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Xenolith, Page 55

A. Sparrow

  Chapter 47: Culvert

  The town looked much uglier to Ara in the daylight. Black smears of chewing gum blotched sidewalks that had sparkled under street lamps. Chalky curls of paint peeled from tenement walls tidied by night. Even the pigeons looked filthier.

  But the events upriver tainted her perceptions as much as the dearth of shadows to hide the grime. Her dread intensified with every footfall that brought her closer to facing Baren. Now she had two calamities to explain: the destruction of the portal to Sesei, and the massacre of the Venep’o delegation. Her inaction and complicity had abetted both.

  She didn’t understand what force kept her walking back to Baren; why she didn’t just run off and defect to a life in Ur. She knew of places where no one from her world would ever find her.

  Canu tried taking her hand, whether for his own consolation or to comfort her, she didn’t know and didn’t care. She shook free without a word or a glance and surged ahead, leaving him several steps behind.

  She had already betrayed her duty and succumbed to his will by letting him destroy the xenolith. She had helped him retrieve and bury his friends; wrapped the gash on the back of his hand with sun-bleached paper and twine. What more did he want from her?

  They followed a street several blocks removed from the one harboring the police station. Canu had insisted on it, not wanting to risk another encounter with their interrogators. Odd, that a man who would attack a Cuerti warrior with a moldy stick would fear a pair of pudgy functionaries.

  When they angled back to the bridge, they found it closed, even to pedestrians. The factory grounds still bustled with investigators; not surprisingly, since the wastes upstream had swarmed with men in orange vests and dogs on leads, combing every corner of the terrain.

  Ara and Canu had retreated with stealth and haste from the approaching voices, circling up the hillside beyond the highway to avoid detection. She doubted that Canu’s friends would rest for long in their shallow grave.

  “Downstream?” said Canu. “Maybe there’s another bridge?” Ara assented silently, grateful for any detour that would delay her encounter with Baren.

  The road ran straight where the river meandered away, but rejoined it farther downstream. A shopping center and parking lot filled the pocket between road and river bend. Canu gawked at the collection of broad, squat buildings with flat roofs fronted with gaudy signs – Target, Whole Foods and Walgreens. He seemed curious, but didn’t ask about them, and Ara felt in no mood to explain.

  She stepped off the sidewalk and cut into the parking lot. It was mostly empty, but a steady stream of people moved to and from the stores. Empty metal carts lay scattered across the blank stretches like abandoned Venep’o siege wagons on a battlefield.

  “Do you have any money left?” said Ara.

  Canu pulled out a few coins and jingled them in his hand.

  “Never mind.” She noticed a row of green dumpsters peeking from behind the Stop and Shop and veered towards them, stepping up her pace. Canu followed several steps behind, pausing to glance through a metal grating at the stream that flowed beneath the lot.

  Ara made sure the back of the store was vacant before climbing into one of the bins. She passed an empty box to Canu, prompting a quizzical look, but he got the gist when she began handing out pieces of bruised fruit and squashed bags of sliced bread.

  She climbed back out. “It’s not the best food in this world, but at least we won’t starve.”

  They walked around the back of the stores, past the loading docks, following a wall that flanked the river bank. Ara ripped open one of the transparent bags from the box Canu carried in both arms, took a slice for herself and hung one in Canu’s lips that he struggled to hang onto and eat without dropping. It was stale and crumbly, but unsullied by mold.

  A piercing whistle reverberated down the river bed and froze them in place on the cracked pavement. Canu rotated nervously, trying to locate its source. More whistles followed: staccato bursts, then a rising tremolo.

  “That’s my unit,” said Ara. She went to the shoulder-high wall and spotted a woman standing behind them atop the rim of a large culvert that fed the stream beneath the lot to the river. “It’s Kera.” Her comrade lowered herself into the culvert and waved them over. A cascade trickled from the lip of its overhanging maw

  Ara felt roiled, excited to see a familiar face, but anxious that Baren might be closer that she thought. She resisted the urge to run. She climbed the wall and dropped down to the other side. “What am I going to tell them?” she said, more of herself, than Canu.

  “Tell them they shouldn’t be bringing our enemies into Ur,” said Canu.

  “That’s not helpful,” said Ara, gazing down.

  Canu put the box down on the wall and followed her over. They made their way along a ramp of tightly fitted, quarried blocks to the culvert. Canu handed the box up to Kera and climbed into a concrete pipe that was not quite tall enough for him to stand upright. Ara pulled herself up high enough to catch a knee on the edge and rolled in after him, aided by a tug from Kera.

  She peered into a darkness interrupted by columns of light descending from the grates in the parking lot. She could see that Kera was not alone. Others huddled by the light at the opposite end of the tunnel.

  “Seor? Ren?” Canu’s voice echoed down the pipe. A figure lunged out of the darkness and seized him.