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Gaspar grimaced, and Don knew what he was thinking. Another two days and three nights before they caught up to the final member of their party and learned what this was all about. Maybe.
“Well, let’s find a comfortable spot to turn in,” Gaspar said. “Maybe we’ll find a mound of gold ingots to form into a camping site.”
“Gold?” Melanie asked.
“From sunken treasure ships. There are a number, here in the channel between Florida and Cuba, and they haven’t all been found by a long shot. Whole fleets of Spanish galleons carried the Inca and Aztec treasures to Spain, and storms took a number of them down. That cargo is worth billions, now.”
“Maybe that’s our mission,” Don said. “To explore this region and map the remaining treasure ships.”
“I’d be disappointed if so,” Gaspar said.
“Yes,” Melanie agreed. “We have to hope that something more than greed is responsible for us.”
“We can best find out by getting on with the mission,” Eleph said. That damped the dialogue.
Gaspar led the way to the more level bottom and located a peaceful hollow in the sand. There was no sign of gold. This time they pitched their tents, which they had not bothered to do before: one for Eleph, one for Melanie, and one formed from Don and Gaspar’s combined canvas.
This really was more comfortable than sleeping in the open, though the difference was more apparent than real. There was nothing to harm them in their phased state anyway. But Don liked the feeling of being in a protected, man-made place. Appearances were important to his emotions. Which brought him back to the subject of Melanie. Her appearance—
He shoved that thought aside. The emotions were too complicated and confused. That business about the autographs—where had he gone wrong? Suddenly he had run afoul of her, and he didn’t quite understand how it had happened. So it was better to let it lie, for now.
“That wig,” Gaspar said.
So much for letting it lie! “You noticed it too,” Don said with gentle irony.
“I want to be candid with you, because it might make a difference. Melanie is one attractive woman, and I’d be interested in her. Except for that wig. If she meant to see whom it fazed, she succeeded.”
Fazed. A pun, since they were all phased? Evidently not. “But there’s more to a woman than hair,” Don said, arguing the other side.
“I know that. You know that. Everybody knows that. But I have a thing about hair on a woman. I like it long and flowing and smooth. I like to stroke it as I make love. My first crush was on a long-haired girl, and I never got over it. So when I first saw Melanie I saw a nice figure and a pretty face, but the hair didn’t turn me on. Too short and curly. But hair can grow, so if she was otherwise all right, that could come. But then she took off that wig, and I knew that her hair would never grow. A wig won’t do it, for me. The hair has to be real, just as the breasts have to be real. I don’t claim this makes a lot of sense, but romance doesn’t necessarily make sense. Melanie is not on my horizon as anything other than an associate or platonic friend, regardless of the other aspects of our association.”
Don was troubled. “Why are you telling me this?”
“Because I can see you are shy with women. You wouldn’t want to go after one actively. You sure wouldn’t compete with another man for one. Well, maybe you don’t have the same hang-up as I do. In that case, I just want you to know that there’s no competition. If you can make it with Melanie, I’ll be your best man. The field is yours.”
“B-but a woman can’t just be p-parceled out!” Don protested.
“There’s a difference between parceling and non-commitment. I think Melanie needs a man as much as you need a woman. In fact I think you two might be just right for each other. If you were with her, you’d keep her secret, and she’d love you for it, and other men would wonder what she saw in you, and she would never give them the time of day. Ideal for you both, as I see it. I can see already that she’s got her quirks, but is one great catch of a woman. But matchmaking’s not my business. I’ll stay out of it. Just so you know that no way am I going to be with her. She lost me when she lifted that wig, and she knows it. You are in doubt. I mean, she doesn’t know whether you can handle the business of the hair. When you decide, that will be it. I won’t mention this again.”
“Th-thanks,” Don said. His emotions remained as confused as ever. He knew that the best thing he could do was to put all this out of his mind and let time show him the way of his feelings and hers. He would just relax.
Yet sleep was slow, again. He told himself it was because of his recent nap in the patch-coral cave, but he knew it was more than that. There was a wrongness about this project, and not just in spoiled rations or breaking bicycle chains or undue secrecy. Gaspar seemed to be the only one qualified to do anything or learn anything here. Don himself was a misfit, as was Melanie—and what was a man like Eleph doing here? Not a geologist, not a biologist, not even an undersea archeologist—but a physicist! His specialty could have little relevance here. A mysterious mission like this was hardly needed to check out the performance of the phase-shift under water—if that were really what Eleph was here to do. The man wasn’t young and strong, and certainly not easy to get along with. He could only be a drag on the party. At least Melanie wasn’t a drag.
“It’s Miami,” Gaspar said, startling him.
“Those coordinates. Offshore Miami. Must be another inexperienced man.”
Don shook his head ruefully. “I wish I had your talent for identifying places like that! I can’t make head or tail of those coordinates.”
“It’s no talent. Just understanding of the basic principle. The Earth is a globe, and it is tricky to identify places without a global scale of reference. On land you can look for roads and cities, but in the sea there are none. Think of it as an orange, with lines marked. Some are circles going around the globe, passing through the north and south poles. Those are the meridians of longitude, starting with zero at Greenwich, in London, England, as zero, and proceeding east and west from it until they meet as 180 degrees in the middle of the Pacific Ocean at the International Date Line. The others are circles around the globe parallel to the equator; they get smaller as they go north and south, but each is still a perfect circle. Thus we have parallels of latitude. Since we happen to be north of the equator and west of England, our coordinates are in the neighborhood of twenty five degrees north latitude and eighty degrees west longitude. Just keep those figures in mind, and you’ll know how far we go from where we are now.”
It began to register. “Twenty five and eighty,” Don said. “Right here. So Miami is—”
“Actually those particular coordinates would be about ten miles east of Miami, and fifty miles south of it,” Gaspar said. “We’re on the way there. I meant our neighborhood on a global scale.”
“Just as all of man’s history and prehistory is recent, on the geologic scale,” Don said wryly. “Fifty miles is pinpoint close.”
“Yes. Our bicycle meters give us our immediate locations.”
“Still, I’ll remember those numbers. It will give me a notion how far we are from Miami, and that’s a location I can understand. Southern tip of Florida.”
“Approximately!” Don said quickly. “In geologic terms.”
“Approximately,” Gaspar agreed, and Don knew he was smiling.
Don returned to the matter of their next group member, glad to have company in his misgivings. “What do you think he is? An astronomer? An electrician? A—”
“Could be a paleontologist. Because I think I know where we’re heading, now. The Bahamas platform.”
“The Bahamas platform. Geologically, a most significant region. It certainly made trouble for us in the past.”
Don would have been less interested, had he not wanted someone to talk to. “How could it make trouble? It is whatever it is, and was what it was, wasn’t it, before there were geologists?”
“True, true. But trouble still, and a fascinating place to explore. You see, its existence was a major obstacle to acceptance of the theory of plate tectonics.”
“I’ve heard of that,” Don said. “They’re moving now, aren’t they? An inch a century?”
“Faster than that, even,” Gaspar agreed wryly.
“But I don’t see why those little islands, the Bermudas—”
“Bahamas. The thesis was that all the continents were once a super land mass called Pangaea. The convection currents in the mantle of the earth broke up the land, spreading the sea floor and shoving the new continents outward. North and South America drifted—actually, they were shoved—to their present location, and the Mid-Atlantic ridge continued to widen as more and more lava was forced up from below. But the Bahamas—”
“You talk as if the world is a bubbling pot of mush!”
“Close enough. The continents themselves float in the lithosphere, and when something shoves, they have to move. But slowly. We could match up the fractures, showing how the fringes of the continental shelves fitted together like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. All except the Bahamas platform. It was extra. There was no place for it in the original Pangaea—yet there it was.”
“So maybe the continents didn’t drift, after all,” Don said. “They must have stayed in the same place all the time. Makes me feel more secure, I must admit.”
“Ah, but they did drift. Too many lines of evidence point too firmly to this, believe you me. All but that damned platform. Where did it come from?”
“Where, indeed,” Don muttered sleepily.
“They finally concluded that the great breakup of Pangaea started right in this area. The earth split asunder, the land shoved outward in mighty plates—and then the process halted for maybe thirty million years, and the new basin filled in with sediment. When the movement resumed, there was the half-baked mass: the Bahamas platform. Most of it is still under water, of course, but it trailed along with the continent, and here it is. The site of the beginning of the Atlantic Ocean as we know it.” The man’s voice shook with excitement; this was one of the most important things on Earth, literally, to him.
But Don wasn’t a geologist. “Glory be,” he mumbled.
“That’s why I find this such a fascinating region. There are real secrets buried in the platform strata.”
But Don was drifting to a continental sleep. He dreamed that he was standing with tremendous feet straddling Pangaea, the Paul Bunyan of archaeologists. But then it cracked, and he couldn’t get his balance; the center couldn’t hold. The more he tried to bring the land together, the more his very weight shoved it apart, making him do a continental split. “Curse you, Bahama!” he cried.
CHAPTER 5 (#)
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