The river ran the other way, but an outboard motor could carry them swiftly along.  The motor was hinged to the stern, and it had been stowed inside the gunwales while they drifted downstream to pick Yarec up.  Now, having turned the boat around and edged it back into the current, the brother in the rear swung the motor over the side and plopped the propeller into the water.  The outboard was small but powerful, and it quickly overcame the current.  There was a tiller to steer the motor left and right, and Rigg Solara looked as fluid as the river itself as he directed the boat around small eddies and obstacles.  His arm angled one direction, then the other, like a slippery brown shark swaying with the ebb and pull of the waves.

The countryside did not change much over the course of the first day.  The width of the river channel, sculpted by the tools of ancient engineers, remained almost constant.  The travellers kept the motor whirring until a couple of hours after sundown.  The sky had become overcast, and the night was very dark.  Off in the distance, Yarec saw occasional lights of human habitation.  There was still a marginally maintained road off the north bank, and trucks rumbled by now and then, carrying whatever imported goods were needed by the hermits living way out in the hinterlands.

When the river and the roadway separated a bit, they pulled the canoe out of the waters and pitched camp.  They pulled the boat out near a stand of luminous yellow-green grass.  Someone must have planted a few of the bioengineered specimens here long ago, and they had spread unevenly over the intervening years.  The grass had tall, tufted stalks that waved in the nighttime breeze.  The broad leaves glowed disuniformly, casting patchy light around the campsite.

Everyone was tired, and they downed their cold supper with minimal conversation.  The Solara brothers strung out a fence of electrified and razor-tipped wire, around a heavy tent.  They had three bedrolls, thin but satisfactory, and Yarec passed the night without waking up even once.

They rose too early, Yarec thought, but they still had a lot of distance to cover.  The glow from the weeds was too faint to be noticeable in daylight, but they still looked eerie.  The long blades were desiccated and spotted with black, but their tiny residual lambence still registered on his unconscious mind, and when Yarec looked at them, he could not shake the impression of something preternatural.  He had a few bites of protein fritter while the brothers pushed the canoe back into the water.  Then, after he made doubly sure that the holster for his sidearm was easy to reach, Yarec climbed in after them.

Around midday they reached a point where the Black Snail river branched.  Yarec was watching for the divide, because they needed to change course there.  Whenever he asked how far it was, Rigg or Thad told him to be patient.  “Be there soon, drifter,” Thad said.

First he saw the Little Snail, the second channel approaching them on the right.  It was faster and narrower than the main channel, streaking its way south by southwest.  Then Yarec saw the branch point itself, and it was a narrower junction than he had expected.  There was a break in the rough concrete wall that had been directing the flow of the Black Snail down toward some forgotten agricultural project.  It might have been caused by an earth tremor—a shock wave that had sheared the barrier in two, leaving a ragged gap into which half of the torrent leaked.  The water, eager to return to its natural path, had widened the opening to several meters.  The three paddlers had no trouble bringing the canoe around and then coasting through the hole into the river’s newer branch, which would carry them to Yarec’s destination.

The Little Snail cut its way between limestone hills.  The stony carcasses of prehistoric invertebrates had accumulated over millennia, until the landscape was uplifted out of the sea.  Then rivers and rain had begun to redissolve the rock, leaving behind a rough karst topography, full of pinnacle outcrops and occasional sinkholes.  For much of the afternoon, the river ran parallel to a high ridge, decked with humped pillars of stone.  It looked like a crenelated wall erected by the aboriginal orange-skinned stone giants who might once have occupied this land.


Overhead there were clouds.  They were dense and gray but patchy and quickly moving.  As the wind carried them over his head, Yarec watched the cloud’s shadows covering and uncovering the ground.  Amidst the rocks, the tough grass look pale golden where the oblique sunlight fell on it.  Then a minute later, another cloud had slid in front of the sun, and in shadow, the patchy vegetation looked sallow and unhappy.

Yarec had veered off the road as he moved inland.  Now, he was headed back toward the paved line and the river lying just beyond it.  As Yarec progressed east, he soon saw the roadway creeping up again on his right.  It angled slowly toward him, while the patchwork shadows of the clouds played over its faded black pavement.  He had to go several more kilometers before there was any chance of encountering his guides, so he was in no particular hurry to reach the river that was their thoroughfare.  At this early hour, there was no traffic, and Yarec was left entirely alone, with only the countryside and his own reveries.

Eventually, he reached the road and crossed it.  On the other side lay the Black Snail River—a roll of gray waters that had crossed down from the mountains and were finally just about to reach the sea.  Yarec followed the river bank inland, against the direction of the flow.  His contacts would be moving the other direction, and they would rendezvous at a now-undetermined point.  The Solara brothers, who had been hired to ferry Yarec up and down the river, were supposed to be reliable, but they had not made a very strong impression so far.  They ought to have gotten all the way to the river mouth the previous day, but there were hazards in this thinly-populated region—natural and otherwise.  Yarec could have just sat down and waited, but he did not like the feeling of doing nothing.  It made him feel powerless—devoid of independent agency.  So he kept moving, covering a little more of the remaining distance himself, while always eying the river for the guides’ approach.

Yarec did not really need anyone to guide him to his destination, and the Solara brothers had been hired mostly to provide transportation.  Yarec had to travel a fair distance upriver, while keeping his approach reasonably quiet.  This mission was “low risk, low security,” as one of the briefers had put it, but it would still be better if Yarec arrived at his destination by boat, rather than in a noisy helicopter.  However, the mission planners had been sufficiently unconcerned about him encountering serious danger that Yarec had not even been given a cover identity; he was going on this mission as himself.

Another hour had passed before Yarec spotted the river guides a long way off.  Their boat cut a straight line across the water’s slick surface.  He stopped walking and waved to them from the bank, and they must have noticed, since their craft started angling slowly toward him.  Larger and larger the vessel grew, as Yarec waited, sizing up his transportation.

The Solara brothers looked alike, although much of the similarity was owed to their nearly identical gear and garb.  They were paddling a deep, arch-bottomed canoe, kneeling with only the smalls of their backs against the tubular thwarts.  They moved in sync, one paddling on either side.  They wore waterproof shirts patterned with red plaid.  The pointed collars were turned up around their necks, pressing against full gray-brown beards.  Their hats were soft and nestled loosely over the ears.  There were different colors, which created the most obvious difference between the pair.  The brother in the bow—shorter and probably a little older—wore yellow, and his sibling astern wore a hat that was red and gray striped.

The river back here was lined with concrete.  Some ancient environmental engineering project had converted the natural muddy watercourse into a gigantic man-made sluice.  The guide in the stern angled the boat toward the concrete wall.  The canoe butted against it, and his brother hopped out.  In a single lithe motion, he rested his hands on the top of the wall and vaulted up onto shore.  The man held out a hand, wrapped in a fingerless black glove, for Yarec to shake.

“Hello, drifter,” he said, in a thick accent that suggested he had grown up hundreds of kilometers further north.  “You’re Silfien, right?”  Yarec nodded and took the proffered hand.  The boatman went on, “Thad Solara.  Me and my brother Rigg are Solara River Tours.”

“Nice to see you,” Yarec said.  He was annoyed that the guides had not picked him up on schedule, back at the coastal complex, but he felt too tired now to be sarcastic.

Rigg Solara secured the boat with a rope tied around one of the small metal cleats that were spaced out on the top of the wall.  Then he joined Yarec and his brother on land.  Yarec looked the brothers over.  They had the proper appearance for men who worked almost exclusively outdoors.  Their clothing was wet and appropriately unkempt, with dark stains around the hips from wiping their hands free of mud and dust time after time.  They had heavy olive skin, a mixture of hereditary complexion and deep tanning.  Yarec knew that the brothers were well armed; their company’s promotional material detailed some (but not all) of the measures they took to protect themselves and their passengers out in the lawless backcountry.  They must have been carrying both pistols and blades, but they were very discrete about it.

“Good to meet you,” Rigg said, also offering his hand.  They shook, and then Rigg produced a folded square of fabric.  It was a programmable nanomaterial, folded to fit into the palm of the boatman’s hand.  “I’ve got your itinerary, here,” he announced, and gave a flip of the wrist, unfolding the fabric into a sheet about forty centimeters square.  It was decorated with a map of the region, on which routes and notes could be inscribed and erased with a magnetic stylus.  The map was less versatile than a two-dimensional computing lamina, but it was also lighter, cheaper, and—most importantly, in the current situation—more durable.

The map showed a hand-drawn black squiggle—Yarec’s intended path—following along the blue ribbon of the river.  Rigg held it up at eye level, while his older brother Thad gestured with a stubby fingernail.  “We’re right here—see, see?” Thad Solara said, pointing out a broad curve.

“I see,” Yarec said softly, observing the distance between  where the man was indicating and the black dot marking where Yarec was supposed to have been picked up.

“We run here, up the Black Snail, toward the hills,” Thad explained, tracing his nail against the marked route.  “A day and half, maybe, if we push ourselves. Then we turn back south on the Little Snail, and it’s just a few more hours.”

“Fine,” Yarec said curtly, eager to get aboard.  “It looks good.  Are we ready to go?”

“Sure,” said Thad.  His brother wadded the map up, making a tiny colored ball, and stuffed it into a shirt pocket with a metal buckle.  “Is this all your gear, see?” Thad asked, indicating the traveller’s two yellow bags.

“That’s the lot,” Yarec said with a shrug.  “But the stuff’s valuable.”

The pilot responded with a narrow-eyed look that might as well have said, Then you’d better handle it yourself.  Once he was satisfied that Yarec had gotten the message, his expression softened again, and he asked, “Are you ready then?”

“Yeah, but give me a minute,” Yared said, after a bit of a pause.  He twisted his stiff neck from side to side, then forward and back.  He gazed out over the swirling river, making its way back down towards the cold Pacific.  Yarec sat down on a red-orange rock and listened to the dusty breeze.  “This could be a nice country,” he said slowly.  The air here was moister than on the plateau that was his ancestral home, but the waterway was so like the ones from his childhood.  “Don’t you think?”  He glanced over at the Solaras, still hovering by their boat.  Thad did not seem interested, but Rigg responded with a nod and a wistful smile.  Yarec remained seated a few minutes longer; then he cranked himself up and strode back to join his guides where the boat was moored.

The brothers climbed back into their boat first.  Yarec dropped his bags in the bottom of the canoe, then stepped in after them.  The hull rocked, and Rigg gripped the concrete barrier to steady it.  Yarec crouched down, supporting his back against a thwart.  His knees were in a centimeter of water.  He would have preferred a padded seat, to keep his backside comfortable and his knees out of the bilge.  However, it was the Solaras’ boat, so he followed their lead.

The brothers resumed their positions, fore and aft, with their passenger in the middle.  Yarec grabbed an extra paddle from the bottom and accompanied the Solaras in their strokes.  Rigg cast off the line holding the vessel to the wall, and they immediately began to drift toward the center of the waterway.  The Solaras deftly paddled in opposite directions, revolving the canoe so they could take it back the way they had come.  It a few moments, it had turned almost fully about face, and then all three occupants paddled forward, angling the canoe into the swiftest flow of water.