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Four members introduced, final one incipient. Progress good. Group is melding. They are as much concerned with interpersonal relations as with the mission, but unified in their perplexity about it. The likelihood of success seems to be increasing.
That is good. We have lost another world via the straightforward approach. If your experiment is effective, we will try it on the remaining worlds.
But the outcome is far from assured. Human reactions are devious and at times surprising.
How well we know!
Offshore Miami: the continental shelf was narrow here, but they could not approach the teeming metropolis too closely. The rendezvous was just outside the reefs, thirty fathoms deep and sloping.
Gaspar tooted on his whistle. The answer came immediately. Before they could get on their cycles the fifth member of the party appeared, riding rapidly. Don noted the turned-down handlebars and double derailleur mechanism first: another ten-speed-or-more machine, perhaps an expensive one.
“It’s a woman,” Gaspar said.
Don and Melanie peered at the figure. It was female, but neither buxom nor young.
She coasted up, turned smartly, and braked, like a skier at the end of a competition run. “Pacifa,” she said. Her hair was verging on gray, obviously untinted under the hard helmet.
The others introduced themselves.
“Well,” Pacifa said briskly. “If I had known you would be three handsome men and one pretty girl, I’d have sent my daughter. But she’s all shape and no mind and this is business not pleasure, so we’re stuck with each other for the duration. Any problems with the bikes?”
They assumed that this was small talk, so demurred. Don saw Melanie react at the reference to “pretty girl,” but she did not speak. He wasn’t sure whether it was the first word or the second that bothered her.
“No, I’m serious,” Pacifa said with peppery dispatch. “I’m your mechanic, in a couple of ways, and I can see already that none of you except Gaspar knows the first thing about cycles, and he doesn’t know the second thing. Three of you have insufficient and the fourth too much. Can’t be helped now, though. Who has the coordinates?”
“Twenty four degrees, fifteen minutes latitude,” Melanie said. “Eighty four degrees, fifty minutes longitute.”
“But that’s—” Don started, trying to figure it out.
“Right back the way we came,” Melanie said. “Eleph was at 24°30’, and this is 24° 15’.”
“But farther along,” Gaspar said. “In fact, offshore northern Cuba.”
“We’re picking up a Cuban?” she asked.
“Unlikely,” Gaspar said. “If there was supposed to be another person, he should have joined us at the same place Eleph did, not close by. Now I think we’re complete. A larger party would be unwieldy. So it’s more likely the site of our mission—or a supply depot.” He sounded disappointed. It seemed they were not going to the Bahamas platform.
“Let’s go,” Pacifa said. She mounted and moved out with such smoothness that the three were left standing.
Gaspar filled the leadership gap again. “Don, you catch her and make her wait. Eleph, I saw a map in your pack. Let’s you and I check it and find out more specifically where we’re going, because Cuba just doesn’t make sense to me. Maybe there’s something in the Gulf of Mexico I’m missing.”
Don took off. But Pacifa was already out of sight, lost in the vague dark background wash that was the deep ocean at dawn. There were not tire tracks, of course. It was hopeless.
“Fool woman,” he muttered.
“Whistle for her,” Melanie called. He hadn’t realized that she was following him, and indeed she wasn’t very close, but it was a good suggestion. He blew his whistle.
Pacifa answered at once, just a short distance to the side. “Are you lost, young man?” she inquired solicitously as he drew up to her.
“No. You are—were. Wait for the rest of us!”
“W-we have to operate as a p-party,” he said, annoyed.
“I’m glad that’s settled. Let’s get on with it.”
They returned to find Gaspar and Eleph poring over the paper held before one headlight. Gaspar lifted his bike and spun a wheel by hand when the headlight began to fade, to keep the light bright. There were a number of sections of the map, each overlapping the boundaries of the next, so that they could travel from one to another without interruption. It looked to Don as if the entire Gulf of Mexico was covered, and perhaps more.
Gaspar looked up. “It’s in an American explosives dumping area,” he said.
“A what?” Pacifa demanded. “That can’t be right.”
“It’s the location Melanie gave us,” Gaspar said evenly. “Got any other?”
“Do I understand correctly?” Eleph demanded. “Must we venture into a munitions dump?”
“I have no knowledge of munitions dumps,” Pacifa said. “I don’t know anything about undersea coordinates either. It does seem strange, but if they want to keep our ultimate destination secret, this is as good a waystation as any, I suppose.”
“That must be it,” Don said. “For some reason they don’t want us to know our mission any sooner than we have to. But it must be far enough away so we’ll have to reload on supplies.” He would be glad to get good rations to replace his bad ones; so far there had been plenty for the others to share with him, but it made him feel as if he wasn’t carrying his own weight.
“But an explosives dump!” Gaspar said.
“Can’t hurt us,” Don reminded him. “We’re out of phase.”
“I’m not so sure about that. Our weight is still real, and if we were to ride over an old live depth bomb—”
“They do not dump that way,” Eleph said. “Those weapons are sealed in.”
“How do you know?”
Eleph hesitated. “I have had military experience.”
So there was a military background, Don thought. That explained the man’s military bearing and attitude. But it still didn’t explain his presence here.
“Probably it was easier to dump supplies on a regular run,” Gaspar said after a moment, evidently not wishing to appear unduly negative. “But it’s a good three hundred and fifty miles from here. And if that’s only half way to our goal—”
“Our goal may be even farther,” Don said. “Because we’ve been riding back and forth with our initial supplies.”
“Of which we still have plenty,” Melanie said. “Even sharing.”
“Sharing?” Pacifa inquired alertly.
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