What Distant Deeps — Snippet 44

It was also about six feet to the right of Adele’s fifteen-degree estimate. The bank must be fairly sharp, because the vegetation cut off abruptly at the water’s edge.

“I might be able to wade to it, I guess,” said Hogg. He knew that Daniel wasn’t going to let him and his injured hand go after the case, but he still lobbied for that solution. “Anyways, it won’t be much of a swim.”

A seadragon slid under the attaché case and curved out of the field of Daniel’s magnified optics. It was about five feet long and had feathery gills along the sides of its neck.

“It’s a nursery pool for the dragons, Hogg,” Daniel said as he widened his field of view slightly. The water had an amber tinge from tannin, but it was clear enough to show movement close beneath its surface. “I can see half a dozen of them. They seem to have territories.”

“Do they come up for air, maybe?” Hogg asked hopefully.

“No, they’ve got gills,” Daniel said. He lifted his visor and faced his servant directly. “I’ll need your knife.”

“I could –” Hogg said tentatively, but he was reaching into a pocket. It was on the right side of his trousers, but they were baggy enough to let him tug a handful toward him.

“No,” said Daniel, “you couldn’t.”

“Yeah, I figured,” Hogg mumbled, handing over a folding knife with a knuckle-duster grip and a spike on the butt. It should have been clumsy, but Daniel had seen Hogg throw it with perfect accuracy. “Bloody hand.”

Daniel beamed at the women; they had been waiting patiently. Adele and Tovera were urbanites. They had no idea of what the hunters were discussing, but they knew to hold their tongues when they were ignorant.

“Now,” said Daniel. “Adele, you’ll guide us from up here while Hogg and I go to fetch the case. And Hogg, little though you like it, you’ll have to wear my commo helmet so that you can listen to Adele’s instructions.”

“Aww . . . ,” Hogg muttered. “Well, I guess it serves me right for getting hurt.”

More brightly he added, “Let’s get the Sissie here. Because I’m really looking forward to interviewing an assistant commissioner about what happened to the car’s motors!”

* * *

“The mistress says we’re getting off to the right,” Hogg grumbled. “What I say is that if I didn’t have this bloody pot on my head, I’d be able to find my bloody way around like I have since before I started walking.”

The ground had seemed solid from the top of the tower, but there were mud-filled swales in which the two men squished knee-deep. So far as Daniel could tell, the vegetation was indistinguishable from that which grew on firmer soil, but the bug-like parasites sucking juices from the stems here were bright orange instead of the yellow with brown speckles that he’d seen close around the tower.

“I appreciate you wearing the helmet for me,” Daniel said, holding the flag up in his left hand.

In truth, he and Hogg both knew that it was almost impossible to keep a straight line in a marsh like this, and an unfamiliar marsh besides. The tower was the only high fixed point. Without a second point for triangulation, you could wander miles off course.

The commo helmet had a compass function, of course, but it wasn’t worth trying to teach Hogg how to use it. He’d always gotten along without equipment, and by this time of his life he wasn’t going to change easily.

“She says go straight through these reeds,” Hogg said. His pistol was in his left hand. Because he was walking a pace back from Daniel, he kept the muzzle in the air. Unlike Adele, he didn’t shoot equally well with either hand. Until he spent some time connected to the Medicomp, the pistol was less useful than the knife would have been.

It kept Hogg from feeling useless, though. Tovera would have made a better commo relay person, but for Daniel to have told Hogg to wait in the tower would have been a crushing insult.

Daniel reached out with the pole to part the reeds; the knife was withdrawn in his right hand to disembowel anything that lunged at the flag. “Right you are, Hogg,” he said cheerfully. “And there’s the case.”

They had reached the lagoon. The bank was undercut and eighteen inches high. The meandering body of water was forty feet across near where they stood. As best Daniel could tell without falling in, it was five or six feet deep. That range would be the difference between swimming and wading.

A juvenile dragon curved close to the bank and darted out again. It didn’t come within a foot of the surface, so it would be a waste of time to shoot at it.

“Little bastard,” Hogg said morosely. “We don’t want to eat your dinner. If you’d just leave us alone, you could grow up to be big and strong.”

“I’m showing disrespect for it by moving into its territory,” Daniel said. He smiled, but his amusement was tempered by knowledge. “Which isn’t a great deal different from us and the Alliance, is it, after all?”

“Well, we’ve taught the wogs to back off plenty of times,” growled Hogg. “I don’t mind teaching a lizard, though I still think it ought to be me doing it.”

“Warn me if something comes up, Hogg,” Daniel said instead of bothering to respond directly. He sat on the bank, letting his feet hang in the water. He could swim with his clothing on if he had to — certainly he could swim the few yards necessary here — and the tough cloth of the garments would be some protection. He slid into the lagoon.

The bottom wasn’t quite as deep as he’d feared, but his boots raised shovelfuls of silt to cloud the water. The attaché case rocked away, but not far.

A juvenile seadragon banked sharply and arrowed toward the disturbance. It drove itself with its long, flattened tail, keeping its legs close to the body except when it thrust one or more of the paddle feet out as rudders.

Daniel slapped the flag into the water to his left. The seadragon made a ninety-degree turn as smoothly as water running through a pipe elbow. It rotated onto its side as it struck, ripping the fabric; the teeth were blunt, but the creature’s powerful jaw muscles were intended to crush them through crab shells.

Daniel flipped his arm sideways, trying to toss the dragon onto the bank. He got it half out of the water; then the pole broke. He ducked as the creature writhed through the air where his head had been an instant previously.

It slapped the water, tangled and half-blinded by the flag wrapping its head but snapping furiously at whatever was close. Daniel stabbed the creature just in front of its external gills and twisted the knife.

The seadragon continued to thrash, even after Daniel lifted its torso above the surface. Its jaws snapped three times very quickly; then the eye he could see glazed. The legs and tail were still moving, but they were uncoordinated.

Using the knife as a gaff, Daniel hurled the creature farther into the lagoon. The motion took a great deal of effort; the short fight had wrung more out of him than he had expected. He waded deeper and caught the handle of the attaché case with the water barely touching his chin; then he slowly forced his way back to the bank and tossed the case onto land.

“Here you go, young master,” Hogg said, grasping Daniel’s left hand with his own. Daniel braced his right boot as far up the back as he could reach; then, with Hogg as an anchor, he heaved himself up and stood.

Daniel wiped the blade clean of mud and blood on his pants leg, then closed the knife. “Thank you, Hogg,” he said, offering the weapon in the palm of his hand. .