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Xenolith, Page 89

A. Sparrow



  Silence propagated through the shady col, muting every toad, bird, and scrape of insect wing. The change rousted Captain Feril from a post-breakfast trance. He shook off torpor and rose from the straw-lined nest in the corner of his bunker, listening closely to the absences, detecting a distant, unattributable hum.

  Reared on the open coastal plains of Diomet, forests had always spooked Feril, and never more than when they fell silent. But once he came to discern owl from jackal, the more raucous the forest, the more he felt at ease. Silence suggested the presence of unseen, unannounced threats.

  But what of this hum in the distance? No longer faint, it grew into a buzz punctuated with rattles and clanks. The noise had no natural or benign explanation. It would seem to fade, and then grow louder, as if its source were occluded by the uneven terrain it traversed.

  Feril strapped on a quiver, grabbed his best longbow and climbed onto the ramparts of logs and boulders fronting his bunker. “To arms!” he shouted. “Spread the word!”

  His fighters had already responded to the sounds and were already strapping on armor, gathering weapons, and acting as flustered and unnerved as Feril. Only three weeks in Gi, they had spent most of their time ‘defending’ this western approach to the assembly point. Until now, only one lost shepherd and a small flock of sheep had dared challenge their abatis.

  “Scouts and skirmishers forward!” Feril commanded. A small party of fighters detached from the main group and sifted through the trees.

  Irin approached – Feril’s boyish second in command. He clambered over tangles of upturned stumps, checking every bunker and emplacement down the line. He spotted Feril. His eyes lingered, questioning, though the brevity of his gaze showed he could tell Feril had nothing to offer.

  “Prepare the runner,” Feril shouted to him as he scuttled closer. “Have her await my signal.”

  “She’s right behind you, ready to go,” said Irin, with annoyance, and Feril noticed the young woman lingering shyly behind the fortifications, unencumbered by armor or weapons. She had only been in the field with them one week. Runner duty, which in Feril’s unit included water-fetching and general supply, was the standard initiation of all new acquisitions.

  “If we send her on …” Irin gaped. “What do we tell them?”

  Feril’s ears still burned from the scolding the cadre had given him over his last false alarm. “Let’s first make sure this is a real threat,” he said.

  Feril hopped off the front of his bunker and jogged ahead to where his skirmishers hunkered and waited down slope in shallow trenches scratched into rocky, root bound clay. Thick, straight boles studded the hillside. Densely layered canopy suppressed the understory and provided clear lines of sight between them. The full length of the cart path was visible down to the stream where they collected their drinking water.

  As the noise intensified, he could feel the eyes of his skirmishers upon him. Feril said nothing; didn’t even look at them. He stared straight down the path and waited, his fingers rubbing the thin leather strips binding his crossbow’s grip.

  There was a loud crunch. Something clanked loudly. Partway up the opposite slope, a red object careened into view around a bend. It bounced and scraped down a bank of shale before plowing into a stream that flowed swiftly in a thin layer over bedrock. It crashed up the opposite bank, front wheels spitting rocks. An uninterrupted slope lay before it and Feril’s skirmishers.

  “That’s no beast,” said a young man beside him, bow quaking in his hands.

  “Of course not,” Feril grumbled. “It’s a wagon. From Ur.”

  Feril’s instructors at the leadership school had described such contraptions, but this was his first daylight sighting, though he had heard their roar and witnessed their lights when he passed from Ur to Gi at night.

  So unstealthy was this vehicle, bright red and noisier than an un-milked cow, that its unaccompanied appearance on their threshold made Feril suspicious. He examined the slopes flanking them, concerned that the wagon was a diversion, distracting them from a larger threat. But the forest seemed still and devoid.

  He watched the red wagon shimmy through ruts and mud holes, wondering how deeply a crossbow bolt might penetrate its glossy carapace. It looked far from invulnerable. Gouges and scratches marred its sides. Torn metal dangled from its undercarriage. Its bottom struck the bumpy road repeatedly, sparking and clanging off stones. He lifted his bow and waited for it to come into range.

  “Weapons up. Wait for my command.”

  The wagon rolled closer. Through the front glass, he could see at least four people inside. They wore Urep’o clothing. Nothing marked them clearly as Venep’o. His anxious skirmishers seemed itchy to send a volley their way, but he withheld the order to shoot.

  Glancing back at the abatis, he saw Irin standing atop a bunker with the runner, in clear view for a signal, though easy pickings for a sniper. Surely, Commander Baren or his stewards wouldn’t balk at being informed of something so momentous?

  “Weapons down,” he told his skirmishers, then lifted his hand to signal Irin. A few words from Irin and she was off.

  The wagon skidded to a stop well within range of every longbow and crossbow in the line. A door opened. A woman hopped out, unarmed. She raised both palms. Feril’s eyes went straight to her armband – two black stripes over taupe – Cadre, Second Gi Expeditionary.

  “Hold your runners! Hold them!” said the cadre woman, her voice urgent, almost distressed.

  “Too late,” said Feril.

  The woman frowned. “Get your commander here.”

  “That would be me,” said Feril, though the title still sounded odd to someone who had held command for only a month.

  He noticed a few longbows on the main line still pointing her way. “I said weapons down! Pass it along.” He turned and shouted and listened as his order echoed among his skirmishers and down the lines behind them.

  Feril recognized the woman as the instructor in the language tutorials he attended during his first days in Gi. She had been among Commander Baren’s party when they had passed this way several weeks prior. The camps buzzed with speculations regarding their destination. Some thought they were coordinating the long-awaited counteroffensive. Others suspected they were simply returning to Ubabaor on leave.

  He tried not to gawk at the others in the wagon: a wiry, elegant young woman, her face as placid as an unrippled pond; a wide-shouldered, heavy-chinned man with sunken, bristled cheeks; another man wild-haired with a wicked grin and penetrating, manic eyes. None of them wore cadre armbands. Feril wondered if they were the elite federal commandos he had heard about, the ones who operated far behind enemy lines in Diomet and even Venen, committing acts of sabotage and terror.

  Creases furrowed the woman’s brow. Her breaths came quickly, as if she had had been running. “I’m Ara, of Commander Baren’s staff,” she said, eyes scanning the forest behind Feril.

  Feril opened his palms to her. “Captain Feril. Seventy-second militia of Diomet.”

  “Diomet! Really?” she said. “I thought your militias had disbanded.” She took his hands, bumped shoulders.

  “We’re new,” said Feril. “Refugees, most of us. Assembled from the camps by Counselors Aden and Dharow, before they were replaced.”

  Curious skirmishers collected around the vehicle. More heads poked up from the fortifications uphill.

  “How many do you command?” said Officer Ara.

  “At full strength, about one hundred forty,” said Feril, “Ten are detached on work details. Another six are in camp for treatment. The fevers have been taking a toll on us.”

  “A full company!” Her eyebrows arched. She took a deep breath. A faint smile settled into her face. “Summon your troops. Have them pack their bedrolls. All the provisions they can carry. We have a mission for them.”

  A tightness seized Feril’s gut. “But we’re still under orders here.”

Consider them rescinded,” said Officer Ara, blinking.

  Feril was flabbergasted. “But someone needs to relieve us first. We can’t just abandon this position.”

  “What are you defending against here? Deer?” Someone in the wagon emitted a chuckle.

  “Where’s Commander Baren?” said Feril. “Has he returned by the other portal?”

  Officer Ara’s eyes narrowed. “Do you make a habit of quibbling with cadre officers who give you direct orders?”

  Her companions in the red wagon smirked.

  “I’m sorry, comrade,” said Feril. “I was charged with the defense of this approach. I’m just trying to do the right thing.”

  “Have you ever wondered why the Cuasars never patrol here? Did you think they stay away from fear? Or because we’re so well hidden?”

  Feril shrugged.

  “A treaty keeps them at bay,” said Officer Ara. “A treaty that will soon be broken, because we’re the ones who are going to break it. When it matters again, I guarantee this line will be defended. For real, not just for play.”

  A faint, mutinous urge tugged at Feril. But he couldn’t tell what drove it. Fear? Ego? Suspicion? Something about Officer Ara seemed a little off. But she was cadre. Part of Commander Baren’s hand-picked inner circle. Who was he to argue?

  “You’ll have to pardon my hesitation, comrade,” he said. “We’ve only been in Gi a short while. We didn’t expect to see action so soon.”

  “So soon?” she sputtered. “Your unit may be new to Gi, but how long have the rest been festering in the marshes? You don’t think it’s time we acted?”

  “Not … if there’s a treaty,” said Feril. “Who decided to break it? Is this coming from the Council … or the Quorum?” He wished now that he hadn’t sent the runner. He had so much more to tell, to warn. Unless, of course, the operation required secrecy.

  Her eyes narrowed to slits. “What kind of soldier are you? Questioning every order?”

  Feril stared back, awash in perplexity. He bit his lip. “Alright. Tell me. What’s the mission?”

  Officer Ara’s expression turned serious. “We’re going after an enemy position.” She squinted through the canopy to a barren, domed summit protruding beyond the abutting foothills. “Up there.”

  Sprouting like a growth on the mountain’s shoulder, a heliograph station interrupted an otherwise smooth arc of slope and sky. On days when sun ruled over cloud, its mirror bursts lit the col every four hours, shuttling Venep’o communications across the range between Raacevo and the eastern colonies. Feril had come to look forward to their regular flashing, using them to mark time and frame his day.

  But something Feril remembered from a cadre briefing sent his apprehensions plumbing new depths. “That’s the trigger … for the counteroffensive. Isn’t it?”

  Officer Ara gave him an odd look; not quite blank, but a palimpsest bearing clear traces of her intent.

  “That would be the goal here, yes,” she said.

  Exited murmurs rippled out among the skirmishers.

  “I’m not even sure we need any outside help,” she continued. “The militias should respond pretty well to our call, don’t you think?”

  She knew as well as he, that the bored and underfed militias piled into the assembly camps could barely be restrained from attacking each other. It wouldn’t take much to inspire and redirect their aggressions outward.

  Feril felt as if he had just stepped off a ledge into deep water. It wasn’t the prospect of battle that fazed him. He had joined the militia to fight. He simply couldn’t fathom his own unit spearheading an expanded war in Gi.

  “Why us?” Feril blurted, as Officer Ara turned back toward the wagon.

  “What I mean is … you could have the best fighters from the best militias. There’s a camp full of veterans, two hours by runner. Some who fought the first Crasacs that came ashore, on to Diomet and Suul, and the siege of Ubabaor, while I was just a scrawny rat in an encampment, foraging scraps for my mother and sisters. I mean … we’re so green.”

  She paused, and considered him quizzically. “Are you saying you’d rather have someone else do your fighting?”

  Her gaze bore in, striking him like a punch in the gut. “It’s not that … not at all,” he said. “We can fight. We might lack experience, but we’re ready. It’s just that … you could have had … better.”

  She appraised him the way a big sister might judge a sibling’s suitor.

  “And how different are you from the so-called elite?” she said. “To my eye, not so much. You’re younger. You’ve had less opportunity. But who’s to say who’s superior?”

  They stood staring at each other until Feril took a deep breath and gave a sharp whistle. Almost instantly, troops began filtering through the trees, bearing full weapons and gear. Before Feril even made the call, Irin had them ready to move.

  A bright flash gilded the branches overhead. “We can reach the ridge top by tomorrow morning if we leave now,” said Officer Ara. “We’ll have the moon to guide us.” She opened up the door of the wagon and slipped inside.

  The vehicle lurched backwards, disrupting the order of the double column forming up on the cart path. The thin man with the wild eyes and unkempt hair sat behind the wheel, grinning. He pulled forwards, scraping past a tree, carving into the clay of a steep shoulder to which the wagon clung at a severe tilt. It surged across the cart path and rattled to a halt at the head of the column.

  Through the treetops, the Mercomar flashed, repeating: "All is clear" for the fourth and last time, that day and forever.