Aloha – Ryder is making new friends, including Cryellians on Demeter. What do you do for fun inside a rock the size of Ceres? Find out. A reminder, the earlier chapters are all available in the flog archives, and the book is available on Amazon :o) Doc
Debbie was explaining some geography concepts she had learned over the past week while flying. “They really don’t have north, east, south, and west here, as the gravity shifts both up and down. We have the near side, which is the side that Europe is located on. The far side is the opposite side, and houses the Slick headquarters. It’s a no fly zone. They actually had three hoppers escort me out of their air space.”
“You’ve already told us that story. We’re more interested in the canyons,” Ryder interjected.
“Well it sounded like they would shoot me down or something. Isn’t that right, Becky?”
Becky gave Debbie a long look, and then simply added, “Yes, I think they might have shot us down, especially after the second time you tried to buzz around them.”
“Well, anyway, the canyons,” Debbie said, suddenly returning to the topic, “if you follow the vertical rock face up about a mile, it sort of levels to a hilly region that spreads for several miles in some areas. That’s referred to as the highlands. Most of the livestock are raised there. The mountains continue to rise for another mile or so and are covered in orchards and forests. Then there is a steep drop that is almost sheer in some places and falls as much as two thousand feet. Waterfalls dot the course of the river, which runs from Europe all the way to Kuu’Aali Falls at the other end. I haven’t been there yet, but I hear the falls are unbelievable.”
They had been flying for about twenty minute at a gentle incline. Aster was piloting, and Ensign Steerman was serving as co-pilot. Steerman had been very clear that neither Becky nor Debbie were invited into the control cabin. Becky had taken it in stride, but Debbie argued with Steerman all the way to the door, and had continued arguing with the door after Steerman shut and locked it. Aster had winked at Cynthia and Ryder when he came aboard, but had remained silent during Steerman’s tirade about babysitting grubs.
The hopper was headed to Shimmer’s Head, which was about two hours from Europe and was an access point for the Ashiijin River. Ryder was again frustrated by the lack of portholes when traveling in the hopper, and wished he could see outside.
Disembarking from the transport at Shimmer’s Head, Ryder noticed that there were only two landing pads. The pads were in good repair, but the grass surrounding the site was tall and unkempt. Looking up he saw two towering canyon walls. The two faces of the canyon were quite different. The side they were located on looked like polished granite and rose almost perpendicular several hundred feet into the air. They were in an alcove of this sheer rock face that was perhaps two hundred yards deep. The mountain rising on the far side of the river was steep and rugged, but Ryder could imagine climbing it. He wasn’t sure if he would want to, though, as the rock looked to be a combination of sharp-edged quartz mixed with various other ores.
The river was running wide and quiet near the landing pad, although they could hear thundering water upstream. A hardened gravel surface provided a landing to the water that was perhaps forty feet wide, and inclined very slightly for ten to fifteen yards. Adjacent to the landing was a broad, low shed. The only other structure was a pueblo-style building that Ryder knew was the lodge. They were going to run the river today, then spend the night at the facilities.
Sitting in an old rocking chair on the front porch of the stone building was a stout man in jeans and a flannel shirt. He wore a wide-brimmed hat, which seemed unnecessary since there was no bright sun to be shielded from, but it was drawn over his eyes, and he appeared to be sleeping. He looked old, and his hands were hard and calloused. He didn’t move as the group clamored past him and entered the lodge.
Inside the dwelling there were a variety of fish that looked almost plastic hanging on the walls. The largest was over three feet long. Ryder actually recognized some of the smaller fish as trout. He had been fishing several times with his father, with mixed results. They were always fishing for trout, but seemed more likely to catch perch, or bluegills, or nothing at all most of the time. The room apparently served as the dining room and was outfitted with an eclectic mix of mismatched furniture. Ryder counted six tables and twenty chairs all together.
From another room that Ryder’s nose identified as the kitchen, a middle-aged woman emerged with a cotton apron and gingham dress. Ryder thought he must have entered the set for a Western movie. “Hi, I’m Maggie. You must be the Freeport party,” the woman spoke in a friendly voice. She had salt and pepper hair pulled back in a bun. She was of average height and looked a bit dowdy. But her eyes were sharp. Maggie continued smiling. “We weren’t expecting you for another hour. You can take your bags to your rooms down that far hallway. I’ve tacked your names on the doors so that you know where to drop your gear. Hondo will be ready for you in a few minutes.”
The passage to the quarters was rather narrow, and combined stone and logs. The floor was of the same gravel composite as the landing. There wasn’t much light, but it was still easy to pick out the notebook paper tacked to the door with their names written in clear block letters.
Ryder was sharing a room with Randy and Joel. He was a little disappointed in their room in comparison to the other accommodations he had on Demeter. There was a set of bunk beds and a sofa that could be pulled out into a third bed. The mattresses looked old and worn. He had the pullout bed, and he could imagine how thin the mattress was going to be. The room smelled musty, and it was dark.
“Are you sure we’re in the right place?” Joel asked.
“Yeah, isn’t that a nest over in the corner of the room on the floor?” Randy muttered.
Looking to the corner, there was certainly a clump of something that could be a nest. “I’m not sure,” Ryder answered tentatively.
“About the place or the nest?” Joel perked up.
“Either…neither,” Ryder responded. “Let’s go outside.”
From the look on the girls’ faces, Ryder suspected their accommodations hadn’t been much better. But Aster and Steerman emerged in a good mood. Ryder wondered if this was some sort of practical joke as the two Cryellians sauntered ahead, passed through the dining room, and stepped outside ahead of the rest of them.
The old man who had been sitting in the rocking chair was apparently Hondo. He was pulling a huge purple inflatable raft from the shed to the water’s edge. As Ryder approached the vessel, he saw two long oars in the raft, along with a number of very small paddles.
“All right, I’ll only say this once,” a gravelly baritone voice began. “I’m Hondo, and my wife is Margaret. You’ve already met her. I’ll be taking you on this run. You will wear these,” he stated with authority, pointing at what were obviously life jackets. “I’ll run the oars in the center of the boat. You will use those”—he pointed at tennis-racket sized paddles—“when and only when I tell you to. If I say left, you paddle like crazy on the left side. If I yell out right, you do the same on the right side.”
Hondo spent the next few minutes getting everyone into their seating arrangements. Ryder was happy to see that he was sitting next to Cynthia. Debbie was sitting next to Steerman, and Steerman looked none too happy. Ryder whispered to Aster, “Are you sure this is a good idea?”
Aster laughed. “Hondo is supposed to be the best rafter on the river since his chief competitor, Jake Silverman, drowned last year.”
“Drowned?” Cynthia asked. She looked a little green.
Aster nodded solemnly. “Yup, power failed on a run just like this one. Jake and the ten people he had with him all wound up as fuel for the power plant, or the fish.”
“What kind of fish are in the river?” Debbie asked.
“Big ’uns. Some could swallow you whole.” Hondo laughed with a deep rumble.
Debbie shrank back a bit from the edge of the raft, and Steerman laughed sarcastically.
That won a glare from Debbie, and Ryder knew there was trouble brewing for Steerman if he didn’t watch out.
As they floated quietly away from the landing, Ryder could see the bottom of the river clearly. It was only two or three feet deep here, and he saw a variety of trout-like fish lolling back and forth along the bottom. They looked like they were big enough to take a good bite out of someone’s arm, but not big enough to swallow anyone. The minutes glided by, and first Aster, then Steerman, then everyone else peeled off layers of clothing. Ryder couldn’t help noticing how nice Cynthia’s legs looked in cutoffs. Her swimsuit top looked good too.
“Are you leering, boy?” Hondo asked him in a loud voice, then guffawed. “Knew I should have paired you with your sister.”
Ryder sank into his seat as everyone laughed, including Cynthia. He wondered if he could crawl out of the boat and provide a snack for the trout. Maybe there was one big enough to swallow him whole.
“No, I like him right here,” Cynthia retorted. “I admire his pecks.”
Ryder, recovering, leaned over and whispered to Cynthia, “Thanks.”
She whispered back, “It was all I could think of. I’m glad you think I look good in cutoffs.” She winked.
He wanted to continue the conversation, but it was getting noisy. He glanced ahead and saw that the river was starting to churn, and he could see outcroppings of rock that were mostly along the banks of the river.
“All right boys and girls, time to earn your keep.” Hondo raised his voice and turned the raft with the large oar on the right. “Things will get a bit more interesting in a few minutes.” Ryder thought things were interesting already.
He saw Hondo pulling first one oar then another to try to keep them in the channel as the raft started moving faster and faster. Every now and then, Hondo would shout, “You, on the left, paddle! Harder, you fools!” The noise continued to get louder. Then it was their turn on the right. “Harder, you fools!” seemed to end nearly every sentence that Hondo shouted.
Ahead, Ryder saw a white swirling mass in the middle of the river. He looked to either side and couldn’t see a safe passage. About this time, Hondo yelled, “Pull those paddles out, OUT of the water!” Then added, “Hang on,” and chortled.
For the next ten minutes Ryder wasn’t sure if he was going to fall overboard, fly out, or just get beaten to death by the raft. They actually flew out of the river at one point like a killer whale breaching out of the ocean and slapping back into the water. That was when he was sure things were going to end badly. Even Cynthia grabbing him didn’t really help his mind clear away from the thought, I’m going to die. I’m going to die.
Abruptly the raft emerged from the chutes, and the waters calmed back down. They were gliding through shallows again. Ryder was relieved that the river once more widened and slowed. The canyon walls on the right were still sheer, and they were passing a small alcove and beach similar to the landing at Shimmer’s Head. The left side showed signs of numerous rock slides, and Ryder thought he spotted some movement in one of the rubble-laden piles of rock. He wondered if the movement had been from a gopher or rabbit, or some totally foreign creature. They were floating leisurely for several minutes, and then he started to hear the river thundering ahead again. The cycle of cataracts and calm water continued over and over for the next four hours. After a particularly rough ride traversing what Hondo referred to as Devil’s Gate, they pulled ashore on a narrow beach to eat a quiet lunch.
Randy, Joel, and Ryder were drafted to carry three boxes that were strapped to the raft behind Hondo. Lunch was comprised of sandwiches on homemade bread, and water. Everyone devoured their first sandwich without so much as a word. By his third sandwich, Joel commented that it was the best meal that he had ever eaten, and Randy and Ryder quickly agreed.
Hondo gave Joel a not so gentle jab. “Those are just chicken sandwiches and jelly sandwiches.” He laughed. “Although I admit that Margaret makes great homemade breads and jellies. Just wait ’til dinner. You’re in for a real treat then.”
Turning toward Becky, Hondo asked, “What do you think of them?”
Surprised at the attention, Becky faltered, but responded that the sandwiches were delicious.
“So how are things back on Earth?” Hondo sidled up next to Becky
“They’re fine,” Becky responded, somewhat embarrassed.
“And your family, how are they taking all this?” Hondo leaned forward with his hands on his knees, almost staring at Becky’s face.
“They don’t know. They think I’m in Europe.” Becky stared down at her water bottle. “Well, you know, the Europe on Earth.”
“That devil, Steve! Still supporting kidnapping, eh?” Having finished a couple of sandwiches and two bottled waters, Hondo got up and walked to a small rock overhang and was immediately asleep. Ryder was tired, but not that tired.
Aster and Steerman joined Cynthia and Ryder. “Better than you thought?” Aster inquired.
“Depends on whether dying is fun?” Ryder sighed. “I could have sworn I was dead meat for the fish every time we went through those rapids.”
“Yeah, Hondo is kind of crazy. I think he’s the only one that is willing to run this part of the river,” Aster replied.
“Who is he, anyway? He doesn’t seem to fit here,” Ryder continued.
“Hondo?” He’s from Earth. I’m not sure what his real name is. I know he used to go back and forth to Earth on the cycles. He was some mucky muck in the DDF and that he retired five or six years ago. He has a fondness for old movies and some guy named The Duke. We’ll probably watch some old celluloid films tonight. Hondo has his own projector he sets up in the dining room.”
“So you’ve been here before?” Cynthia asked.
Steerman nodded. “A couple of times.”
An hour later, they were back at it again. Although the rapids weren’t quite as intimidating, Ryder noticed his arms were throbbing when Hondo yelled out, “Right! Right! Harder, you fools!” After the third set of rapids of the afternoon, Ryder fell back exhausted. Cynthia joined him, leaning with her back to the raft, and confirmed his own thinking. “I don’t know how much more of this I can take. I think my arms are going to fall off,” she said. Ryder looked around the raft. Debbie wasn’t glaring at Steerman. Randy and Athena looked like they were ready to fall asleep. Joel was dozing in the inside corner at the back. Even Aster and Steerman looked ready to call it a day.
“Just one more to go,” Hondo encouraged. “Then it’s fly away home time.”
Ryder was relieved, but noticed a cagey grin on Aster’s face, and Steerman was absolutely leering. He poked Cynthia. “Something’s amiss,” He whispered.
“You’ve got that right. I think I’ve dislocated my entire body,” she complained.
Ryder found himself rubbing Cynthia’s shoulders and ignoring a whistle aimed his way from across the raft. A few minutes later, they could hear the rapids as they approached a bend. “Okay, one more time.” Ryder heard himself breath as he rose back to his knees and his paddle.
Before they turned the bend in the river, Hondo yelled out, “Time to secure! See those cords? There’s a hook for each of you. I suggest y’all hook them to your life preservers.”
Ryder complied, as did everyone else in the raft. For the first time, Ryder noticed that Hondo didn’t even have a life jacket on. He wondered what would happen if Hondo fell out of the raft.
The swirling mass of white water quickly took his mind off Hondo, as he complied with the command to “Paddle, you fools!” The raft was taken by the river and buffeted around and across rocks. At one point they were caught in a whirlpool, and Ryder could not imagine how Hondo pulled them out, but he did. Hondo reminded Ryder of Captain Ahab going after Moby Dick. The noise continued to get louder, although they seemed to be getting better control as they sped through the channel. The worst of the rapids seemed to be thinning, and the channel cleared, but the raft was accelerating. As the mists of the rapids began to fall behind them, the noise grew into a booming thunder. Ryder looked ahead, and fear gripped him. Less than a hundred yards ahead, he could see the river cascading over a fall. He could not see how deep the water fell, but in the distance he could see the river continuing on, and it was at least two hundred feet below them. We’re all going to die, he thought, but this time rather than being scared, he was convinced.
As they plunged over the edge, Ryder couldn’t help feeling time stand still. He didn’t even notice the high-pitched shrieks from some of his companions. He thought his life would pass before his eyes, but all he thought about instead was his disappointment at not doing some of the things he wanted to do. He wanted to beat Aster at the strategy game. He wanted to see his family again. He wanted to tell Debbie…well maybe not. He certainly regretted passing on the chance to kiss Cynthia in the maze. Now it was all gone. He wondered if he had already died, but he could feel Cynthia’s hand squeezing his own. It was as if they were floating. Then he realized they were still horizontal. Shouldn’t the raft be in a vertical dive by now? he thought. But they did not seem to be getting closer to the bottom. They seemed to be hanging above the river.
As Ryder’s mind came back to the present, he heard Hondo bellow a hardy laugh, one filled with life. “I’ll never get over the first time you guys hit the Juu’ Juu Falls.” Aster and Steerman laughed too. “The first time I went over, I was glad I was soaking wet, because I know I wet myself,” Aster said.
The craft was apparently more than a raft. It was floating like a hot air balloon. Ryder could see the river continuing on for miles ahead like a milky turquoise ribbon cutting through the rugged, rocky terrain. They were still several hundred feet below the top of the canyon, and perhaps two hundred feet above the river itself. The canyons ahead were even less inviting than Shimmer’s Head, with little vegetation and no trees for miles.
“Well, time to get home. Everyone settle back. This baby will take us back up the river in about two hours.” Hondo pushed a small handle forward on his left and pulled the one on his right toward him. The air ship banked until it turned back toward Shimmer’s Head, then Hondo leveled the craft and set his course back up the river. He kept the vessel about two hundred feet above the canyon floor, and everyone lay back against their respective spots on the raft and delighted that they were still alive.
Two hours later, the vessel descended and settled onto landing pad two. As they left the purple raft, Debbie blurted out, “Can we do it again tomorrow?”
Hondo laughed. “You might have your grandma’s gumption, but this old man ain’t got another trip to Juu’Juu in him for a couple of days. Even Margaret’s dinner wouldn’t revive me enough to get back out there tomorrow. Speaking of dinner, I think I can smell roast chicken and sweet potato fries.”
Ryder concurred that dinner must be ready. He could smell the chicken himself, and was starting to drool. He stopped, then turned suddenly to Hondo, “You knew my grandmother?”
Hondo actually blushed, dumbfounded, “Just a figure of speech,” he muttered awkwardly.
Maggie quickly changed the subject, “Hondo, can you come in and pull the chicken out of that antique stove?”