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Mer-Cycle

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Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год
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Acknowledged. I will start the first one through the phasing tunnel.

Don Kestle pedaled down the road, watching nervously for life. It was early dawn, and the sparrows were twittering in the Australian Pines as they waited for the picnickers, but nothing human was visible.

Now was the time. He shifted down to second, muttering as the chain caught between gear-sprockets and spun without effect. He still wasn’t used to this multiple-speed bicycle, and it seemed to be more trouble than it was worth. He fiddled with the lever, and finally it caught.

He bucked the bike over the bank and into the unkempt grass, moving as rapidly as he could. He winced as he saw his thin tires going over formidable spreads of sandspur, though he knew the stuff was harmless to him and his equipment. That was because, as he understood it, he wasn’t really here.

Soon he hit the fine white dry sand. He braked, remembering this time to use the hand levers instead of embarrassing himself by pedaling backwards, and dismounted automatically. Actually it was quite possible to ride over the sand, for it could not toss this bike—but anyone who happened to see him doing that might suspect that something was funny. A bicycle tire normally lost traction and support, skewing badly in such a situation.

In a moment the beach opened out to the sea: typical palm-studded Florida coastline. Seagulls were already airborne, raucously calling out. A sign warned NO SWIMMING, for there were treacherous tidal currents here. That was why Don had selected this spot and this time to make his cycling debut; it was least likely to harbor prying eyes. He had been given a place and a time to be there; his exact schedule was his own business.

The tide was out. Don walked his bicycle across the beach until he reached the packed sand near the small breaking waves. Myriad tiny shells formed a long low hump, and he realized that early-rising collectors could appear at any moment. Why hadn’t he thought of that before? Yet when else could he enter the water, clothed and on a bicycle, by daylight? He simply had to risk it.

Beyond the shell ridge, the sand was wet and smooth. He looked carefully, both ways, as if crossing a busy intersection. Was he hoping that there would be someone, so that he would have to call it off?

No, he wanted to do it, Don reassured himself. In any event, his timing was such that he could not spare the hours an alternate approach would require. He had chosen dawn at this beach, and now he was committed. He had been committed all along. It was just that—well, a bit hard to believe. Here he was, a healthy impetuous fair-complexioned beginning archaeologist with a bicycle—and a remarkable opportunity. What could he do except grasp it, though he hardly comprehended it?

Don remounted and pushed down hard, driving his machine forward into the flexing ocean. The waves surged through the wheels, offering no more resistance than air. He moved on, feeling the liquid against his legs as the force of gentle wind. He didn’t really need more power, but he shifted into first anyway, bolstering his confidence. It remained hard to believe that he was doing this.

The bottom dropped, and abruptly he was coasting down into deeper water. Too fast for his taste. Now he did backpedal, futilely. There was no coaster brake on this machine!

The water rose up to his thighs, then his chest, then his neck. Still he coasted down. In another instant it was up across his face, and then it closed over his head. Don did not slow or float; he just kept going in.

He could see beneath, now. There was a rocky formation here, perhaps formed of shell. He would have investigated the local marine terrain more carefully, if only he had had time. But the whole thing had been set up so rapidly that he had barely had time to buy his bike before going through the tunnel. Now here he—

He realized that he was holding his breath. He forced himself to breathe, surprised in spite of himself that he still could do it. He had tested it by plunging his head into a tub of water, but somehow the surging sea water had restored his doubt. He applied his handbrakes.

The bicycle glided to a halt. Don braced it upright by spreading his legs, and rested in place for a moment with his eyes closed. This way he could breathe freely, for he couldn’t see the surrounding water.

Don found himself cowering. He knew he was not physically courageous, but this seemed to be an overreaction. In a moment he realized why: it was the noise.

He had somehow imagined that the underwater realm was silent. Instead it was noisier than the land. Some was staccato sound, some was whistling, and some was like the crackling of a hot frying pan. Grunts, clicks, flutters, swishes, honks, rattling chains, cackling hens, childish laughter, jackhammers, growls, knocking, whining, groaning, mouse squeaks—it all merged into a semi-melodious cacophony. He had no idea what was responsible for the assault, but was sure that it couldn’t all be inanimate. The nearest commercial enterprise was twenty miles away!

Could fish talk? Probably he would soon find out. It would be no more fantastic than the other recent developments of his life.

He was way under the water, standing and breathing as if it didn’t exist. How had he gotten into this?

“Well, it all started about twenty three years ago when I was b-born,” he said aloud, and laughed. He was not unduly reflective, but he did stutter a bit under tension. So maybe it wasn’t really funny.

Don opened his eyes.

He was down under, all right. He could see clearly for perhaps twenty feet. Beyond that was just bluegreen water-color wash. Above him, eight or ten feet, was the restless surface: little waves cruising toward ruin against the beach. Beneath him was a green meadow of sea grass, sloping irregularly down.

Now that he was stationary, he did not feel the water. He waved his hands, and they met no more resistance than they might have in air. It was warm here: about 88° Fahrenheit according to the indicator clipped to his bicycle. The temperature of subtropical coastal water in summer. He would be able to work up a sweat very quickly—unless he chose to descend to the deeper levels where the water got cold. He did not choose to do so, yet. Anyway, he was largely insulated from the water’s temperature, as he was from its density. That was all part of the miracle of his situation.

A small fish swam toward him, evidently curious about this weird intruder. Don didn’t recognize the type; he was no expert on marine biology. In fact he didn’t know much about anything to do with the ocean. It was probably a nondescript trash fish, the kind that survived in these increasingly polluted waters. This one looked harmless, but of course even the deadliest killer shark was not harmful to him now. He was really not in the water, but in an aspect of reality that was just about 99.9% out of phase with what he saw about him. Thus the water had the effective density of air.

In impulse, he grabbed at the fish as it nosed within reach. His hand closed about its body—and passed through the flesh as if it were liquid foam. The bones of his fingers hooked into the bones of its skeleton without actually snagging.

Don snatched his hand away. Equally startled, the fish flexed its body and shot out of range. There had been a kind of contact, but not one that either party cared to repeat. No damage done, but it had been a weird experience.

It was one thing to contemplate a reality interaction of one part in a thousand, intellectually. It was quite another to tangle with a living skeleton.

Well, he had been warned. He couldn’t stand around gawking. He had a distance to travel. The coordinate meter mounted beside the temperature gauge said 27°40’—82°45’. He had fifteen hours to reach 27°0’—83° 15’. He had been told that a degree was sixty minutes, and a minute just about a mile, depending on location and direction. This sounded to his untrained ear like a mish-mash of temperature, time, and distance muddled by an incomprehensible variable. It seemed that he had about thirty miles west to go, and about forty south, assuming that he had not become hopelessly confused. The hypotenuse would be fifty miles, per the three-four-five triangle ratio. Easy to make on a bicycle, since it came to only three and a third miles per hour average speed.

Of course he probably wouldn’t be able to go straight. What was his best immediate route?

He didn’t want to remain in shallow water, for there would be bathers and boaters and fishermen all along the coast. His depth meter showed two fathoms. That would be twelve feet from bike to surface. Entirely too little, for he must be as visible from above as those ripples were from below. How would a boater react if he peered down and saw a man bicycling blithely along under the water?

But deep water awed him, though he knew that pressure was not a significant factor in this situation. Men could withstand several atmospheres if they were careful, and he had been told that there were no depths in the great Atlantic Ocean capable of putting so much as two atmospheres on him in his phased-out state. He could ignore pressure. All of which somehow failed to ease the pressure on his worried mind. This business just wasn’t natural.

He would take a middle course. Say about a hundred feet, or a bit shy of seventeen fathoms. He would stick to that contour until he made his rendezvous.

Don pushed on the left pedal—somehow that was his only comfortable starting position—and moved out. The seagrass reached up with its long green leaves, obscuring his view of the sloping floor. But his wheels passed through the weeds, or the weeds through the wheels, and so did his body. There was only a gentle stroking sensation that affected him with an almost sexual intimacy as plant collided with flesh. The grass might be no denser than the water, but it was solid, not liquid, and that affected the contact.

He didn’t like it, this naked probing of his muscle and gut, but there was nothing he could do about it. Except to get out of this cloying patch of feelers.

At nine fathoms the grass did thin out and leave the bottom exposed. It needed light, and the light was dimming. Good enough. But this had a consequence for Don, too. Just below the surface things had looked normal, for the limited distance he could see. Now the color red was gone. It had vanished somewhere between three and four fathoms, he decided; he hadn’t been paying proper attention. He had a red bag on his bicycle that now looked orange-brown. The effect was eerie and it alarmed him despite his awareness of its cause.

“S-steady,” he told himself. “The water absorbs the red frequencies first. That’s all there is to it. Next orange will go, then yellow, then green. Finally it will be completely dark.” He found his heart pounding, and knew he had succeeded only in bringing out another fear. He just didn’t feel safe in dark water.

He had somehow supposed that the ocean floor would be sandy and even, just like a broad beach. Instead it was a tangled mass of vegetation and shell—and much of the latter was living. Sponges grew everywhere, all colors (except red, now) and shapes and sizes. His wheels could not avoid the myriad starfish and crablike creatures that covered the bottom in places.

But at least he was getting his depth. The indicator showed ten fathoms, then fifteen, then twenty. Down far enough now to make headway toward the rendezvous.

But he had to go deeper, because the contour would have taken him in the wrong direction. He had been naive about that; if he tried to adhere strictly to a given depth, he would be forced to detour ludicrously. The ocean bottom was not even; there were ridges and channels, just as there were on land.

The medley of mysterious sounds had continued, though he had soon tuned most of it out. Now there was something new. A more mechanical throbbing, very strong, pulsing through the water. Growing. Like an approaching ship.

A ship! He was in the harbor channel for the commercial ships using the port of Tampa. No wonder he had gotten his depth so readily.

Don turned around and pedaled madly back the way he had come. He had to get to shallow water before that ship came through, churning the water with its deadly screws. He could be sucked in and cut into shreds.

Then he remembered. He was out of phase with the world; nothing here could touch him. He had little to fear from ships.

Still, he climbed out of the way. A ship was a mighty solid artifact. The hull would be thick metal—perhaps solid enough to interact with his bones and smash him up anyway. After all, the bicycle’s wheels interacted with the ocean floor, supporting him nicely. Could he expect less of metal?

The throbbing grew loud, then terrible. There was sound throughout the sea, but the rest of it was natural. Now Don appreciated the viewpoint of the fish, wary of the alien monsters made by man, intruding into the heart of their domain. But then it diminished. The ship had passed, unseen—and he felt deviously humiliated. He had been driven aside, in awe of the thing despite being a man. It was not a fun sensation.

Don resumed his journey. He followed the channel several miles, then pulled off it for a rest break. The coordinate meter said he had traversed only about four minutes of his fifty, and he was tiring already. He was wearing himself down, and he had hardly started. Cross-country underwater biking was hardly the joy that travel on land-pavement was.

Wouldn’t it be nice if he had a motorcycle instead of this pedaler. But that was out of the question; he had been told, in that single compacted anonymous briefing, that a motor would not function in the phase. So he had to provide his own power, with a bicycle being the most efficient transportation. He had accepted this because it made sense, though he had never seen his informant.

Something flapped toward him. Don stiffened in place, ready to leap toward the bike. He felt a chill that was certainly not of the water. The thing was flying, not swimming! Not like a bird, but like a monstrous butterfly.

It was a small ray, a skate. A flattened fish with broad, undulating, winglike fins. All quite normal, nothing to be alarmed about.

But Don’s emotion was not to be placated so simply. A skate was a thing of inherent terror. Once as a child he had been wading in the sea, and a skate had passed between him and the shore. That hadn’t frightened him unduly at the time, for he had never seen one before and didn’t even realize that it was really alive. But afterwards friends had spun him stories about the long stinging tail, poisonous, that could stun a man so that he drowned. And about the creature’s cousins, the great manta rays, big as flying saucers, that could sail up out of the water and smack down from above. “You’re lucky you got out in time!” they said, blowing up the episode as boys did, inventing facts to fit.

Don had shrugged it off, not feeling easy about taking credit for a bravery he knew he lacked. But the notion of the skate grew on him, haunting him retrospectively. It entered his dreams: standing knee-deep or even waist-deep in a mighty ocean, the long small beach far away, seeing the devilfish, being cut off from escape, horrified at the approach of the stinger but afraid to wade out farther into that murky swirling unknown. But the ray came nearer, expanding into immensity, and he had to retreat, and the sand gave way under his feet, pitching him into the abyss, into cold smothering darkness, where nothing could reach him except the terrible stinger, and he woke gasping and crying.

For several nights it haunted him. Then it passed, being no more than a childish fancy he knew was exaggerated. He never had liked ocean water particularly—but since he didn’t live near the shore, this was no handicap. For fifteen years the nightmare had lain quiescent, forgotten—until this moment.

Of course the creature couldn’t get at him now, any more than it could have in the dream. Not when its body was phased out, with respect to him, to that one thousandth of its actual solidity. Or vice versa. Same thing. Let it pass right through him. Let it feel the brushing of bones.

The skate veered, birdlike—then came back unexpectedly. It was aware of him. Without conscious volition Don was on the bike and pedaling desperately, fleeing a specter that was only partly real. The thing’s flesh might be no more than a ghost to him, but that very insubstantiality enhanced the effect. The supernatural had manifested itself.

Adrenaline gave him strength. By the time he convinced himself that the skate was gone, he was miles farther along. He had never been overly bold, but this episode had certainly given his schedule a boost.

Next time, however, he would force himself to break out his camera and take a picture. He couldn’t afford to run from every imaginary threat.

He had lost track of the channel. The meter now read eight fathoms. He had moved about three minutes west, and would have to bear mainly south henceforth. But he could use some deeper water, as patches of weed still got in his way.

But deep water was not to be found. Sometimes it was nine or ten fathoms, but then it would shrink to six. He had to shift gears frequently to navigate the minor hills and dales of this benthic terrain, for he was tired. The wind—really the currents of the water—made significant difference. Some spots were hot, others cool, without seeming pattern. Some were darker, too, as if polluted, but this could have been the effect of clouds cutting off the direct sunlight.

Don was tired of this. The novelty had worn off quite quickly. His time in the water had acclimated him; what could there be in the depths more annoying than this? He cut due west again, knowing that there had to be a descent at some point. The entire Gulf of Mexico couldn’t remain within ten fathoms.

His legs protested, but he kept on. Miles passed—and gradually it did get deeper. When he hit fifteen fathoms he turned south, for he was now almost precisely north of his target area.
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