Monday, February 22, 2010

Episode 5-see links to previous installments to the right.

“Oh, I really can't believe I'm going to see the old place again after all these years!” Aida was decked out in an ensemble that would have dovetailed nicely with the décor in her apartment, but hardly seemed suitable for boating or hiking in Decker's eyes. They had just cast off via a hidden tunnel in the rock face some eighty meters downstream from the stainless double doors. Tut had admonished Aida strongly regarding her attire, but she had seemed almost oblivious to his presence except to slather him in small affections and declarations of how much she'd miss him. She'd kept up a running monologue since he'd plumped down two hefty duffels outside her bedroom door that would give a French fur trader pause, chatting on and on about this little garden or that second cousin, memories on the veranda and her mother's favorite refreshments; there was really no getting through to her at all. Decker made fantasy plans about surreptitiously dumping one of the bags in the river when she wasn't looking. A flight of stairs with one of them would be a workout, much less dragging them both up a slippery, precipitous creek canyon.
The boat was an interesting affair; something between Huck Finn's raft and a European sport convertible. The control center, resembling the cockpit of a Lear jet without a ceiling, was half recessed near the front of the flat metallic oval that made up the deck. A handrail of some dark, polished wood ringed the deck, supported by matte black metal posts that raked aft at a jaunty angle. There was a gate on either side. There was no “below deck” on this vessel; it was obviously designed for shallow water, drafting only about six inches. As it turned out, it had the capacity to act as a boat or a hovercraft, which Decker thought might come in handy if they encountered any rough water. Tut had cautioned them to use the hover feature as little as possible, as it used much more fuel. He had seemed nearly as elated as Aida, though he did his best to conceal his exuberance from her. Decker and Degren were beginning to understand Tut's joy. They both hoped for a quick, uneventful trip to Cradsell 4.
It seemed they were likely to get their wish; the sleek craft hummed along almost silently, devouring the distance while leaving only a few small swirls as a wake. They had left behind the gas lamps within a mile or so of their departure, but the boat's lights were bright enough to illuminate the stone on both sides of the river. They took turns driving, though it almost seemed that the boat would steer itself. Tut hadn't been entirely comprehensive in his description of the controls, so even if there were an auto-pilot feature, they were unaware of it. All the knobs, buttons, dials, instruments, and levers were labeled in the same diagonal script that had been on the computer printout. Decker asked Aida what the inscriptions meant. “Oh, don't ask me, dear,” she replied, “I never bothered to learn Tut's written language. And I always let him drive.”
Degren smiled resignedly. “So we know how to go forward and back up, and we know how to go forward fast. Give me a horse any day!”
For the most part, the river's width stayed about the same, though there were a few areas where the walls jogged outward, creating either swirling pools or stone platforms that disappeared into shadow. They swung into each of the pools, thinking they might be looking at a tributary; each ended abruptly with no sign of water descending from above. Decker thought they might be doing about fifteen miles an hour, though their small detours into the occasional cul-de-sac slowed them down considerably, and the constant darkness surrounding their little moving island of light made time seem irrelevant. Aside from the occasional flash or streak of light in the water, monotony reigned. Aida eventually ran out of trivia to reminisce about. Decker wasn't sure whether to be relieved or not; the silence allowed new echoes of foreign thought to careen about unimpeded in his mind. He tried to fight back Furge's memories by delving into his own mental history, but pictures from his past were ghostly and fleeting.
Aida was at the wheel. She was humming rather loudly and gazing fixedly down the river. Decker and Degren stood at the aft rail, out of the main pool of the boat's glaring light. Degren had found fishing gear in a recess under a sliding panel in the deck, and had set out an odd little glowing spinner plug to troll. The line thrummed softly with the vibrations of the lure. Decker was feeling pretty sleepy, but the flashes and streaks of light in the water (bioluminescence?) held him mesmerized. Unthinking, he let his hand reach out to touch Degren's. Their fingers wrapped together, and soon they were chest to chest, struggling softly against each other. The touch of Degren's lips on his felt so perfect, so incredibly right as he let his fingertips graze a velvety ear, a soft, furry cheek...
“Well don't let lil' ol' me interrupt anything!” Aida was craning her long, feathery neck around and squinting into the semi-darkness. “It's just that I'm getting really eye-weary, not from watching you of course...” Her protests were cut short by grating and a sudden, banging jerk as the nose of the boat grazed and caught a rocky outcropping of shore. The two men were thrown apart, and Decker nearly overbalanced over the rail, barely getting a foot around a post. Degren stuck his arm through the fishing line and windmilled, tangling himself and bringing the fishing lure hurtling up out of the water and straight for Aida. She ducked just in time to let the plug go by, but it's momentum caused it to orbit her head as the line tautened alongside her neck. She tried to watch it spin as it came closer and closer, then she went cross-eyed as it struck her squarely on the top of her beak.
The boat lurched and pivoted as its bow dragged against the sharp rock ledge, then it wrenched free, sending it stern-first down the river. Decker, still stunned by all that had just transpired, managed to right himself and lurch for the wheelhouse that Aida was staggering out of, wings flapping and quacking tremulously. He grabbed the throttle lever and the wheel simultaneously, yanking downward on the first and spinning the other in an attempt to right their course. His first instinct with the wheel seemed to be dead wrong; the stern of the boat now bashed into the ledge, throwing Aida over the side and tautening the line that tangled she and Degren.
The part of Decker that was now Furge saw the fishing line wrap around Degren's neck; saw the surprise and panic in his eyes as the incredibly tough filament started cutting into the big man's neck. Degren flailed at the line, trying to disengage himself, then wrapped his fingers in it, trying to alleviate the tension on his throat. Furge soared to the fore of Decker's mind; he dove for the compartment where Degren had gotten the gear, desperately hoping to find a cutting implement there. He fumbled through the clutter of rods and boxes, tubs and floats. It had to be here! Ah, yes! At the very bottom of the compartment was a long, slender knife in a black rubber sheath. Decker's eye was caught by the logo on the handle; in white letters, the word “Rapala”. Shaking his head, he grabbed the handle, yanked off the sheath, reached up and cut the fishing line. There was a little line of blood around Degren's neck, and the line had bitten his fingers deeply, but now that he seemed to be safe and was unwinding the line himself, Decker was able to push the surging Furge persona back down.
Aida's quack had turned into a horrifying screech. She had been fishtailing in the current, trying to swim back to the boat. Her strokes were panicked and erratic; Decker thought some of the line might be wrapped around her legs. She'd drifted between the boat and the shore, and the bow of the boat has impending toward her. She was so panicked, she only seemed able to focus on the boat itself; she didn't see that she was about to be crushed between. “Aida! Look out!” He waved his arms frantically, but she was too dazed to see him. There was no time to consider. Knife still in hand, he dove over the rail and under the frightened duck, grabbing for where he thought the line would be. He was right; her legs were wrapped together tightly. Buffeted by the current, he did his best to insert the blade between her legs without cutting her. No help for it. He pulled the blade back toward himself sharply, and her legs flew apart. The flapping of her wings roiled the water's surface and her feet disappeared above him. He tried to follow, but just as he dropped the knife and tried to reach for the boat's bow, he felt his head strike a rock. Now it wasn't bioluminescence he saw, it was fireworks. His shoulder grazed rough, hard stone. Suddenly he was crushed against the shore, and his breath was being ground out of him. Mercifully, the bow of the boat made contact with his skull; the fireworks flashed anew, and that was all.
He was floating, slowly tumbling in perfectly translucent marshmallow creme. The sun, the moon, and the stars were shining in the royal blue sky that surrounded him. Bright vignettes of life erupted lazily around him like sideways flames; thought balloon bits of his own history in random scenes; a pleasant pageant of memories which he applauded silently and serenely from his blood-warm bubble. It seemed he'd been here forever, and forever stretched before him like a sunny sky full of warm breezes and perfect kites.
Then strange visions slipped into the pageant. Still pleasant, they had a brilliant edge that
over-lit his sentiments. In these new visions, Degren stroked his sun-warmed fur and pressed parted lips to his, pulled him to the sand as they locked together as one. He wasn't sure why these new dreams made him uneasy. His gentle tumbling in a soft, welcoming sky turned into a roller coaster of vision flashing by, driven by too many memories; the memories of two souls instead of one. He was Decker and then Furge, and the dreams began to collide and fuse, melting into a life he did not recognize. The marshmallow breezes he'd blown upon became smothering mattresses; the serene visions became harsh flashes on his eyes. Suddenly, he was staring into one blinding light that was not the sun, and it was pulling at him with a force he couldn't resist. He knew this was supposed to be a scene of pleasant surrender, but panic charged him like electricity. The roller coaster became an icy luge, battering him as he descended into the cold, blinding eye. He was being shaken, shaken and screamed at by the vengeful fates....
He came to with thudding pressure on his chest and a geyser of water spewing from his mouth. The visions of Degren pressing down on him melded into the present; Degren, haloed in the harsh arc of the boat's light, straddled him and was thrusting his palms into Decker's chest and screaming his name. "Decker! DECKER! Come on, man, wake up! COME BACK!"
There was a hot iron exploding behind his eyes; exploding with sufficient force that it nearly eclipsed the raw, stinging aches that seemed to come from everywhere on his body. He coughed, and excruciating pain seemed to wrench his ribs apart. It was all he could do to cast an acknowledging glance into the shadow that was Degren's face before the rictus of agony forced his eyes tightly closed. Spasms of coughing wracked him for what seemed an eternity, but finally he could take shallow, shaky breaths between groans.
"He's alive! Oh, thank the sun and moon, Decker is alive!"
He could hear Aida quacking dazedly from the cockpit. Degren was still straddling him, and Decker raised an arm feebly in an attempt to push him away. "De...hrunh-hunh...Degren, get off..." He choked out the words as a meteor shower sprayed across his eyes. The pain was ebbing slightly. He was pretty sure he had a concussion and some cracked ribs, and the sharp stinging he felt from various parts of his head and body seemed to indicate cuts and abrasions. It hurt badly, but he willed each of his limbs to move in turn. It didn't seem like anything was broken or badly sprained. There was some pain in the left center part of his back, but moving his arms and legs didn't seem to stir up anything too terrible in his spine.
Degren crouched next to him. The boat's light now revealed his face; relief seemed to be the predominant emotion.
Decker summoned his breath. "Am I bleeding badly anywhere?"
"Ah,, not that I can see."
"Help me turn over so you can have a look at my back."
"Decker, are you sure that's..."
Aggravation added to the agony. "Dammit," he grated, "help me turn over!"
There were no ominous crackings or grindings, though he had to bite back a scream as he and Degren worked at getting him rolled. Finally he lay on his belly, his shirt pulled up as high as it would go. "What do you see?"
"Um, there's a pretty nice gash across your ribs, and it's bleeding a good bit."
"See if you can find a first aid kit on this tub."
"First aid kit?"
"Shit and shit! Um, a medicine bag, some bandages, tape!"
"Holy fuck! Ask Aida!"
Aida had no idea. They ended up tearing some of her clothing into strips and wrapping Decker's wounds with that.
"I read somewhere that you're not supposed to sleep for a while after a concussion. You guys have to keep me awake for at least two watches to make sure there isn't some brain injury or something. Degren, help me try to stand up."
They managed to get him in a standing position. The shock was starting to wear off and the aches became ragged throbbing, while the lacerations stung sharply and deeply. He leaned against the rail as Degren gave him a thorough going over. It wasn't nearly as bad as it had initially felt, but Decker knew he was going to be very sore for quite a while. Climbing a canyon creek bed sounded like the worst sort of purgatory, but he steeled himself to the notion. Now to deal with the immediate situation.
"Degren, I've been thinking. Our little um, scene at the back of the boat had serious consequences. Plus, I must tell you, I'm very attached to being me, being Decker. I won't lie; when the Furge personality sort of took me over back there, being with you felt good." He took a deep breath and continued. "Really good. You guys have something special. No, let me finish. But it wouldn't be right. Furge is off somewhere, probably turning into me or someone else. We can't do that anymore, Degren. We can't be distracted in our attempt to put things right. I think Fate or something like it caused this little accident as a warning. Swear you'll stop me if I try something like that again."
"Decker, I..." Degren's voice was choked with emotion. "I was going to say something very similar to you. I will do my best, and so must you. Now you must stop troubling yourself with that. Aida has had the helm for too long; I must relieve her. She blames herself for the accident. Perhaps you can talk to her. It will serve two purposes; to keep yourself awake and, hopefully, to console her."
"I've lost my hat. Oh, this is terrible, just terrible!" Aida, relieved from the helm, was flapping her wings and pacing the deck, making the little boat rock from side to side. she glanced up at Decker, who was struggling with concussion-induced nausea. "It was a deep burgundy pork-pie with silver spiderweb filigree, and it belonged to my great-great-grandmother. Oh, I must find it! Perhaps it's in the river. We have to turn back! Mother would disown me if I lost it. Degren, do turn this craft about at once!"
Decker struggled to his feet and was nearly knocked back down as Aida raced to the rail, having caught a glimpse of something in the water. "Aida. Aida!" Remaining steady on his feet while attempting to apprehend a giant, rampaging duck was proving to be a significant challenge for Decker, especially when those little lights were flashing before his eyes. He made a grab for her wing, barely caught hold, and was almost pulled off his feet by her adamant flapping. "HEY!" He gave a solid tug on her wing bone. "AIDA! Stop a minute. Damn, duck! Get a clue here! I almost died!" He got his other hand wrapped in her feathers and shook her soundly. "AIDA! STOP!"
"Decker! Oh, my, I am so sorry. My, it was you that I nearly lost..." Her knees buckled and she slipped to the deck. Decker followed shakily, somehow managing to descend into a cross-legged sitting position. The lights in his eyes were becoming more insistent. Was he passing out? Aida's voice came clear to him, though, as did Degren's.
"Decker! Aida! Look! It's another staircase, just there on the left! See the lights flashing?"
It wasn't a theater marquee, but it was plenty obvious. There were handrails and cleats set in the stone, which had been worked into a smooth quay. A small stream slipped out of a long cut in the smooth rock of shore. The steps followed its bed up into a steep canyon, where the water played downward over rocks and through basins, splashing in narrow chutes and falls.
"This must be the first tributary," Decker said. "I wish Tut had mentioned how easy it would be to find. Must be a newer installation than the other stairs. It all looks pretty shiny, and those look like electric lights instead of gas. Hope the next two are this easy to spot!"
"And so easy to ascend," Degren added. "Are we all okay? Aida?"
She was wracked in the throes of a sobbing breakdown. "Oh, I should never have burdened you with my presence," the distraught duck moaned. "I'll be nothing but extra work and trouble for you, and every delay might cost Decker his identity! I am a selfish boor, a self-centered, blind pig of a person. Leave me here; I shall find my own way to my dear mother's house or die alone in the attempt, not taking good men with me!"
"Degren glanced at Decker questioningly. Decker, his head throbbing and his stomach churning, let her suggestion tumble around in the muddle of his mind for a good long time before replying, "No. We may need the extra, er, hand at some point. I assume that you're a pretty good diver, right? Searching for shipwrecks should be right up your alley. You're coming along."
She seemed almost disappointed by the decision. "Are you certain you want a hindrance like me in your midst, jabbering and stumbling everywhere?"
"You know more about where we are than either Decker or I, even if it doesn't seem so to you," Degren said. "It's settled; you're part of the team. Now I suggest we take a meal before we continue. I'd suggest a rest, but it's still too soon after Decker's injury for him to sleep."
They went ashore to share a spartan repast of foil-wrapped rations that made Decker think of old war movies, then made an inspection of their boat. It seemed little harmed by the beating it had taken, so they got aboard and continued downriver.
It wasn't long before they came to the second tributary. This one wasn't lit up at all, and it was some distance up a narrow estuary. The water burbled and roiled. There was no walkway, only sparse footholds carved in the stone walls. When they reached the tributary's ascent, they were daunted by its precipitous rise. There were no stairs here. Thankful this was not their path, they still wondered what tributary number three would look like.
Halfway back down the estuary, they heard the echoes of music. Degren was at the wheel; he turned off their light and eased the boat slowly toward the mouth. A soft kaleidoscope of light flashed on the river, like police lights but less frenetic and more colorful. Looking upriver, they watched a large stern-wheeled riverboat, riotous with nightclub noise and slow-pulsing chromatic beacons, disappear into the darkness.
But not quite darkness, they noted as their eyes adjusted. The water was actually fairly well lit by various bioluminescent sources. It was much like the Northern Lights, Decker thought, but more active. There were some areas of soft, pale green glow that seemed to cling to the bottom, highlighting the few rocks and non-uniform features that lay on the smooth riverbed. Then there were the glowing streaks that shot through the water like slow lightning or shooting stars; their colors tended toward oranges and reds. There were also dull yellow swatches of light that seemed to swirl and bloom like algae in the sedate river current.
They decided to run with the light off for a little while. Now that they knew there were other travelers on the river, it seemed less than wise to reveal their presence. They did, in fact, manage to avoid contact with two other craft by ducking into handy coves. One seemed to Decker to be either a submarine or a spacecraft, he wasn't sure which. It's appearance seemed threatening; there were odd projections that could have been weapons pointing in every direction from its jet-black hull, and the front windows of it formed an angry yellow glare, like predatory eyes. The second could well have been Huck Finn's raft; a dim, smoky lantern hung from a center post over a ragged tent. There was no one on deck.
"Seems like the further downriver we go, the more populated it's becoming," Decker observed. "Hope we get to the third tributary soon!"
As though in answer to his wish, a row of bare bulbs appeared ahead. As they got closer, they could see a broad wooden platform set on heavy timbers hulking up out of a widening in the river. The bulbs were strung from tall posts at the edge of the platform, which formed a semicircle some ten feet above the water and perhaps eighty feet across. Under the deck, the bioluminescence was chaotic and bright, and a number of small boats plied the waters there, seemingly chasing the glowing darts through the water. Beings of various kinds occupied the boats; some distinctly human, some animal-like, and some completely alien in appearance. They all seemed intent on hunting whatever was making the glow. The sounds of excited voices mingled with the roar of another waterfall, which seemed to emanate from behind the deck.
"Shit and double shit!" Decker was at a loss. "What the hell do we do now?"
Degren scratched his head. "Well, we,that won't work, um, how"
Aida piped up. Look! There's a marina just at the end of the deck, and steps leading up to the platform. Let's see if there's an employee that can help us."
Sure enough, at the foot of the stairs was a sleek little guard house where an oversized otter sat looking out a reception window. They pulled the boat up to the window, and Aida asked, "Do you have an open slip for us? We want to hike up this tributary for a while."
"'Betcha we do, pretty lady!" The otter flipped open his register and donned a pair of reading glasses. "Hmm....the public docks show two openings, or if you want full service..."
"The public docks will be fine," Decker asserted. "Which way?"
The otter, a bit put out by Decker's brusqueness, cast owly eyes over the glasses. "Sirrrrr....slips twenty three and thirty six are available. Straight back past the row of porta-biffs, turn right at the purple flag, twenty three will be on your left, thirty six on your right a little further up, both well-marked in large, glowing numerals. I'm sure you'd be impressed with the quality of service, sir, should you wish to use one of the, um, upgraded slips. No worries about such things as petty pilferers or vandals, you know, sir...very reasonable prices, I might add...."
"Thanks all the same, fellow, but we're on a pretty tight budget. See ya!"
"Don't blame me. sir, if anything happens! The public slips are not covered by our insurance. By the way, good people, the real attraction here is not the tributary, but the nightclub. There are river tours from there, replete with every distraction you might imagine. You could buy tickets from me, at a significant discount."
"Again, no thanks," Decker offered as politely as he could. The otter's paw was outstretched as though a gratuity were expected; Aida dug her beak into one of her bags, retrieved a small, dull coin and dropped it in the otter's paw as they passed.
"On my mother's memorial mud-slide, a quarter-Quatroon!" The otter's tone was deeply ironic. "I'll be able to afford to have these terrible bunions removed now!"
They docked the boat, stowed their extra gear as well as possible, took a small bag of subsistence provisions, and headed for the tributary. There was a drinking fountain mounted into the stone cliff next to the stairs; they all took a long drink before they began their ascent.

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