The River Horse is a legend. One of those Sparkly Last Humans, you never really see them, just hear about them from cousins and old friends and the guys in the Tank Shop. Supposedly he was like a last Renaissance Survivor, multilingual, book-headed, self-aware, a master codemonger and reputed to be hell on earth in a knife-fight. I assumed the name came from some sort of odd reference to Nessie, and I knew for a fact that the only people left alive were the Small and Lost -- people like to blow things up into great stories, though, especially when they get compressed down to the last few thousand or so, those on the very last millimeters of When We Lived, before the Fall.
Soon enough, there'll be no reason to read the clocks.
My old buddy The Rack blipped me through the pipe that River Horse was throwing a food party, and wanted to know if I could show. Hell. I hadn't been invited to a gathering of people in at least a decade, it seemed. In the old movies, everyone gets together in the face of certain death and re-establishes their humanity in some soulful catharsis; but in real life, when fear becomes a gray buzz in the early morning, after the soul has grown so weary of expecting death that even the strongest hominids lay down and wish to die, no one gathers at all. More like dogs, slinking away to find a hole to curl in, alone, utterly tread upon.
But the invitation seemed genuine, and as an unexpected burst of generosity in a time when most bare teeth at the thought of sharing, as well as a chance to see if this famous River Horse was real at all, I had to go. The Rack also invited Cheeba, and asked me to travel with her in the tunnels for safety. I was glad to have the extra gun along. Tunnels are bad these days. Places where they fall in, the gremls get in and go to havoc, laying traps and chopping whole branches off the last human tree. No one travels without a damned good reason.
But The Rack said River Horse had real food, lots of it, and even vodka -- I blipped Cheeba through the pipe and we made the plan. Cheeba and I go way back, way back even to the Apple, when people were on the surface and had a shot. She was a beautiful person, full of ancient crafts and secrets, a grand musician, and definitely hell in a knife fight, because I'd seen that many times. She had a couple of near-miss scars in odd places, but she'd never lost in a bad spot, not ever. Beautiful and skilled and lucky. And sad, because the gremls had taken someone from her, coupla months ago. She needed an Out, just like me. Neither of us were ready to crawl off alone to the hole yet.
We made it through the tunnels all right. Couple of bad cave-ins, some spoor, and other signs that the gremls were bearing down. We wouldn't last much longer. Cheeba moved quick enough through the darkness that I had to push to keep up. She led, and I watched the six, and we rolled down those dark tubes like lightning. Few hours later, we had to find our way through unfamiliar walls and ancient bunkers. Neither of us had been there before, it was weird and wet and we immediately got lost -- The Rack blipped Cheeba, and homed us in.
I was ushered into light. A stone cathedral, beautiful ceilings, glistening with orange torch shadows. There were maybe twenty-five people all together, men and women, no one I knew. Everyone seemed pretty friendly, nodding their heads at us as we made our way to the kitchen at the far wall of the chamber.
The Rack said something in a language I didn't recognize to a well-muscled barefoot man dressed in a black t-shirt and green shorts tending to a steaming, bubbling cookstove. The smell was incredible, like a drug to me -- where had they acquired such rare stuff, that they could have an actual party, and cook, and freely feed all of these people, here at the end of the world? I got a little dizzy as rich, warm odors washed over me, seasonings and sauces and baked heaven -- all real. I felt suddenly unworthy. It just didn't seem right.
The big guy turned around with a big spoon in his hand, tasting it as he rattled away in the strange language at The Rack. "The River Horse," said The Rack, "wants to know if you like mushrooms."
I gaped for a moment. The River Horse scanned my face, and then reached to shake my hand. I shook it, and then stepped aside to introduce Cheeba, who had followed us through the teeming room. His eyes widened as he looked at Cheeba, and when he shook her hand, he gave it a swift kiss. Cheeba smiled. "You are a beautiful woman," said the River Horse, in our language. "More beautiful than the paintings I have seen."
Cheeba bowed slightly, embarrassed. "You are the famous River Horse," she said quietly.
"Ha! I am the River Horse! Yes! And I am cooking the finest meal! And you must drink the vodka, it is fresh! And get to know everyone!" The River Horse waved the spoon in the air like a conductor's baton as he spoke, his face alive and full of light, his massive shoulders flexing, revealing that his bulk was quick power, not extra baggage. He chattered away in the strange language to the entire room, all of whom seemed to understand his words -- they raised their glasses in a toast, and The Rack led us to our place at a long table, and put drinks in our hands, and showed us trays of appetizers, unfamiliar but redolent of great labor and care.
I spent most of the dinner in a daze. The food was so good, it turned my head around, and my spirit with it. I sat next to Cheeba and across from a younger woman, named Kind -- she was amazingly perfect, no scars, no blemishes of any kind on her skin, with perfect red lips and dark eyes -- it was disconcerting somewhat, until she began to talk, and revealed that she was quite human and had been there and done that. Some genetic trick of fate gave her that face, but she alone had built the person, and proved to be pleasant company.
Kind's mother sat next to the Rack, and a man named Ruler sat on my other side. Not many people spoke like The Rack and Cheeba and myself, but mostly in that strange language of the River Horse. As the night wore on, though, we all started to understand each other better, especially as the vodka the River Horse constantly poured began to take hold. Toast after toast, and course after course of steaming, delicious, food -- I felt like I was floating, whirled in a stream of good conversation and warmth, and completely forgot how deep beneath the earth we were.
Then came dancing. Wild music bellowed from unseen sources, and everyone moved to it, some stiffly at first, and some with a sensuality that made me look away at first, and then furtively back -- I pretended to be able to dance, a little, and soon I was rocking away with Kind's mother, who could truly shake her thing. A few songs -- and then more food, and more vodka, and more talk and toasts, and more dancing, and on and on in a truly great revel, the human noise building and building into a vast roar --
I cannot tell you how it was. I felt free for the first time in many years. Free enough so that when the musical instruments came out, and Cheeba took up her place at an ancient electric organ, and The Rack hooked himself up to a bass, I agreed to sing something.
What came out was sad but beautiful. The song was an old one, a reminder of what we all once were, and as I sang it, I felt the melancholy pull at my heart, and I put it into my voice, and I could feel all the silent eyes watching, The Rack thrumming away behind me, and Cheeba twirling marvelous strains I had never heard her play before. We used to make music a long time ago, The Rack and Cheeba and myself; but this was something new, something in and of the moment, fueled by rich food and heady clear-cold vodka.
We finished with a return to the slow, sad opening chords, and as the organ died away, the applause roared. It was a moment in my life, I could recognize that well enough, one of those pearls strung on the long chain of existence that always feel like they are stored away in the coding of Reality Itself, as if they will live forever whether the chain is still humming with life, or long past, dead of old age or gremls, cave-ins or bad water.
The River Horse was clearly not an exaggerated legend; he was a real man, this man, who could cook and dance and sing and play and laugh here at the end of the world, as if this deep stone tomb were his chosen castle, and all around it his playground. I've read stories like that, and maybe even tried to be like that at times, but failed. When the doom-foot rests on your neck, it's hard to stay noble, and act as if you are Living. The River Horse had found a way, down here with his mate, Crystalline, whom I met later in the evening. They made a brilliant couple, unlike anyone I'd ever met before. Had they not been so personable and engaging, it would have been easy for me to be a little star-struck.
Finally, after what seemed like a full night and another day, we were permitted to leave, after pledges had been extracted from us to attend the next one. Cheeba and I shrugged off the lovely warmth, and the River Horse bade us goodbye with hugs and kisses (more for Cheeba than me), and we stepped back out into the dark tunnels, and Cheeba took point, and I took the six, and the torchlight disappeared, as if we had dreamed a dream, and now that dream...
As we moved through the tunnels, I felt the party still inside me. The warmth would stay, I felt, and it was a good lesson in bravery and strength, and inspiration. Perhaps one did not have to crawl into the hole. Perhaps one could force an Illusion onto this darkness that surrounded our lives, and maintain it, even until the end.
Cheeba and I moved quickly -- bad spots coming up. I looked at her, just a glimpse of her face in the black, and saw that she was thinking these things too. Life at the end of the world was pain, and death, and the coldness of space freezing all love from you. But some people were larger than life, like the River Horse, waving his gravied spoon about, exhorting others to live and be merry, and damn the darkness --
He was real. We would have to try.