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Xenolith, Page 81

A. Sparrow

  Chapter 69: Ara Torn

  Pari covered their retreat with a few well-placed arrows that kept the cadre cautious. Ara clenched hands with Canu to support Ren’s torso while Seor held her legs. Every jarring footfall drew from Ren a groan.

  The old man hobbled back towards his yard, his shotgun barrel dangling loose at the breech. Ratchets crackled as the cadre reloaded their crossbows, but they hung back, not understanding the shotgun’s uselessness in its current state.

  Baas circled out of dense underbrush, heading for a spot where he would have a clear shot at the old man. The old man backed away, his shouting gone hoarse, but still defiant.

  “Fucking punks! You stuck me, you little bastards! Fucking bows and arrows! I’ll fucking blow you away, you little fucks. Get out of my fucking yard.”

  Ara’s double betrayal filled her with shame. She had turned her back on cadre mates with whom she had lived and trained and joked with for over a year. And she had threatened the welfare of her new friends by sparing Baas.

  How different Baas’ fighting skills and taste for blood sport had seemed when Cuasar patrols threatened them in Gi. Ara had looked up to him then as a surly but protective older brother. How could she murder one she had once held in such high regard? Though, she knew Baas would have no trouble reciprocating.

  Two blurs of black paint and blue light flashed around the corner and squealed into the old man’s driveway. Baas flicked a hand signal. The cadre melted into the forest. Four frantic policemen scrambled out of their cars.

  “Drop your weapon!” they screamed, fanning out around the old man, pistols drawn. “Drop it, right now.”

  “It’s not me you want. It’s them.” The old man pointed where the cadre had just been, but the swampy wood was suddenly vacant but for the slight rustle of bush, a subtle bob of fern.

  “Right now! I said drop it, and get down.” The policeman’s voice was so shrill it fractured.

  One of the officers spotted Ara and the others struggling to maneuver Ren towards the stream and reached for his radio. Ren had gone limp, passed out from the pain.

  They found Vul stationed dutifully by the boulder, bowstring drawn, wheeling about to threaten any face that dared peek around the house across the stream. One of his arrows impaled the clapboards. The smell of burnt meat wafted from an untended grill.

  A small vortex reared from the stream, its mists sketching the knotty contours of the convergence. For a few meters behind the stone, the stream appeared to run backwards before parting and rising up the bank to either side. To Ara, the field looked too weak to cross, but its strength still waxed. The possibility of passage lay only moments away.

  More vehicles arrived on the road behind the house. Police cars, black vans, a fire truck, an ambulance.

  “Looks ready. Let’s go!” said Canu.

  “Not yet, stay away from it,” said Seor, sitting with Ren’s head in her lap as Pari attended to the wound in Ren’s chest. Ren looked barely conscious.

  “Her belly’s tight. She’s bled a lot inside,” said Pari. “It doesn’t look good.”

  Seor glanced up at Ara, her expression flat. “Whatever happened to your friends?”

  Seor’s derisive tone bothered Ara, but she pretended not to notice. “I don’t know. I think they’ve fled.”

  “The old man’s disarmed,” said Pari. “Two of the constables are coming this way.”

  “Look at it now!” said Canu. “It’s plenty strong. Let’s go.”

  “Not yet!” said Seor. “I’ll tell you when it’s time. Pari should go first with Ren. Vul, you help them. Then Canu, and Ara, if she still cares to join us. I’ll go last, as usual.”

  “If you left Ren here, Urep’o doctors might save her,” said Ara. “They can mend the most severe injuries here.”

  “Leave her behind?” said Pari, appalled.

  “We never leave our own,” said Seor. “Not if we can help it.”

  “Ara’s right,” said Canu. “The doctors are very skilled here.”

  Pari glared.

  Policemen wearing face shields and armor began to advance from the house. Others filtered into the woods from the old man’s yard. A loudspeaker crackled and honked.

  “What are they saying?” said Seor.

  “That we should put down our weapons and lay on the ground,” said Ara.

  “And if not?” said Seor.

  “They will shoot,” said Ara.

  Canu tossed aside his knife and dropped to the ground. Vul stood looking at Ara as if she were insane. “But they hold weapons against us.”

  “Yes, better, stronger weapons,” said Ara. “It will borrow some time if we follow their direction. We don’t want them to feel threatened.”

  “The convergence is almost ready,” said Seor. “Put down your weapons, but keep them close. We’ll carry what we can through the portal.”

  The loudspeaker bleated, repetitive and ever more shrill.

  “Get down on the ground! Right now! Get your asses down on the ground! Down on the ground!”

  Ara caught a movement in a patch of brush – the brassy glint of a crossbow bolt. She didn’t mention it yet to the others, fearing it would provoke a dangerous reaction. They would all be through the portal momentarily.

  She raised her hands and descended to her knees, keeping a nervous eye on the quivering bush where she had spotted the glint. The convergence had a compressed look about it, like a sack bursting with cats trying to claw their way out. It stole bits of light from the forest, stretching and doling it out in new patterns, a sign that expansion was imminent.

  “Pari, get ready,” said Seor, still standing before the boulder. “Vul, help her.”

  “Get down on the ground! Get down on the ground!”

  “You should get down, right away, comrades,” said Ara. “They’re sounding anxious.”

  The convergence opened up like a spinning dancer extending arms.

  “Now!” said Seor.

  With Vul’s assistance, Pari dragged Ren to the portal. Ren, unconscious, made no complaint for her rough transport. The portal enveloped and consumed her and Pari. Vul hesitated, glancing back for Seor’s approval. Seor nodded.

  A figure reared up from the ferns. With two clicks, two bolts flew, prompting guns to flash among the advancing line of police.