Free Fiction of the Month

 

 

Walking the River

by Rebecca S. W. Bates

Originally published in Ecotastrophe 


LissBelle and her grandfather crouched in jagged shadows cast by ruined chunks of asphalt. Breathing noisily through their half masks, counting the hours since nightfall of the full moon, drawing comfort from each other's presence, they waited and watched from the overlook.

At midnight, a thin fog rose. The moon slipped behind cloud cover, and Grandfather stirred. "It is time," he said, his voice cracking.

Lissy's heart hammered with new intensity. "So soon?"

He rubbed his salt-and-pepper beard and nodded. From one pocket of his protective robe, he withdrew a leather bag, which he placed in her palm. "And here are the seeds that you must take with you."

She tucked the pouch into one of her pockets and flung herself against his whiskery softness. He was all she had left. "I don't want to leave you. I don't want to leave home."

"Be brave, my child. You are our last hope."

Tears welled in the corners of her eyes as she lifted her chin from the folds of his robe and scanned the darkness to the south. At the base of the overlook lay the old river bed, a scar in the land that contained little more than a series of stagnant pools. Grandfather had told her stories of the time when the river used to brim with water, a time when it was the lifeblood of the planet.

She hoped he was right, but how could she be sure they were nothing more than stories?

"What about the others who tried and failed?" Hughseph. Her heart still ached for her first and only love.

"You won't fail. You've learned deep-hold better than any of them."

There must be more to it than that, she thought. Besides, what made Grandfather the expert at deep-hold training? Where had he learned it, and why didn't he use it himself? However, she only managed to say, "I'm afraid, Grandfather."

"Of course you are, my child. Remember to do everything exactly as Ambrose instructs you. Then you will be safe. We'll all be saved."

She swallowed hard. First, she had to get to this Ambrose person in whom Grandfather placed so much confidence. She studied her course. Here at the limestone cliffs, the old river bed was two kilometers wide, and she would have to cross it without being detected by the Guard. It was forbidden to travel between the co-ops. Too bad the journey could only be successful under the light of a full moon. Or so Grandfather had said.

"Hurry, while the clouds protect you." Grandfather crushed Lissy against him, so tightly that she could feel his body tremble. "Godspeed," he murmured. Releasing her, he pulled up his hood to cover his head and brow, then faded away from her. Shadows absorbed him.

"Grandfather!"

But he was gone.

LissBelle felt sick with aloneness, the same sick emptiness that she'd felt when she watched the Guard drag her parents away...their crime, to raise messenger birds. Now, she stood alone on the overlook, wrapped in the folds of the robe Grandfather had insisted she wear. Her racing heartbeat pulsed through her body. She forced her eyes shut and filled her lungs slowly with the processed air from her mask pack. Began to sway. Easy...

Squaring her shoulders with renewed resolve, she exhaled slowly and finally opened her eyes. Yes, she knew what to do, whether or not she liked it.

The way down was to her right, Grandfather had told her, and she found the crevice that led to the hard-packed bottom. This part of the journey was the easiest. In no time at all, she was down.

She started across the river and tried not to think of the others who had walked here before her. Only three full moons ago, Hughseph had gone. One step, and then another. Her boots raised swirls of dust.

Lighting was a muted whisper through the clouds, thickening across the sky, but it was enough to expose pools of scum ahead. And the bridge of dry land that pierced them like an arrow to Ambrose. Light enough to reveal her own presence, if anyone was watching.

The Guard?

She stopped and glanced around. The moon sailed into a rip in the cloud clover, and silvery light doused the river bed for an instant. She caught a glimpse of the white ruins of a plantation on the opposite bank. Her destination. Then, wisps of fog scuttled across the moon's face, and the ghostly walls before her disappeared into darkness.

One step, and then another. After a while, the ground softened to the feel of dead moss beneath her step. Later still, loose ground gave way to mud.

Hers was a simple mission, really. Find Ambrose, who was keeper of the magic that would guide her to a time in the past. With Grandfather's special seeds, she would change the future, thereby destroying their present. And everyone in it.

Maybe it wasn't as simple as Grandfather claimed. Others had apparently failed before her. They'd disappeared across the river, yet earth, air, and co-op regimen remained the same. Grandfather thought they probably hadn't learned deep-hold well enough and they'd suffocated while traveling through time. She shivered.

A rhythmic thumping sound suddenly rose out of the north, from the direction of her home co-op behind her. A whirling, mechanical sound, it grew stronger by the second until it surpassed the rasping noise of her own breath. She turned, and a search beam burst through the cloudy film of fog. Working its way in circles across the cliffs, the light slipped over a jumble of fallen tree trunks. Trees were corpses, like everything in her world, like the corpses of the resistance troops Grandfather had described from the days of the Great Wars.

The Guard surely had spotted her movement, she thought, panic swelling in her chest. They were coming after her.

It couldn't have been more than a second that she stood there, motionless in mud, but it felt as if she were frozen in time. She stuffed the hem of her robe into the thigh collars of her boots, leaped through the mud, and splashed into stagnant water. Each plunge forward punched holes into the scum, leaving a trail that pointed to her presence as damningly as any of the old maps Grandfather kept, even though they were forbidden.

The beam swept closer as she sank into the water. Never in her life had she ever been fully immersed in any kind of water, and the sensation reminded her of an embrace. She wanted to laugh aloud at the ridiculous thought. This watery, scummy embrace had none of the warmth of Grandfather's hugs. None of the vitality of Hughseph's arms. But it was the only protection she had here in the middle of the river.

Closer. The thump of her heart matched the thump of the copter's blades. She lowered herself into the muck and took in a last, large gulp of processed air before deep-hold. Ripping off her nose and mouth piece, sealing off the air pack to prevent seepage, she sank under the rest of the way. Scum pushed the hood from her face and combed through her hair.

She dared not open her eyes, but even through her closed lids, she saw the brightness of the copter's beam intersecting the edge of her pool, then passing over her hiding place. The distraction made her meditation more difficult, and she focused on images of Grandfather to remind her of their goal. The faded, black robe he'd insisted she wear should blend into the mire, disguising her from view.

Would it?

Grandfather was certain his plan would work, but LissBelle wondered why, if he was so right, why hadn't it worked before? Why had so many others gone before her, time and again, only to disappear across the river, changing nothing? Was Grandfather wrong?

She shivered. Scum oozed around her limbs and held her under. A numbing sensation usually controlled her lungs under deep-hold, but this time she felt a slight burning, telling her that her control was slipping away.

The copter hummed directly above.

Her fingers clutched at the sodden bag wedged under the folds of her robe. The lumpiness of Grandfather's seeds rested against her hips. They'd be ruined in this water, she thought, but she didn't care anymore. Nothing mattered except for air. Not Ambrose. Not the copter, which she could no longer hear. Did that mean it had left? One way or the other, it didn't matter. She craved air. Apparently deep-hold didn't work, and Grandfather's plan was doomed to fail once again.

She pulled upwards against the sucking force of the sludge that wanted to glue her boots to the bottom. A stench of rotten compost met her as she broke the surface, and she quickly drained the water from her mask and clamped it into place over her nose and mouth. Her entire body shuddered with the sudden intake of air smelling like scum. Smelling as if the entire troop of resistance soldiers had decomposed inside her nose and mouth piece. She had to rip it off again, this time to vomit.

The copter was disappearing toward the southern bank of the river, but she knew it'd be back. She crawled out of her watery hiding place and retched again in the mud. Already her face was drying, leaving a residue of grit. The heaves passed, and she straightened. A smell of rotten eggs propelled her forward, clutching her mask to her stomach. Grandfather had told her she could tolerate a small amount of poisoned air, and she hoped he was right, at least about that.

The copter's search beam in the distance spotlighted where she wanted to go. One squishing step and then another. Her legs strained with the additional weight of water in her boots. Her ankles and knees chafed against wet leather, and itchy spots festered beneath the wet garment.

She moved faster as the beam of light grew fainter. Surely, she could find a hiding place amongst the debris of dead timber on the southern banks, if only she could reach it before the copter turned back for her. A small pop startled her, then a louder boom answered. A burst of flame exploded on higher ground ahead. As quickly as the fireball had flared, it was extinguished, and a fragile silence descended in the aftermath.

The muddy ford transformed gradually into parched bottoms of the ancient river bed, and she started to run, despite her wet boots. Through the gloom, she could see the outline of the old banks. Closing the distance, she paused to gasp on foul air.

A chill tickled her spine. Someone was watching her.

Ambrose.

It had to be Ambrose.

Don't let it be a survivor from the copter's crash!