What Distant Deeps — Snippet 42

CHAPTER 14: Diamond Cay, Zenobia

“Look at me, snake!” Tovera shouted from midway between the wreck and the base of the crystal tower. “I’m going to steal your eggs and eat them in front of you!”

Adele smiled minusculy. She had told her servant to shout to call attention to herself. It didn’t matter what the words were or even if they were words. It didn’t surprise her in the least that Tovera was acting as though the seadragon could understand the threats, however.

“Are we ready, then?” said Daniel. They had circled to approach the tower from the opposite side. He spoke quietly so as not to call the dragon’s attention away from Tovera’s fine performance, but his smile seemed satisfied and genuine.

He’s really looking forward to this, Adele thought. Of course, he grew up fishing in the ocean — and Hogg was teaching him.

Adele wasn’t looking forward to the business, though she wasn’t really afraid. If things went wrong she would probably be killed, but she thought Daniel and Hogg would be able to escape. So long as she wasn’t endangering others, the risks didn’t greatly concern her.

“Ma’am?” Hogg said. He reached into his left pocket and lifted his pistol partly into sight. “Are you sure you wouldn’t like mine?”

Hogg wore the steel-mesh mittens which he needed to handle his length of fishing line weighted on either end with a deep-sea sinker. The beryllium monocrystal was thin and flexible, but you could lift an aircar with it — if you attached the line to a metal part. It would cut plastic — or flesh — like a knife.

“Yes,” said Adele. “I’m sure.”

Though compact, Hogg’s pistol was about twice the size of her own and threw osmium slugs instead of Adele’s light ceramic pellets. It was a better choice if you were trying to knock the target down, but this seadragon was much too big for that to be possible.

If Hogg had carried a service pistol, Adele might indeed have borrowed it. The combination of high velocity and heavy slug would shatter the creature’s skull; after that they could simply wait for the beast to die. Neither of the available pistols — nor Tovera’s, which was much like Adele’s — were sufficiently powerful, however. Therefore, she had suggested a different plan . . . .

“I’ll feed your eggs to pigs, snake!” Tovera shouted. She had made a flag by tying her tunic to a sturdy reed. She managed to waggle it in the air by clamping her forearms together with the staff between them. “You’ll have no offspring ever!”

The seadragon screamed at her. Its nest must be in one of the upper rooms, but it used the top of the tower as a vantage point. So long as Tovera called and capered, the beast was likely to remain where it could see her.

“Let me get half a circuit ahead,” Adele said quietly. She stepped through the entrance and started up.

As Hogg had noted before the crash, a helical ramp six feet wide served the tower instead of a staircase. There was no railing nor sign of where one might have been. The central well was more than ten feet in diameter.

The ramp circled clockwise instead of being counterclockwise like a ship’s companionways. That didn’t matter in the present circumstances, but it felt subtly wrong.

The seadragon called again. There was a hole in the roof at the ramp’s upper end. If there had ever been a door or other cover, it had vanished in the millennia since the tower was abandoned.

Hogg led Daniel into the tower, having scrupulously waited till Adele was opposite the entrance and one level higher. The fifty-foot height was divided into eight levels, so the rooms — though spacious — were far too low-ceilinged for a human to find them comfortable. The entrances were arcs almost ten feet broad at the base. As with the roof opening, there were no doors.

Light wicked through the tower’s walls and flooded its interior, but the refractions and reflections of the crystal created shapes and emptinesses. Their movements kept Adele on edge; but not, she judged, significantly more on edge than she would otherwise have been when approaching a 30-foot reptile with a pocket pistol.

Adele was wearing RCN boots. They were thin enough to wear inside a vacuum suit, but their soft soles gripped even on the oily deck plates of a starship. That was perfect for the pebbled, gently rising surface of the ramp. It circled four times from the ground-level entrance to the roof.

On her second circuit, she reached the point where the building had been breached; had been melted away, if Daniel was correct. The room with no outer wall was brighter. By contrast, Adele could see that the light passing through the crystal had a bluish cast.

She continued at a steady pace. She wasn’t looking directly at the roof opening: the bright light might blur her vision when the seadragon started down. Its body would curtain the hole. When the beast moved above on the roof, she saw it as shadows at the corners of her eyes.

The floor of the tower was covered with what Adele took for broken pottery when she first risked a glance downward. No, crab shells. She had assumed that the seadragon had chosen the tower simply as a safe place in which to lay its eggs, but the quantity of debris suggested that this was a permanent lair. Its stench was noticeably different from the vegetable miasma rising with every step in the muck of the marshes.

Perhaps they — she and Daniel — could collaborate on a scientific paper on the life cycle of the Zenobian seadragon. After the two of them retired. If they lived to retire. And of course assuming that the seadragons were native to Zenobia, though that could be hedged by modifying the title to, “The Colony of Seadragons Found on Zenobia.”

The whimsy made Adele smile. Anyway the corners of her lips twitched upward.

She paused, half a circuit short of the tower’s roof. Hogg with Daniel behind him were another half circuit below her. They had reached the entrance to the seventh level. Hogg was spinning a yard of his line out in the tower’s well with his right hand while his left held the remainder in loose loops.

Daniel was watched her. Adele nodded, then shaded her eyes with her right hand as she looked up at the opening. Hogg whistled, a harsh trill that echoed in the crystal cylinder.

There was a clacking and scrabbling from the roof. The seadragon, its paddle feet spread to either side of the opening, thrust its head into the interior of the tower.

Adele’s pistol snapped; the dragon’s bulging right eye burst into silvery droplets. Snapped again and the left eye, the instant before an amber lantern, also splashed into darkness.

The weight of the dragon’s shriek made Adele flinch backward. The creature lunged toward her. Its jaws were open but the small forelegs were tight against its chest. Its teeth were blunt cones that could crush a human skull as easily as they did crab shells.

Hogg’s line looped about the seadragon’s neck. The creature took another sliding, hunching step. Hogg drew back with the full strength of his upper body; he’d looped the monofilament around his right glove and gripped the heavy bronze sinker at his end with his left. Daniel had an arm around Hogg’s waist and the other arm reaching through the doorway to lock on the wall of the room beside them.

The seadragon surged forward. Not even those two strong men could have overcome the infuriated creature’s mass, but they pulled its blind head toward them across the tower.

The dragon took another step and slipped off the ramp. It screamed like a siren as it plunged toward the crab shells forty feet below.