Pendulum Ch. 31: The River

The river lay right in front of their small vehicle. Only one of Gliese’s suns was still on the horizon, and the residual light caused fiery reflections on the surface, a million red and orange flames flickering in and out of existence on the black water. The current the Wisp’s instruments had measured were not visible from here, they’d have to enter to get a better picture. It kept looking harmless in the strong gravity, but Adams knew better.
At a hundred metres, it was still wider than he would have liked, but if there was one place to cross it, it would have to be here. About a hundred kilometres downstream, the river split into two and slimmed down to half the width, but getting there would not be a pleasant drive down the riverbank; it would develop into a drawn-out slalom around growths of fungus and other landscape features, and by the time they’d reach the spot, steep cliffs would make an easy descent impossible.
No, it had to be here, or not at all. Challenges existed to be overcome.
The real problem, though, was its depth. The Wisp didn’t have data on how deep down the bottom of the stream was, as its scanners could only reach up to two hundred metres. That alone would have been a reason for concern, but its actual depth could have been much worse, for all he knew, and that didn’t even include potential danger from lifeforms in the water.
A violent coughing fit came from the back of the vehicle, accompanied by a gurgling sound, as if the marine was drowning. Was his health declining again? Hill had looked a lot better after the doctor’s last treatment, but Adams could hardly make an objective assessment. To think that just a short while back, the communication specialist had seemed like an energetic young man, and now he lay down on the brink of death—and all this in such a short amount of time. A daunting thought.
“Is he okay, doc?” the druid asked. Adams couldn’t understand the mumbled reply.
His own infection seemed to have stopped progressing, but it hadn’t disappeared. The rash was still there, unchanged in its size and severity, and the doctor’s AI didn’t know why yet. The same organism had jumped both of them, and if these spores came from the large fruit bodies, it didn’t even make sense for them to behave like this. What he had seen of their structure didn’t look invasive, but it was important to remember that this was still an alien world. Nothing was as it seemed, least of all a lifeform of this level of complexity. But these were idle thoughts. He still needed more data, more samples, just like the medical systems. He had barely scratched the surface of what seemed like a planet-spanning organism, and from the looks of it, one that had out-competed all other life on the planet. Except for underwater. The mycelium had stopped short of expanding into the river, and some naked rocks where it hadn’t been able to take hold.
He turned back to his console and checked the map again. There was no way to get to the mountains, other than crossing the stream and hoping for the best. He initiated another self-check.
“All systems are ready and operable. No damage detected.”
The Wisp could have carried them over this obstacle on a planet with lower gravity, like Earth, and its engines were not designed for long flight in the first place, but things looked differently underwater. He pulled up the calculations again. Everything here was subject to the same rules, and the pressure inside the river rose dramatically after only a metre, sufficient to negate the impact of the downward pull. While their own relative weight would still be the same inside the water, they would be light enough for the Wisp to take them to the other side using its flight engines.
It wasn’t as crazy as it sounded. The capsule was amphibian; the hull was undamaged and its engine didn’t care in what environment it worked, as long as its reactor could supply enough energy to power the fusion drives.
A silent notification hung in the corner of his display. It was not a usual status check, all of those were already finished. He opened the window, and more data came in and filled the blank space. A message from the air filtration system.
“Unknown potential pathogen eliminated.”
As if to confirm the system message, the marine exploded into another violent fit. Unlike earlier, it was a dry cough now, wheezing. Whatever the fir bolg doctor was trying had at least some effect. Adams paused. This hadn’t been the corporal. The young marine lay still on the hospital bed, in an induced coma, while Dr Maon fought to save his life. This had been another person’s voice. Adam turned around, only to stare directly into the eyes of Murray.
“I’m fine. Don’t worry about me. Get Corporal Hill back on his feet first,” the lieutenant said and lifted his chin.
He could order him to get a check right now, but the man was right. Hill was still critical, and it wasn’t worth it starting an argument right now, when splitting the doctor’s attention could have terrible consequences and Adams had his hands full already. But he’d keep an eye on Murray, regardless.
“Agreed. I will take us through the river. The capsule might rock a little, grab something to hold on to.”
In the back, the fir bolg slumped down in his seat. He had been working tirelessly ever since they arrived, and there was no end in sight. Already the next patients were waiting for him.
Adams turned back to the console, opened the driving controls to—was that a new spot on the back of his hand? And another on his wrist. Both were still tiny, barely visible, but clearly not an illusion. His stomach felt like a clenched fist.
He exhaled. Not now. Not yet. Not when he had to get them to the other side of this river. He would keep it to himself for just a little longer until things had calmed down, until they were back on their way to complete the mission. As long as this didn’t hamper his ability to do his job, he would be fine, at least for the moment. He tensed his shoulders, straightened his back and gave the capsule the command to go.

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