Lethe

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Chapter 10

Chapter 10: Gihon

We climb down shattered cliffs to reach another beach. Clots of catatonic people interrupt a seamless stretch of black sand. If not for Sabonis’ intervention, I see myself among them. Bianca left me with little reason to strive for Elysium, as if its loftiness alone should suffice.

In life, I had never hiked so far, but I feel no fatigue. In Lethe, it seems I can walk forever, as long as I’m not climbing.

“This beach is where they stole my cat,” says Sabonis.

“Who’s they?”

“Delgado and company,” says Sabonis. “I know it was them, because they left a calling card.”

Sabonis reaches under his shirt and pulls a crumpled magazine from his pants. TV Guide, the old version when it was the size of a trade paperback. Jean-Luc Picard graces the cover.

“Wow,” I say.

“There were monkey tracks in the sand, too,” says Sabonis.

“Monkey tracks?”

“Two men, one monkey,” says Sabonis. “One man wore shoes. Had to be Delgado. A Collector came after and tracked over the other tracks. The poor fools I left to watch it … both Collected. Signs of a scuffle. Carcasses slashed open and left on the beach.”

“Jeez.”

“I tell you, it’s a rough place … Lethe.”

He stops to pluck some berries from a bush growing at the edge of the dunes. “Have some of these, even if you’re not hungry. You’ve got to feed that body of yours, no matter what that stomach tells you.”

The berries are dry and seedy and sour. I spit them out. Sabonis looks at me and shakes his head.

“You want to last here, kid, you’d better eat.”

“I’ll pass, for now.”

The sand peters out against a jumble of boulders collapsed from a promontory. We pick our way over rocks slick with algae. Limpets, their shells as fragile as bone china, crunch under our heels.

Halfway up the rock pile a strange humming materializes and grows louder. A slab of seamless granite bars our way. We work around it and step onto a broad ledge. The humming turns into a roar.

A valley, sprawling with people, spreads before us.

“My God, a city!” I say.

“Don’t know if I’d go that far,” says Sabonis.

It fills the bottom of the U-shaped valley that slashes into the island, tapering to a point at the mouth of a ravine. The opposite ridge jutted far into the ocean in a chaos of cliffs and spires.

Mud huts speckle the valley floor. Few dwellings have roofs. Some are hardly more than windbreaks. The tallest structures are a pair of stone towers looming over all by the river.

People swarm the open spaces, which are trampled and brown, devoid of vegetation. Crowds spill over the banks of a muddy river. Clouds of small birds hover over them like gnats.

A buffer of scrub separates the brown valley from a stately rank of ancient conifers rearing along a sharp contour along the valley walls. The slopes above them are so green they almost glow. People mass against this border, constrained as if by an invisible fence.

“Welcome to Gihon,” says Sabonis. “We’ll go around the edge. That way we miss most of the bad stuff.”

“What bad stuff?”

“Gihon’s a trap,” says Sabonis. “A trapped coyote’ll chew off a paw to free itself from a snare. That’s all you need to know to understand Gihon.”

“Certainly looks like a shit hole,” I say.

“You’d look like a shit hole too if you had half a million people squatting on you.”

“Squatters?”

“That’s what I said.”

Without further explanation he scrapes through bushes down to a rock shelf that angles down like a ramp. It skirts the upper bounds of the brown bowl.

We come within shouting distance of a seething, shoving crowd at the interface of vegetation and desolation. A woman scrambles up onto the shelf and lunges at a dead branch.

“What’s wrong with her?”

“Total Squatter, like the rest of them,” says Sabonis. “Got no tolerance for heights.”

Suddenly, I feel privileged. Lower middle class all my twenty-two years and now I am part of the afterworld elite.

“Don’t get all uppity,” says Sabonis, as if reading my mind. “That could be you some day.”

“Except … I can climb. Higher than you, even.”

“Don’t use it … you lose it,” says Sabonis. “I’ve been to the top. Now look at me.”

The woman slides back to the valley floor with an armload of firewood. People help her to her feet and she maneuvers through the masses. The others just stand and stare at me and Sabonis.

I feel like I’m at a zoo looking down on an exhibit of giraffes tormented by lush grazing just out of their reach. People of every race and mixture are represented without discernible bias. Death, I suppose, is an equal opportunity employer.

A man curses at me in a language I’ve never heard. I only know he’s cursing from his murderous eyes and the spittle flecking his rictus of a mouth.

Sabonis sees me shrink away. “Don’t worry. He can’t come up here. Bastard’s lucky he can stand.”

This must be hell,” I say.

“No. Just Lethe,” says Sabonis.

“What’s the point of it?”

“I told you. It’s a trap. Fringers get in here. They stick around, until they can’t get out. Makes it easy for the Collectors to have them all corralled like this. Like picking up the apples that fall from a tree.”

“Fringers?”

“Folks who’re a little bit clear. Just enough to get off the beach.”

“But why are they being punished?”

“Punished? No one’s being punished. They’re just stuck. All it takes is a couple days. Lose twenty-thirty feet of stratum and wham, you’re stuck. They can’t swim out because that bay’s built like a fucking meat grinder. Anybody tries, the riptides suck ’em out, and the reef tears ’em apart. So they trickle in, one’s and two’s. Gihon’s like a bucket under a dripping faucet. Eventually it’s gonna fill up.”

“Am I … is this gonna happen to me?” I panic.

“Not for a while,” says Sabonis. “You climbed pretty damned high for a first try. Seems you got a knack for Clearing.”

“Why would they even come here in the first place?”

“Sitting on a beach gets old,” says Sabonis. “People get restless. Hear rumors about places like Zion and Dilmun and Sixwing—places on the other side where there ain’t any fog and folks manage a decent existence. But this place ain’t those places. Like you said, it’s a shit hole. “I never come here unless I have to.”

“Seems so … random,” I say.

“Welcome to Lethe, kid. Don’t go thinking there’s a plan to everything here ’cause there ain’t.”
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