“That’s beautiful, isn’t it?” I looked up. Kev gazed into the distance towards an approaching storm. The gray-green Heuck’s creeper, the shaggy top layer on Terran mats, grew around us and to the horizon. The tiny, waxy, leaf-like structures of the Heuck’s surrounded fingernail-sized bursts of white that looked like flowers. The white accented the blackish surface of the Terrans and almost looked like stars. Clouds rose above the rolling hills. The top of the cumulus masses, with their bright, white, folds, roiled out of a smudged dark bluish, gunmetal gray base. Sheets of rain, that gray at the bottom of the clouds, headed our way. The wind blew through the Heuck’s and formed patterns across the valley as the gusts blew one way, then another.
He was right. It was beautiful.
Kev was in his mid-forties. I was fourteen. He had recently grown thin. He had a wide-brimmed hat. He wore light blue overalls that had become wet with sweat in arcs around his neck and under his arms. He wore a breathing mask around his neck. When he breathed through that mask, it tended to slip down across his mouth at the most inconvenient times. He had begun to need it a few years before because a life spent breathing the thick, slightly toxic, soup that is our atmosphere had left his lungs scarred.
“What do you think?” I said, “Have we an hour before the rain arrives?”
He grinned, “Maybe. Maybe an hour. Maybe thirty minutes. We better hurry.”
“Aren’t you consterned about….” I gestured with my finger and mimicked a lightning bolt’s striking the palm of my hand. “Peh-owwwwww.”
“We and the mast on the boat are the only vertical things in a strictly horizontal landscape. We’re lightning rods.”
“We should hurry, then.”
He slid the gangplank onto the shore and walked ashore. In the near distance was the hump in the landscape we had stopped to investigate.
As the one with healthy lungs of the pair, I labored as the packhorse and the muscle. We didn’t need much. I rushed and gathered what I need and tried to catch up with Kev. I carried an ax, a machete and two meters of twine. Kev brought the yum-yum balls, a magnifying lens, and his sketchbook. It’s hard stuff to jog across the Terrans. Even a slow walk through the Heuck’s that covered them required a deliberate, marching, step to keep from entangling.
Kev slowed to a stroll, slightly hunched over. That’s when I caught up with him. After a few minutes, he bent down and picked up something with the tip of his pencil.
“Come here, Pierrot. Look at this.”
I walked over and looked at what he had found. Not much larger than the tip of the pencil itself, the cleaner crept away from the end.
I glanced at the bottoms of my pants. I had tied twine tightly above my shoes to deny any stray cleaner access under my clothes. I confirmed the twine was still tied tight. I had a whole squad of those things get in my clothes once. They caused quite a bit of discomfort.
He flicked the pencil, and the cleaner disappeared. “This’ll be interesting,” he said. And he said that with no sarcasm.
“OK. Let’s eviscerate this poor creature who has done nothing wrong to us,” Kev said. That was Kev’s sarcasm.
When people arrived on Terra Beata, they saw Terrans as nothing more than a strange biome. Their dogs continually dug into this nasty, gushingly wet, mix of life that was the Terrans. Why did dogs dig in them so? Below the surface, truffle-like nodules the size of a child’s fist marbled the tundra-like environment, just below the surface. Dogs loved these nodules. People called them “Dog truffles.” Dogs spent hours sniffing around, digging, and eating them. No one knew much about Terrans at the time and they did not realize that those pale beige nodules were the rough equivalent of a brain.
Not long after that, we noticed something strange that happened when dogs got around Terrans. When a dog began digging and sniffing in search of little dog truffle morsels in the Terran mat, a quick burst of combustible gas belched from the matt and ignited. Usually, this would create a brief fireball around the dog. Many dogs would yelp or stand stupefied with singed fur. If a dog were tenacious or hungry, it commenced with its search for dog truffles anew. But, every so often, the gas ignited just after a dog breathed in a chest-full of it. That caused the dog to explode spontaneously in the swamp.
Kev and I hacked open Terrans, and they never tried to hurt us. No human equivalent of a dogburst ever happened to us.
Humanity has not, historically, given much thought about the intelligence of ground cover. That abruptly changed when the Terrans warned a few people in dreams about the onset of that devastating drought that happened before I was born. That’s what Terrans do when they want to communicate, mess with people’s dreams. That was the first time the Terrans communicated with any of us, and the reaction was predictable. Humans struggled for three hundred years to tame this nasty, annoying, interloper in the landscape and it suddenly took an interest in us and had something helpful to say. It was like the weeds growing on the side of the road shouted, “Watch out!” just before we stepped off the curb in front of a truck. Humanity stood there, astonished, and screamed a collective, “Holy shit, what was that!”
After I hacked a gaping hole in the lump for him, I sat to wait and stared at the distant squall line as it became less distant. Kev could draw and take notes for hours. Sometimes he spread flat on his stomach onto that foul surface and looked through the magnifying glass at details.
“Look at this,” he said.
I leaned forward and crawled towards the hole. As usual, the inside of the Terrans was a mucky mix of brown, dark green and black with some beige splotches. Speckled throughout this hole were thousands of pale specks.
“It’s about to spawn,” Kev said.
I looked up at him and nodded. “Have you seen such?”
“I’ve seen them prepare for spawn a couple of times, yes.”
“My wrong. Spawn. Have you ever seen the spawning itself?”
“No. Well…, only as from a distance. only the result.”
“How much longer before it releases these… babies?”
“Don’t know. Good question. I will find out one day. I hope. If I don’t die. Well, I’ll die. Everyone dies. Sorry. I’m morbid. If… I want… It is chance, I guess.”
I reached in and touched one of the specks. That speck will eventually unravel into a balloon that will allow itself to be caught up in a storm. If held aloft long enough, some specks can make it all the way to Aoustin, half the continent away.
“Too bad we didn’t see it spawn,” I said and returned to where I had been sitting. The wall of rain moved towards us over the flat plain of the Marshes.
A few minutes later Kev pulled himself away from the hole. “Alright, let’s go.” Kev took the paper wrapping off a couple of treats called yum-yum balls. He says the same thing every time he tosses them in. “If they come out of the encounter with a net gain, they will put up with us.” Made of fat, salt, sugar, gelatin and a blend of minerals, the Terrans loved those nasty little treats. Terrans responded well to bribes, according to Kev.
“Want one?” He held an extra one out for me to take.
I shook my head, no. I tried one once and became sick.
I measured out a length of twine and gave it to Kev. He stitched the opening shut with it. In a couple of days, the vines will grow over the jagged gash I made and the Terran factory will be sealed shut.
We made it back to the boat minutes before the rain began.
When the wall cloud swooped on top of and over us, sheets of dirt blew past horizontally, and it became dark, like being inside a room curtained by gray fabric. The wind slapped the awning like a sail and pulled the boat over. The storm kicked a large amount of debris. Countless dust motes battered against the awning in a swirling, chaotic, blast.
“Pierrot!” Kev shouted. I spun around to see what broke. “They’re spawning!”
I looked at debris the wind carried past us. Flecks of white gathered along the edges of the window closest to me. I looked closely. What I thought was dirt and dust and debris was the little parachutes released by the Terrans. “Alright! Their babies!” I giggled, giddy with adrenaline.
“Oh…, this is…,” Kev muttered. “Amazing.”
A downpour burst on us and the rain raced past horizontally. As quick as the spores appeared, they were gone.
The torrent crashed against the windows and the boat jerked again, harder this time. It all seemed violent, but I knew from experience we would not capsize. We took great care to lade the boat to be bottom-heavy. The boat righted after the initial blast, then the next, then another. The Miss Genius was large enough to weather this or even stronger storms. A deck chair zipped past and knocked hard against the wall of the wheelhouse before it flew out of sight. The windows began to fog on the inside.
Part of the awning broke free and began flapping wildly. Kev looked at me. He forced open the door and held it to let me out first. I hesitated, then whispered to myself, “You are crew. You do the needful.” I jumped out of the wheelhouse, into the storm.
The rain beat on my face. I held my hands to shield myself. We got to the awning. The wind had torn a grommet out of the corner of the canvas. I shimmied up the pole and grabbed the fringe as it flapped. A bolt of lightning struck nearby. The bright flash and loud boom startled me, and I gave a little scream. I looked up at the mast above us nervously.
I put a knot on the edge of the awning and tied a tight hook in a line around the knot. The boom attached to the mast blew back and forth close above my head and seemed to fight against the lines that secured it. The large metal pulley at the end of the boom got slung at wide arcs. I began to shake violently with chills from exposure to the hard wind and driving rain.
“You are crew,” I shouted this time. I wanted to rush back to the warmth of the wheelhouse.
Kev took the other end of the line, strung it around a cleat, and pulled the cord tight over the frame with a trucker’s hitch.
Once done, we ran back to the wheelhouse, both bent over while we walked and struggling against the wind. I pried open the door and held it open for Kev. Papers and charts got caught up in the gust and spun through the cabin haphazardly. Something blew out the door and out into the tumult. I dove in after him and let the door slam shut after me.
Kev struggled to catch his breath with his damaged lungs. “That… was… challenging. Blankets….” I understood him and rushed down and got the wool blankets we kept for exposure.
On the way down the companionway to the crew cabin, I bellowed a long, high-pitched, yell. I was a fourteen-year-old boy.
The winds abated, and a steady rain fell for the next thirty minutes. Any trace of the spawn had been washed away. The backside of the storm passed over, and the sun came out, bringing the humid, stifling, heat once again. The Marshes transformed from blurry grayness to bright, warm, sunlit colors with the sparkling of water on every detail.
“The river ahead has a stretch that can be dangerous,” Kev said to me. “Do you remember anything about it?”
“No, I don’t.”
I looked around. Nothing dangerous here.
Kev reduced the throttle and allowed the boat to drift ahead under its momentum. He spread the creased and torn chart for that area of the river over the helm.
“See these notes?” He pointed to meticulously handwritten labels with arrows drawn to different parts of the river on the chart. I recognized the handwriting as his.
“Yes, I do.”
“Here’s where we are. We are into this stretch. Get me the river book. Number ten.”
He pointed to the chart with the tip of his pen. “We are here.”
“Such I discern,” I said knowingly. “I recognize the features on the map.”
Kev looked up at me skeptically. “Okay. Well, then. Next, we come to is N.D.X. twenty, isn’t it?” He asked. It was hard to read the notes. The labels seemed to one on top of the other.
“I think so,” I answered. “Is such dangerous?”
He nodded, “That it is.”
I forced myself to concentrate and thoroughly read his notes in river book ten about N.D.X twenty. The river ahead ran as a sluice through a narrow gate and the sluice abruptly turned. On our starboard, the sluice forced the current hard against a rock bluff.
“Alan’s Gate?” I asked. “Who is Alan?”
“He died there a couple of hundred years ago. Die someplace and it will be named after you. Ha.”
I finished my reading and told Kev how the gate should be piloted.
“If the current in the sluice catches the nose of the boat at too great an angle,” I told him, “we could be spun to port and have the boat facing around backward, pointing straight into the opposite bank and going too fast to stop.”
“I hadn’t thought about that,” he said. “Ha. You may be right. But that is not what makes this dangerous. If we go into the sluice too far to starboard, the hydraulics will push the boat up against that stone bluff and we could be stuck. Worse, if stuck there, the water flows hard enough that it could roll over the sides and begin to fill the boat until it sank.”
Kev walked across the wheelhouse and looked off towards something. I looked in the same direction, towards the far bank. Someone’s cow came down the short bluff to the river to get a drink.
Kev sat on the bench at the back of the wheelhouse and crossed his legs. “Look over there. Do you see that rock just barely peeking out of the water?”
I looked over. The rock sat close to the shore where the cow waded. It was the size of a table and not noteworthy. It did not pose a danger to us in any way. “Yes…,” I answered expectedly.
“Good? No. Why so you want me to look at such rock?” I asked, confused.
“It’s a good gauge for the depth of the river. It’ll become important later,” he said.
“You tell me,” Kev answered enigmatically.
I looked at the rock again, then looked back upriver. I shrugged and turned my attention back to piloting the boat.
Kev watched intently behind me as I throttled all the way up into the approach to the swift water. I did that to gain as much speed as possible. I learned from him that the higher the speed, the better the bite in the water the boat would have when turning. The whole of the boat acted as a rudder when moving quickly through the water. That made it more agile. Besides, I loved the roar of the turbine at full throttle. Mist gathered on the windows as the modest waves of the river broke unseen below the bow far in front of me. We had the windows down in front of the helm and I smelled hints of the Terrans’ earthiness in the spray from the river.
The gate came into view as we rounded a bend. I did as I had planned and the boat almost danced as I punched into the current and turned when I needed it to. I watched the surface of the river for clues about the water flow and sliced up the main current with the bow of the boat directly facing the fastest water. When we plowed into the calm beyond the gate, I smiled and relaxed my tight grip on the wheel. Elated, I looked back at Kev. “Oh yes!” I yelled.
He looked back with no expression. I had not completed the lesson, apparently.
I looked forward again. I could not tell what I was doing wrong. The throttle still sat at full, so I pulled back on it and the sound of the turbine’s bellowing abated. I looked back expectantly.
“Remember the rock I showed you,” Kev said. He grabbed the wall of the wheelhouse to brace himself.
I turned around back to the face the helm. I urgently spun the impeller about to push us backward and throttled up the engine to stop the boat’s forward momentum.
The boat came to an abrupt stop, but not because of the engine. I slammed against the helm as the boat hit bottom. We grounded with a horrible sound of the hull sliding across gravel. Books and charts flew off the shelves. Then all became still.
“You okay?” Kev asked. I hunched over the main panel of the helm, unable to breathe after my solar plexus punch hard the wheel. My arm bled from where it had scraped across switches on the panel and got cut.
“Let’s see.” He lifted my arm, got a rag and dabbed where I bled.
“Not deep,” Kev observed.
He handed me the rag and I held it against the cut to stanch the flow of blood. He turned his attention to the helm, and I backed away from it resentfully.
“Why so you let us chonk on purpose?” I cried when I spoke. “I could have torn the bottom out and sunk us.”
The main engine still roared with the impeller pointing backward. I could hear from the cabin below the crackling of the loose gravel the impeller stirred up against the bottom of the hull.
“No, you only scraped off paint. This bar is just sand and gravel. We’ll careen the boat sometime this year repaint it. If it had been a rock, you would have punched a hole in the bottom. A big hole. That is bad. Mud is bad, too. Mud grabs and won’t let go. We could be stuck until the river rose enough to pull us out. Or the mud would not let go. That’s worse. The water would rise and come over the sides and sink the boat”
He flipped the switches on and off for the small electric impellers to rock the boat slightly. After a minute, we slid back with the current, off the bar.
“You remember that rock I told you to look at?” he asked.
“Yes! That goddamn rock!” I was still angry.
“If the water covers the rock, the river is deep enough for the boat to pass over this bar when we have a normal draft. It barely poked out of the water. That meant we would barely ground out. Ha. I can predict this with certainty. Each time from this day on into the future and long after I am dead, when you pilot past this way you will look over at that goddamn rock and know whether you can pass the bar.”
“Grandpa Dignac let you chonk this bar, didn’t he, when you were young?”
“Indeed. You did much right. That is good. We are well for that reason. Do the sluice and gate wrong, and we could sink. You can swim, can’t you?”
I nodded, yes.
“Oh good. I should know that. My wrong. You did the sluice superbly. It was great. Superb. I could not do any better than you did on the sluice. However, you did not check for other dangers.” Kev bent over the chart.
“You need to plan not just for the next obstacle on the river, but for all the upcoming obstacles. That bar, it is N.D.X twenty-one.”
He smiled. “You did great.” He slid the chart over to me. “Ready to take the helm, again?”
I looked up, still sore and angry. “Ready to…. What? No. Not ready.”
Several years later, Kev and I and others from our corp sat around a table at Joe’s Bar and Grill in Neck. Car Ayim Tijn, Joe Roux Bindell, Devi Andrejev Thil, and Andy Bondar Alvarez sat with us. Choco Leroy Galea had moved to another boat out of Neck and I worked on the Miss Genius fulltime as Kev’s first mate.
Sparrow Leroy Galea, Choco’s brother, still worked with our corp. He came in and sat in the one empty chair at the table. He looked shaken.
He sat for a minute, silently, while we talked. When a lull came in the conversation he asked, “Hear the news as of the Constant Companion?” Sylvia Mistry Chao’s boat owned the Constant Companion.
“The Constant Companion?” Joe repeated as a question.
“It got pinned so onto the bluff at Alan’s Gate and sank,” he said. “It did.”
“Any hurt?” Car asked.
Sparrow nodded yes. “Sylvia drowned, she did. She tried to deliverance her passengers. Ten passengers with her, all drowned but one. Berthe survived. She floated down the channel.” Berthe Mistry Chao, Sylvia’s sister, worked as Sylvia’s first mate.
A month after that we passed that part of the river again. I piloted, skillfully, through Alan’s Gate even though I had been distracted by what I saw as we passed that bluff.
Two meters of the bow of the Constant Companion stood at an angle out of the water next to the bluff. It stayed there for years, like a tilted gravestone for the people who drowned and became entombed inside the boat.
Kev taught me well. I not only knew how to pilot, I thought like a pilot. Be prepared and avoid disaster. Otherwise, the river kills you. Disaster took the unprepared. Work hard and stay alert because the river never forgives. Hard work, vigilance, and preparation will bring success and prevent disaster.