Xenolith, Page 30A. Sparrow
Chapter 22: Baren
Agitated bees, dislodged in Seor’s rush to conceal herself, circled the space where she had just stood, sketching her impression in swoops and squiggles. As she hunkered in the weeds, watching, her comrades sat inert as fungi beneath the ferns.
The scout moved with extreme, tactical caution, squinting into the undergrowth like a fox sniffing for mice. She carried a sleek crossbow of a type only issued to cadre. Her clothes, a patchwork of hues and textures ideal for concealment in the dry plains of Ubabaor contrasted starkly with the lush vegetation of the roadside.
Seor cursed under her breath. Dew slickened her palms. Prickles swarmed her cheeks. The odds of such an encounter should have been vanishingly small. Gondelfi had selected this portal for them because of its disuse; kept in reserve in case the primary routes to Gi became blocked. Seor crept down the embankment to where Canu sat, his cheek furred with half-fed mosquitoes.
“Give that to me,” she whispered, thrusting out her hand.
Canu passed the still cool xenolith to her, and she heaved it across the stream into a patch of ferns. Canu shared a puzzled look with Ren.
“No matter what happens, not a word about this. Understand?” said Seor.
An alarm whistle sounded from the road, conveying position and distance using the simple tonal patterns every militia recruit learned. Seor’s first instinct was to run. But these were Cadre. First class trackers, all of them. Her mouth parched. Her thigh muscles quaked as she crouched. How could she fear her own countrymen so?
Seor whistled back, posing a basic friend or foe inquiry. Silence. After a long pause, someone in the forest upstream from them whistled back a request: “Identify yourself.”
“We may as well show ourselves,” said Seor. Seor whistled back a generic identifier for provincial militia without mentioning a specific province. She climbed the embankment, waited for a vehicle to pass, music thundering through open windows, and stepped out into the road, Ren and Canu on either side.
The scout had retreated behind some trees. She raised her crossbow from the shadows.
“Come no further,” said the scout.
“She treats us like the enemy,” muttered Canu.
“She’s only being cautious,” said Ren.
Footsteps and voices came from where they had just been. The rest of the cadre had circled around from across the stream, passing right over the spot where she had tossed the xenolith. Seor looked straight ahead as they came up the embankment.
“This place is too visible,” said one of the men. “Take them across the road.”
The scout motioned for them to move.
They crossed the road together and climbed an exposed ledge, damp with seepage, onto a forested slope. Seor could see from the others’ marking that they belonged to the Second Gi Expeditionary Force, the very unit she expected to join before Gondelfi had conscripted them, and the very unit he had warned her to avoid at all costs.
One by one, the cadre crossed the road, spaced like drips from a faucet. The scout had them move upslope until they were deep within the margins of a mature forest, behind a dense veil of younger trees.
“That’s enough,” said the leader, as the others came around and encircled them, keeping their distance.
“Counterforce?” said a burly man with hands that looked twisted, as if he had broken all his fingers and they had healed improperly.
“I doubt it,” said the leader. “Look at them.”
“Why else would they be here?”
The leader shrugged.
“Get down on your knees and disarm,” said the burly man.
“What for?” said Canu. “Can’t you see we’re Sesep’o?”
“We’ll discuss that once you’re on your knees and disarmed,” said the leader.
Seor caught Canu’s attention and motioned for him to get down.
The cadre leader looked young; older than Ren and Canu, but younger than Seor. He wore a jerkin of finely woven fabric, intended more for city wear than rough duty in the forests. Snags and mud clumps marred its surface.
“Toss everything you have where only Ara can reach them,” he said, indicating the scout who had discovered them.
Ren and Canu looked to Seor, who nodded back curtly, removing a tiny obsidian knife from its anklet sheath. Ren added a small dagger, Canu a short, broad skinning blade.
“Satchels, too,” said the one they called Ara.
Seor handed it over, tabulator and all. Ren and Canu tossed their satchels down.
“Should I bind them?” said Ara.
The leader flicked his head. “No need.” He lowered his crossbow and raked Seor with eyes that blazed with feverish intensity. “Who are you people? Why are you here?”
Seor forced a smile. “I am Seoreseffon, a captain of the militias. With me are Canuchariol and—”
“Introductions, how sweet,” said the leader, oozing sarcasm. “I am Barenitoulas. Commander Baren, to you. But I don’t care about names. Baas, my lieutenant, suspects you might be renegades – a provincial counterforce. Might he have a case?”
“What?” said Seor.
“Commandos? Provincial elites? Sent to disrupt?” said Baren. His eyes probed for a reaction. Seor kept her expression blank as the sand behind a falling tide.
The truth behind the accusation staggered her, even though she never considered her group renegade. They were loyal provincial militia sent to gather information for a Councilor. It should have been obvious her group was far from elite. They would have been lucky to force a Giep’o homestead to give up their beets. They were scouts, not warriors, trained only to roam the countryside like wraiths, avoiding all encounters.
“Didn’t think so,” said Baren. “But the question remains … who are you and why are you here?”
“We’re … lost,” said Seor. “Stranded. The Urep’o took the stone, displaced it.”
“Urep’o?” said Baren. “Why are you even using this stone? This is not a normal conduit for militia maneuvers.”
“We had no choice,” said Seor. “Our tabulator guided us here.”
“And where did you get this quite fascinating – and familiar looking – tabulator?”
“It was issued to us,” said Seor.
Baren sighed. “Highly doubtful. But possible, I suppose. Mistakes do happen.” He looked over at his lieutenant. Seor had the impression that this man with crumpled hands wasn’t impressed one bit with her story.
“What is this you said about the Urep’o displacing the stone?” said Baren.
“Yes, they took it,” said Seor. “A man was selling it in his shop. But we got it back.”
“It was for sale?”
“So how did you retrieve it?”
“We bought it.”
Nervous laughter broke out among the cadre, except for the burly one – Baas.
“Amazing,” said Baren. “So preposterous, I almost think it can’t be a lie. What do you think, Baas?”
“I still think they’re counterforce,” said Baas.
“Bah,” said Baren. “If this is the best they can muster, we have nothing to worry about.”
“What about the relay?” said Ara, the scout.
“It’s in place,” said Seor. “But we were thinking about bringing it here to keep it safe.”
“How do you justify such meddling?” said Baren. “Xenoliths should be none of your business. If what you say is true, you should have simply reported the incident to cadre and moved on. Let us decide how to handle it. Is that not the usual procedure?”
“This was an emergency,” said Seor. “The Urep’o possessed a stone. The matter had to be handled right away.”
Baren ruminated, staring at her like someone teasing apart a puzzle. His eyes seemed intelligent and inquisitive, not unkind. He looked remarkably well-groomed for someone who had been living in the wilds of Gi for nearly a
year. He reminded Seor of the young men from the wealthy families that dominated the affairs of Ubabaor City. She couldn’t decide whether the resemblance derived more from fashion or inbreeding.
“How far are we from the relay?” said Baren. “Can you take us there?”
“Oh … no!” said Seor. I mean, the relay’s not far, maybe an hour’s walk. But we can’t be seen. None of us. The Urep’o witnessed our convergence. Their constables are out looking for us. Don’t you hear those sirens?”
“We have no choice,” said Baren. “We’re here to … escort dignitaries … from Ubabaor. They’re expecting us at the other portal.”
“Oh, but you see, that’s okay,” said Seor. “We have people waiting at the relay who would have greeted them,” said Seor.
“You do?” Baren’s voice cracked. He seemed not at all comforted by Seor’s admission. Baren looked to Baas. “Quite the mess, isn’t it Baas? What do you suppose we do now?”
“We go anyway,” said Baas, spitting out a twig. “Ignore what they say.”
“You all? You won’t get far,” said Seor. “The Urep’o are agitated. Many witnessed our convergence.”
Baren’s eyes bulged. “Many, did you say?”
“I told you. The stone was in a shop. A public area. Constables in vehicles are patrolling everywhere. Even up here. You’ve seen the blue lights, no?”
Baren snapped twigs off a dead branch. “I suppose … I suppose it’s prudent to scout first. Ara, here speaks Urep’o. Can one of your group show her the way?”
“I’d be glad to,” said Seor.
“No, not you,” said Baren. “Anybody but you. I want you with us. To give you a chance to clarify some things. And I’m sure Baas and I will have more questions. Won’t we, Baas?”
Baas flicked his brow in agreement.
“I can go,” volunteered Canu.
Seor nodded her assent. Better him than Ren, who could be a little too deferent to authority. Canu, at least, would give them a hard time. The abuse his cadre instructors directed his way had cultivated his distaste for all things cadre. Seor could count on him to be less cooperative.
“She’s going to need some Urep’o clothing,” said Seor.
“There’s some extra in there,” said Ren, pointing to her satchel lying among the dead leaves.
The scout, Ara, opened the flap and pulled out a navy blue pullover decorated with the stylized image of a man’s hatted head in profile, red and white banners trailing to a point.
Baren touched Ara’s arm and whispered. “Use your judgment. See how much of this caution is truly necessary. And apologize to our guests. Tell them we’ll travel soon, as soon as we can guarantee their security.”
There was much advice that Seor wanted to give Canu but couldn’t in front of Baren. She could only trust that Canu would do the right thing when the time came. He knew the stakes.