She turned her attention to the wide swath of river that served as a highway for the skimmer. Occasionally they passed the mouth of one of the many tributaries that fed into the main stream. The network of rivers was extensive, and many of the smaller ones still had not been fully explored. The water passing under the skimmer was a murky color, thick with the sediment it had picked up on its meandering journey. She couldn’t see more than a few centimeters under the surface. The vegetation grew right to the water’s edge and into it. Huge leaves of an impossible green hung over the banks. Occasionally Cidra caught a splash of movement as some river denizen leapt out of the water to snatch a tasty morsel that had made the mistake of journeying too far out on a broad leaf.
At one point she thought she had seen a set of reptilian eyes just above the water, watching the skimmer sweep past. When she had pointed them out to Severance, he had shrugged and said she had probably seen a river dracon.
“I’m not familiar with river dracons,” she said. “What do they look like?”
“You don’t want to know,” he told her.
“Nonsense. All knowledge is good.”
“Even knowledge that gives you nightmares?”
She let that pass. She hadn’t slept easily the previous night. Images of huge bugs shining with unnatural light had invaded her dreams.
Tough reeds and floating flowers that were almost a meter wide battled for living space near the banks of the river. Beyond them the jungle was a wall of green that discouraged any attempts at penetration. The companies involved in exploration work had soon learned that it was easier to use the rivers as roads than to try to rip out the vegetation and pave the jungle floor. There were one or two other small settlements similar to Try Again where a mail ship or small plane could land on the continent, but for the most part, field camps and outposts were accessible only by river skimmer.
The skimmer rode a short distance above the water, sinking back down onto the water when the engines were cut. It was a lightweight boat, made to carry small amounts of cargo and passengers. The crew usually consisted of just one individual who also acted as guide. In this case the pilot’s name was Overcash. He wore the uniform of the ExcellEx company. If Overcash had a birth name in addition to the one he’d chosen, he hadn’t bothered to dispense it when he had been introduced to Cidra. It hadn’t surprised her. She was growing accustomed to the lack of formality among Wolves. She was also getting used to the fact that outside Try Again, people were armed. Overcash and Severance both wore pulsers strapped to their thighs, the small, personal weapon the lab intruder had held. Pulsers were blunt, ugly instruments that would kill.
The skimmer had a clear, enclosed cabin in which the navigation instruments were housed. There was room inside for the pilot and one or two passengers to shelter in the event of a storm. Since they had left Try Again, however, Cidra and Severance had been sitting in the stern of the craft, which was open. That had suited Cidra just fine because she was fascinated with the scenery. The river seemed to have its own scent, a distinctive combination of vegetation and water thick with life. Unfortunately Severance had utilized the privacy afforded in the back of the skimmer to continue with his endless commentary on the events in the bio lab.
Cidra shifted slightly, vaguely uncomfortable in her new clothes. She had never before worn anything but one of the formal Harmonic surplice robes, and she felt odd. The tough fabric of the trousers and long-sleeved shirt Desma had insisted she wear were rough against skin that had only known the touch of finely spun crystal moss. The garments were designed in the manner of the functional uniforms worn by most people on Renaissance: snug trousers and a cool, loose-fitting shirt. The fabric was heavy and largely insect-proof, although it wouldn’t be much help against something the size of a Bloodsucker. There was a hood that could be drawn over the head in the event of bad weather or a swarm of flying creatures such as the stinging bandini Desma had described. When she moved around, Cidra was aware of a sensation of being partially undressed. It seemed to her that the trousers and shirt defined her body too revealingly. More than once she had caught Severance eyeing her in the new clothes. He seemed especially fascinated with the shape of her bu**ocks.
In spite of the excitement in Desma’s lab, Severance had seen to it that he and Cidra had left on time that morning. The mail must go through, Cidra thought humorously, especially when it was COD. At least she’d had a chance late yesterday afternoon to query the official Try Again Archive computer. The company in charge of maintaining it had charged a fee for access. Cidra was learning that the competitive free enterprise system that was so much a part of the worlds of Stanza Nine was especially fierce on Renaissance. Nothing was free here.
There hadn’t been time to do a thorough search, and she hadn’t had time to study what she had copied onto data slips, but she had the slips with her and fully intended to read them during the journey. Overcash had said that they would arrive at the ExcellEx field camp in two days’ time. He would be returning as soon as he had dropped off the supplies, and Severance had promised Cidra that they would be going back with the pilot to Try Again.
“Four days of sight-seeing on this river is more than enough,” he had said with a touch of grimness.
Cidra had agreed with him initially because she was so anxious to continue with her research. But now, as she watched the awesome scenery sweep past, she wasn’t so sure. She was familiar with holotapes and data slip reproductions of Renaissance, but nothing could convey a true picture of the incredible, overly lush tangle of vegetation. Nor could any holotape duplicate the startling quantity of animal life. Four days wouldn’t be nearly enough to drink in this amazing world, Cidra decided.
When the skimmer rounded a sweeping bend in the river and started up a long, straight stretch, Overcash locked the guide stick and came out of the cabin to join his passengers. He was a big man, taller than Severance and built along heavy, chunky lines. Cidra suspected that the chunkiness wasn’t composed of much fat but was just muscle. His face was deeply tanned, made up of blunt features carved with a heavy hand. He had all the assurance of physical strength one would want in a guide in this wild land. Overcash stood with one thumb hooked into the utility loop he wore and nodded at Cidra. “Enjoying the scenery, Otanna?”
She inclined her head, surprised by the polite title. “It’s fascinating. But please call me Cidra.”.
Overcash nodded agreeably. “Ever been to Renaissance before?”