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What Distant Deeps: Chapter Twelve

       Last updated: Friday, July 23, 2010 22:14 EDT



Calvary on Zenobia

    Adele stepped onto the bridge with Tovera behind her. There was a nearly full house, which was mildly surprising when the Sissie was at rest in a friendly harbor. Well, a reasonably friendly harbor.

    Cazelet was at the gunnery console, refining missile trajectories under the tutelage of Chazanoff from the missile station. Since Sun was on liberty, there was no reason the midshipman shouldn’t use a fully capable console instead of the training station at the back of the missile console. Cory, the watch officer until Vesey returned from liberty, was at astrogation, and Daniel had moved from the BDC, where he’d been when he summoned Adele, to the command console.

    Adele sat at the signals console. She was fairly sure that no one else would use her station in anything short of a serious emergency, though she wouldn’t have objected. She was quite sure that nobody could have accessed the files which she didn’t want others to see. Even so, it would have bothered her and seemed discourteous.

    The Sissies were a courteous group. Any newcomer who didn’t understand the group’s internal rules would be informed of them firmly. If the transgressor were one of the midshipmen, who were rated as Common Spacers though their duties were those of commissioned officers, and the person informing them were Woetjans, the process was likely to be very firm indeed.

    Adele brought her console live. Daniel’s image stared at her from the upper left corner of her display, an eyebrow lifted.

    “Ah!” Adele said when she figured out what had surprised Daniel. She looked down at her civilian suit, then back at the display with a slight smile. “I suppose technically I’m out of uniform. Your summons seemed urgent enough that I didn’t take the time to change.”

    Since she was speaking over a two-way link and their consoles had active sound cancellation, their discussion was as private as the thickness of the ship’s steel hull would have made it. Daniel grinned and said, “You’re only out of uniform if you’re acting officially, and I’m not sure that you are. At least, not officially on behalf of the RCN.”

    “Ah,” Adele repeated in a different voice. She knew that Daniel preferred not to discuss the work she did for Mistress Sand, though she had only intellectual understanding of his attitude.

    To Adele, information was important, but how one obtained that information was of no significance. She preferred written or electronic means over — her lips quirked with amusement at the anachronism — listening at keyholes, but that was simply because listening at keyholes was inefficient.

    Her face went hard. And of course, she preferred the means that most distanced her from human contact. Well, for many years human contact had been the cause of most of her considerable discomfort.

    “I have a map reference . . . ,” Daniel said, exporting the image from his display to Adele’s console. “Which Commissioner Brown found in his predecessor’s files. I can’t find any information or even good imagery about it, though. Can you help me?”

    “Yes,” said Adele as her wands flickered. That she spoke at all was simply courtesy to a friend; in the old days — in the days before she had the RCN or friends either one — she would simply have ignored the silly question.

    She’d echoed Daniel’s display on her own as soon as she sat down, so his attempt to send it to her was superfluous. There was no reason to point that out, of course.

    She first replaced the old, low-resolution image from the astrogation database with a composite of the surface images which the excellent optics of the Princess Cecile had captured while they orbited before landing. Over that she laid the global positioning grid, then cross-indexed the point with the data she had accumulated while preparing for the mission to Zenobia.

    “Diamond Cay,” she said with satisfaction. “Six hundred and twelve miles from the bridge of the Princess Cecile.”

    She smiled, though only someone who knew her well would recognize the expression. “More or less, that is.”

    “You know that you’re a magician, don’t you?” Daniel said, making her smile a little broader. Though it wasn’t true, of course. He expanded the image; it stayed bright and clear instead of fading to a muddy blur as the stock one had.

    “The island has the ruins of a Pre-Hiatus building,” Adele said aloud. “Nobody is sure what it was intended for. The structure is rock crystal, not diamond, but that’s how the island got its name. Some of the commentators claim that the so-called building is a natural outcrop, in fact.”

    Daniel continued to increase his magnification; the eight-digit designator indicated a square three feet on a side, directly in the center of the glittering mass.

    “That’s no natural outcrop!” he said in disgust. “Did whoever said that ever take a look at the site?”

    “Probably not,” said Adele. The image clearly showed a tower at one corner of a hollow square; not, as Daniel had said, anything that nature could have contrived. “There’s no reason to go there except the ruins, and they don’t repay close study, according to the three personal accounts that I’ve located.”

    Daniel chuckled, but his face fell back into crisply intent lines. He wore a smile, of sorts; but it made Adele think of a hunter waiting for just the right moment to squeeze his trigger.

    “There’s supposed to be a portable landing beacon here, Adele,” he said, “but I can’t seen anything except the rocks. Can you . . . ?”

    “Would it be manned?” Adele asked as she began combing data according to new criteria. Daniel hadn’t finished his question, probably because he didn’t know how to go on, but he had provided her with sufficient information to make a start.

    “Umm,” he said. “Normally, yes, but I suppose it wouldn’t be necessary if the ships to be landed were already equipped with the code set. That isn’t safe — there’s a chance of a reciprocal, among other things. But you could.”

    “Star travel isn’t safe,” Adele said. “But I take your point. I asked because none of my imagery shows any visitors whatever to Diamond Cay in the past thirty days.”

    She fanned the images in two rows across the top of his display. They overlapped slightly: there were twenty-one of them. The quality ranged from fairly good to low-resolution black-and-white, but even the worst would show movement.

    “Where did you find these?” Daniel asked in delight. “Zenobia doesn’t have surveillance satellites, does it?”

    “No,” said Adele, trying to keep pride out of her voice. Otherwise she would be bragging. “But I’ve extracted imagery from the logs of all the ships in harbor that have recorders. Some of the smaller country craft do not, of course. The result isn’t comprehensive, but twenty-one random checks is a good basis for confidence. If there was a human crew, one of these would show signs of their presence.”

    “But there’s something . . . ,” said Daniel, expanding one of the videos. “And here, on this one too — what are these? They’re not people, but they’re something!”

    Adele brought up the zoological database she had loaded for this voyage. She had done it because of Daniel’s personal interest, not because she expected to need it in their mutual work. That they did need it provided further support for her belief that there was no useless information.

    “I have an answer to that too,” she said, smiling a little more broadly than usual.




    Daniel stared in delight at the image which Adele placed in the lower right corner of his display. He immediately expanded it to full size, save for the left sidebar on which the Sissie’s diagnostics ran. The latter weren’t going to show anything important with the ship on the surface and most of her crew on liberty, but he would have worried if he didn’t have them available.

    He smiled at himself. Besides, if the fusion bottle suddenly lost its magnetic field or an outrigger strut cracked, he wanted to know about it instantly.

    “The local name for them is seadragons,” Adele said. “They’re only found on Diamond Cay, so they’re not very well known even by Zenobians. They’re supposed to get as long as thirty feet.”

    “Oh, this is very interesting . . . ,” Daniel murmured, speaking more to himself than to Adele. “This is remarkable.”

    The seadragon had a lizardlike body. Its head was long and broad, and the eyes were on the extreme sides of the skull. The creatures had four stumpy legs with paddles instead of feet; imagery showed that they could make quite good speed over soft ground. From the base of the short neck sprang a pair of arms barely long enough to transfer items to the jaws with prehensile fingers.

    According to the written description which sprang to life when Daniel highlighted an icon, the seadragons spent most of their lives in water but came out to breed and hatch their eggs. The adults shared the work of guarding the clutch.

    “The only thing they eat are pin crabs,” said Adele, adding another image—also in the lower right, from which Daniel had expanded the seadragon. “And those live only in the shallow water around the cay. The dragons might be able to cross deep water, but the crabs can’t.”

    Daniel expanded the new image to the right half of his display. The ‘crabs’ looked more like toy balls, slightly underinflated and covered with spines which pivoted at the base but didn’t bend.

    Video showed a crab the size of a pomelo staggering across the sea floor while spiking bits of food — both weed and smaller animals — which it transferred toward its mouth at the front with rhythmic pulses of its spines. When the morsel reached the vicinity of the mouth, the crab’s gullet everted around the food, then withdrew to digest within the protection of the hard shell.

    “Adele,” Daniel said, scrolling through further information on the biota of Diamond Cay, “please connect me with Commissioner Brown. And you’ll loan me Tovera to fly the Commission aircar, will you not?”

    In past years, he might have said, “Can you connect me?” as though there were doubt as to whether Adele could enter the civilian telecommunications system from the Sissie’s bridge. What would pass unnoticed as a figure of speech with another signals officer struck Adele as an insult — albeit an unintended one.

    “Tovera can drive the vehicle, yes,” Adele said tartly as her wands moved. “But it appears to me that if there’s a piece of electronics hidden on Diamond Cay, my skills are better chosen for finding it. As well as the matter being more within the scope of my duties.”

    Switching to a clipped, almost disinterested, tone, she said, “Commissioner Brown? Hold for Captain Leary, if you will. Go ahead, Captain.”

    “Commissioner?” Daniel said, keeping his tone buoyantly cheerful. “My officers appear to have the rerigging well in hand. I was hoping you could lend me your aircar to do a little exploring and maybe even some hunting. I’ll get stale if I don’t take a break away from the ship for a day or two, you see.”

    “Why, my goodness, Captain,” Brown said. “I didn’t realize that this terminal was linked to the communications net. But yes, certainly. Would you like Master Gibbs to drive it? I’m afraid I can’t myself. And to tell the truth, I’m more comfortable in an office than I would be in the wilds.”

    “That’s no trouble at all,” Daniel said heartily. “We’ve got a number of drivers aboard the Sissie who’d like to get some fresh air also. Ah — could we pick the vehicle up as early as six-hundred hours tomorrow, do you think?”

    “Why, yes, certainly,” Brown said. “I’ll tell Gibbs to make sure that the batteries are fully charged.”

    He paused, then added, “He’s really a very able man, you know. Gibbs is. But I can’t imagine what he’s doing in his present position in Representation.”

    “I can only assume that our lords and masters in the ministries had their reasons, Commissioner,” Daniel said. “At any rate, thank you again. I’m really looking forward to getting away.”

    He felt a tiny twinge as he broke the connection. Should he have told Brown about Gibbs’ background? But it wasn’t as though Clothilde Brown couldn’t spot and deal with a womanizing scoundrel without her husband’s help, assuming that she wanted to; nor that the Commissioner would be much help. Warning Brown would just make him uncomfortable without changing the result.

    Daniel thought for a moment, then looked across the compartment toward Adele’s profile. Smiling at his image on her display, she said sardonically, “We have a number of aircar drivers? I’m trying to remember a landing by Barnes that I didn’t consider a controlled crash. And as for Hogg, the modifier ‘controlled’ might be excessive.”

    “Well,” he said mildly, “I didn’t want to be too forthcoming about our intentions. Brown probably has some notion of what Tovera is. Or thinks he does.”

    Daniel called up the visuals of Diamond Cay again, this time focusing on the terrain. Musingly, he said, “We’d best land as close as we can to the castle or whatever it is. That seems to be high ground and ought to be firm, but the rest of the island is marsh or at best a mudbank. You know, we might be better off going in the Sissie herself. The pontoons wouldn’t care how thin the muck was.”

    “It might be a little hard to explain using a corvette for a leisure trip,” Adele said dryly. “But I suppose a bluff, honest naval officer wouldn’t be concerned about that.”

    Daniel laughed, though of course he hadn’t been — really — serious. Sobering slightly, he said, “So? Would you like to go hunting with me and Hogg in the morning?”

    “Certainly,” said Adele. “I continue to believe that this is more a matter for me — and Tovera — than for you.”

    “If this were a matter of duty alone,” said Daniel, returning to imagery of seadragons paddling with slow menace through the shallow water, “that might be true. But there’s something else that you may not have noticed. The seadragons have arms and four legs.”

    “Yes,” said Adele, frowning slightly. “But six-limbed animals aren’t unusual. I recall that some of the birds at Bantry had legs and four wings.”

    “So they did,” said Daniel. “All the native vertebrates on Cinnabar have six limbs. But the native species here on Zenobia have four. That means that the seadragons came from off planet, and from someplace — because I checked the very complete zoological database which my signals officer thoughtfully equipped the Princess Cecile with as soon as you showed me the images — which hasn’t been discovered.”

    Daniel brought up a close-up of the crystal structure. “You mentioned that the castle is Pre-Hiatus,” he said. “I’m wondering now if it might not date from before the human settlement of Zenobia.”

    He grinned like a child holding a toy he’s always dreamed of.

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