fly from her grasp. As its tip penetrated the interface, the field withdrew slightly from the steel, repelled like oil from water. With both arms on the hilt, she pushed with all her strength, further distorting the portal. The blade squealed and vibrated. Vul reached in and pulled Alic’s shoulder into the cavity created by the blade. With a sizzle, his torso slid along the blade and out of the portal. Alic screamed. Pari gasped. With a rumble, the rupture sealed shut.

  Alic collapsed onto the gravel, bleeding profusely, from a deep gash in his side. Pari fell upon him, pinching the wound sealed with one hand, with the other dumping the contents of her satchel onto the ground and picking through her sacks for the few fragments of stanching moss she retained.

  Alic groaned. The geometry of his torso was all wrong. His shoulder projected grotesquely forward. Vul reached down and pressed on the bump of his displaced joint. Alic screamed and writhed.

  Pari shoved him away. “Please. Let me handle this, Vul.” She bent Alic’s forearm up at the elbow and rotated it slowly outward. Alic grimaced. With a dull pop, the joint re-entered its socket. Alic screamed and kicked his legs out, before settling back with a whimper.

  Seor stared, stunned. She counted six remaining with her, which meant that only six had made it through to Sesei. Or had they? She had no proof that any had survived the passage. For all she knew they had suffered fates worse than Alic in a portal turned meat grinder.

  Seor fumbled through her satchel, removing a combination quadrant and astrolabe, and squinted up at the sun just now perching atop the valley wall. She measured its height and reckoned the reading against the slats and dials of her tabulator. She found her suspicions confirmed. The tabulator predicted that the convergence wouldn’t arrive for another half hour, yet they had just seen it come and go. The tabulator, normally as dependable as a tide chart, had been rendered useless. How could they be sure when the next portal would come? How would they ever know if it would be safe to cross?

  Seor looked around at the sickened faces surrounding her. If her comrades thought her incompetent before, how did they feel about her now? At least she had been spared the embarrassment of explaining her failures to Gondelfi.