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Xenolith, Page 44

A. Sparrow

  Chapter 36: Wasteland

  Flashes of blue reflected off the water from the police vehicles lingering downstream. Canu led Ara, ankles bent, along a slanted slab of concrete that lined the river bend. When the river straightened and a natural bank resumed, the factory and downtown had disappeared from view. They diverged from the river into a dark and distorted landscape where the soil had been gouged and mounded and swirled as if a colossal beast had thrashed and died there. Unearthed boulders lay heaped like skulls. Weeds huddled like frightened sheep.

  This expanse of wastes separated the river from a pair of roads: a surface street passing empty lots and boxy buildings of brick and corrugated metal; and behind it a highway, soaring up a hillside on concrete legs.

  Moonlight and lamp glow frosted the terrain’s high points, but the shadows concealed deep pits and gouges that engulfed Canu’s feet and made him stumble. Canu marveled at Ara’s grace over the rugged ground. She read the land and chose her steps with care, avoiding every hidden hazard. She seemed to possess the night vision of a cat.

  They reached the point where the surface road and its tall lamps ended. Canu knew he was getting close to the relay. He decided to make a show of his displeasure. He stopped abruptly beside a berm. “This is as far as I go,” he said, though saying it felt awkward. “Good luck.”

  Ara looked alarmed. “But which way do I go from here?”

  “You know how to find the river,” said Canu.

  “So you’ll just … return?” said Ara. “Can you at least wait until I see if anyone is there?”

  Canu inhaled and exhaled deeply. “I suppose. So long as I don’t have to meet them.”

  Ara started off toward the river, but hesitated, motioning this way and that. “Which way, exactly?” she said.

  “Straight to the water,” said Canu.

  She nodded and disappeared into the shrubs, her outline quickly blending into the darkness. Canu sat on a boulder, feeling all twitchy and anxious. He wanted to help Ara, but the thought of Venep’o emissaries waiting a stone’s throw away angered and bewildered him. The invasion had cultivated in Canu a festering hostility to all things Venep’o.

  Canu had been in his teens when the invasion began. Unlike many of his friends, he ignored the militia enlistment appeals that sprang up after word came from the coast that a small invasion force from Venen had landed in Diomet. He couldn’t picture himself wielding a sword, or wearing a helm. He couldn’t imagine why any militia would want him.

  At first, most in Ubabaor considered the altercation a local dispute. They believed the Venep’o propaganda describing the action as a defense of several persecuted Sinkor expatriate communities in several Diomet ports. But the growing size of the invasion force soon belied the Venep’o’s true intentions. This was no humanitarian rescue.

  By the time shock troops began surging across Sesei, city officials in Ubabaor were manning the walls by conscripting any unaffiliated and able-bodied young person into the city defense force. Canu’s baptism of fire came when a Cuasar vanguard appeared on the plains and made their initial probes of the city walls, testing the vigilance of its defenders, while harassing the straggling columns of refugees still filtering in from Suul.

  When the siege wagons arrived, the real battle for Ubabaor began. Their terrible machines hurled boulders and flaming tar, battering solid walls to grit, scorching entire neighborhoods. Breach after breach they had turned back and sealed. Canu lost comrades almost as fast as he met them.

  At every sunrise, Canu became intimately acquainted with the morale-crushing cruelty of his enemies, when they taunted and tortured prisoners in full view of the defense walls, including some that he knew. Worst, was the day the Venep’o lured a band of riders out from the walls to rescue a woman who had been strapped to a post, partly dismembered and kept alive by tourniquets, only to have the full force of the besiegers fall upon them. Thus, the enemy acquired raw material for yet another week of atrocities. When the truce finally came, Canu, like many, found himself baffled by his own survival.

  Till now, Canu had harbored a vision of Ur as a pure land, free of all enemies. The idea comforted him, helped him get to sleep on the worst nights. He had even entertained the thought of retreating to Ur if conditions in Sesei deteriorated beyond hope. But the events of the day had permanently tainted his impressions of Ur. He no longer held any illusions of Ur as a refuge, particularly if the Venep’o had found their way here.

  Shrubs rustled. Canu scrambled for a stick and a stone. The faint outline and the way it moved, nimble but lost, could only be Ara.

  “Over here,” said Canu, whispering.

  “No one’s there,” said Ara, orienting to his voice. “At least I think not. It was so dark, I couldn’t see a thing.”

  “I can leave?” said Canu.

  “Stay with me till morning?” said Ara. “Please? At least till there is light?”

  Canu made a show of his exasperation, expelling breath. “Sure,” he said. In truth, he had no desire to leave Ara’s side. He enjoyed her company enough to endure the specter of Venep’o emissaries possibly lurking somewhere along the river bank.

  “Bringing Venep’o to Ur,” he grumbled. “How was this ever allowed?”

  “If it brings peace, it’s good, don’t you think?”

  “What peace does this bring?” said Canu. “It just brings the war to Ur.”

  “Not necessarily,” said Ara. “There have been negotiations.”

  “They know about our stones now. How do you suppose they will use them?”

  “We’re not just … surrendering. The militias Gi in provide leverage for our negotiations. The Venep’o will surely make concessions. I hope. I mean … I have my doubts, too, but my hopes are stronger.”

  “Hope,” he mocked. “The Venep’o eat hope for breakfast. I have hopes too, but they don’t involve peace treaties with Venen. I hope we take back our freedom by force.”

  “How? By recruiting Nalkies? By attacking the farthest frontiers of Venen with an army of farmers? You don’t find that plan preposterous?”

  “You underestimate the Nalkies,” said Canu. “Didn’t you hear what they did in Siklaa Gorge? Destroyed a complete caravan and its escort. Annihilated them. The Crasacs fear them now. They hole up in their garrisons at night for fear of being slaughtered in their camps.”

  Ara chortled.

  “You laugh,” said Canu. “But I would not want to fight them. They use the land well, and they have excellent weapons. Swords of folded metal that cut through any armor. Long bows with range beyond our crossbows.”

  “That’s not what Baren says. He says they wield farming implements, and run when confronted. It’s only the threat of our militia that keeps them from being slaughtered.”

  “He knows this, how? Has he ever seen a Nalki fight?”

  “It doesn’t matter,” she said. “The Inner Quorum has decided to seek peace. I’m sure they what they’re doing; they know things that we can’t possibly know.”

  “So you just follow, blind? You have no thoughts of your own?”

  “Do you think I’m looking forward to meeting these Venep’o?” Ara’s voice rose in agitation. “Do you think I enjoy showing hospitality to my enemy?”

  Canu sighed. He picked up a handful of pebbles and clinked them one by one against a larger stone.

  “During the invasion,” said Ara, “When my unit was cut off, we were all taken prisoner. I was the lucky one. They used me as an interpreter for a time, until I could escape. But I saw firsthand the terrible things the Venep’o did to prisoners. They had me … me … ask the questions to those they tortured. Unanswerable questions, that brought grotesque punishments. It seemed they tortured more for pleasure than for information.”

  “If you have such feelings, why do you collaborate with these monsters?”

  “What choice is there for Sesei?” said Ara. “We have to have some faith in our leaders. Did they not manage to stall the invasion, when no
one thought it could ever be stopped?”

  “I think you give them too much credit,” said Canu. “Our militias did the fighting.”

  Canu rolled over and stretched out on the rocks, digging a hollow for his hip. Ara sat down in the cool gravel beside him and leaned against a boulder, resting her chin against her chest.

  The gentle breeze carried a faint murmur like a droning voice, but too faint to discern direction or distance. Dawn remained hours away, yet vehicles still rumbled down the roadway behind them. He wondered if this world ever knew silence.