What Distant Deeps — Snippet 40

CHAPTER 13: 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 all—was 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.