The River Waits
by Ljubo Popovich
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
In the full blush of midday I awoke. My temples pulsed audibly as I squinted in the brightness of the room. On a divan, a sultry woman reclined in a loose robe, smoking a thimble-sized pipe with a crook in the stem.
“First time, eh?” she said with a surprisingly deep voice.
Experimentally, I cleared my throat. “Why... yes. And who might you be?”
“I’m Jasmine. Care for a plate of eggs?” Without waiting for an answer, she passed it over.
Gratefully, I gobbled them up. Though my words sounded like gibbering and my hands couldn’t keep still, the hangover was nothing compared to what the night had done to me. There was still a ringing in my ears and a tingling sensitivity in my lips and fingertips. I banished thoughts of the cube from my mind and fought back tears. It was just that I was so relieved to be alive.
From the adjacent room came the sounds of giggling and scuffling.
“Does he ever sleep?” I asked, as much to myself as to Jasmine.
“If he does, you’ll never see it.” She took a long draw on the pipe and puffed out a few rings with her pink lips. For a moment I stared.
“You better rest up while you still can,” she said.
“Do you live here?” I asked.
“Here? Goodness, no. I’ve got no particular place I stake my claim. But when it’s convenient, this place is as good as any.”
“Am I... I mean was I... one of many, Jasmine?”
She looked at me for a long time with languid, unsearchable eyes. “You were.”
I sighed. “I’m from the Grand Ferris.”
“I figured as much. So tell me what it’s like for you.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean everyone who comes down from that cloud-cuckoo land seems to have a different impression. What’s yours?”
“I’ve only been away for a couple nights, I think. But from what I’ve seen I’ve been missing out on a beautiful world.”
“So it’s different than you imagined?”
“I never spent any time imagining it, I guess.”
She tossed her long dark hair. “That’s odd. I spend all my time thinking about what it’s like up there.”
“Really? It’s probably not what you expect.”
“People say you don’t have to work. You don’t have to do anything. There’s no murder, and no money or starvation to worry about. Everyone dresses up in fancy clothes and sits around and meditates. You hear all kinds of stories.”
“The surface city is much more exciting, if you ask me. There’s so much to do here.”
“Too much, really. And too little time in which to do it.” She brushed some fallen ash off her robe.
“I don’t think I’d ever get tired of the people here.”
“It can be quite tiresome sometimes. Makes me want a vacation.”
“Well, why don’t we trade?”
“You’re still wacked out, aren’t you?”
“You go up to the Grand Ferris, and I’ll stay down here. We’ll swap places.”
She laughed a little too loudly. “No offense, but I don’t think you’d last a single day as a whore.”
“I suppose you’re right,” I said heavily. “We all have our lives to live.”
Without warning the Helmsman burst through the door with a bilious waif on either arm.
“He’s alive!” the Helmsman said, staggering. “Put her there, champ!” the Helmsman clasped me in a spine-cracking embrace, and my heart swelled with hope. “There’s a whole world out there, Conrad. Get yourself in gear!”
Jasmine caressed my forehead one last time as she gathered up her belongings.
The next day we traversed great lengths of the river and had a merry time. I wasn’t burdened by my debt to the Helmsman, only gracious. The past no longer mattered, and the future assumed a sudden importance.
Sometime toward evening, plagued by the melancholy thought of returning home, I sidled up to the Helmsman. Gripping my hands, he placed them upon the helm.
“Position yourself like so, sturdy-like,” he said, shoving me front and center. I felt the life of the river coursing through my muscles as I held firmly onto the wheel.
“The power takes hold of a man,” he said, “builds him up.” Though I couldn’t hold her steady, I felt the thrill of control bristling my mind.
“There’s a life awaiting you,” he said, massaging the tension out of my shoulders. “Cast your eyes at the graveyard yonder.”
Along the eastern bank a high, grassy cliff leered, studded with rows of uniform stone.
“Our whole existence boiled down to a solemn cenotaph,” he went on. “Our yearnings and ambitions, dissolved to dust beneath cold slabs. How lonesome it is in the tomb! Why put on grave clothes early?
“I hope, Conrad, that your time with us has been valuable?”
I couldn’t bear to think of going back. “Your efforts were not wasted,” was all I could think to say.
The hours passed too quickly, and the sun seemed in a hurry to set. The jovial crew looked forward to another night of ceaseless exploration, but first they had to put me back in my lavish bastille. If only I was a young boy, instead of a man, I thought, there might have been time to carve out a destiny here.
Detecting my thoughts, the Helmsman told me, “Conrad, I daresay you know me better than you know yourself. Trust me, there’s still time.”
Words that only could have come from the show drifted through my head: Listen to the whisper of these memories. Like mollifying tides that soften a rocky shore, we each hold the remedy within us. Memories are like the waves that tone the beach. Pains are like pebbles. Don’t hold onto them. Just let them go.
The airship idled above the schooner and, impossibly high, the Grand Ferris turned like the great illusion of some fallen god.
The airship moored at the landing dock only long enough to let me off. Dejectedly my eyes followed it as the bay doors slid shut and cut off the blast of wind.
Delivery vehicles parked at the platform, were quickly unloaded by drones and then departed. For an instant I contemplated making a mad leap for one of the flyers.
“Residents aren’t allowed on this level,” a drone told me, scanning me with a laser.
On the walk back to the residential sector, I noticed a network of cobwebs woven across the high ceiling. Alongside the bright pathway a few people twitched and kicked in lounge chairs, senselessly cradling glowing cubes. A constant current of muggy air pumped into my face, and the garish lights glared too intensely for my eyes.
The Helmsman’s last words echoed in my ears: Remember the freedom of the river, the purity of its purpose. You have to find the helm and seize it with all your might. I leave the rest to you, my lad.
Rotating advertisement panels and bubbling fountains combined in my mind’s eye into a vision of the Grand Ferris in total, a hole in the otherwise innocent sky, a gilded sepulcher. I passed women in cartoonish outfits strolling through the marketplace and drones watering the flowered lanes before I finally arrived at my door.
Unexpectedly, I walked in to find a Ferris drone vacuuming the carpet. My window had already been replaced.
“Your cube battery was dead,” it said in a tinny voice. “But it should be ready to use now. I plugged it in for you.”
Listlessly I stared at the television, which had been left on, and then jerked the plug from the wall. The drone buzzed into the hallway, and I swung the door closed.
The new window was darkly tinted, I realized, and the surface was now only a mottle of indistinct shapes.
The days passed unremarkably. A few acquaintances asked where I’d been but didn’t seem interested in what I had to tell them.
Day after day, I spent very little time in my room and walked all over the Grand Ferris, passing the same ageless faces, the same sullen expressions. Every morning I set out determined to cover more territory.
On several occasions, I returned to the delivery sector, but no opportunity of escape presented itself. Even if I got past the drones, the supply vehicles simply dumped their cargo and then shot into the sky.
What would happen if there was a fire, or if someone cobbled together a bomb? These anarchistic thoughts only fueled my misery as I used a viewfinder podium to look down at the concrete jungle. The world was full of diverse wonders, I knew: Snowy mountains that went on forever, icy streams that ran to the sea, hidden caves and boundless forests.
Aboard the Grand Ferris, how many times had I already covered the sectors? The geometric gardens and monotonous art galleries offered nothing but empty distraction.
Just as I resigned myself to the illusion, once again I glimpsed a tiny shape ascending out of the busy city. It looked like a small helicopter heading straight for the Grand Ferris. I followed it as it flew out of sight overhead.
There was only one place a helicopter could land, I thought as I dashed for the escalator. Using escalators and maintenance elevators, it was possible to gain access to the top sector, I’d learned, where drones were recharged and repaired. Several times I’d found my way to the roof of the Grand Ferris where thousands of solar receptors glared.
The wind was so strong I had to cling to the reflective disks. The sunlight blinded me, and the air was so thin my breath came in quick gasps. A man in a black suit hailed me as he anchored the tiny helicopter to a rail.
“Let’s go down the stairwell where we can talk,” the man yelled.
“Are you the new middleman?” he asked.
“Sorry,” I said, shrugging, “But I just saw you fly up and was curious what you were doing?”
“Oh really? Well, I could ask you the same thing. I’m a smuggler. I buy cubes and sell them in Khai-han, so do you happen to have one?”
“I’ll give you my cube in exchange for a ride to the surface.”
The man smiled with a mouth full of gold teeth. “Sorry to disappoint you, bud, but it’s a one-man flyer.”
I reached into my shirt pocket and retrieved my keycard ID. “Then I’ll give you my room, fully furnished, including the cube.”
He smiled and picked at his teeth with a gloved finger. “A suite on the Grand Ferris for a little helicopter? Why the hell not?” Then he stuck out his hand and we shook.
“You’re going to need these,” he said, removing his goggles. “Don’t blame me if you crash and burn.”
As he skipped down the passageway, he called to me one last time. “Hey, buster, is it true what they say?”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Do all your dreams come true here?”
“Sometimes they do,” I said.
My hands trembled as I stepped carefully around the solar collectors and strapped myself into the plastic seat of the helicopter. But as soon as I wrapped my fingers around the wheel, I felt a thrill take hold of my heart.
The beat of the propeller above me drowned out my fear and doubt as I rose above the shining wheel of the Grand Ferris and then plummeted through a layer of clouds. The metropolis sprawled before me and, as clear as day, nestled against the dense labyrinth of glistening lights, the river waited.
Copyright © 2017 by Ljubo Popovich