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Xenolith, Page 32

A. Sparrow

  Chapter 24: Crasacs in the Factory

  Vul gazed into the shadowy corner of the factory loft. “No one’s here,” he said, calling down the stairs to Pari, who guarded the door. “They left their weapons behind.”

  Pana stood by a window, watching the fence line. “Doesn’t look like they’re coming,” he said. “Hopefully, they’ve given up.”

  Somehow, Vul still felt like prey. He lifted the tarp in the corner of the loft and retrieved the long dagger he had stashed there the morning before. Re-sheathing his blade made him feel clothed again.

  The others’ blades lay in place: the double curve of Seor’s, Ren’s simple arc – their natural lines both evoking wind-blown reeds frozen in mid-sway. Canu’s angular slab, favoring function over form, looked like something the child of a blacksmith hammered out.

  Vul looked up to find Pana, glaring at him, looking agitated.

  “Quicker, Vul, we need to get out of here.”

  “Why?” said Vul. “We can fight them from here.” He looked around the loft. Its windows afforded clear views in several directions; the dirt road entering the complex from the back, the gap in the perimeter fence beside a scraggly woodlot, a stretch of bank where the river curved upstream.

  “This is not a good place, Vul,” Pana insisted, looking down the lone staircase leading up to the loft. The door below sat askew on its broken hinges. “They can use other buildings to cover their approach. We have only one exit. We would get a few bolts off, but then they would trap us.”

  Pari strolled over to the bank of windows facing the fence-line. “Maybe they won’t come any farther,” she said. “Why would they? What good does it do them to exterminate us?”

  The window shattered. Pari fell in a shower of glass as a heavy bolt slammed into the ceiling dropping a hail of plaster.

  “Pari!” Vul rushed over, skidding on his knees to her side. Blood dripped from her cheek. She leaned over on all fours and shook off bits of glass like a wet dog.

  “I’m going out,” said Pana. “I fight on the move, not in a cage.”

  Vul’s eyes met Pari’s. Without a word, they rushed downstairs after Pana into the machine-cluttered bay below the loft. Pana already had the door partway open and peering up and down the lane. Vul came up beside him and flinched at a movement to their left. One of the homeless Urep’o pushed a metal cart towards them from the other end of the factory complex. Vul sighed through his teeth. In the other direction, no Crasacs could be seen.

  “Step back, Vul,” said Pana. He kicked the door open. Several bolts flashed by, one passing cleanly through a broken pane.

  “I think we’re safer in here,” said Vul.

  “No,” said Pana, stone-faced. “I’ll draw their fire. Get ready to move out.” He stepped out, employing the door as a shield. Bolts flew at them from the woods beyond the fence. A spear-sized shaft thudded into the door.

  “Now!” said Pana.

  Vul and Pari darted out, angling away from the fence to an open bay in a building across the lane. A scattering of bolts zipped through the air in their wake. They dove feet first into the bay, sliding to safety.

  Pana remained at the door, aiming his twin-bolted crossbow through the broken window towards the fence. He sent his first bolt into a clump of grass. His second bolt clattered against metal. He dropped down and reloaded.

  Vul tried to pinpoint Pana’s target. An elbow protruded from behind a heap of rusted metal near the fence. He raised his bow, but couldn’t gain a clean sight line. Too many obstructions, he decided. He didn’t waste his bolts.

  Pari crawled to the edge of the opening, her crossbow ready to fire. Crasacs had infiltrated the complex, flitting between covering positions, edging closer. The homeless person stopped in the center of the lane, muttering angrily and waving a bolt she had picked up off the pavement. Pari grabbed a hunk of brick and chucked it at her, banging it off her cart. The lady looked shocked. She withdrew slowly with her cart, still muttering, keeping it between her and Pari. A cluster of errant bolts whistled past Pana and skidded down the lane by her feet. She left the cart pirouetting in the lane and took off in a waddling panic.

  Vul saw Pana nudge a brick in place with his foot to prop the door open. Vul let both bolts fly and retreated, sidling against the building wall until he disappeared around its corner. Several Crasacs exploded from cover and came behind the building before Vul could even react. Others flowed from the fence to backfill their positions.

  “They’re closing!” said Pari, bounding to her feet. “There’s too many, Vul. Come!”

  Vul fired a bolt. It caught a Crasac high and swatted him down like a gnat. Vul lingered and grinned.

  “Vul! No time for gloating. Come on,” said Pari.

  She found a door that exited into a side alley. Vul followed her out and headed for the back of the building.

  “What about Pana?” said Pari, hanging back. “Shouldn’t we cover him, so he can cross?”

  Vul, nervous, looked back quickly over his shoulder. “Do you see him?”

  Pari stepped reluctantly towards the lane. “No,” she said.

  “It might be better that we split,” said Vul. “The Crasacs can’t focus their attack.”

  Pari’s face creased, but she remained silent.

  “Oh, come on!” said Vul. “Pana’s a good fighter. He’ll do fine on his own.” Vul turned the corner around the back of the building, down a passage shaded by trees overhanging a fence atop a concrete retaining wall. The homeless people had built a crude shelter from wood scraps and wavy sheets of metal, roofed with a dirty blue cloth fastened with bits of wire.

  Vul lifted a flap and peeked in. A tangled-haired woman lay curled on a mattress beside a man sitting hunched over on a crate. The man’s reddened eyes registered surprise, then rage. The woman sat up, startled. Vul tried signing with his hands that they should leave. The man lunged at him, seizing his crossbow. A large shaft ripped into his side, cracking ribs, pinning him against his shack. The woman screamed. The man stood agape, coughing blood, his hands releasing their grip on Vul’s crossbow. Pari tried to help, tugging gingerly at the shaft that impaled the man. Vul yanked Pari back and hauled her around the next corner as a flurry of bolts pattered into the shack.

  The woman careened around the corner behind them, stumbling away from them in terror, nearly falling. She ran down the alley and turned up the main lane towards the town. Vul watched to see if any bolts flew in her direction. None did, encouraging him to follow after her.

  “Try those doors Vul,” said Pari. “I don’t feel safe in these alleys. There’s no cover.”

  The next building down the line had a heavy set of double doors midway. Vul jiggled both of the knobs and found them locked. Pari shuffled nervously, glancing down both ends of the alley.

  A row of grimy windows revealed arrays of large, dark hulks within. Cracks radiated from the center of one large pane. Vul struck it with the butt of his crossbow. Shards tinkled to the ground. He cleared the remaining fragments from the frame with several swipes and nodded to Pari. She vaulted through, in one smooth movement. Vul followed, less gracefully, landing hard in a pile of broken glass. Rising, he spotted a Crasac entering the alley from the rear, his attention diverted as he passed hand signals to someone behind him. Vul raised his crossbow reflexively. It caught the edge of the window frame, causing him to fire errantly into the pavement. He wheeled about and joined Pari who was weaving her way through the forest of machines.

  The floor was cluttered with massive blocks of cast metal adorned with intricate arrangements of drive shafts, belts and spindles. Silent machines, idle for reasons he couldn’t comprehend. The detritus of their production littered the floor: chunks of brass rod, metal shavings embedded in grease. And this building was one of many. Who would abandon such a massive enterprise in peacetime, and why?

  “I see another door on the other side,” said Pari.

  They wove their way through the maze of machines. A b
olt ricocheted off a flange of metal, ringing it like a bell above Vul’s ear. Another slapped into a wooden post where he had just removed his hand. He glanced back to see a Crasac standing at the broken window, reloading his weapon. He fired back from his hip, sending a bolt just above the Crasac’s head, forcing him to duck. Murky shapes moved beyond grimy windows. Two smashed open. Crossbows protruded.

  “Get down!”

  Pari dropped to the floor several rows away and together they crawled through and under the machines, avoiding the open aisles that might give the Crasacs a clear shot. Bolts peppered the maze of metal surrounding them, ricocheting, cracking and shattering. Pari made it to the opposite door first.

  A deflected bolt head rammed deep into the back of Vul’s leg. He cursed and pulled it out. It bled freely, but did not gush, having missed his arteries.

  “Vul, are you alright?”

  He grimaced. “No.”

  Suddenly, the firing stopped. The Crasacs vanished from the windows. Pari rose and opened the door. Vul hobbled out from the machinery and followed Pari into the next alley, exiting just as an Urep’o vehicle rolled by on the central avenue, into the teeth of the Crasac attack. Pari’s eyes flared wide. They hustled to the end of the building and leaned past the corner.

  The vehicle stopped abruptly at the head of the alley where the Crasacs had been firing at them through the windows. A bank of blue lights on the vehicle’s roof began to flash. The door opened. Crackly, disembodied voices emanated from within. A man wearing a dark uniform stepped out.

  Vul watched the man stand by the vehicle door and speak into a tethered object in his palm. The man flinched and nearly fell when a Crasac burst from behind a stack of metal barrels. The Crasac turned and fled down the main avenue. The uniformed man called out to him, repeating the same curt phrase louder and more insistently each time it was ignored. The Crasac kept running past another who had stepped out into the avenue the next alley down. The second Crasac lifted and aimed his crossbow.

  The uniformed man fumbled to remove an object from his belt. It was tiny, but he raised it as if it were a weapon. His voice grew shrill as he shouted into the device in his palm. A pair of bolts flew from the alley to his left, one impaling his vehicle, the other striking him in the abdomen. He grunted in pain. His weapon exploded and jerked, its projectile chipping the brickwork on the building before him. Grimacing, he pulled himself back into his vehicle and slammed the door.

  “We need to get out of here,” said Vul, wheeling about.


  “Forget Pana. Run!”

  They dashed for the rear of the building as the vehicle roared, its wheels squealing and smoking as it surged backwards towards the main road. Pari followed Vul into a dark corner between the retaining wall and the last building in the row. They climbed up the wall and over a metal fence where the mesh sagged under the weight of a fallen tree limb. They passed a short ways into the trees and paused to catch their breath.

  A wail arose in the distance. From another direction but much closer, something else began to howl. The sounds grew louder. A third siren joined in.

  “Remove your weapons,” said Vul. “All of them, including your blades.”

  Pari looked incredulous. “But we have Crasacs after us!”

  “Not anymore, we don’t.” Vul dug a cavity under a large rotten log, dispersing the diggings in handfuls as far as he could throw. They placed their crossbows, bolts and blades into the hole, covered them in leaf litter and replaced the log.

  Pari examined the wound in his leg. “You’re bleeding heavily,” she said. “Let me wrap it.”

  Vul pulled away. “No time!” He limped up the hillside, farther into the trees and a shade deepened by the falling sun.

  The sirens converged onto the factory complex. Through the trees they glimpsed two vehicles speeding down the factory lane, lights flashing. As the trees thinned at the verge of a lawn, a series of small explosions erupted from the direction of the factory complex. Staccato bursts continued. More sirens joined the chorus in the valley and hills.

  Vul looked at his hands, which were covered in blood. He crouched down gingerly and wiped them on the ground. “Pari, are my wounds obvious?”

  “I can stanch your bleeding with styptic moss,” she said. “But you’ll need to pull down your trousers.”

  “Does it look bad? Will people notice?”

  Pari’s eyes flickered. “The light’s fading. And your pants are dark. You look dirty, wet, but I doubt any one can tell that’s blood.”

  “Then let’s go,” said Vul.

  “Hold on,” said Pari. “We should make ourselves a bit more presentable.”

  Pari ran her fingers through Vul’s clumped and greasy locks. She pulled a soft cloth from her pouch, moistened it with her saliva and wiped the dried blood from his face. She then helped him brush the dirt from his clothes.

  Vul grimaced. “My hip burns. I think one of the bolts was tainted.”

  “I hope not,” said Pari. “I have nothing to treat their venom.”

  Vul studied Pari’s appearance gravely. She wore a vest of coarse cloth, dense with so many stains and discolorations that it looked like a complex piece of art. Protective leather cladding covered her forearms. “Your vest can stay, but you can’t be seen wearing those. Take off your gauntlets.”

  Pari unstrapped them, and tossed them in the weeds.

  “Now loosen your hair. Completely. No braids. Remove all of your ties.”

  Her hands went up behind her head, fingers working nimbly. Freed from the leather bindings and twigs, her hair ballooned out and fell before her face. “How do I look now?”

  Vul squinted. “Frightening. But as good as we’re going to get. Now, we go.”

  They crossed the lawn and pushed through a gap in the hedgerow that separated them from the main road.

  “Act like you’re curious about what’s happening,” said Vul. “Hopefully, Seor and the others will be around.”

  Pari nodded. They emerged from the hedge atop a stone retaining wall. Vul pretended to be standing there in order to get a better look down towards the factory. People swarmed down the road and sidewalk towards a crowd beginning to congregate near the entrance to the factory.

  Pari hopped down the wall. Vul, favoring his leg, was reluctant to leap.

  “Here, take my hand,” she said. She helped him down the wall gingerly. People rushed by on the sidewalk, ignoring them, caught up in the commotion at the factory. Vul took two steps and slowly crumpled to the ground.