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Xenolith, Page 20

A. Sparrow


  Seor hovered behind the door of their rendezvous point. She hoped her comrades had had better luck than her. She had combed through the machines and back rooms and bathrooms of the building across the lane and came up with no more than a dusty jacket hanging on a hook. Worn and stained, it nevertheless looked in better shape than anything the group currently possessed, so she kept it.

  Vul turned a corner. He carried a pair of boots, originally dun, from the condition of the uppers, but the rest was gouged and stained with smears of black grease.

  “Oh, no Vul. That won’t do at all,” she said as Vul ducked in the door beside her.

  “Best I could find.”

  A signal whistle peeled, the sort a scout uses to alert sentries of their approach.

  “Canu,” said Vul.

  They watched as Canu dashed from scrap heap to smokestack, like a rat being pursued by a cat.

  “Why all these fancy maneuvers?” said Seor, as Canu ran across the last stretch of open ground in an exaggerated crouch.

  “There are people here,” Canu whispered, as he squeezed through the door. “Urep’o people.” Canu wore a billed cap with Urep’o script embroidered to the front. It looked as filthy and moth-eaten as everything else he wore.

  “What kind of people,” said Seor. “How many?”

  “Poor people,” he said. “With poor clothes. They live in a shack in the back, the kind of shelter a child could make. I’d hate to sleep there when it rains.”

  “So that hat, was all you found?”

  Canu nodded.

  Seor sighed. “Maybe we can pose as the homeless. Not ideal.”

  They waited for Ren, and waited some more. It was midday before they spotted a person Ren’s size and shape coming down the lane with a large sack slung over her shoulder. Ren wore a baggy but impeccable uniform with embroidery on its pocket similar to that on Canu’s hat. The sack contained a large array of wadded clothing. Ren beamed with her success.

  “Where did you find all this?” said Seor, astonished.

  “I went over a fence,” she explained, grinning sheepishly. “There are some houses up the hill. I found one that was unoccupied, or so I thought. There was a man sleeping on a bed with legs. I was in the room with him before I realized he was there. He even looked at me and spoke, then went right back to sleep. I took his pants and, as you see, many more things from the place where they do their washing, with more machines it seems. Everything in Ur is done with machines.”

  They hurried up into the loft and Ren dumped out the bag for everyone to rifle through. They peeled off their undergarments that had rarely been changed during their mission, and clung in places like a second skin. A potent musk rose from their unwashed bodies.

  Canu snatched a black, short-sleeved shirt with a silver skull painted onto the front. He grinned as he pulled it over his head. Almost as eagerly, he grabbed a pair of knee-length pants with pockets sewn over pockets, sewn over pockets. Ren had found only a few pairs of shoes, but Canu, at least managed to find a set small enough to stay on his feet.

  Vul struggled to fasten a pair of beige pants that were plenty long, but much too narrow in the hips, as if tailored for a child.

  “Don’t even try, Vul. You’ll split them,” said Seor.

  Ren pulled a large pair of dark trousers from the sack that jingled as she handled them. She slipped her hand in a pocket and retrieved a few coins and a ring bearing a collection of jagged metal tabs.

  “Keys?” said Seor. Her gaze went to a squarish bulge distorting the fabric of the back pocket. She reached and snatched a rectangle of leather. She unfolded it, and parted an open seam, revealing a thick stack of greenish paper printed with symbols and faces.

  “Oh Ren, what a find! This could make things so easy for us.”

  The others gave her puzzled looks.

  “Market chits,” said Seor. “Currency.”

  Ren handed the dark pants over to Vul but only after slipping the coins and keys into her own pocket. Vul frowned, but accepted them along with a white shirt with ruffles in front.

  Canu picked at a corner of garish, speckled fabric in the sack and pulled. It lengthened into a silky, tapered ribbon.

  “Is that a belt?” said Vul, swimming in the much too large trousers, the waist gaping open in front like the maw of a large fish.

  “I think that’s something you tie that around your neck,” said Ren.

  “What good is that?” said Vul. “It’s my pants that might fall off, not my head.”

  “It’s meant for decoration,” said Seor. “It wouldn’t hurt you to have some.”

  “Pah!” Vul took the ribbon from Canu and slipped it through the loops of his trousers.

  Seor was lucky to find trousers of a rugged bluish-white fabric that fit her almost perfectly. She matched it with a short-sleeved pink top adorned with an image of a winged woman holding a sparkling stick.

  “How do I look?” she said.

  “Beautiful,” said Vul.

  “Of course,” she giggled. “But do I look like an Urep’o?”

  The others variously shrugged and nodded.

  “You look excellent, yourself, Canu,” said Seor. “Quite convincing.”

  To Seor’s eyes, Canu looked like he had spent his entire life in this world of machines, but then again, Canu seemed adaptable to any environment. He had a way of blending in, that Seor suspected had more to do with attitude than appearance.

  “I have an idea,” said Seor, fanning out the currency in her hand.

  “Oh?” said Vul.

  “We go to the merchant and simply purchase the stone.”

  Vul seemed insulted by the proposition. “Purchase? Our own stone? But those bastards stole it!”

  Seor ignored him. “Your job Ren, is to find us some food. Since you’ve proven your skill at foraging.” She handed several of the greenish papers to Ren.

  “The rest of us will go to the shop. But no weapons. The Urep’o don’t carry such things in public.”

  “What if it’s locked up tight like before?” said Canu.

  Seor took a breath. “Then we come back at night and do it another way,” she said and started towards the door. Canu and Vul followed. Seor stopped and glared at Vul.

  “I said, no weapons.”

  Vul grudgingly put down his axe, tucking it behind a wooden pallet leaning against the brick wall. He looked uncomfortable in his ill-fitting attire.

  “When we get there, only I will enter. Understood?” said Seor. “Canu, you stay out front, watch for constables.” Seor could see the outline of a dagger Vul had slipped behind his waist band, despite her stipulation. “Vul, on second thought, maybe you should stay behind. Watch our things.”

  Vul’s face tautened as if he had been slapped.