“See? No swimming, Etjole. The bottom has the feel of fine gravel. We can walk across.” He kicked water in the direction of his friends, causing Ahlitah to blink and turn his head away momentarily.
Snarling softly, the great black shape hopped gingerly into the moderate current. Water ridged up slightly against his ankles before continuing to flow westward around them. A disappointed Ehomba followed. Had the river been deeper, he would have entertained notions of building a raft and following it west to the ocean. He missed the sea very much. Surely they were far enough north now to resume walking up the coast. But any raft made large and strong enough to carry them for any length of time risked running aground every few yards in such shallows. Northward they would have to continue to trek.
He fingered the sack of pebbles that rested heavily in the pocket of his kilt, remembering the beaches back home, the way the cold water foamed and danced whitely over sand and rock. As always, in helping to bringing back memories, the sheer tactility of the rough gravel in the little cotton bag helped to soothe his thoughts and ease his mind.
Once, something that was softer than stone but harder than water bumped into his right foot. Glancing down, he made out an indistinct, elongated shape hurriedly darting upriver away from him. A freshwater eel, perhaps, startled by the presence of something long, straight, and moving through the water that was not a drifting tree branch. Some eels could give a man quite a nip. Thereafter he paid more attention to the water swirling around his ankles.
Halfway across, the strangest thing began to happen. It could not be explained any more than it could be ignored. While the river itself grew no deeper, patches and pockets and globules of water began to come into sight above the actual surface. At first they were no bigger than a man’s fist, but soon much larger blobs began to appear. The largest were the size of small ponds.
At their highest, these individual drifting sacs of liquid were as tall as the trees that were now visible on the opposite bank. Some had transparent undersides while others were dark with accumulated muck and soil. Water lilies, reeds, and small bushes grew from these individual pockets of aerial swamp. Some plants put down roots that traveled through the intervening air to suck nourishment from splotches of water floating in midair beneath them. Wind roiled their surfaces just as it did that of the shallow river beneath.
Sometimes two wandering patches of water would flow slowly into one another and merge to form a larger pond shape. Elsewhere, ample globules would slowly break apart to form two or more separate aqueous bodies. It was quite the most extraordinary landscape any of the companions had ever encountered.
Ducking beneath a floating raft of pond weed as big as a boat, Simna jabbed a finger upward and pulled it free. The bottom-side surface tension stuck to his finger for an unnaturally long moment, clinging to the skin more like clear glue than water. Then the contents of the floating pond began to drain out through the finger-sized gap, as if the swordsman had punched a hole in a transparent, thin-skinned balloon.
Fascinated, they watched as water grass, tadpoles, struggling fry, black-shelled snails, and other inhabitants of the airborne pond spilled out into the river below. After a minute or two of free flow, the hole was blocked and sealed by a clump of soil that formed the root-ball of a water hyacinth. Amazed and delighted by the aqueous phenomenon, they resumed their crossing.
The river never bulked up against a far bank so much as it spread out to form a vast, shallow lake whose extent they probably could not have determined even if the view northward had not been blocked by more and more of the free-floating aerial ponds and lakes. Not only were these becoming larger, but they were also growing considerably more numerous, as if drawing strength and sustenance from the boundless, shallow inland sea beneath.
Of more immediate concern, the travelers began to encounter places where the underlying river-lake itself deepened. It was difficult enough to keep moving forward while avoiding masses of drifting water that rose higher than a man’s head. Doing so while stumbling into hidden cavities that brought the water up to one’s neck was not only harder, but frightening. In such an environment it was technically impossible to keep one’s head above water, because individual blobs of water were constantly drifting past at levels higher than one’s hairline.
Within an hour they were having to duck beneath a small airborne lake that completely blocked their path in all directions. Hunched over, Ehomba was more wary of the great mass of water that hung just above his head than he was of the foot or so they were sloshing through.
“No experiments here,” he warned Simna. “Do not stick your finger into the water hovering above us. If it were to break and all come down in a rush, we would surely drown.”
“Don’t worry.” The swordsman was walking next to him, bent over and eyeing the underside of the great shimmering mass uneasily.
They passed out from beneath it without incident, but were then forced to advance single file down a narrow corridor between two twenty-foot-tall bodies of free-floating swamp. The dark green walls that hemmed them in on either side were in constant, if lugubrious, motion, bulging and rippling with a great volume of water constrained only by thin, transparent walls of unusual surface tension.
“Guela!” Simna, who had momentarily taken the lead, suddenly let out an exclamation of surprise and stopped short. Behind him, Ahlitah let out a warning snarl. A concerned Ehomba stopped short of the cat’s flicking tail.
“What is it, what’s wrong?”
“Look to your left.” The great cat was pressed up against the floating swamp-sac on their right, his eyes focused in the indicated direction.
The crocodile that swam slowly past at eye level with the travelers was at least twenty feet long and weighed close to two tons. Its huge armored tail swayed slowly from side to side, propelling it languidly through the murky water. As it swam past, one eye swiveled to meet Ehomba’s. The slitted yellow orb tracked the man standing next to the side of the aerial pond for a long moment. And then the hulking reptile was gone, turning back into the distant depths of the floating lake it called home.
“I don’t understand.” Simna’s tone betrayed his lingering tension. “Why didn’t it have a go at us? It could have broken out easily.”
Ehomba considered. “We are making our way through air, not water. Perhaps it did not see us as part of its environment. Who can imagine how the creatures that have learned to live in such a remarkable place have developed? Possibly they consider each individual bubble of water, whether as big as a lake or small enough to fit in a bucket, an isolated world whose boundaries are not to be tampered with.” Looking away from the dark green water that hemmed them in on either side, he tilted back his head to regard the narrow band of blue sky that still held sway directly overhead.
“Even our world could be like that. Stick a finger up high enough, hard enough, and you might puncture the lining of the sky and let all the air escape out into nothingness.”
“That’s ridiculous!” With a snort of derision, Simna turned away and resumed walking. But for a while thereafter, every so often he would sneak a glance at the clouds and resolve to suppress any impulse to make sudden, sharp gestures upward.
They emerged safely from between the two large bodies of floating water only to find themselves surrounded by a dense population of smaller but still sizable globules. While some of these were clear and contained nothing larger than small cichlids and kindred swimmers, others were opaque with flourishing plant life, crustaceans, shellfish, and aquatic reptiles. Though still able to advance, their progress was slowed by having to walk around or duck under the proliferating floating bubbles.
Once they had to wade right through a drifting airborne pond too wide to walk around. As they did so, they experienced the most peculiar sensation of being soaked from sole to ankle, then dry up to their waists, and then wet again up to their necks. By lowering their packs so that they temporarily rode not on their shoulders but on their hips, Ehomba and Simna were able to keep their gear dry despite the double immersion.
All day they trekked through the unprecedented landscape, ducking beneath, walking around, or hopping over individual intervening patches of water, until the sun, a welcome harbinger of the normal world, began to set. Certainly it was a most curious place to make a camp.