Yarec headed back toward the main garage, and Rorke moved off to reinspect the nearby electrical work.  Quite apart from Rorke’s paranoid fears about what the States United Armed Forces had in store for Yarec, there was at least one real reason for him to stay out of their hands.  Whenever he returned from a job, he would undergo a thorough medical examination.  Yarec did not want anyone to scan his nervous system right then.  He did not want them to see that the movement of the water had been making him nauseous, and that the transition to firm land made his legs wobble.  Yarec doubted there was actually anything untoward about his being summoned back to headquarters, but he knew that his supposed allies would have no compunctions about transporting him someplace involuntarily, if they believed it would serve their greater purpose.  He did not want to be tracked, so he disconnected the power supply from his headset and set his computing device not to transmit to any outside communications network without explicit permission.  If there was a backdoor in the system programming, someone might still be able to trace him, but he hoped that doing so would not be worth the effort.  After all, if anybody really wanted to come after him, they could make a better start by tracking the vehicle he was about to expropriate.

One of the overhead doors on the garage was already open.  Inside, Yarec could see there were only larger trucks parked by the entrance.  The kind of car he wanted would be found on the upper level, so he headed for the ramp.  Then Yarec felt a pang when he noticed that he was not alone.  There was a driver or mechanic in the cab of one of the cargo trucks.  Yarec walked straight past, and she did not even seem to notice him.

At the top of the ramp, he found a double row of cars. Yarec selected a nearby two-seater.  It was pale gray, with a rounded outline like a bullet.  Yarec touched the device Rorke had given him to a spot on the driver’s door, and he heard a friendly hum as the electrical system came to life.  Yarec opened the door and dropped his two yellow bags, filled with more equipment that was not technically his, onto the passenger seat.

Then he got in and revved the engine.  He was anxious, although he had made up his mind that he was doing the right thing.  It’s just regular pre-mission jitters, he told himself.  He gritted his teeth, grabbed the steering yoke, and nosed the car out.  Nobody seemed to pay any heed as Yarec maneuvered the car down the ramp toward the open exit.  He tensed involuntarily as the vehicle passed out into the sunlight, but there was no one there to check his progress.  Yarec realized he was free.  “Thanks, thanks,” he said under his breath, kicking the engine up to its full cruising power.

It was only a few hundred meters to the bridge over Black Snail Gorge.  Yarec knew that the underside of the bridge was a chaotic mosaic of rust, because here near the river mouth, the air and water were tainted with corrosive salt.  Yet despite the missing bolts and plates, the construction seemed to have been completed with a sufficient safety factor to keep the modest flow of regular traffic safely elevated above the water.  Yarec shook his head ruefully as he turned south and crossed the span.

Beyond the bridge, the road veered gradually eastward, until it merged with an older southbound highway, which meandered between the concrete ruins of old towns and cities, now lost to droughts and heat.  Yarec passed other vehicles heading north, sometimes travelling singly, but often moving in convoy formations—three or four large trucks, plus one or two cars packed with mercenaries.  Yarec hoped his own coupe would be too small to attract attention from brigands, although he knew from experience that many bandit gangs would attack just about anything that passed their way; even if there was nothing else on board, the car and its human driver could each be sold to the right buyer.

He kept a weapon handy on the dashboard, where it might be visible to an observer with binoculars.  It was probably a worthless deterrent, but it gave Yarec a childish feeling of power.  Now that he was free to search for his wife, he felt a kind of exaltation, and he kept driving until long after dark.  Crystalline white stars came out and lit up the countryside like a dark fairyland.  The pale outline of his car sailed along the old, curving track, down stretches that few other drivers would care to travel by night.  At sunset, he had felt like he could keep going all night, but his euphoria did eventually give way to exhaustion, and Yarec pulled the little car off the road.  He parked in the shadows of a long, high wall—the work of ancient, cyclopean construction cranes—and fell asleep with the car’s proximity alarm set and a pistol gripped loosely in the driver’s hand.

The alarm went off once during the night, and its frenetic buzzing pattern jolted Yarec awake.  He flipped on the passenger compartment light and brandished his weapon, but no one seemed to be about.  Yarec stepped out of the vehicle and looked around very carefully.  Whatever had spooked the sensors was gone.  It could have been a nocturnal carrion bird, or even a bit of blown debris.  In any case, it did not seem to present a actual threat, so Yarec returned to his seat.  He locked the door, turned out the light, and reset the alarm; then he slipped back into the same dream that he had been woken out of.

Recently, it had become quite common for Yarec to have these persistent dreams, which continued on from night to night.  The one he was experiencing currently had him somewhere in the icy Andean heights, fighting blue-green lizard people who stood about waist high.  He would forget most of it when he woke up.  He only retained a general sense of what had occurred in these serialized dream narratives during the waking interludes between episodes.  However, as soon as Yarec fell asleep and reentered the dream world, the whole history would come back, and the story would continue as if it had never been interrupted.

By dawn, Yarec had one of the reptilian chieftains by the throat, but the burst of daylight brought him back to physical reality.  He got out of the car again to stretch out his legs, which were prone to stiffness since they were equipped with internal armor.  He found something to gnaw on while he relieved himself against the wall.  Then Yarec started the engine up again and maneuvered back onto the roadway.

The old roadbed had gotten so bad that at some point in the past it had been broken up and overlaid with gravel.  The lack of proper pavement taxed the gripping power of his tires, especially as the terrain became more mountainous.  The highway had come out on the eastern side the mountains that appeared sporadically along the coastline, and now it was zigzagging back westward towards the shore.  There were broad passes between the adjacent peaks, but traversing one still entailed gaining a significant amount of elevation.  Yarec had to wonder what vagaries of history had left the principal surviving road with this ineptly laid out track.

After he had driven for several more hours, Yarec decided he need something more substantial to eat than the nutrition cakes and sticks he had stocked in his luggage.  The previous day, he had been anticipating a proper supper at the Kruppeen Engineering Center, which he had obviously not been able to eat.  So he pulled over at a small town, perched on the last downward slope of the mountainside before the Pacific coast plain.  At the edge of town, the road went from sun-bleached gravel to a hard synthetic surface made from reused petroleum solids.  Yarec felt the rubberine tires bump as the road abruptly improved, and then pale mud-colored cottages, topped with brilliant red tile roofs, appeared on either side of the street.  The houses had nothing resembling yards and were built practically right down to the curb.  Their front doors opened almost directly into the street, and the narrow flat corridor that served as both sidewalk and doorsill was stacked with various salable goods.  On the shaded southerly side of the road, women and men sat under the shadows of their eaves, sipping synthetically colored sugar water and waiting for passersby who might be interested in their “like new” wares.

When he reached a cross street, Yarec turned southwest and stopped in the parking lot of a small restaurant.  The lot had room for five or six four-passenger cars, and Yarec slid his low-slung coupe neatly between the two other vehicles present.  It was late morning, probably before the peak luncheon period.  “Consignment Restaurant,” the sign over the door proudly proclaimed.  There was a sticker on the door, indicating that the establishment had been inspected by a privately hired health examiner, who had pronounced the sanitation conditions tolerable.

Inside, there was one other customer sitting at the counter, with two blue plates of fried strips and mashed starch.  She paid Yarec’s arrival (and the accompanying ching of the electronic door sensor) no heed.  Along two walls stood eight-foot-high refrigerators.  Their stainless metal surfaces were well polished, but the rubberized wheels on which they stood had left apparently indelible black track marks on the floor.  Slips of paper taped to the huge refrigerator doors indicated, in general terms, their contents:  soups, stews, and porridges Yarec passed in turn.  He stopped at the first case marked carbohydrate sides and yanked the door open.

The door was heavy, and its deformed bearings whined as they moved.  Inside, Yarec saw white wire shelves, laden with various noodles, loaves, and synthetic rice-shaped nuggets.  Each serving was wrapped in transparent plastic foil, with a price sticker stuck to the outside.  The stickers were color-coded, according to a scheme Yarec did not need to understand.  A few were computer printed, but most of the tags had been lettered by hand, by whatever seller had brought them in.

For the consignment restaurant was a place where people could get a little bit of money for their unwanted leftovers.  Anyone left with too much gruel after a large family meal could portion it out into individual servings and delivery it to the restaurant.  The cooks set their own prices, although the restaurateur absorbed most of the money, as fees for location, marketing, and cleanup.  Every week, the consigner could stop in to inspect their stock (what not had not gone bad), pick up their clean dishes, and collect their modest share of the takings.

Yarec picked out three modest-sized dishes—a bowl of round meaty cakes, a powdery baked carbohydrate, and what looked like some lightly boiled pondweed.  He had considered trying an interesting-looking soup, which looked very thick and almost as black as tar, but its smell put him off.  He place his selections, along with some cutlery and a bleached cloth napkin, on a powder blue tray and carried the lot to the payment station.  The cashier was a short man, with long red-blond hair wrapped up in a dark blue net.  He tallied up the prices scrawled on the three dishes, then asked laconically, “Drink?”

“Just a water,” Yarec told him..

“That’ll be another eighty-eight,” the cashier announced.

“Fine,” Yare said.

A girl, nine or ten years old, popped out of the kitchen carrying a short glass of water.  She looked like the man’s daughter; they had the same hair, with hers trimmed short near her scalp.  She handed her father the cup, which he set down on Yarec’s tray.  Yarec handed over amount shown in the register’s diode display.  “Enjoy,” the man muttered as he counted the coins and bars.  Then he followed the girl back into the kitchen, and Yarec heard the sounds of metal scouring against metal.

Yarec sat down at one end of the counter, on a barstool upholstered with plaid-patterned plastisilk.  Through the back window of the dining room, he could see a twelve-sided white pavilion in the middle of a grassy field.  Beside the high-peaked roof of the tent, a long sign—hand lettered in black on yellowed fabric—flapped unevenly in the breeze.  It said, “REPENT.”  The door flaps of the pavilion had been pushed back, and inside Yarec saw a circle of folding chairs, facing in toward a treadmill.

Yarec tried the greens first; they were lightly seasoned, letting the natural vegetable flavor come through.  After a few bites, Yarec tried to strike up a conversation with the diner’s other patron.  “Excuse me, ma’am” Yarec began.  He had cultivated the disarming habit of starting to talk with bits of food in his mouth, which meant he then had to pause and swallow.  It was not very debonair, but it contributed to the impression, which he often wanted to create when he was working, that he was affable and not very concerned about appearances.

The woman a few seats down looked up when Yarec spoke, then waited while Yarec hurried to chew up the rest of a fritter.  Once the bite was down, Yarec went on, “Are you from around here?”

“Sure thing, fellah,” she said.  Her voice was deep and husky.  “You looking for something around here?”

“In fact, I’m looking for a ship, something going south,” Yarec explained.  “I have experience crewing on freighters, and I thought I might find one down on the coast.”

“Oh, well you’re probably in luck, drifter,” the woman grinned.  There’s a lot of ship traffic just down on Muscle Bay.  Just follow the road down to the bay.  I think they’re usually looking for hands.”

“Thanks, Madam…?” Yarec trailed off.

“Reverend Tilton,” the woman said.  She slid down off her bar stool with a thump and reached out to shake Yarec’s hand.

“Oh, thanks, reverend.  I’m Linc Dan Fuller, by the way,” Yarec told him.

“Good to meet you, Linc,” the reverend said.  “I hope you find your ship.”

“Slick.  Thanks again,” Yarec said, as Tilton returned to her meal.  As they ate, Yarec continued to watch the reverend out of the corner of his eye.  She finished her lunch and left, waving cheerfully to Yarec and the cashier..

Left alone at the counter, Yarec also finished quickly.  Apart from the pondweed, it did not taste like much.  Just as Yarec was finishing, the cashier came over to pick up the empty plates.  He scrubbed the countertop thoroughly, spraying a clear, odorless enzymatic cleaner that bubbled and smoked when it hit the surface.  The spots of food debris dissolved as it touched them; then the man wiped up the mess with a furry brown rag.

Just short of the gorge’s mouth, the boatmen dropped Yarec off at the base of a vehicle ramp that ran right up from the river’s edge to the clifftops.  This time, with the first step Yarec took on land, he felt off balance.  It was an unaccustomed sensation, though it eased as he walked up the ramp.  Yet even a momentary equilibrium problem was a concern; near-perfect balance was a necessity in Yarec’s line of work.  His delicately crafted inner ears could detect tiny changes in orientation, but after many hours on the river, they seemed to have been thrown out of whack.

Yarec stumped up the slope, and at the top it flattened into a concrete roadway, running over to the nearby motor pool building.  Yarec veered off this path into the stubby grass.  It was obvious that the green lawns were only occasionally manicured, and they were dotted with fast-growing weeds.  Different species grew in different clumps, each patch presumably descended from a single progenitor seed that had happened to germinate there.  One particular variety of weed, with spindly stalks and rather pretty little lavender flowers, attracted Yarec’s attention, and he moved to pick a shot of the blossoms.  He bent down beside one of the plants, and a spray of tiny white dots leapt into the air.  They only came up a couple centimeters, but they took Yarec totally by surprise.  Before he could react, before he could focus on any one individual speck, they fell back into the thatch of grass and disappeared.  What were those?  Yerac asked himself.  Jumping insects?  Spring-loaded seeds?  What?

Whatever the specks were, they had killed Yarec’s interest in the flowers.  Who was I picking them for, anyway?  He kicked past the plants.  He was ultimately heading for the administration building, but Yarec detoured around the whole curving string of buildings, so he could approach from the seaward side.  As he came around the last structure, he saw heavy machinery at work on the clifftops overlooking where the ocean pen had been.  Beside the dredging cranes sat a heap of silvery fish, whole and in parts.  As Yarec watched, a hinged metal scoop brought up  new pile of them, intermixed with kelp and other organic matter.  The crane disgorged the lifeless catch onto the heap beside the rest, and the pile was beginning to reek in the sun.

There was also other activity going on outside the complex, including a large number of workers scurrying one way or another.  There was another hub of movement not far from the dredging equipment, where technicians were apparently doing major repairs on a piece of heavy-duty electrical equipment.  Radiating out from its humped bulk were streaks of black, where the grass and soil had been fried by electrical discharges.  One of the machine’s sleek metal walls had been completely dismantled, leaving a hole large enough so that the repair workers could walk in among the circuitry without ducking.  The metal casing itself was scarred with oxidation, which had burned right through the gray-green enamel coating the surface.

Portable fencing blocked off access to the work areas, and there were numerous signs and placards, set on stakes in the ground or mounted on the sloping walls of the buildings.  They issued various warnings and sometimes gave complicated technical instructions, which Yarec decided it was not his job to try to understand.  He meandered out to the rim of the cliffs and gazed westward across the Pacific.  The sea itself looked gray and unsettled.  The wind-pocked surface smote again and again against the low cliffs, fighting an unwinnable battle against the mussel-clad rocks.  Floating on the billows now were shreds and streamers of man-made material—long lines of white netting, which were still anchored somewhere underwater, tying their useless bodies to this location.  Yarec imagined the frustration of the ocean, which had been pounding at the plastic nets men had set in the water for years, never wavering in its attempts to break them free; the artificial enclosure was gone now, but the sea was sullen, for the intruding handiwork of mankind had only been removed thanks to the spectacular pyrotechnic failure of yet another piece of human technology.

While he had been working, Yarec’s mind had succeeded in focusing only on his mission.  He had sublimated his general dissatisfaction into an ire directed toward the imbecility and incompetence he so often beheld around him.  Now, however, he had resorted to distracting himself with musings about the anthropomorphized rage of the Pacific Ocean, and he realized that his personal troubles would soon be occupying the bulk of his attention once again.

Yarec turned back toward the buildings, and he saw a group of armed guards striding toward him.  As he crossed the lawn, some of the regular employees of Kruppeen Eningeering had been watching him suspiciously.  Yet Yarec had moved with such assurance—looking like he belonged precisely where he was—that he had not been accosted or questioned.  Evidently though, someone had, quite properly, reported their misgivings about Yarec’s presence to the site security office, which had sent a deputation to question him.

The character in front was Rorke.  As Yarec turned, he and Rorke recognized each other.  Rorke’s tense expression relaxed, and he waved the rest of his group back toward the building with a shrug.  Rorke waited for the guards to depart, then stepped up Yarec’s side.  His indigo trousers looked like they had not been changed in several days.  Nor had he apparently shaved, and the dry lines of his face seemed to have deepened markedly since Yarec had last seen him.

“Hello, ban Silfien,” Rorke said—surprisingly softly, Yarec throught.  “I should send word that you’re here.”  Yarec nodded, not particularly interested.  “We got word the other night,” Rorke went on, “they want you back immediately.  I don’t know why.”

“Really?” Yarec groaned.

“Yeah,” Rorke said, with his voice almost down to a whisper.  “They’ll send a copter down here immediately.”  Yarec was hardly listening.  Rorke added, “I suggest you leave before it gets here.”

“What?” Yarec was momentarily bewildered.  “What?”

“I think there are other places you’d rather go than back out to sea,” Rorke explained, although Yarec looked suspicious.  “Just hear what I’ve got to say.  I saw your wanted poster, about the woman.  She came right by here a couple weeks ago.”

“What?” was all Yarec could say again.

“She was on a ship, sailing south.  It stopped here to trade some surplus electronics for food.”

“Did you find out where they were going?” Yarec asked, suddenly feeling breathless.

“I didn’t realize she was the one you were looking for,” Rorke said.  “She was just one of the crew.  I saw her when they were loading and unloading the goods.  It didn’t mean anything at the time, but when I saw the file you left on her, I recognized her straight away.”

“What was the name of the ship?” Yarec panted.

“Relax,” Rorke said.  “I would have told you when you were here before—before all this.”  Rorke gave a disgusted flick of his wrist, indicating all the damage in view.  “But I didn’t see the wanted poster until the day after you left here.”  He gestured again toward the commotion going on a hundred meters away along the clifftop, then scraped his knuckles roughly back and forth through his stubble.  “I haven’t had a lot of free time lately, but when I recognized that girl you were looking for, I went back and followed up with the ship.”

“I insist we keep really good records.  Everyone who wants to stop and do any business here, we collect registration and communications information.  The work we’re doing here is too important to let people hang around without being able to find out exactly who they are.  So I was able to get in touch with the ship by radio relay.  The captain told me they had dropped her off in South America.”  Rorke held out a tiny memory device.  “Here’s the map and everything.  Assuming she was telling the truth, this should help you find the gal you’re looking for.”

“Wow, that’s really slick.” Yarec said in amazement.  “Thanks!  Thanks!” he gasped.

“Yeah, don’t mention it.  I could tell you were a square guy,” Rorke grinned a little, then rubbed some more at his bearded cheek.  “Old girlfriend?”

“Uh, my wife, actually.”

“That’s a little more unusual.”  He rubbed his hands together.  “How about that.”

“Yeah, it’s a story.”  Which I’m certainly not going to tell, Yarec added to himself.  Instead, he said, “I hadn’t known that I had a wife actually alive out there.”  It was a misdirection, but Yarec found himself surprisingly reluctant to tell an outright lie about this topic.

“I kind of understand,” Rorke said.  “My own wife departed a few years back.”

Departed?  Yarec paused to make a sympathetic face.  “I’m sorry.  I didn’t know that,” he said.  “And again, thanks so much.  I won’t forget this.”  Yarec already had his computing lamina out and interfaced with the memory slip Rorke had handed over.  “Amazing,” Yarec murmurred.  “Thank you.”

“Maybe you can pay me back some time.  I’ll come to you for help when you’ve got lightning shooting out of all your generators.”

“Sorry,” Yarec said.  “I know you can’t have had much free time to do all this for me.”

“Not your fault, drifter,” Rorke laughed.  “But as I said, I suggest you don’t wait until they send a helicopter to grab you.”

“How come?”

“The army wants you back right away.  I don’t know why, but I didn’t like the way it sounded when we got the order.  And Laurelei will insist on sending you back.  She’s like that.  She works really hard not have any friction with the company’s sponsors.”  Rorke paused, then added:  “If I were you, I’d just take a car and leave.”

“You want me to steal one of your cars?”.

“I wouldn’t stay ‘steal,’” Rorke chuckled.  He dug in his pocket for another device.  “Here’s a general key.  Borrow one of the small passenger vehicles, and the motor pool won’t even notice for who knows how long.”

Yarec took the key and nodded.  “Get going,” Rorke said.  Rorke reached out to shake Yarec’s hand.  He had a very firm grip.  Then the men parted.

In the morning, however, the pain had returned, and the drugs were already doing less to combat it.  He took another pill.  Then Yarec found something to eat—his own rations, not the Solara’s—and started dictating his formal report while the brothers reloaded the boat.  Seated on a slanting rock, squinting down at the lichens between his feet, he mouthed a few words at a time into his microphone.  He found himself stumbling and repeating himself, but the headset diligently recorded his fractured narrative and whisked it away to an encrypted data cluster somewhere.

The guides stayed at a discrete distance while Yarec dictated.  They had already taken down the tents and stowed everything in the canoe.  So they just sat, talking quietly between themselves, until their paid passenger was ready to embark.  Yarec did not keep them waiting very long.  The sun had only advanced a scant distance above the horizon before he lost interest in his bureaucratic ritual and announced that it was time to leave.

The pain in his forehead had receded a little, although it still felt like something inside his head was trying to drill out through the top of his eyebrow.  Yarec winced as he climbed down into the boat, and as soon as they paddled out into the current, the jostling made the pain worse again.  He bit another pill in half, swallowing one half and shoving the other into his pants pocket.

The drugs made him sleepy, in spite of the pain.  His eyelids kept drifting shut.  At first he fought the sleepiness, but after about an hour he gave in.  Why stay awake?  The monotonous landscape along the riverside seemed no more interesting than the insides of his eyelids.  Yarec curled halfway up into a ball and leaned sideways against the side of the canoe, his head resting on a folded jacket.  He blinked to turn off his eyelid clock, then closed his eyes, submerging himself in the orange-tinted darkness behind his loosely lowered lids.

He dreamed something, but it was all a fast-moving blur that his brain hurried to forget as soon as he woke up.  At the end, huge trapezoidal smudges in different shades of brown had been pounding on one-another in terrifying fashion.  The kind of nightmare that seems to make perfect sense when you’re asleep, Yarec thought, but it disappears as soon as you wake up and try to figure out what was happening.

The headache that was tormenting him had been joined by a bout of nausea.  The river water was getting choppy too, splashing up in his face as they passed through a stretch of rapids.  The smell of the silty, oily water made Yarec’s stomach churn.  He covered his face and held his head in his hands.  His arms were shaking—although whether shivering with chill or trembling from the heavy dose of drugs, he could not be sure.  He reached blindly for his balled-up coat, keeping his eyes pressed shut, since that seemed to help with the discomfort.  Cracking one eye open a slit, Yarec wrapped the jacket around his torso.  It kept off most of the water droplets and the sharp breeze that had picked up again.  Sore and queasy—but sufficiently warm—was how he made the rest of the trip downstream.

They stopped early for lunch, where the river hit a broad bend.  Sand and silt had washed up against the old concrete embankment, forming a moist, sloppy beach.  The travellers beached their canoe there and unpacked some things to eat.  Yarec sat in the center of a blue plastic tarpaulin (which kept his butt dry) and chewed slowly.  The ropy snack stick he had pulled out was extremely chewy, but he found he could not attack it full force.  If he bit down too hard, the jarring seriously exacerbated his headache.  What a pain.

Yarec stared idly around as he milled the bites of protein between his teeth.  He had already concluded there was nothing interesting left to see in this landscape, and so he was quite surprised when he noticed a group of small white-and-black animals approaching from downstream.  Yarec’s binoculars revealed they were goats.  They had ridged, blunt-tipped horns and spindly legs, and behind the animals strode their keepers—four sturdy-looking men and women, with short, frizzy hair and semiautomatic rifles strapped across their backs.  Such weapons were, Yarec had no doubt, a necessity.  Herding was hard business, and the herders needed to protect themselves against packs of marauders—the kind of wolf-like men who roved the wilderness, pillaging anything they found undefended.  A flock of livestock would be too rare and rich a prize to pass up, unless the animals were well guarded.

“Greetings, friends!” Yarec shouted when he judged the first woman was within earshot.  She had been eyeing the river travellers but had decided their equipment and demeanor did not look very threatening.  Yarec and the Solaras were simultaneously too well and too poorly equipped to be bandits.  They were clearly well-provisioned—not starving vagabonds who might attack anyone—but they were not a sophisticated raiding band either.  So, having drawn her conclusion, the woman in the lead waved a cautious but seemingly heartfelt greeting.  She pulled down the faded purple bandana that had been covering her mouth and grinned.  The other herders hurried to catch up with her, leaving their goats in the care of a scruffy, brown-haired dog with a long, sensitive snout.

“Greetings, plainsman,” the woman called, as she and her comrades approached.  “How’s your day going?”

“Well enough,” Yarec said.  “We still have a long way to go, but it’s good to meet somebody else along the way.”

“Oh, yeah,” she said.  “Oh, yeah.”

Cued by Yarec’s friendly demeanor, the Solara brothers were soon chatting freely with the herders, and everyone seemed pleased to have somebody new to talk to.  The conversation was breezy, but it was always Yarec’s natural inclination to collect intelligence.  He questioned the herders casually about recent events; there was a chance they might have new information about local frictions.  However, he found they had more to say about the intense prairie fires the preceding spring than any recent political upheavals.  And what they did say about local conflict was all old news.  Bandits had stormed the towns of Mount Angel and Independence.  They carried off food, vehicles, fuel oil, and a number of slaves.  Of course, the valley communities were used to raids; a small town’s militia might have to repulse two or three weak attacks each year.  But the latest round of raids had been different.  The new bandits were probably former military men, and they were certainly armed with military hardware—rifles, grenade launchers, and tracked personnel carriers salvaged from the routed armies of more southerly city-states.

Even so, to the quasi-nomadic herders the raids were less salient than the red conflagrations that had raced across the grasslands a few months earlier.  The fires had been preceded by a very dry spring.  The grass had turned from green, to yellow, to a dead grayish-white.  When the wind picked up, the spiky stalks rattled like dry sticks; and when a gas-electric off-road vehicle had broken down in a shower of sparks, a breeze had whipped the sparks straight into the dry tinder.  Fanned by the hot, dry wind, the flames spread quickly, until they formed walls of deep crimson fire, five or ten meters high.  The fire lines tore across the terrain.  Behind them, the landscape was black.  The high grass was vaporized, right down to the ground, and nothing remained alive, not even the weaponized locust grubs hibernating several feet underground.  The only things left were rocks, dust, and smoke.

That smoke was almost worse than the fire.  When the wind really picked up, the smoke sped ahead of the flames, blotting out the sun and the blue of the sky.  The smoke was hot and deadly, but most people were smart enough to stay out of its way.  When they saw the black billows coming over the horizon, the herding folk grabbed whatever they could and fled.  Their goats, however, were not nearly so bright, and without coaxing, the animals would just stand where they were until the poisonous clouds were right on top of them.

“We lost eight of the little bastards,” the herders’ leader said.  She took a swig from her insulated water bottle and wiped her lips on her bandana.  Looking up at the position of the sun, she decided to extend this brief social stop and make it the midday meal period.  “Gotta eat some time.  Might as well be now,” she muttered.

The herders unpacked their simple food and divided it equally among their group.  Even with Yarec’s upset stomach, the sight of the nomads’ homemade fare aroused his appetite, and he paid an exorbitant amount of local hard currency for a ball of white, crumbly cheese.  It was sour and bitter and tasted a little like dirt—but it was real.  For a cosmopolitan like Yarec, real cheese, cultured from the milk of real livestock, was a luxury.  But for the herders, who must have subsisted on a monotonous diet of milk from the female goats and meat from the males, Yarec’s usual sources of protein must have seemed equally tempting and exotic.  Without a moment of hesitation, they would have traded their hunks of stringy, fire-roasted meat for the velvety slices of cultured protein (carefully seasoned with synthesized organic compounds) that fed the world’s urbanites.

The food disappeared quickly, and then everyone had to be moving off again.  Yarec and the Solara brothers had spent much longer on the riverbank than they had expected to, but from that point, they progressed downstream swiftly and reached the river mouth, just a few hundred meters south of the Kruppeen Engineering Center, by late afternoon.  As it approached the ocean, the Black Snail River had cut a shallow gorge through the oceanside cliffs.  Yarec gazed up at the gorge’s streaked basalt walls, which had recently been reinforced with concrete.  The canoe passed under a very old bridge, which arched from one rim of the gorge to the other.  The underside of the span was pocked with corrosion, and when he looked down, Yarec noticed several sizeable steel plates that had fallen into the water.

Chapter 8:  Southern Hemisphere

When Yarec woke up, he had a hammering headache.  Tendrils of white pain throbbed down his forehead.  It was a kind of pain he had never experienced before.  It might have been a fluke occurrence, or it might have been the first sign that his brain matter was finally giving way after too many body swaps.

He took a mixed opioid, which dulled the pain but made his hands wobble.  He had brought the pills in case he was injured in combat, but they were equally good for dealing with this.  They only made him a little groggy, but he did not feel like paddling when they got back out on the river.  Of course, there was no reason to hurry back to the coast.  Whenever Yarec arrived back at Kruppeen Engineering (where, the communications operator assured him, everything was safe and under control), they would send another helicopter to pick him up.  In the meantime, Yarec could savor a more leisurely journey up and down the branches of the Black Snail.

Since he did not feel up to paddling, Yarec decided to read.  His lamina had a graphic novel retelling of the legendary story of Food Dude, the man who had eaten himself to death.  Yarec paged through the monochrome images, rendered with traditional inky streaks.  The story began at the imperial court, but Food Dude was a much better poet than political operator.  By the end of the third volume, he had been dismissed from the court and reduced to raising pigs.  They were vile-looking little animals in the illustrations, with warty faces, pointed ears, and tusks, but Food Dude seemed perfectly at home with them.  Yarec decided to stop reading there, since he knew the story had an unhappy ending.  In the end, the protagonist was trapped for weeks without food, and when he was finally rescued, he ate so much that his stomach burst.

Yarec took another dose of narcotics when they stopped for lunch, and in the afternoon, they turned back into the main channel of the Black Snail River.  For the first time that day, the pounding in his braincase had subsided enough that Yarec felt like helping to steer.  In concert, the trio threaded the craft back through the gap.  The dark water, heavy with silt, raced by on either side, but once the boat was through, the flow relaxed to a slow, bumpy roll.  As they continued downstream, sometimes Rigg steered with the outboard motor, but most of the time they left the propeller stowed, and they just drifted at the current’s own pace.

They made camp again just after sundown.  The brothers steered the canoe into a narrow spur channel.  It had been constructed to divert water for crops, but the bean fields had been burned away by the sun ages ago.  What remained of the channel was short, ending with a square concrete barrier after only forty meters.  There had originally been a mechanism for sluicing water through the barrier, but it had fossilized shut long ago, and the dry watercourse on the other side of the wall had accumulated so much sediment that it was barely detectable.

When Yarec stepped out of the canoe, he felt an immediate change.  He had gotten used to a residual throb as the boat bounced and swayed, but as he stood on solid land, the last threads of pain finally melted away, and he got to sleep easily, without taking any more pills.