Hollowed Memories, chapter 8, part 2

March 15, 2015

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.

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