Into The Maelstrom – Snippet 32
Chapter 10 – Trent
The barge made a further stop at a small agricultural and logging community called Sark. It could have made Port Trent in one jump by running along the smooth passage of the Great North Road. Buller pointed this out at some length. Todd was insistent that Allenson needed a day or two’s rest after his accident before throwing himself into the maelstrom of Trent politics. Allenson did not argue the point
Sark’s landing beacon guided them to a small guest house located on a spit of land turned into a cluster of small islands. A meandering river burst its bank sometime in the past and cut off an oxbow. No doubt at some time in the future the old channel would silt up completely creating a lake. For now Sark was scattered over what were known as the Channel Islands.
The guest house was simply furnished but comfortable. Allenson retired immediately and slept the sleep of the completely exhausted. He met up with Todd for a substantial breakfast of locally caught smoked fish washed down by café, real coffee being unobtainable.
“Where’s Buller and Redley?” Allenson asked.
“Still getting their beauty sleep,” Todd grinned. “We went onto a local bar, the local bar, after you retired for the evening.”
Allenson pointed his fork at Todd before noticing he had speared a piece of fish with it.
“I see. So how come you’re awake?”
Allenson pushed the fish into his mouth. It had a peppery flavor that was not unpleasant. He wondered whether the taste was a property of the fish or the wood they used to smoke it.
“Genosurgery can only do so much, uncle. Neither Buller nor Redley are young men.”
Allenson winced. “No need to rub it in, nephew.”
Todd gave a sly grin.
“And I took the precaution of taking a detox pill before going out.”
They applied themselves to eating. Eventually, Allenson pushed the remains of the fish away quite beaten by the liberality of the house’s hospitality. He broke what was left of his bread in half and consumed a piece.
“You were right,” Allenson said. “I feel much refreshed after a decent night’s sleep. We can go on to Trent after we collect the old soaks.”
Todd spluttered into his café.
“That’s no way to talk about two senior officers of our new nation.”
“I doubt whether the Assembly on Paxton has got around to declaring independence yet so there’s probably no new nation. They’re no doubt still debating what color the flag should be. We are, I’m afraid, not only an army without professional soldiers but an army without a state – a somewhat original position for a Captain-General to be in.”
“About leaving today,” Todd said, carefully not looking at Allenson.
“Yeees,” Allenson replied.
“We’re not,” Todd rushed out. “I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
“You don’t think it’s a good idea?” Allenson asked, using a tone to remind his nephew who was the general and who the aide.
“I have hired a couple of men to sit in the barge and pedal to boost up our charge so we have a decent safety margin. Boswell’s keeping an eye on them for me. I don’t want us to have to pedal into Port Trent, uncle. It’s undignified. Buller and Redley would be useless so it would come down to you, me and Boswell.”
“So what am I supposed to do all day?” Allenson asked.
“Ah, I’ve thought of that. Apparently, there is a spectacular water feature upstream so I’ve also hired a boat to go and look at it. Our hostess is preparing a picnic hamper as we speak.”
“You think of everything,” Allenson said, not sure if he was amused or annoyed – or both at the same time.
Allenson paraded, no other word sufficed, through the tiny village down to the small quay on the river bank. Men wished to be recorded shaking his hand. Even more embarrassingly, women wished to be recorded kissing his cheek, if he was lucky, or his lips if he was not. One plucky matron of a certain age with arms like tree trunks hauled him down to her level before sticking her tongue down his throat. She retreated to sustained cheers from her peers.
“For pity’s sake get me out of here,” Allenson whispered to Todd, all the while waving and smiling until his cheek muscles ached.
Todd cleared a way through the enthusiastic villagers to their awaiting fishing boat. Flat bottomed and open, a tube drive clamped to the transom propelled the boat. The boatman touched his forehead upon Allenson’s arrival.
He and Todd clambered in, Todd resting his legs on the hamper. The boatman unhitched the rope at the stern, threw it in and jumped in after it. The boat rocked alarmingly. Allenson gripped the sides while maintaining his politician’s rictus of a grin. He hoped none of his admiring public noticed his mounting alarm. He was not keen on another ducking after Icecube.
The boatman started the engine on the end of the tube drive by vigorously pulling on a cord until it fired. The clatter suggested some sort of long-stroke single cylinder piston motor. The crowd backed away. The reason became clear when the boatman lowered the end of the drive tube until it was partly submerged. It blew air, throwing up a spray of water and mud in a wide arc as he conned the light craft away from the bank. The water must have been scant centimeters deep.
Once they moved out into deeper water the boatman lowered the tube until it pumped only water. It was then far more efficient. He throttled back the motor, reducing the noise considerably. Allenson was intrigued by the novel device.
“What do you use as a power source?” he asked, turning his head to communicate with the boatman at the stern.
“Ethanol, Sar General. We distil it from the fermentation of a native high sugar vegetable root. Makes decent fuel – and a fair tonk too if you don’t mind your gums shrinking.”
Allenson made a mental note to stick to plum brandy or beer while on Sark. The river was slow-flowing so they made fast progress upstream but the waterway was so meandering that they travelled three kilometers for every kilometer closer to their destination. The banks on either side were flat. Crops grew down to the water with small huts scattered about. No doubt the local farmers used them to store tools or even sleep in over busy periods. These signs of habitation gradually became rarer as they went upstream until they disappeared altogether.
The sunshine was warm but not unpleasantly hot. Sark had a most agreeable climate for, whatever season it was. He had an impulse to look it up on his datapad but couldn’t be bothered. After all, it hardly mattered.
He shut his eyes and half dozed, lulled by the rocking of the boat and the gentle play of warm air on his face.
“General,” Todd said, touching him lightly on the arm to get his attention. He nodded towards the boatman.
Allenson realized that the man had been speaking.
“My apologies, master. What did you say?”
“Over there, sar, razor fish.”
A shoal of narrow silver fish leapt into the air, tails thrusting vigorously but pointlessly. The fish provided a graphic lesson in the uselessness of power without traction. They measured about twenty centimeters long including the long narrow snout and forked tail. The water around the shoal boiled white, throwing a fine mist into the air. Sunlight glittered of the creature’s metallic scales and filtered through the water to create an ever changing iridescent pattern of transient rainbows.
Larger torpedo shapes prowled under the water around the edge of the shoal. The silver fish jumped not for pleasure but in panic.
Refreshed and wide awake Allenson looked around. Trees like pines with dark green needle-like leaves grew in clumps on the bank. The further they went the more the trees replaced grassland until they lined the banks turning the waterway into a corridor.
After another half an hour or so the boatman cut the power and drifted the boat into the left hand bank. A couple of felled trees served as a makeshift dockside. The boatman jumped out with a mooring rope line that he tied to a convenient branch. He pulled the craft flat alongside the shore and held it so Allenson and Todd could alight safely.
Now the motor was quiet Allenson heard a dull rumble in the distance. Otherwise the countryside was utterly silent except for the boat tapping gently at the wooden dock.