Chapter two-1

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Chapter two Down the River AphI awoke lying flat on my back. With my eyes closed I could feel warmth on my face and the flutter of a tiny breeze, and beneath me a familiar motion told me I was aboard a boat. This information did not seem at all strange; after all, had I not spent the last eighteen years of my life at sea? I opened my eyes. The boat was simply a very large leaf. I stared like a man staggering from Copley’s taproom in Plymouth stares owlishly on wan daylight. The leaf sped along the center of a wide river whose green water shone splashing and rippling very merrily alongside. On either bank extended a plain of greenish-yellow grass whose limits were lost beneath a horizon shimmering in heat. The sky blazed whitely down on me. I levered myself upon my elbows. I was stark naked. My wrists chafed and the irritation plucked untidily at my memory. Then I became extremely still and silent, frozen. The leaf was large, being a good eighteen feet in length, and its curved stalk rose in a graceful arc like an ancient Greek galley’s sternpost. I sat silent and rigid in the bows. Where the sternsheets would be in an ordinary Earthly boat crouched a scorpion fully five feet in length. The monstrous thing was of a reddish hue, and it pulsated as it swayed from side to side on its eight hairy legs. Its eyes were set on stalks, round and scarlet, half-covered by a thin membrane, and they moved up and down, up and down, with a hypnotic power I had to force myself to conquer. Its pincers could have crushed a fair-sized dog. The tip of its sting-armed tail rose high in the air in a mocking blasphemy of the graceful arc of the leaf-stem — and that tip dripping a poisonous green liquid aimed directly at my defenseless body. Around its mouth clumps of feelers trembled and its mandibles ground together. If that mandibular array once seized on my throat... That macabre tableau held for what seemed a very long time as my heart beat with a lurching thump very distressing to me. Scorpion! It was no blown-up Earthly scorpion. Within that grotesque body covered by its exoskeleton-like plates of armor a real vertebrate skeleton must exist to support the gross bulk. Those ever-moving eyes were no eyes a scorpion would use. But those pincers, those mandibles — that sting! Scorpion! I remembered. I remembered the African night, and the firelight and the gleaming spears and the mad flight through the jungle. So how could I be here, floating down a river on a giant boat-shaped leaf with only a monstrous scorpion for crew? Antares — that red star that had blazed down so powerfully upon me as I sought to escape — Antares at which I had hurled my puny mortal hatred, without a single doubt I knew that some uncanny force had drawn me from my own Earth and that Antares, Alpha Scorpii, now shone luridly in the sky above my head. Even the gravity was different, lighter, freer, and this I saw might give me some slender chance of survival against this fearsome monster. Scorpions feed by night. By day they skulk beneath logs and rocks. Stealthily I drew back first one leg and then the other, lifting myself slowly onto my haunches. And all the time my eyes were fixed on the weaving eye stalks before me. One chance I had. One fragile chance to leap forward, first to avoid the scything gripping blows of the twin pincers, second to duck the downward darting sting, and then with a heave and a twist to topple the thing overboard. My empty hands clenched. If only I had a weapon! Anything, a stout root, a broken bottle, an oar loom, even a cutlass — a man who has lived as I have lived knows the meaning of personal weapons, respects them for their meaning to him. However smartly I could break a man’s back with my bare hands, or gouge out an enemy’s eyes, a mortal human’s natural weapons are a poor substitute for the weapons of bronze and steel with which mankind has struggled out from the caves and the jungles. I felt my nakedness then, my soft flesh and brittle bones, my puny human muscles, and I hungered for a weapon. Whatever force had brought me here had not with kindly consideration also provided me with a pistol, or a cutlass, a spear or shield, and I would have suspected weakness had that mysterious force done so. No thought entered my mind then that I might dive overboard and swim to the river bank. I do not know why this thought did not occur to me and I think, sometimes, that it had to do with my reluctance to abandon my ship, to betray my own trust in myself, and the feeling that no animal should be allowed to conquer me and that if we were to battle then the prize was this simple leaf boat. I drew a long slow breath and let it out and drew another, filling my lungs. The air was fresh and sweet. My eyes never left the scarlet rounded eyes at the ends of their stalks as they moved up and down, up and down. “Well, old fellow,” I said in a soft and soothing voice, still not moving in any way that could be the signal for the monster to pounce. “It looks as though it’s you or me.” The eye stalks weaved up and down, up and down. “And believe me, you ugly Devil’s Spawn, it is not going to be me.” Still speaking in a low soothing voice, as I had often heard my father speak to his beloved horses, I went on: “I’d like to rip your belly up to that fat backbone you’ve got in there and spill your tripes into the river. Sink me, but you’re a misbegotten lump of offal.” The situation was ludicrous and looking back now I marvel at my own insensitiveness, although I realize that much has happened since and I am not the man I then was, fresh from the inferno of life aboard an eighteenth century sailing ship, and no doubt prey to all the superstitious nonsense plaguing honest sailormen. And, truth to tell, I talked not only to soothe the beast but also because talking delayed the time when I must act. I could see the sharpness and the jagged serrations of the pincers, the crushing power of the mandibles and the oozing greenish liquid dribbling from the poised sting. The frog believed the scorpion and gave him passage across the river, and the scorpion stung the frog, because, said the scorpion, it was in his nature. “Well, scorpion, it is in my nature not to let anyone or anything best me without a struggle and loathsome though you are to me I allow it is in your nature to kill me, therefore you must allow it in mine to prevent you. And, if necessary, to kill you to protect myself.” The thing swayed gently from side to side on its eight legs, and it pulsated, and its eyes on their stalks weaved up and down, up and down. With the palms of both hands flat on the greenish membrane of the leaf between the darker green of the veins, I prepared to hurl myself forward and risk that formidable armament and heave the thing overboard. I tensed, holding a breath, then thrust with all the power of corded muscles in thigh and arm. I shot forward. The scorpion heaved itself up, its tail curling and uncurling, its pincers clashing — then in a single giant leap it flung itself end-over-end out of the boat. I rushed to the gunwale of the leaf and looked over. A splash surrounding an eight-pointed outline with a stinging whip of tail — and then the scorpion vanished. It was gone. I let out that held breath. For the first time I noticed that the thing had not exuded any smell. Had it been real? Or could it have been a hallucination brought on by the fantastic unreality of my experiences? Was I still chasing madly through the African jungle, demented and doomed? Was I still lashed to the stake and was my mind winging into a fantasy world to escape from the agony being inflicted on me? People always pinched themselves in this kind of situation; but I had no need of that crude analysis. I knew I was here, on some other world than Earth, beneath the giant red sun of Antares. I knew it, without a doubt. Shielding my eyes I looked up at the sky. The light streamed down from the sun, tinged with a reddish hue, warming and reassuring. But a new color crept across the horizon turning the yellowish-green grass more green. As I watched with streaming eyes and sparks shooting through my brain another sun rose into the sky, glowing a molten green, suffusing the river and the plain with light. This green star was the companion to the giant red star that made up the star we called Antares — later I understood that the words “red giant” were a misnomer — and the quality of the light did not discommode me as much as I would have expected. And, too, there were more surprises in store for me in this new world that explained the more Earthly-type of lighting we receive from our own yellow sun shining here. The leaf had ceased its rocking now and my little command had shipped very little water. I scooped up a handful and drank and found it clean and refreshing. The best thing to be done now was to allow the leaf to carry me down the river. There would be habitations along the river, if there were people in this world, and I found it all too easy to drift with the current and let things happen as they would. The river wound in wide sweeping reaches. Occasional shoals of sand shone yellow. There seemed to be a complete absence of trees of any stature, although tall reeds and rushes grew in many places along the banks. By dint of much splashing with my hands and with a seaman’s instincts to take best advantage of the set of the current, I eventually drove my craft ashore onto a shelving beach. I ran her up well above the water mark. I did not much fancy walking when I had a perfectly adequate boat at my command. The reeds were of many varieties. I selected a tall straight-stemmed specimen and by much levering and cursing managed to break off a ten-foot length. This would serve as a punt-pole in the shallows. One variety attracted my attention because I accidentally nicked my arm on its leaf. Again I cursed. Swearing is an occupational disease at sea. This reed grew in clumps with straight round stems perhaps an inch or an inch and a half in diameter; but the thing that attracted me was the leaf, which sprouted upright from the top of each stem to a length of perhaps eighteen inches. This leaf was sharp. The width was of the order of six inches, and the shape was — not surprisingly — that of a leaf-bladed spear. I broke off a bundle at a softer node some six or eight feet from the leaf, and I then had a bundle of spears that I wished I had had when my boat’s crew had been aboard an hour ago. The reeds rapidly dried into a tough hardness under the sunshine and the edge of the blade was sharp enough to allow me to hack down more samples. Taking stock, I looked across the shining surface of the river. I had a boat. I had weapons. There was abundant water. And by splitting reeds lengthwise I could fashion lines with which to catch the fish that were undoubtedly swarming in the river, waiting with open mouths to be taken. If I couldn’t fabricate a hook from a sharpened reed or thorn, I would have to construct fish traps. The future, with people or without, appeared giddyingly attractive. What had there been in life for me back on Earth? The endless drudgery of sea-toil without reward. Hardship inconceivable to the mind of scientifically-pampered twentieth century man. An eventual certainty of death and the dread possibility of maiming, of having an arm or leg taken off by a roundshot of grape or langrage smashing into my face, hideously disfiguring me, unmanning me, tipping out my intestines onto the holystoned decks. Yes — whatever force had brought me here had done me no disfavor. A flutter of white caught my eye. A dove circled around, fluttering inquisitively nearer, then taking fright and circling away. I smiled. I couldn’t remember the last time I had made so unusual a grimace.
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