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Xenolith, Page 24

A. Sparrow

  Chapter 17: The Second Fragment

  Canu stood with Seor and Ren before the locked door of the rock shop, pounding on the glass door. “Enough of that,” said Seor. “It’s obvious he’s not inside.” She shook fingers that had been touching the xenolith fragment, swaddled in a rag under her arm. “Cold again. So odd.”

  A small piece of paper stuck to the door displayed several words scrawled in Urep’o script. Canu looked back at the women.

  “Don’t look at me. I can’t read it,” said Seor.

  “Maybe he’s had his lunch and has gone off for a nap,” said Ren.

  “Could be,” said Seor. “Maybe so.”

  The eyes of every passerby, in vehicles and on foot, inevitably drifted their way.

  “We shouldn’t linger here,” said Seor. “Let’s go up the street for a while. We can check back in a bit.”

  They strolled past a clothing shop, a shop selling metal tools and another that seemed to sell nothing at all but had a wall adorned with pictures of cities and beaches. The passed residences, first in the same connected structures as the shop, then separate homes, surrounded by little patches of pasture, overgrazed without grazers.

  Seor went to the curb and gazed up the road and into the hills. A pair of young women pushing baby carriages took a wide detour around her, only to be startled by Ren and Canu standing in a flower bed.

  “So much greener up there,” said Seor.

  “Yes, well … that’s because there are these things called trees,” said Canu. “With little dangly bits called leaves that turn the whole business green.”

  Seor cursed him with a glance. “Canu? Please. Shut up!”

  Ren snickered.

  “I’m going for a walk,” said Seor. “Check back at the shop frequently, but not too frequently, if you know what I mean. If the shop reopens before I return, you know what to look for, and once you’re in, don’t let him lock the door till I get back.” She leaned towards Ren and whispered. “Keep an eye on him.” Seor strode off up the road.

  “Ren keep an eye on me?” Canu muttered to Ren. “Why not me keep an eye on Ren?”

  “I’m not the one who needs watching,” said Ren.

  “How so?” said Canu. “I’ve been good.”

  “Since the battle, yes, that’s true,” said Ren. “But that was quite a fight you got us into, for a group whose orders were to avoid all contact with the enemy.”

  “We came out of it okay. Brilliantly, in fact,” said Canu.

  “Let’s keep it moving,” said Ren. “Those ladies with the carriages are staring at us.”

  They walked back down the hill, past the rock shop, still dim and empty, to a three-walled glass partition equipped with a bench, etched and inked with an impressive density of swirly and blocky symbols. A strong scent of urine assaulted their noses.

  “What is this? A public toilet?” said Canu.

  Ren laughed. “Not likely, with all this glass.”

  Canu smiled and nodded at any Urep’o that happened by, but his exaggerated attempts to be friendly prompted only frightened stares and rapid footsteps.

  “Don’t try so hard,” said Ren. “Do like they do with each other. Don’t even look at them.”

  Vehicles rushed past, disgorging wakes of foul-smelling vapors. Canu glanced over his shoulder to see if anything had changed at the rock shop.

  “Don’t stare,” said Ren. “It makes you look suspicious.”

  Canu sighed. Of all the comrades to be stuck with, he gets Ren, the incessant nagger. He could never do anything right in her eyes.

  Not that any in the group gave him much respect. He was a latecomer, an Ubabaor boy, the sole member of the unit not native to Suul.

  Canu came to their group only after the Ubabaor city defense force had ejected him for desertion. Why? Simply put: tardiness.

  It happened not during the bloody, atrocity-filled siege of Ubabaor, but after rear echelon attrition and sabotage via xenolith had badgered the Venep’o into a truce. Canu was late returning to his outpost one evening after a day of brew, skillet fare and recuperation within the city gates. Topping the inselberg that loomed over the lines of truce, he found its watchtower shattered and smoldering, the hacked bodies of his comrades strewn beneath. He stood on the cliffs and screamed at the dust cloud marking the skulking horde of Cuasars who had done the deed as they returned to their lines across the twilit plains. He defied them to come back and finish the job.

  A timelier arrival would have made little difference in the fate of his friends. Canu would have simply added one more corpse, one more grave, or worse: one more Venep’o slave. But the arbitrators were not impressed by Canu’s defense. His noted bravery in the siege of Ubabaor counted for nothing. Banishing struck Canu as an odd punishment for a deserter, particularly one so driven to make amends.

  Canu had revealed his true spirit immediately. How many deserters go directly to the command center of a neighboring province’s militia and request enlistment? The militia officer seemed befuddled by his request, but couldn’t afford to turn him down. By then, the fallen provinces had greatly depleted their potential pool of recruits. Within hours, Canu found himself training with new his Suulep’o comrades and learning to like their strangely spiced stews and fried breads.

  A massive vehicle lumbered towards them, as large as a Venep’o siege wagon. As it bore down, it suddenly veered directly towards them as if intending to crush them. Canu yelped and dropped behind the bench, sliding under the gap beneath the enclosure wall. The vehicle stopped with a loud sigh. A door unfolded.

  Ren had remained calmly seated, glaring at Canu through the glass. A large man barked down at Ren from a seat atop some metal stairs. She shook her head and waved him off. The door folded back closed and the vehicle rumbled away.

  “It was just a coach, fool,” said Ren, coming around the enclosure. “Let’s go somewhere less conspicuous.”