Xenolith, Page 36A. Sparrow
Chapter 28: Ara and Canu
Canu danced down the road, slamming his heels, kicking his toes, scraping his soles; ridding his shoes of the mud that caked them. The patterned soles left a trail of clods in wedges and crescents. It felt marvelous walking on dry pavement for a change. Though it put them in plain view of every Urep’o that rolled by, the cadre woman, Ara, had insisted on taking the road, and who was he to argue with cadre?
A waxing moon hovered low over the far side of the valley. Tall lamps began to flicker on along the street. Sirens and bleatings of many pitches and patterns, volumes and distances, filled the air, building to crescendos and opening into silences almost like a complex musical arrangement. Canu paid them little heed. Such noises seemed all too common in this world. Perhaps such a symphony commenced every evening after sundown.
He kept peeking over his shoulder to make sure the cadre woman kept up. It seemed odd, how she always lagged so far behind him. She looked healthy enough. She walked without a limp. His glances summoned piercing glares when they lingered too long.
“Keep your eyes forward, before you trip over yourself,” she said.
He whipped his head forward. “This one thinks she’s too good to walk with militia,” grumbled Canu, a little too loudly.
“What did you say?”
Canu remained silent. His big shoes, freed of their earthen burdens, flapped against the road in a stuttering rhythm.
“It’s nothing personal,” she said, closing their gap slightly. “It’s tactical.”
“Tactical? How? It looks unnatural for two people to walk like this. It draws attention.”
“I don’t know you. Until I can assess you … your threat, I keep my distance.”
Canu smirked. “You’re afraid of me?”
“Fear you?” said Ara. “I want you ahead of me because if I have to kill you, I want to keep it simple.”
Canu expelled air through his lips. “Kill me? Why would you …? Are you serious?” What was this, a cadre mind game to subjugate him and show him who was boss? He puffed up his chest. “And how would you expect to manage this? I saw you leave your weapons behind.”
“I don’t need a weapon,” said Ara. “I am a weapon.”
Canu wheeled around abruptly, walking backwards. Ara’s hands came up defensively, in a loose, preparatory form of the fighting stance that every cadre mastered and attempted to pass to their militia trainees. Ara had unraveled her tight braids and brushed her hair out to look more Urep’o. Her arms looked wiry but not seem particularly strong. He thought he could take her if he had to, though the positively predatory look in her eyes instilled some doubt.
“Why do you say such things?” Canu complained. “Why would you consider me a threat?”
“I don’t. Yet. And I don’t expect you to become one, because you know … if you did threaten me you would die.”
“Enough!” Canu stopped in the road and turned around. “I am not your enemy. I am your compatriot. How can my own cadre treat me so?”
“Your place of birth does not suffice,” said Ara, snidely. “We hear of some who commit treachery against our nation.”
Canu stomped ahead, infuriated by her insulting tone. He wished now that Ren had gone with this witch and he had stayed behind. He stepped onto a concrete walk as a vehicle approached, sweeping them with its powerful beams. Creatures trilled in a dark hollow holding the stream bed Seor had led them up earlier.
“I’m not really cadre,” volunteered Ara, out of the blue. Canu was startled to see her following a step or two closer than before.
“How so? You wore their mark,” he said, referring to the black-striped armband she removed after changing into Ren’s extra clothes.
“I came to Gi with my militia from Ortezei. Baren promoted me in the field,” she said. “I’ve never received full training.”
“Ah, Commander Baren must have been impressed with your ability to murder innocent militia men with your bare hands.”
His jibe made no impression. “No. He promoted me because I spoke Venep’o.”
“Venep’o? Why would you need—”
“And Giep’o and Urep’o,” she added quickly. “I have a talent for languages.”
“But why Venep’o?”
Ara’s eyes shifted rapidly, but she said no more. But he noticed that she now walked within arm’s reach and he was the one now keeping distance.
They passed into an area where the houses sat closer together. Despite the pleasant weather, very few Urep’o came outside. In Sesei, such a community would be bustling at this hour. Other than one old man sitting on a porch and a pair of older children playing a game with a ball, everyone holed up in their houses as if Cuasar patrols terrorized their streets.
He heard Ara halt behind him. She had turned and was staring into the darkness behind a house.
“What’s wrong?” said Canu, his skin prickling.
“I think someone’s following,” she said, softly.
Canu scanned the hedgerows and shrubberies along the street. He noticed some branches rebounding on a bush. There was no breeze. He picked up a stone and threw it.
Ara grabbed his arm. “Stop, it might be someone from my unit.”
“But why? There’s a reason that Seor wanted only the two of us to go.”
Ara shrugged. “It’s just Baren’s way. He likes to double check things. Make sure you’re not leading me into an ambush.”
“Always such suspicion!” said Canu. “I don’t understand you cadre.”
“We have already gone over that,” she said impatiently. “Come.”
They followed a winding road down to a terrace where three-story houses crowded eave to eave. Canu paused at the head of a steep side street that plunged directly to the main road below. A small crowd milled about at the bottom of the hill, parting to allow several boxy, white vehicles to pass. Lights pulsed, their source out of view around the corner.
“This is where we sent the Urep’o man into exile,” said Canu. “But that was hours ago. I had no idea it would provoke such a big response.”
“Do we have to go down there?” said Ara, staring down at the commotion. “Isn’t there a way we can avoid this?”
“Probably, but this is the way I know,” said Canu. “Let’s see what is happening.” He started down the hill. He worried that some of the Urep’o who witnessed the recovery of the fragment might recognize him, but curiosity overrode caution.
At the base of the hill, a knot of onlookers blocked the intersection, gawking at a raucous spectacle of bright lights, vehicles and amplified voices. He pushed through them and stepped out from the corner to get a better view. Most of the commotion seemed to be concentrated at the head of the lane leading into the factory, not behind the rock shop as he had expected.
“I don’t understand,” said Canu. “That’s not where it happened.”
“Where what happened?” said Ara.
“We recovered the stones there,” explained Canu, shouting to be heard over the hubbub. He pointed at the rock shop.
Canu realized instant that Seor had also not mentioned that the xenoliths had been split. “The stone,” he corrected quickly, though not sure why it would matter.
Ara leaned close and whispered. “Not so loud,” she said. “Your Sesep’o sounds strange to them. Someone might become suspicious.”
Canu stepped out into the main road, which seemed to have been blocked to vehicular traffic. He went down to the alley that led into the lot behind the rock shop. The lot seemed nearly vacant and devoid of activity.
Ara came up beside him. “The people on the street are saying that some bodies were removed,” she said quietly. “That people were killed.”
“Then this has nothing to do with us,” said Canu loudly. Ara’s scolded him with her eyes. He modulated to a whisper. “We didn’t kill anyone. We just made him pass through the portal.”
“I am hearing conflicting stories,” she said
, her eyes unfocused as she concentrated on the murmurs of the crowd. “Some people are saying that the homeless people were fighting the police. Others are saying it was foreigners. Terrorists. I hope they’re not talking about Baren’s guests.”
Ara’s ability to gather such information from the torrent of gibberish surrounding them impressed Canu. Was it possible that she might be Urep’o herself?
A thin white scar traced the margin of her short-cropped hair, almost glowing against her bronze skin. Her small ears contrasted with a prominent but elegantly sculpted nose. Shadows fell deeply in the hollows beneath her cheekbones. It seemed that rations were scarce at the assembly camp. But her appearance gave him no reason to believe that she, like him, was born anywhere but Sesei.
Her almond eyes narrowed. Her expression bittered. “Why do you keep staring at me?” she asked in low tones.
“I was wondering if you were Urep’o.”
She scrunched her face at him. “Ridiculous.”
“But you seem to understand so much.”
“I lived here for a time, when I was studying to be a Traveler.”
Canu regarded this revelation with some measure of awe. Travelers comprised an elite and secretive guild, transitional to the even more exclusive Academy of Philosophers. Not the type of person who normally served in Provincial militias. No wonder Baren had promoted her.
“I spent almost a year here,” said Ara. “But the war struck, so I never completed my studies. I returned to Ortezei and joined our militia.” She turned away abruptly and moved off to the edge of another group of older men to eavesdrop.
Canu wondered how they could get by roadblocks sealing the road below. The back route into the factory grounds wouldn’t work either, given the level of activity in the complex. They would have to circumvent the factory completely, but the roadblock stood between them and the bridge.
Ara returned to his side. “The old men keep speaking of terrorists,” she said.
Canu’s cocked one eye. “What is this … tar-o-ees?”
“Fighters,” said Ara. “But those with too little numbers or power to fight an army face to face. So they kill people in the city and villages to make fear.”
“Like the Venep’o?”
“Not quite. The Venep’o have more than enough power to face our armies. They just happen to commit atrocities as well.”
Canu watched a dark vehicle creep along the road, working its way through the crowd. The vehicle had a circular emblem with white characters on its door. A blocky shape bulged from its roof.
“Like Nalkies?” said Canu.
“I’ve never heard of Nalkies killing colonists,” said Ara.
“No, but I’ve heard them speak wishfully about such deeds,” said Canu. “Particularly those who have had their farms taken away.”
“You’ve had contact with Nalkies?” said Ara, eyebrows rising.
Canu, realizing he had said too much, could only shrug.
“But talk alone does not make one a terrorist,” said Ara. “Nalkies fight in small bands against a powerful army. Here they would be called guerrillas or insurgents.”
“Thank you for this lesson,” said Canu. “I’m sure these words will prove very useful in conversation with Urep’o girls, yes?” He stood mesmerized by the dark vehicle approaching, rolling as slowly as an overloaded oxcart, its driver scanning the knots of spectators gathered in the road.
Ara grabbed him by his shirt and yanked him back.
“Canu, Don’t stare at him. Move away.”
The driver glanced at them sidelong, kept rolling for a moment, but stopped abruptly. A window descended. A man in a dark uniform addressed him. Canu stared back, uncomprehending. He looked to Ara, who was already leaning into the open window.