Beyond Dead End
by Gary Inbinder
part 1 of 2
Dead End was aptly named. A relic of the gold-mining boom, it remained largely forgotten as ramshackle wreckage on the Hardscrabble’s declivities. The Hardscrabble was Io’s southernmost mountain range; in the early days of colonization geologists had pronounced the foothills and streams mineral-rich and, following a couple of lucky strikes, Terran prospectors swarmed the region.
The miners were followed by the usual scumbags: gamblers, con-artists, whores, claim-jumpers and bushwhackers. But the roaring trade was over, the mines had mostly gone bust, and the parasites had jumped town like greedy fleas abandoning a scrawny old dog for the next fat young pup.
In the midst of abandoned mine shafts and rusting machinery, less than fifty Dead Enders hung on because they had nowhere else to go. Most of them congregated at the End of the Line saloon, an abode of cheap booze, loose talk and lost dreams. That’s where Moran had met Dr. Vulnificus. Moran was about forty, formerly a citified Earthling. Two years in Io’s hot, dry outback had bronzed and toughened him like jerked meat.
Moran had come to Io because he was running from something old, or looking for something new; it’s about the same, I guess. Four years earlier his wife, Nan, had gotten high on happy weed and wrapped the family hover car round a tree. Nan survived the crash all right, but their kids, eight-year-old Billy and six-year-old Susie, didn’t. So Moran got divorced, gave up his job selling hover cars, and left Earth behind. He came to Io, prospecting for gold, as if that elusive shiny metal could compensate for what he had lost.
Back on Earth, Vulnificus had taught mineralogy at a state college. He had given up the security of his classroom for the Ionian gold fields, in search of adventure, fame and fortune. Ten years in the Hardscrabbles had left him wizened, grizzled, broke and eccentric if not downright batty. You see, Doc — that’s what the Dead Enders called him — had a map of the unknown country south of the Hardscrabbles, a place the Glamroks, the native humanoids, called Oolan Bul, which in their lingo means City of Gold.
Doc claimed to have explored the very limits of Glamrok territory, and beyond. Always in search of a grubstake, he hung round the End of the Line, plying its denizens with his map and tales of untold riches. Most folks told Doc to bugger off, though some stood him a drink or two just for the amusement of listening to his tall tales. But in Moran old Doc had found a loyal backer and follower.
Moran had just enough cash left for the grubstake, and enough emptiness in his soul to seek fulfillment in an old man’s fantasies. So he purchased a couple of pack mules, equipment, weapons and supplies, including enough food to get them down country to a Glamrok village at the headwaters of a navigable river. There, they planned to hire bearers and trade the mules for canoes. The Dead Enders thought Moran and Doc were cracked, but they gave them a nice send-off at the End of the Line.
The morning the explorers started down the trail to the flatlands, folks made bets as to whether the two would ever return alive. The odds ran heavily against Doc and Moran. According to local wisdom one should never venture beyond Dead End.
* * *
Moran, Doc, and the village elders sat round a fire, talking business. The explorers had reached the Glamroks following an easy three-day trek across the savannah. From what Doc had told him about the villagers, Moran had expected a warm greeting, so he was surprised by a wariness bordering on hostility. But Doc reassured him, saying that these were a shy people who seemed suspicious of others, even when among friends.
The sun had set. The sky spread like a purple shroud over a dense network of tree branches and vines. A heavy, humid wind, sour-smelling like rotting cabbage, drifted across the muddy riverbank. Frogs croaked, insects chirped in the weeds, birds jabbered, and monkeys rattled the branches. The crackling fire highlighted the Glamroks’ faces, making them pop out from the shadows like a circle of grim jack-o-lanterns.
Doc spoke hesitantly, making Moran wonder if his expedition leader was as fluent in Glamrok as he had claimed. Indeed, the friendlier Doc tried to come across, the more sullen-seeming the orange, glowing faces became.
Finally, he turned to Moran. “I’m afraid they’re driving a hard bargain. You see, Oolan Bul is taboo to them, or so they say. They also say the Dushai, or devil people live there. That’s superstitious nonsense, of course. The Glamroks are willing to provide bearers and guide us downriver to their borders, and no further. Frankly, I think they’re holding out for more trade goods.”
Moran had relied on Doc’s experience, and he had no opinion as to dealing with the Glamroks. “What do you suggest?”
Doc seemed confident. “I know these people, the way they think and bargain. I’ll agree with the leaders. When we get to the border, I’ll bribe the bravest fellows and they’ll go on with us. It’ll all work out, you’ll see.”
“But what about those... those devil people?”
Doc smiled. “Oh, they’re just another tribe of Glamroks. I met some on my last expedition. They’re all right, and I’m counting on them to guide us to the Golden City. Nothing to worry about.”
Moran nodded in agreement, but not without misgivings.
* * *
Moran asked Doc if the river had a name and Doc replied, “Dangyoo.” He laughed wryly before adding: “To these people everything wet is ‘dangyoo.’ It rains, dangyoo; you drink, dangyoo; you piss, dangyoo. You see, they don’t distinguish between a river, a lake or a puddle of pee. It’s all dangyoo to them.”
They floated downstream in two canoes, Doc in one, Moran in the other, each seated amid their supplies between four paddling Glamroks. Moran admired the natives as they dipped their oars in the muddy water and stroked with machine-like precision. The little humanoids — the biggest was barely five feet tall and weighed no more than one hundred pounds — never seemed to tire. Their stamina was astounding and they were ant-like in their ability to carry well in excess of their weight. What’s more, their tough hairless hide, the color of red clay, seemed impervious to the bites and stings of swarming insects that preyed upon the Terrans.
Moran observed the creatures at night, as they rested in the shadows on the other side of the campfire. They squatted silently, impassively, and seemed to be dreaming while wide awake. “They’re a strange people,” he said.
Doc tamped down the tobacco in his pipe and struck a match. He took a puff before answering. “No stranger to us than we are to them, I suppose.”
Moran thought a moment before pursuing. “Do you ever wonder why the colonial government hasn’t explored and charted this territory?”
“Budgetary problems, from what I’ve heard. And the anti-colonialist movement seems to be gathering momentum back on Earth.”
Moran nodded and kept staring at the Glamroks. He wondered what would become of them if the government established settlements and trade south of Dead End. Presently he asked, “How far are we from the border?”
“We’ll reach the rapids by sunset tomorrow. The following day we’ll portage to get back to navigable water, and then we’ll be at the end of this tribe’s territory.”
Moran lit a cigarette and then scratched some nasty bites round the edges of his stubbly beard. “Damn,” he muttered as he examined his bloody fingernails.
Doc noticed the blood on Moran’s neck. “I’ll fetch the medicine kit and clean that up. Jungle infections are especially nasty.”
* * *
Moran tried focusing on a large violet-winged butterfly darting through a shaft of golden light. He felt woozy as he wiped sweat from his eyes with a damp handkerchief. They squatted in the shade of a broad-leaved tree, its massive black trunk rising almost a hundred feet into the rainforest’s tangled canopy. Doc was haggling with a stoical Glamrok who spoke for the others. Their voices were muffled by the roaring rapids round which they had portaged earlier that day.
“Stubborn bastard,” Doc muttered. “I’m afraid I’ll have to dip into the goods we were saving for the Dushai. It’s all right. We’ll have enough left for trading when we reach the next village. If we can keep a few of these fellows until then, we’ll be fine, I’m sure.”
Moran grunted and nodded his assent; his blurry eyes followed the flittering butterfly.
* * *
Copyright © 2013 by Gary Inbinder