Tradewinds 02: Paradise by shadesmaclean
XV by shadesmaclean
wading into a nightmare
After a small feast of fish and berries, Max again stood before the pond. In his hand he held what might just be his secret weapon. While gathering wood to cook the fish, he had caught a glint of light on the sand. Not far from where the boat ran aground, he found what he now held in his hand.
A pair of work goggles.
Perhaps one of the Cyexians who used them was a mechanic, because the goggles were designed for doing on-the-spot underwater work. He searched the area very carefully, but found no other items. So he took it to camp with him to figure out how he might put them to use.
Of course, he had continued to think about the problem as he ate his breakfast. He knew there was no way to get at the laser sword without going in the water, and he knew the devilfish wasn’t there all the time. After all, it hadn’t attacked him the first couple times he went in there.
And that led to the question of where the cave led to. The salty, sea-smell the creature brought with it was a strong hint. That made him wonder how the pond water stayed so fresh. Or if the creature was always in the cave.
He remembered something his father told him during one of their training sessions: Use your enemy’s own behavior against him. And he remembered the words of his mother: Solving problems in battle is no different than solving any other problem in life. Faced with an adversary he was no match for otherwise, he was beginning to gain a new appreciation for the importance of strategy.
A plan had begun to form.
Before coming back to the pond, Max had tested the goggles at the beach, and they were indeed watertight. And just as important, they allowed him to see underwater with almost crystal clarity.
He stood before the water for some time before finally venturing in. Bandit simply looked at Max in a manner that made him certain the cub thought he was crazy. Maybe I am, he thought. But he was also scared to death.
Still he knew that if he was ever going to get his laser sword back, he was going to have to go in and get it himself. It was a risk he would have to take.
“Dad…” he said, his voice quivering more than he wanted to believe, “I’m not going to lose your sword… I’m going to find you,” he vowed, “and when I do, I’m going to give you back your sword…”
As he stood there, his courage very nearly failed, but he finally forced himself to go forward.
Goggles on, disrupter in hand, Max now approached the pond. He picked up the branch he had used to retrieve the fish. It was also part of the plan.
With every step he took, he felt like he was wading into a nightmare one step at a time. Once he was in deep enough, he wetted the goggles to make sure they were on tight, then headed for deeper water. As he neared the sudden drop-off to the deep end, he again marked the location of his laser sword.
All the while keeping a constant eye on a certain cave.
Feeling increasingly conscious of his vulnerability here in the devilfish’s home turf— like a fish out of water, only in reverse— he took the plunge.
His goggles fogged up for a moment, and he almost turned back. But then his vision started to clear, so he surfaced to catch his breath before going back down for real. He looked over his shoulder to see Bandit’s worried expression, and he knew he was on his own this time.
It would be the last thing he would see of the surface for what would feel like forever.
Knowing that he couldn’t drag this out any longer without losing his nerve, Max descended to the edge of the drop. He had to fight to keep his eyes mainly on the laser sword and only peripherally on the cave, not the other way around. After all, he could only hold his breath for so long, and he knew that the longer he took, the more likely it was that the devilfish would attack him.
That thought made him flail the branch even more as he attempted to drag it clear to his end of the pond. That is, as far from the cave entrance as he could keep himself and still reach. Now he wished he had trimmed a few branches off of it, it was unwieldy and sluggish to drag underwater and maneuver like this.
Even as he caught the laser sword, managing to rake it in a couple feet before losing it again, Max caught a shadow of movement out of the corner of his eye. Sure enough, it was the devilfish, advancing cautiously to check out this alien intruder that had once again invaded its world. And Max’s laser sword was still out of reach against the creature’s speed.
It took a mighty act of willpower to overcome common sense and not try to flee. Remembering his disrupter, he aimed it at the devilfish. He had been hoping against hope that he could avoid a confrontation without at least regaining his laser sword, but it was clearly just not meant to be.
With a clear, unrefracted aim here underwater, Max fired. And without the distortion of perspective, his aim was true. He could feel the heated water sweep past him as he put several energy beams through the creature.
The results of his blasts were obscured by more of that inky black stuff as the creature fled this bizarre alien and its incomprehensible attacks. Not wanting to let it get away now that he had the upper hand, he fired repeatedly into the growing cloud of blackness. Firing from multiple angles, certain that he had to hit something.
For its part, the black fog expanded a little, then stopped. Max exhaled bubbles of triumph, for the cloud had also ceased any forward motion. He fired several more shots at it, just for good measure.
As the ink dissipated, he could see that the devilfish was no longer moving. Not even twitching. Somehow he had scored a fatal hit somewhere in that barrage. Now all that was left to do was pick up his—
In the end, it was Max’s still-lingering fear of the cave that saved his life. Even as he reached the bottom, another shadow stirred within the blue hole. Max nearly lost his breath as he realized a possibility he hadn’t previously considered.
There was indeed more than one of them.
Max’s reaction was almost pure reflex. Both of his parents would have been proud of their son’s resourcefulness. Without any conscious thought— which would have only slowed him down, perhaps fatally, in this case— he opened fire on the cave entrance, determined to not let anything get through. Firing more shots than before, he could feel the heat of the water around him begin to intensify. Though horrified at how he had underestimated the peril of his situation, Max had managed to not panic this time, and in counterattacking managed to do something useful.
For in his haste, he hit the inner wall of the tunnel several times, causing it to collapse in a cloud of mud. The second devilfish was no longer paying any attention to Max, as it was too busy escaping from the cave-in Max had triggered.
By now, Max had sunk to where his feet bobbed lightly on the bottom. Sensing his window of opportunity, he dove for his laser sword, then kicked off the bottom as he dropped the branch. As he ascended, his lungs felt like they were going to burst, and it began to dawn on him just how long he had been underwater, the devilfish briefly forgotten.
As he gasped at the surface, though, he again remembered that he was supposed to watch out for something.
Below him, and off to the right, the devilfish now hovered, having taken on a deep red color that Max instinctively distrusted. Without thought, he reactivated his laser sword. With his other hand, he aimed the disrupter pistol, hoping for a decent shot.
For its part, the creature eyed Max’s shimmering energy blade with a distrust born of experience. And Max could now see why. The swaying stump, where one of its tentacles used to be, told him everything he needed to know about this one.
Max stared down the devilfish as he let himself drift back toward the shallow part of the pond; but as he retreated to the safety of solid ground, the creature slowly advanced on him.
Once his feet touched the bottom again, he ducked back underwater, aiming his disrupter at it and opened fire. For its part, the devilfish charged at Max’s sudden move. One of his shots hit it, bringing it to a grinding halt as it once again sprayed that black stuff everywhere—
Max was sure he could score another hit, but his disrupter had picked a very inopportune moment to run out of ammo.
Belatedly he realized that he should have switched to a power clip that hadn’t been used in a major battle before going down here. For a moment he felt himself going limp, and very nearly lost his grip on his weapons. This was just too much.
In another life, Max might have had a wide range of choice words to choose from, but his tranquil Layoshan upbringing just hadn’t afforded him the same opportunities many other kids had. So, unlike many others who found themselves in this sort of dire situation, all Max could come up with was a sheepish-sounding stream of bubbles issuing from his mouth.
And, as if things weren’t bad enough already, the devilfish emerged from the black cloud to face him again. Seeming to sense Max’s horror (he’d once remembered Uncle Angus saying that predators could smell fear), it charged again. And, having decided that maybe he wasn’t quite ready to give up yet, the boy backpedaled for his life.
As his feet touched the bottom more solidly, he flung aside the disrupter, brandishing his laser sword with both hands as he continued his retreat. Wounded and enraged, the creature gave no more heed to Max’s alien weapon, closing the distance between them in a matter of seconds. Max slashed frantically at the water ahead of him, hoping to struggle free in time.
Right as the devilfish fell upon him, Max’s panic dropped away, and he experienced a moment of uncanny clarity. In his focused state, he slashed straight across, severing three tentacles in one stroke. In a flash of motion he had practiced with a short staff for months, he flipped the energy blade around, arcing it over his head and cleaving the devilfish right down the middle.
He continued to hack and slash, screaming incoherently, as he splashed away from his mangled attacker. The water around him black with blood and ink.
He scrambled ashore, still brandishing his laser sword to cover his retreat. Finally, he turned it off and sprawled on the ground, trying to regain his breath after his harrowing underwater battle. His lungs still burned, his arms and legs had turned to rubber, and his head was swimming, but he still clutched his father’s laser sword in his hand. As if he would never let it go.
Bandit slowly padded up to him, staring down at the boy’s goggled face. Then Max started laughing, almost hysterically at first, but then joyfully, triumphantly. Startled, Bandit jumped back, then walked openly up to him when he saw that Max was okay.
For his part, Max sat there laughing about his victory, imagining how amazed everybody back home would be if they knew, as he began to pull himself together.
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