What Distant Deeps — Snippet 39

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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.