Friday, March 26, 2010

Decker #16

The little boat was still moored to the quay wall. Decker and Degren, bleary and stiff after a wine-dulled morning's rest in the over-warm carriage, stretched their legs on the marble flagstones. The satyrs had left them with several jugs of water and a few spare meals of bread, cheese, and citrus fruits.
"Damn, we should've stopped after the 3rd bottle," Decker rasped. "I feel like shit!"
"Maybe the water will feel good," Degren replied, rubbing the base of his skull with both thumbs.
"S'pose it's worth a shot. Rest didn't seem to help much." Decker eyed the heavens, remembering the circling silhouettes and the carnage of three weeks ago. He noted, thankfully, that the broad blue sky was empty of everything but a few slender ripples of cirrus clouds.
Degren was already untying the painter from the stone cleat on the quay. Decker grabbed the boat gunwale at center and nodded for Degren to embark, then carefully stepped in himself. Degren manned the oars while Decker looked over the charts.
"The rest of the wrecks are all further apart than the ones we dived last time," he observed. "There's a grouping of three within swimming distance just south and a little further out. Wanna start there?"
Degren grunted his affirmative, obviously struggling with a bit of a headache. Decker felt his pain, literally; he'd drunk just as much as the slightly bigger man. But not much bigger, Decker noticed; in fact, there were striking and disconcerting similarities between the two men now. Maybe the genetics of Degren's race were such that everyone's physical characteristics were more alike, he thought.
A sudden curiosity struck him. "Degren, are there females of your, uh, species?" Strange he'd never thought of it before.
"Of course," his friend replied, "though they are larger and stronger than the men, and hardly ever, um, 'pair bond', with other females. In fact, they rarely have any sort of long-term relationships. When their, um, 'natural urges' find them, they seek out a male and spend a few weeks breeding, then generally go off on their own and raise their cluster of children."
"Cluster? How many do you-er, they- have?"
"Three to seven is the general rule. If they have more, they'll find another woman to adopt all but six. If only two are born, it is common for the woman to seek out another woman who has had four or less and create a larger cluster. Six is deemed the ideal cluster. If only one is born, a man is selected to raise the child as a shaman or a musician. That child is not allowed to breed."
Decker had many other questions, but they had come to the area where the three wrecks were charted to lay. He dropped the anchor, counting out the depth by twists in the rope. The water was about thirty feet deep here. He tied it off to the gunwale with a few feet of slack to account for tide, then donned his gear and slipped over the side.
The water did feel good; slightly cool, softly massaging, and buoying him up, it was a nice relief from the somewhat steamy air. The pressure was a bit uncomfortable as they neared the first wreck, but overall it was an improvement.
It had the feel of a Chinese junk, with its barge-like hull and broad prow. Its main mast stood slightly fore of center, and it had a smaller fore- and mizzen-mast; all remained proudly perpendicular to its broad wooden deck. It was less decayed than most of the wrecks they'd already investigated, and sat almost perfectly upright on the rocky bottom.
Decker pointed to the fore, indicating Degren should start there, and then swam aft. The cargo doors yawned open, and he dove into the hold.
There was little of interest. The cargo must have been something quite perishable, or there had been none. A few bits of pottery, a handful of odd, verdigris-ed metal objects, and the tattered remnants of a few bolts of cloth were all he found. His chest was starting to burn, so he swam out and made for the surface.
Degren wasn't far behind. When both their heads breached, Decker saw the look of excitement on his friend's face. He'd found something!
"A chest within a chest!" Degren's voice shook; he made to dive again.
Decker grabbed his arm. "There's enough anchor rope to drop to the chest. No way we'd be able to swim to the surface carrying the chest. Is it in a spot where we can pull it up without hanging up on things?"
"Um, no. It's inside what appears to be an officer's cabin. We'll have to haul it out on deck first."
"Okay, you take the end of the rope and swim to the best spot to haul it from. I'll bring the boat directly over you and lower the anchor, then we'll dive together and get the chest on deck. Once it's tied off, we'll both get in the boat and haul it in by the rope. Sound good?"
Decker's heart thudded heavily in his chest. Excitement mixed with apprehension sent rolls of tingling heat down his spine; his head felt light and foggy. This was it! Why was he as frightened as he was happy? Well, nothing to do but do it.
They decided to bring the whole thing up, not just the small chest; there were other items of interest and value there, too; coins, gems, nautical devices, and other more inscrutable objects. Just getting the big chest onto the deck required three dives. Hauling it up was a precarious affair; they learned that they'd have to counterbalance the boat by wrapping heavy objects in the anchor rope and suspending them from one side while they reefed away at the chest rope on the other. It was nearly sundown by the time they had the chest in the boat.
Rowing back to the quay, in short shifts, took the last of their energy. They tied the boat off and collapsed to the boat bottom, too tired even to seek a more comfortable resting place. Tangled in each others arms, they fell asleep.
a slight rocking of the boat awakened them. Decker's eyes were slow to open and he was afraid to move; the evening's exertions and the skewed position he lay in made for dire assumptions as to the comfort of motion.
A shadow crossed his face. He squinted up into the sun and was startled to stare up at a lime-green, iguana-like breast, from which jutted two skinny arms that spanned the boat and clutched the gunwales. He couldn't see above its shoulders without bending his neck, so he tightened his muscles tentatively.
The head was generally saurian, but the face was disquietingly human. It was nosing at the chest, trying to shove the lid open. Shit and mega-shit! What to do? He tried to assess his situation with peripheral vision, hoping some handy weapon would present itself. Where had they stashed Cletus' knives? Shit again; the dry storage locker in the bow. No way to get to that without alerting the lizard to his wakeful presence.
The creature was muttering under its breath. He could make out the occasional bit of monologue.
"Flippus fornicatus, my foggy phrenological philosophy!" It was trying to get one arm, or front leg, in action to aid in lifting the lid. "It's a suspicious scatology that skates such slipshod schemes...wait, I think we've got it...." Then in a deeper, more theatric tone, ..."By Jove, I think he's got it! No...."
Decker's back itched, and the morning sun was cooking fat beads of sweat from his brow. His heart beat arrythmically, and his knees were starting to twitch. The creature's odd garble of conversation was grating on his throbbing skull. He had to do something. With as much force as he could muster, he drove a fist into the yellow-green belly above him, painfully banging his other elbow against the hull. "Get the hell off our boat, you freaked-out fucker!"
It flopped over the side with a wheezy tenor, "Ooof!"
Decker scrambled to his feet, cursing at the popping in his joints and the twanging of his calcified muscles. The lizard-man was back-floating, clutching its gut, trying to take a breath. Degren leaped up, groaning as he straightened, grabbed an oar; and brandished it at the intruder.
It had its eyes clenched tightly. One popped open a bit, then both went wide as it saw both men holding oars over their heads. "Unh, nuh-nooo...," it gasped, still in the throes of diaphragmic paralysis, juddering out the words as it could, ""
Decker stood, frozen. What if it was? They were the thieves, the interlopers then. "Um, how do we know you're telling the truth?"
" the...dry the front....of the boat," It was slowly gaining its wind. "You will perceive a pair of piscatory procurement apparati. Notice the notation on their nether nubs; Nimus Novulo, my name."
"Watch him," Decker said, and made his way to the little door. Pulling the fishing rods out, he did not that name engraved at the base of the two poles. "He...he seems to be telling the truth."
"Obviously my observations occlude obfuscation, oaf!" the lizard man's gill area turned from pale green to bright orangey-red. "I swiped this simple skiff some seasons hence, cementing its presence in my possessions thence!" It made to approach, puffing out its throat sacs menacingly.
Decker sprang to his oar. "Back off, Jack! You might have stolen it fair and square, but so did we! We saved it from your gross neglect after that horrible storm swept it into these waters!"
"Negate your nagging of neglect, nattering ninny!" The lizard man shouted threateningly, but dog-paddled backward out of striking distance. "Salubrious self sailed skiff since storm struck!"
Decker glanced at Degren, whose face bore the same slightly confused but incipiently mirthful expression Decker had. He glared at the lizard-man. "Do you always speak in alliterations?"
"Consonant conjugation occurs with confrontation."
"Well calm your scaly ass down, lizard-boy! We're not gonna hurt you. We might even give you back this boat. We've got a much better one waiting for us elsewhere. Just lizard-stroke over to the pier there, and wait for us to get our stuff landed."
Its cheeks fading from crimson back to yellow-green, the creature did as Decker asked. "Please don't take my fishing gear," it pleaded, "I-I'm not as good a diver as the other Glag-tuis, I'd starve if I couldn't use them!"
"Don't worry about that, er, can I call you Lizzy? Don't worry about that, Lizzy, you can definitely keep the fishing rods. Degren, help me get the chest out of here."
"My correct cognomen is Coxli, confounded cad!"
"The two men burst out laughing. "Okay, okay Coxli," Decker replied,. "Don't get your, er, scales in a twist!"
Heaving and sweating, they finally got the heavy chest onto the stone flags of the quay, then the rest of their items. Coxli watched from the water until they were safely ashore, then scrabbled up onto the quay wall and watched the two men going through the contents of the chest.
"You found that out among the wrecks?"
Decker glanced over at the lizard-man, who appeared to be basking on the rail. "Yup."
"It was my understanding that most of those wrecks had been thoroughly scavenged."
"Lucky us." Decker's attention was mostly drawn by the minor hoard that surrounded the deep, briefcase-sized, plastic-bound matte-aluminum-looking case that was their main objective. There were a few hundred bright gold coins of various sizes and shapes, and dozens of red, green, and blue gemstones. There was an ancient-looking sextant and seven or eight other navigation devices, some looking nearly as old and some Decker thought might rival American technology of his time. There were a dozen or so opaque globes in shades of polished gray, ranging in size from a thumbnail up to a cereal bowl.
"So what should we do with all this stuff?" Decker scratched his head.
Coxli piped up hopefully, "You could give the excess to me as boat rental."
Decker ignored Coxli. Okay, time to see if the key fits." He reached down for one of the knives they'd salvaged from the remains of Cletus and cut the key free of the fishing line thong around his neck. He tipped the small case this way and that, looking for a keyhole; none presented themselves. He fumbled at the bindings, frustrated. He couldn't even tell where the damned box was supposed to open. Where were the hinges? "Fuck me green!"
"What was that?" Degren asked.
"I can't find the goddamned keyhole!"
"Maybe you should look on the bottom," Coxli observed.
Decker cast an angry glance at Coxli, but tipped the box completely over. "Well I'll be fucked!" Dead center in what they had assumed was the bottom of the case was a keyhole. Decker slid the key into the hole and turned.
The case hummed slightly, then split just left of the key and the top levered open in two halves. There were slots in either lid that held what appeared to be instruction manuals. In the case itself rested an object that looked like a crystal ball on eight stainless steel spider legs, and a rectangular remote with a smaller crystal ball embedded in its center. There was a keyboard of indecipherable characters on one side of the small crystal ball, and a group of variously colored rectangular buttons arranged in a circle around a larger, circular red button on the other side.
"Better glance at the manuals," Decker said. He pulled one out and leafed through it. The language was entirely foreign to him. He handed it to Degren, who just shook his head. "C'mere and take a look at this," he asked Coxli, whose curiosity was obviously getting the best of him.
"Er, not a script I am familiar with, I'm afraid," he said.
They all glanced at the other pamphlet, with the same results. Decker was disheartened, though some part of him reveled in the idea that their quest was hopeless. "What the quadruple-shit do we do now?"
"Go see Tut," the two men uttered simultaneously.
Coxli asked, "Are you gentlemen twins?"

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