Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Decker #14

Decker was still rubbing the sleep from his eyes as he wandered toward where he guessed the carriage would be. He'd awakened to the bright glare of morning, stiff and sore from sleeping on the hard foyer tiles, and felt he needed to move Degren and Cletus were still asleep. The eight satyrs were nowhere to be seen. Maybe he'd be able to retrieve the diving gear.
He wandered through storm-tossed debris; there was seaweed, dead fish, torn vegetation and splintered wood, occasional human artifacts such as clothing, boards, soggy paper, and, finally, the wreckage of the carriage. The cabin was largely in splinters, but the cargo area underneath was pretty much intact, held together by the sturdy undercarriage. Their parcels were barely damp. He tucked them under his arms and headed back to the hotel.
Degren was awake, but Cletus hadn't stirred. Decker plopped the luggage down on the foyer bench and knelt over the pale, shallowly breathing miner. "Cletus," he said softly, squeezing the man's skinny bicep, then louder, "Cletus, wake up."
His eyes fluttered open, foggy and unfocused. "Wher'm'I," he croaked, "Owwww...muh head..." The eyelids dropped like loose feathers.
"Cletus, you've got to wake up now. You took a mean spill out there, and we don't want you slipping into a coma."
Cletus' brow knit in a petulant frown. "Tired....don't 'member nuthin....jest dang tired and hung over, must be...."
"Degren, help me get him up," Decker said. "He can't go back to sleep now. I think he's hurt pretty bad. We've got to keep him awake. Shit and shit! Skinny bastard can be heavy when he wants to...here, take him under the left arm, I've got the right..."
"Whut the blue Jesus're ya doin', yuh shrimp boat dung beetle peckerwoods?" Cletus made a weak attempt to pull himself free, but they got him to his feet. He tried to lift his feet so they'd have to carry him or drop him, but the best he could do was to drag the metal-trimmed heels of his boots on the tile. He switched to a nasal, wheedling tone."Aww, c'mon, fellers, let a hombre catch a few winks, huh?"
"Cletus," Decker said, "We've got to take you for a little walk, help you clear your head. Degren, once we get him out into the sun and moving around, we'll need some fresh water. We'll have to get it from the pool, I guess, unless you can find a place where the rain collected. I saw some cups behind the counter in the reception area."
"Now ya ain't gonna try tuh make me drink some ding-dang water, are yuh? I'c'n tell yuh where tuh find some more of thet fine rotgut...."
"You'll be drinking water."
"Hunh. Whut's thet you like to say....um, 'shit and shit'?"
Decker steered them down the stone sea-walk to a set of stairs that met the beach. "I'll hang on to him here, Degren. Could you get some water, and then bring the diving gear? Cletus, we don't expect you to swim, but you have to take beach watch, make sure nothing comes for us while we're in the water, okay? Can you do that?"
"Ayup, okay. Where's muh rotgut? Gotta get fortified fer this here duty. Muh head's 'bout ready to blow up like a powder keg."
"Degren will be back with a beverage for you in a minute. Can you stand by yourself?"
"Unh...ayup. But ah want muh rotgut."
"After we get out of the water."
"We ain't in the water."
Degren had found a large carafe and two cups, and had managed to carry those and the three parcels down. They made Cletus drink two whole glasses of water, then they donned the swim fins, masks, and snorkels. They both eschewed the trunks. "Guess we'll start right here," Decker said. "I can see where the coral starts, not much more than a couple stone's throws out. Keep an eye on us, Cletus. We'll keep checking from time to time, so if something happens, keep waving until we see you."
The beach was a tangle of driftwood, seaweed, flotsam, and carcasses of sea life, some familiar and some downright bizarre, some hideous and frightening. The first thirty or forty feet of water was a slowly undulating olio of stuff similar to what lay on the beach. There were small eel-like fish; there were creatures that resembled jellyfish but with a leathery golden shell; there were dozens of what looked like bright yellow pickles with a flower-like cluster of red antennae at each end. Decker noted one species dominating; a blue, Frisbee-sized fish with rusty orange fins and tail; there were hundreds, maybe thousands of these floating milky-eyed or dredged in sand on the shore. There was one very scary carcass of another species, vaguely resembling a giant octopus some forty feet long, which had instead of a bulbous head a mirroring set of tentacles that terminated in vicious-looking mouths arrayed with rows of small, shark-like teeth. Decker strongly hoped they wouldn't meet anything like that in the water!
As he was showing Degren how to put on the swim fins, mask, and snorkel, Decker noticed Cletus gazing fixedly down the beach. He turned his eyes to follow the bleary miner's gaze. About a hundred yards down the shore, listing slightly as it rocked in the gentle waves, was a boat! He pointed it out to Degren. "Look! Holy shit, man, wouldn't that make things easier! Let's go check it out!"
They picked their way along the beach, then waded through the flotsam to inspect it. It was probably 16 feet long and 4 feet wide, high-prow-ed with about 4 feet of deck at the front and a narrow, shallow transom at the back. The deck was flared to spill waves over the gunwales. There was almost a foot of water sloshing around inside; they used the carafe to bail it. There was a bulkhead with an inset door under the deck; most likely dry storage, Decker surmised. There was a painter, or leader rope attached to the bow, dangling in the water. Its oars were lashed in under the gunwales. Decker worked the lashings loose and set the oars in their locks. "Let's get this beauty out past the garbage and row down to the low end of the quay so we can get Cletus on board," Decker urged. "Oh man, this is kinda like the boat at my Grandpa's lake place. Memories!"
They tugged it out until the water was too deep, then fought their way into it and basically poled through the detritus until they were clear enough to row. From there it was an easy trip back to the quay; the little craft was sound and sleek, and handled like a dream. They guided the dizzy Cletus into the boat and he promptly retched over the side
"'M not much of a seafarer," he choked out between nausea spasms. ""Ah, erk, dunno if'n, erk, ah kin do this. Mebbe yuh better leave me on shore."
Seeing Cletus' distress, Decker and Degren were inclined to agree. Decker worried about Cletus' condition; he was paler and weaker, and his eyes looked strange. "We'll leave him here on the pier," he said to Degren, "but let's make him comfortable. I saw some chaise lounges folded up in the storage room behind the hotel counter. I'll run back and grab one."
With Cletus situated comfortably, they got back in the boat and made for the first bank of coral. Decker showed Degren how to maneuver the boat, then he indulged his curiosity regarding the dry storage at the bow. The door opened easily, revealing neatly stowed flotation devices, fishing gear, a rope and anchor, containers of fresh water, rubberized canvas bags of dried food, the odd navigation devices, and a sealed cylinder containing nautical charts that were easily recognizable as depicting the shoreline they were on. He couldn't believe their good fortune; there were even some wrecks charted!
Noting that there was a concentration of wrecks just down the coast and about a quarter mile from shore, they took turns rowing toward that area. When he felt like they were close, Decker dropped anchor and got into his gear. As he was helping Degren get his mask on and showing him how to use the snorkel, he heard odd noises overhead. They both looked up; far above, wheeling and calling, were a dozen or so huge birds. They reminded Decker of the buzzards that he'd occasionally see circling over dead animals in the dry Arizona waste. He was surprised that there weren't any such birds on the shore; it would be a veritable smorgasbord for them there!
The water was between ten and fifty feet deep where they were. Initially, Decker stayed in twenty feet of water or less, but as he got used to the depth he found that his new body did remarkably well there. He reveled in a new-found ability to hold his breath for four or five minutes, and how his dense pelt seemed almost waterproof, leaving the skin underneath comfortable and warm even in the cooler water of the depths.
They searched seven or eight of the more accessible wrecks, finding nothing of real interest. Decker wondered why there would be so many ships clustered in this one area. It didn't seem as though a sea battle had taken place; though there were a few ships that carried armaments, most appeared to be merchant or pleasure craft. Most of the vessels here were decayed enough so that it was difficult to guess what had sunk them.
He was no expert on maritime vessels, but one thing struck him as odd; very few of the ships seemed to be constructed in similar styles. It was a real hodgepodge of shapes, and if his guess was correct, it spanned a broader range of eras than could be accounted for within the time that tide and natural decay would allow.
Another thing that surprised him was the complete lack of any marine fauna. There was a lot of fractured and fragmented coral. a lot of shreds of vegetation, and copious evidence that all sorts of sea plants flourished here, though the storm had wreaked havoc on it, but there was not a single fish to be seen swimming among the wrecks. The storm couldn't have killed everything, could it?
By the time they'd combed a dozen broken hulls, they were both ready for a break. They made their way back to the boat and climbed in. Decker glanced toward the quay where Cletus had been resting. "Strange," he said. "Looks like Cletus has company. Maybe the satyrs came back." He squinted at the scene, trying to make out detail in the distance, but there was a haze in the air; the figures surrounding Cletus appeared to be cloaked, but it was hard to tell.
"Perhaps we'd better go check up on him," Degren offered.
Decker tried to remember if he'd seen a spyglass in the fore of the little boat; he pulled open the door and rummaged around. "Yes!" He raised it triumphantly, then put it to his eye.
He was shocked by a scene of horrible carnage. It was definitely not the satyrs that surrounded their rustic companion; even through the haze, he could make out the great, bloody beaks and the dark, cloak-like, partly-folded wings of half a dozen huge birds. They were tearing, rending, fighting over Cletus' remains; he was definitely dead; Decker could see white ribs amid the blur of gore that had been his chest.
Heart thudding heavily in his own chest, Decker handed the glass to Degren and began hauling furiously on the anchor rope. "Shit shit SHIT!", he grated between his teeth, nearly dropping the anchor on his foot in his haste to get it on board. He leaped to the oars as Degren gaped, and started rowing with all his might.
It seemed like forever before the bow bumped the quay wall. Decker's breath came in ragged gasps; his upper body was fiery with fatigue. Still, he yanked an oar from its lock and leaped to the quay wall, racing at the cluster of carrion birds that surrounded his friend. Degren grabbed the other oar and followed.
"Get the fuck off him, you rotten bastards!" Decker's voice was a cracking screech/roar; the birds all turned to face him as he brandished the oar. Their faces looked oddly human, aside from the ugly, curved beaks. They stood at least as tall as he did, and seemed less than frightened by his threatening approach. The six of them looked at each other for a split second, as though communing on how to handle the situation, then each turned malevolent, intelligent eyes on one of the two approaching adversaries. Four remained on the ground, holding their huge wings half-open, ready to pump themselves into the air but just as ready to thrust a wide-open, razor-sharp beak at them. The other two lumbered upward with slow, clumsy flapping until they had gotten aloft, then rose more gracefully as the two men closed with the rest of their group.
Decker swung his oar in a sweeping, overhand arc at the first bird he encountered. It turned and flapped a wing at him, the feathers grazing his face and the bony elbow of the wing deflecting his hasty blow. He nearly lost the oar as the great bird screeched in pain and thrust its beak at his thigh. The oar was clumsy and heavy; he barely got it into the path of the bird's strike.
The four birds had split into two groups, each duo attacking one of the men. Decker's second bird waddled around to accost him from behind. He couldn't afford to take the time to see what the two airborne birds were up to. The one whose strike he'd blocked was shaking off the effects of blundering into the blade of his oar. As quickly as he could, he wheeled the oar in a short arc and struck at the menacing head.
His blow struck home with a satisfying crunch; the bird wobbled stunned, but didn't go down. He spun just in time to catch a glancing snap at his calf by the other bird; a split-second later, and he was sure there would have been little meat left on his lower leg. As it was, there was a nasty gash in his calf, oozing blood faster than he was comfortable with.
He ignored the pain and stabbed at the bird's chest with the blade of the oar, causing it to flap its wings or overbalance. He drew back the oar for a strike at the neck, but the bird was wary; it hopped backward in time to elude the blow. The bird's retreat served another purpose as well; he felt talons grip his shoulders and a disorienting roil of turbulence as one of the airborne creatures swooped on him.
He lifted his oar and jabbed at the bird's crotch, trying to keep one eye forward for any lunges by the grounded bird. He managed to wedge the blade of the oar between the bird's thigh and body, and decided to wrench at the oar while trying to drop and roll. He felt the claws release from his shoulders and he pulled the oar up in front of himself just in time to deflect a flapping wing bone from his temple. The other bird on him made an ill-advised thrust of its beak, catching in the feathers at the base of its partner's neck. Decker seized his opportunity; he rolled to his feet and caught the diving bird with a roundhouse in the side of the neck. It squawked and fell, wobbling its head from side to side. Decker hoped its neck was broken.
He had time to glance over at Degren. He, too, had done in one of his attackers, but he was still struggling with the two that remained; one on the ground and one wheeling overhead. He was bleeding from a deep gash in his bicep and another across his chest.
The one undamaged bird on Decker got a slashing beak inside his defenses, ripping a great gab of flesh off his ribcage. The pain was blinding; for a second he saw nothing but a red-yellow haze. He nearly doubled over, but managed to wrench his oar up and deliver a glancing, ineffective blow tot the bird's chest.
Now the vulture creatures became more wary. The one he'd struck in the neck was injured, but not out of it; it circled around to Decker's rear while the other feinted and retreated before his oar. Decker was getting tired, and the birds could sense it. His arms felt like two tubes of sand. His ravaged calf was threatening to stop supporting him. He knew he would have to end this quickly, or he would soon look like Cletus.
The thought of Cletus stabbed him, bringing a last rush of adrenaline to his veins. The haze in his eyes was starkly red now, and he clenched his jaw spasmodically. Uttering a great bellow, he brought the oar down in a mighty stroke on the bird that faced him just as the other one dug its beak into his shoulder. As the one crumpled, he switched his grip on the oar to center and jabbed the handle end into the breast of the one behind him. So violent was the thrust that it slid in at the base of the bird's throat, crushing its windpipe; it released its grip on his shoulder and fell, gasping ineffectually.
He had the energy for one last charge. The bird that harried Degren's backside didn't notice his presence; he was able to drop it in its tracks with a swing that might have split an elm log. Degren, bloodied as badly as Decker was, also found just enough reserve to bring a blow around that, though it was partially blocked by an upraised wing, struck home at the last bird's temple. Exhausted, the men administered killing blows to the surviving creatures and sunk to the ground.
As soon as he could see through the red haze, Decker gathered shreds of Cletus' clothing and started wrapping his wounds. Degren followed his lead. They were both weak from blood loss, but it seemed they would survive.
Bandaged, reeling, they stood over the remains of Cletus. "Guess we should bury him," Decker said.
"Normally I'd disagree," Degren replied, "but I don't want his remains to be eaten by such filth as these."
"Can't do it now, anyway," Decker said as his knees gave way, "Gotta rest." He fell to the flotsam-strewn stone and watched the pretty stars and nebulae swirl into darkness.

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