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What Distant Deeps: Chapter Thirteen
Last updated: Wednesday, July 28, 2010 19:58 EDT
Over the Green Ocean, Zenobia
Daniel leaned out the port side of the open aircar, angling his face slightly backward so that the 200 mph airstream didn’t slap his helmet broadside. It wasn’t a lot more comfortable that way, but it helped a little.
“The water’s changing color from gray-green to bottle green!” he shouted. “And the weed here looks different too. See, bunches branch from one root instead of floating in single long strips the way what we saw off the continental coast did. I wonder if the weed is extra-planetary too?”
Ordinarily a car travelling at this speed would be closed up, but Daniel liked to be able to look straight into the sea a hundred feet below. Hogg and Tovera in the cab hadn’t complained, and Adele didn’t seem to care.
She was looking at her data unit’s display. She’d set it to be omnidirectional, probably to forestall the curiosity that she knew Daniel would feel even if he didn’t ask her directly. The hologram was a real-time image of the sea ahead of them. She must have linked to the car’s bow camera rather than look at the landscape with her own eyes.
Daniel smiled, as much at himself as at his friend. What Adele was doing actually made more sense than him being buffeted into a headache by the airstream despite his helmet. But their choices were personal ones which had very little to do with logic or reason. He and Adele complemented one another perfectly.
The car had slowly been tilting its starboard side downward. Tovera corrected with a violent lurch that would have thrown Daniel out if he hadn’t been used to that and worse every time he brought a starship shudderingly down through an atmosphere.
Hogg grunted and tapped the steering yoke in front of his — co-driver’s — seat. Shouting to be heard over the windrush, he said, “Look, you’re probably tired. Want me to take over?”
Daniel looked forward and said, “That won’t be necessary, Hogg. Besides, we’re almost there.”
In truth, Tovera wasn’t a particularly good aircar driver: she drove by the book and tended to overcorrect when real conditions varied from what the book expected. Furthermore, the present vehicle had been run hard by the Land Forces and had gotten a minimum of maintenance after it had been transferred to Commission ownership.
Having said that, Hogg was a simply terrible driver, a fact he would never admit and which he probably didn’t believe. He’d been driving ground vehicles through the woods and pastures of Bantry before he was a teenager, and for that sort of rough-and-ready service he was the right man.
Hogg tried to drive aircars the same way, however. In the air, his ham-handed seat-of-the-pants style combined with recklessness to make him not just dangerous but suicidal. If he drove at low altitude, he hit the ground. The one time Daniel had allowed him to go well up above the treetops with an instructor, he set the vehicle oscillating so wildly that he would have crashed tumbling if the instructor hadn’t grabbed the controls, landed, and adamantly refused to go up with him again.
When Daniel glanced forward to squelch Hogg, he saw Diamond Cay through the windscreen. The crystal building was unmistakable, but the heavy vegetation of the shoreline was hard to separate from the weed-choked green waters. The island seemed to be a mudbank. If storms of any significance crossed the Green Ocean, they must sweep over the land without even slowing down.
“Throttle back, Tovera,” Daniel shouted. “And when you get closer, start to circle with the castle on my side.”
An aircar could hover, but he doubted whether Tovera’s skills were up to the task. If this had really been merely a sightseeing expedition, Daniel would have borrowed Gibbs to drive for them. He didn’t particularly like the commander, but the man had driven with smooth skill when he picked up Brown and his family.
A seadragon had been coiled around a clutch of eggs. It raised its long neck from a bed of reeds and challenged the car’s fans with a steam-whistle shriek. Though the creature was ten feet long, its wet-looking, mottled green scales were a close enough match for the vegetation that Daniel hadn’t noticed the creature until it moved.
“That’s a ramp inside the tower, not steps,” Hogg said, pointing left-handed. He had a stocked impeller upright on the seat beside him, his right hand on the grip just in case he needed — wanted — to throw the weapon to his shoulder. Daniel’s similar weapon — they were supposed to be hunting, after allwas on the rear-facing seat ahead of him. “Unless they’re really worn, maybe?”
Tovera had reduced speed to about 40 mph. She was holding the car commendably steady as she circled a hundred feet out from the crystal structure. One wall of the square was puddled, and part of the tower’s adjacent side had been sheared away. Through the gap, Daniel saw a ramp curling around the axis of the tower to serve rooms against the exterior walls.
The damage seemed to have been caused by melting, though for the life of him Daniel couldn’t imagine what had done it. A plasma cannon would have had a shattering effect, very different from what he saw. He didn’t know of a weapon that could provide enough sharply focused heat to turn rock crystal liquid.
“I don’t see equipment inside the tower,” Hogg said. “Just trash washed in on the tide, it looks like.”
The car continued to circle. They were on the undamaged side by now. A seadragon called from out of sight, deeper in the swamps.
“The rooms at the top weren’t torn open,” Tovera said. “Should I land?”
“Not yet,” said Daniel “I’d like to stay in the air as long as we can. Adele? Does your data unit have enough power send a signal on four-point-one-three-five into the building from here, or do we have to be inside? That’s the frequency that switches on the beacon, so we’ll know it’s there. Well, the default frequency, but nobody bothers to change them.”
“I can relay it through the car’s transceiver,” Adele said, doing something with her wands. “One moment.”
The transceiver in the forward cab popped, then exploded into hissing blue sparks. Three of the four fans shorted out simultaneous. The car started to flip over.
The bang! of the exploding transceiver startled Adele. Regardless, she slipped her personal data unit into its pocket without bothering to shut it down; the wands went in beside it instead of being properly clipped to the housing. They might very well jostle loose, but she could use the unit’s virtual keyboard if they did.
And anyway, she probably wasn’t going to survive more than the next few seconds. None of them were.
Blue sparks blew from the fascia plate, filling the cab. Hogg slammed off the power switch on the console between him and Tovera, then stood. He hauled back on his control yoke with his whole strength.
Three drive fans had shorted out when the transceiver did, but the right rear unit had continued to run until Hogg shut it off by the quickest means possible. The asymmetric thrust would have flipped the aircar over and down, sending it tumbling into the ground instead of just crashing.
“Lean right!” Hogg bellowed. “Hell bugger us if you don’t all lean right!”
Because Hogg had cut the main switch instead of trying to find a specific toggle on an unfamiliar control panel, he didn’t have servo motors to help with the controls. He was fighting the airstream, using sheer brute force to force the pivoting surfaces on the underside of the vehicle to bite against the dive.
Tovera hauled on her yoke also, copying Hogg. He was the one who’d known what to do, though. The countryman had more experience with vehicles that were just beyond the edge of control than almost anyone else you could name.
Adele smiled faintly. Just as there was no useless information, it appeared that there was no useless experience.
She gripped her side of the car with both hands and leaned as far out as possible. Daniel sprang across the cabin to do the same. The aircar didn’t have belts or harnesses for the passengers; given that the vehicle was ex-military, it may never have had them. In the present circumstance, that was good because it allowed those aboard to instantly throw their weight against the vehicle’s tilt.
Adele watched the ground coming up — rotating up counterclockwise — fast, but the car was more or less on an even keel: her weight and Daniel’s, and the drivers’ efforts, had stabilized them. That didn’t repeal the law of gravity, of course, and without power the vehicle had more resemblance to a brick than to a glider.
The whole business was unexpectedly quiet. An occasional splutter from the destroyed fan motors — insulation must still be burning — and the soft woo-woo-woo of the blades of the right rear unit were the only sounds besides Hogg’s mumbled curses. A seadragon shrieked querulously in the distance.
Half of the surface below glittered in the sunlight — standing water in which reeds grew, not grass on dry land. In the flat angle of the bow camera, Diamond Cay would have looked much more dangerously solid.
Adele smiled a little more broadly than she usually did. She would still rather be viewing this as an image; ideally from a considerable distance away.
“Adele!” said Daniel. His back was toward her, but she had no difficulty understanding him. “When I tell you to, jump!”
“But — ” Adele said. Her instinct was to stay with the hard-shelled vehicle, but that meant she would be slammed into that hard shell when it hit the ground. Whereas the surface –
As Daniel shouted, he lifted himself on his hands, threw his legs forward over the side of the aircar, and flung himself clear. Adele could appreciate the grace of the movement, but it would have been a joke to imagine she could duplicate it. She tried to roll herself out, hoping to belly flop in the water.
The right side of the car began lifting again as soon as Daniel’s weight no longer forced it down. The toe of Adele’s left boot caught the edge and threw her into a flailing somersault.
Her right hand clamped over the data unit, though the press/seal pocket flap should hold it; she thrust her left arm out with the fingers spread. It made as much sense as anything else she could do. This wasn’t the sort of thing librarians trained for.
Adele was upside down when the aircar slapped the wet ground like a huge fish sounding after a leap. Water, reeds, and viscous mud billowed up around it.
Things flew out. One of them was Tovera.
Adele hit in a sitting position with her legs splayed. The shock knocked all the breath out of her; her vision blurred. She bounced forward, limp as a rag doll.
She hit again. The turgid wave from the aircar’s first impact picked her up and threw her a third time. She saw a bright light and didn’t move for a time.
“Adele?” someone called from a distance. “Adele, can you hear me?”
Her vision cleared. She was lying on her back in water. Why am I floating?
She opened her mouth to answer. Her tongue moved, but there was barely enough air in her lungs to wheeze. She flailed her arms and found mud just below the surface. Closing her eyes for an instant to focus, Adele lifted herself into a sitting position and opened them again.
Daniel stood fifty feet away in knee-deep vegetation. His utilities dripped brown-black mud, but he must have found a pond of cleaner water to wash his arms to the elbows.
“Adele!” he repeated and began stumbling forward. He seemed to gain strength and equilibrium with each step.
Either a sitting posture or the effort of rising into it allowed Adele to breathe again. Her lungs felt fiery, but there was nothing sharp that might have meant broken ribs.
She could feel her personal data unit through the fabric, but she didn’t take it out yet. The case was sealed against the environment, but that didn’t mean Adele was going to bathe it in clinging mud to no purpose. There would be time enough to check it after she’d cleaned herself off to a degree.
Adele took a deep breath. She stuck her hands into the muck and tilted her body forward, then hunched to her feet. She had been fairly certain that her legs weren’t strong enough yet to manage it alone.
Even so it was a near thing not to pitch onto her face again. Still, she was standing upright and fairly steady when Daniel — who had broken into a shambling trot — was able to put a hand on her shoulder.
“That was too close,” he said. He smiled, but for an instant the expression reminded her of a skull. “Let’s find the others. I don’t see — no, there’s Tovera.”
Adele turned. The aircar was more than a hundred yards away, its crumpled bow sticking straight up. From the disturbed terrain between Adele and the vehicle, it had skipped twice more before it stopped. Mud-rimmed craters of brown water quivered in the green of marsh grass.
Tovera limped around the side of the wreck. Her arms were before her, each hand grasping the opposite wrist as though she were cradling something. Her face had no expression, but the skin was drawn over her cheekbones.
A seadragon called. The beasts always sounded angry. Of course it was likely enough that they were angry at the invasion of their territory.
Adele tapped her tunic pocket. The pistol was still where it belonged. She bent carefully — and even then paused to gasp with pain — and splashed her hands in the shallow water. She was likely to need the pistol before she needed the data unit.
“Tovera?” Daniel said. He tried to put the usual cheery lilt into his voice, but he wasn’t completely successful. “Have you seen Hogg?”
“I’m here, Master Daniel,” Hogg called as he too came out from behind the vehicle. His clothing was mud-splashed, but unlike the rest of them he hadn’t been completely doused in muck. “Just seeing what I could salvage, which is bloody zip, it is. Every bloody thing went flying but me, and that was a near one too.”
Adele looked at Hogg as he massaged a lump on his forehead. The blow hadn’t broken the skin, but he would have a bruise there shortly.
“How did you manage to stay in the car?” she asked.
Adele’s memories of the crash were like pictures painted on glass and then smashed. One vivid fragment was of seeing the aircar shortly before the second impact: upside down as it flipped endwise.
Hogg shrugged. “Don’t rightly know, mistress,” he said, and from the frown as he concentrated that was probably true. “Hung on like I’d hooked a pot of gold, I remember that. Braced a foot whichever direction it looked like we were going to hit the next time — which meant the frame of the windscreen the oncE, and it held but I sure wouldn’t have bet on that.”
“Glad to have you back with us, Hogg,” Daniel said, clasping hands with his servant. “Or I suppose I should put it the other way around, since it was me that left.”
Hogg’s grimace was probably meant for a smile. He said, “If she’d landed flat on her back, I’d a’ been screwed and no mistake. But the way she was hopping around, I don’t guess there was much risk of landing flat any which way?”
“No chance at all!” lied Daniel heartily. “Well, I guess we’re none the worse for wear. The next thing to do is to decide how to get off this island.”
“I’ve sprained my wrists,” Tovera said simply. Everyone looked at her. “Or broken them, I suppose. I wasn’t able to hold on.”
She turned to Hogg and made a tiny bow.
“I’ll splint them with a few stems and my shirttails,” said Hogg gruffly. “I checked the panel in the cab where the first-aide kit was supposed to be, but I guess it’s been empty since the gods know when.”
He trotted toward the starbursts of feathery leaves growing nearer the crystal ruins. As he moved, he snicked open the blade of his knife.
Adele eyed the structure musingly. If the car had been flying toward rather than beside it when the motors failed, they would surely have been killed. Except perhaps Hogg, who had really remarkable reflexes in a crash. Though how could even he survive driving into a large mass of rock?
“I’ve got a satellite communicator in my attaché case,” Tovera said. She must be in a great deal of pain — the redness and swelling in her thin wrists was startlingly obvious — but her voice was grimly whimsical as usual. “Which unlike the impellers will float. But where it may be floating is another matter.”
They surveyed the undulating green landscape. It was a mile or more to open sea in the direction the aircar had been travelling when it hit the ground, but a rectangular case could have bounced in almost any direction. It depended on which corner touched down as the case spun.
“Oh, it won’t be hard to find!” said Daniel; this time the enthusiasm sounded real. “We’ve got a fine vantage point on the tower of the castle there, fifty feet at least, wouldn’t you say? We’ll find the case and call the Sissie to come pick us up. And then –”
His voice changed.
“– we’ll deal with the person who sabotaged the car. Commander Gibbs, I shouldn’t wonder.”
“Yes,” said Adele, suddenly brighter herself. “And learn why he did it, which is more important. Though perhaps not as satisfying.”
She looked at the castle. The head of a seadragon lifted from the top of the tower and stretched toward Hogg. The creature shrieked like a stone-saw. It was by far the largest they had seen on the island, easily the thirty feet long which Adele’s records gave as the maximum length.
Nearby was a puddle which was at least translucent if not clear. Adele stepped to it and rinsed her hands again.
Then she took the pistol from her tunic pocket.
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