Into The Maelstrom – Snippet 33
“The lookout point is directly reached by cutting overland to avoid the last loop of the river. I don’t want to risk taking the boat too close to the Gate. The currents can be fair scary.”
The boatman handed Allenson a shotgun and a couple of cartridges.
“The young gentleman and I can carry the hamper between us if you wouldn’t mind holding Bessy here.”
“You are expecting trouble?” Allenson asked, taking the weapon.
“Oh, no sar. The last dragon ’round here was killed years ago. Bessy is just in case, you understand.”
The boatman led them between the trees. One advantage of an evergreen wood is that the ground under the canopy is clear so they made good progress. The path turned into a delineated animal trail, the sort of place a predator might well wait for prey. Allenson surreptitiously checked the shotgun cartridges.
The boatman saw him and smiled.
The roaring sound grew steadily louder as they walked so the nature of the Channel Gate was not entirely a surprise. Nevertheless, its scale still impressed. A rock outcrop to the left obscured the view. It ended abruptly at the river bank and Allenson got his first look at the Gate.
The party stood on a rocky outcrop above a sheer drop into a black pool. Vertical cliffs of splintered rock curved around to the left to form a natural theatre. The river poured through the cliffs where it had cut a deep channel. It fell into the pool making the continuous roar of sound. A single natural tower of rock guarded the right hand side of the waterfall. The pool in its turn emptied through a sharp V-shaped channel nearby. The land flattened down-channel and was carpeted in coniferous trees. Similar forests grew thickly on the top of the plateau from which the river originated.
“We call the tower the Old Man of the Gate,” the boatman said, pointing to the tower.
The tower leaned outwards from where water had undermined the base. Deep vertical cracks split it from top to bottom. Allenson thought that it would not be many years before it fell. When it did the rubble would damn the river until the pool filled sufficiently to burst through. The likely result would be a tidal wave sweeping downstream to inundate the banks and low lying islands such as the community of Sark.
He opened his mouth to ask the guide whether the Sarklanders were aware of the potential hazard but thought better of it. What could they do even if they were aware? Setting up an early warning system and building flood barriers around the village was potentially possible but he doubted they had the resources to buy in the technology. The Sarklanders would just have to take their chances like everyone else in a dangerous galaxy.
The waterfall threw up copious amounts of spray so there was a permanent rainbow over the dark pool. Its colors danced in time to the chaotic patterns of the surging water. Waves flowed out across the pool from the fall to reflect off the steep banks, clashing in a battleground of intersecting foam.
“How deep is it?” Allenson asked, putting his mouth close to the boatman’s ear.
“Terrible deep, sar, and there’s a vicious undertow. Sometimes when a tree goes over the Gate it stays trapped for days. It gets pushed under at the waterfall coming up near an edge to be pulled to the fall and shoved down again.”
The party sat on a carpet of dried conifer needles and lunched from the hamper. The noise was worth enduring to enjoy the view. Todd threw a pine cone into the pool to test the currents. It just disappeared into the foam. The scale of the place fooled the eye.
“It is so very, very beautiful,” Todd said.
“I suppose so,” Allenson replied, “and a source of near limitless free hydroelectric power. One day we’ll clear the trees and turn this place into a great production center for the Cutter Stream. Imagine the wealth this waterfall will create.”
He nodded towards the top of the plateau.
“A major industrial city will rise there. No doubt the factory owners will build villas on those downstream slopes.”
“No doubt.” Todd sighed. “But it seems almost a crime to destroy such a beautiful wilderness for mere gain.”
Allenson looked at him in puzzlement, suddenly aware that his nephew was in many ways more Brasilian than Manzanitan.
“There’s plenty of wilderness. The Hinterlands are full of little else.”
The guide interrupted the conversation by standing and brushing pine needles from the seat of his trousers.
“If you’ve finished, gentlemen, we ought to be getting back.”
Another day, another world, another hotel room – this time located in Port Trent. The trip from Sark was swift which was just as well. They endured more long lectures from Buller on the military art interspersed with rants about unfair preferment of Brasilian chinless wonders.
Port Trent was big, the biggest commercial port this side of the Bight except for Port Brasilia, an isolated world way down to the galactic south beyond the Cutter Stream. Port Brasilia’s wealth depended partly on its early discovery. Mostly its prosperity depended on vast natural reservoirs of an expensive to manufacture organic ridiculously useful as a biochemical precursor to a vast array of valuable compounds. In short, Port Brasilia provided another raw material source albeit one more valuable to Brasilia than all the Cutter Stream colonies together.
Streams of small craft moving up and down The Great North Road flagged the commercial importance of Port Trent was obvious long before they arrived.
Allenson chose an unpretentious hotel close to the commercial dock. It mostly catered for ship’s officers and business men. Buller selected a far grander establishment in the villa zone. Allenson could not help but wonder who would be picking up Buller’s tab this time. He reproved himself for a lack of charity.
Allenson’s data pad pulsed with messages as soon as they phased in on the controlled approach to one of Port Trent’s frame parks. He received adverts for various products and forms of entertainment. They included women guaranteed to be friendly and welcoming to strangers, exotic but safe recreational drugs and gambling games that were impossible to lose. He set the pad’s discriminator to go through and discard the lot. That left only an invitation to the luncheon reception being held in his honor the following day.
Allenson donned his full dress uniform for the reception with Boswell’s able assistance. Port Trent boasted a considerable extent of properly paved streets rather than the stabilized earth more commonly found in ‘Stream urban zones. People and goods moved around the city in fat-wheeled, battery-powered buggies. These were so commonplace that their electric whine was the sound which woke him that morning.
The buggies popularity also meant the main thoroughfares choked with slowly moving traffic. Allenson was familiar with the concept of a traffic jam but the reality was an unwelcome novelty. The weather was fair and his hotel close to the Commercial Exchange building at which the reception was to be held so he elected to walk along the Front with Todd and take the sea air.
Their uniforms marked them out and they received curious glances from others on the streets. A few insisted on shaking Allenson’s hand and declaring their support for an independent Cutter Stream or otherwise indicated approval by smiles and gestures. Most simply stared, expressions carefully neutral. Few showed overt hostility, the worst being a man who spat on the ground as they passed. Todd took a step forwards fist raised. Allenson held his nephew back while the man faded into an alley.
A dozen or so Continuum ships floated in the deep-water harbor. Some were tied up to jetties for convenient loading or unloading of cargo while others were moored to buoys out from the shore. Small water craft plied backwards and forwards. Todd and Allenson passed one jetty that served exclusively as a dock for pleasure craft. Tiered cabins and frame pads overloaded the plushest examples. Allenson wondered how seaworthy the boats were. Maybe they were purely floating brandy-palaces.
Some had racing lines that served no conceivable purpose other than to display their owners’ wealth. Allenson suspected that many rarely left the dockside. It was a normal business day in Port Trent so few of the boats were occupied except for servants carrying out basic maintenance.
“A great deal of wealth to leave floating around,” Todd said, noting Allenson’s interest.
“And I suspect a number of the owners may not entirely be supportive of our political aims,” Allenson replied ruefully.