Hollowed Memories, chapter 7, part 3

December 21, 2014

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.

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