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There were several projecting ledges harboring brightly colored fish who scattered as the bicycles encroached. Then a large crevice developed, and they rode between sheer coral walls. These overhung, and finally closed over the top, and it was a cavern.
The area was too confined for riding, and the floor was irregular. They dismounted and walked on inside, avoiding contact with the sharp fringes. Don was reminded of the cave paintings of Lascaux: the patchwork murals left by Upper Paleolithic man some fifteen thousand years ago, and one of the marvels of the archaeological world. Primitive man had not been as primitive as many today liked to suppose.
But this was a sea-cavern, and its murals were natural. Sponges bedecked its walls: black, brown, blue, green, red, and white, in dabs and bulges and relief-carvings.
There was life here, all right. The smaller fish streaked out as the men moved in, for their eyesight was keen enough to spot the intrusion even though its substance was vacant. One man-sized fish balked, however, hanging motionless in the passage.
“Jewfish,” Gaspar remarked—and with the sound of his voice the fish was gone. Sediment formed a cloud as the creature shot past, and Don felt the powerful breeze of its thrust. He appreciated another danger: just as a stiff wind could blow a man down on land, a stiff current could do the same here in the ocean. If his position happened to be precarious, he would have to watch out for big fish. Their bones could tug him if their breeze-current didn’t.
“Looks good,” Gaspar said. “I’m bushed.” He lay down beside his bicycle and seemed to drop instantly to sleep.
Don was tired, but he lacked this talent. He could not let go suddenly; he had to rest and watch, hoping that sleep would steal upon him conveniently. It probably wasn’t worth it, for just a couple of hours.
“I envy him his sleep, but it’s beyond me,” Melanie said, settling down to lean cautiously against a wall.
“Me too,” Don agreed, doing the same. The real wall might be jagged, but the phase wall wasn’t, fortunately.
“You’re not stuttering now.”
“Maybe I’m too tired.”
“Or maybe you know I’m no threat to you.”
“I didn’t say that.” But it might be true. Before, there had been the frightening prospect of social interaction leading into romance.
“You didn’t have to. Now you know why I read books. They don’t look at you.”
“But people don’t—I mean, they don’t know—”
“Well, I read too. Mostly texts, but—”
“I read fiction, mostly. Once I fell asleep during a book, and dreamed the author had come to autograph my copy, but we couldn’t find him a pen.”
“You like signatures?” he asked, not certain she was serious.
“Oh, yes, I have a whole collection of autographed books, back home.” She spoke with modest pride.
“Why? I think it’s more important to relate to what the author is trying to say, than to have his mark on a piece of paper.”
She was silent.
After a moment he asked, “You want to sleep? I didn’t mean to—”
“I heard you. I wasn’t answering.”
“Maybe we’d better change the subject.”
“You couldn’t expect me to agree with you, could you? I mean, I collect autographs, don’t I? So what am I supposed to say when you say you don’t think they are very much?”
What was this? “You could have said you don’t agree.”
“When I didn’t say anything. I think that should be obvious.”
“Well, you seem to use different conversational conventions than I do, and it’s unpleasant to talk to someone who doesn’t understand your silences.”
“Why not just say what you mean? I have no idea what’s bothering you.”
“No more than I did, when you kept cutting me off.”
Oh. “I’m sorry about that. I just had this notion it was all men on this circuit, and I thought something had gone wrong, the way my food did. I would have answered if I had realized.”
“Well, then, I’ll answer you now. I don’t want to be placed in the position of having to defend something I know you don’t like. I mean, if I answered you there would be all kinds of emotional overtones in my voice, and that would be embarrassing and painful.”
“About autographs?” he demanded incredulously.
“Obviously you didn’t mean to be offensive,” she said, sounding hurt.
“What do you mean, ‘mean to be’? I wasn’t offensive, was I?”
“Well, I shouldn’t have said anything about it.”
“Now don’t go clamming up on me again. One silence is enough.” He was feeling more confident, oddly.
“I was trying to hint that I didn’t agree with you.”
“About meaning being worth more than a signature?”
She was silent again.
“Oh come on!” he snapped. “What do you expect me to say to a silence?”
“I’ve already told you why I don’t want to talk about it any more. You could at least have apologized for mentioning it again.”
“What kind of unfeeling barbarian culture did you grow up in, anyway?”
“Primitive cultures are not unfeeling!”
There was no answer.
“You’re right,” he said with frustration. “We do have different conversational conventions.” Sane and insane, he was tempted to add.
And so they sat, leaning back against the spongy coral wall, watching the little fish sidle in again. Don wondered what had happened.
CHAPTER 4 (#)
Proxy 5–12–5–16–8: Attention.
Three recruits are in motion, with the fourth incipient. The liability of the third has been established, with what impact is uncertain. The group seems to be melding satisfactorily.
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