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There was still enough glow for him to see by, which was good, because he didn’t want to use his precious headlamp unnecessarily. Actually this objection was nonsensical, he realized, because it had a generator that ran from his pedaling power. But he was still having trouble overcoming his lifelong certainties: such as the fact that one could use a flashlight only so long before the battery gave out. Besides, a light might attract larger creatures. He didn’t care how insubstantial they might be; he didn’t want to meet them.
Don had thought it ridiculous to enter the water fifty miles from his destination, and doubly so to do it alone. What did he know about the ocean? But now he was able to appreciate the rationale. He had a lot of mundane edges to smooth before he could function efficiently in this medium. Better to work it out by himself, and let the others do likewise; then they would all three be broken in and ready to function as a team, minus embarrassments. That was the number he had guessed; each would have a relevant specialty for the mission. Strangers, who would get along, perforce.
Reassured, he stopped for lunch. Actually it was only nine a.m. and he had been under the water about three hours. But it seemed like noon, and he needed a pretext to rest.
There was a radio mounted within the frame of his bicycle. It was not for news or entertainment, but for communication with his companions, once he had some. He didn’t see the need for it, as sound crossed over perfectly well. But of course there could be emergencies requiring separation of a mile or two. The radios would not tune in the various bands of civilization, he had been told; they were on a special limited frequency. But they should reach as far as necessary.
Idly, he turned the ON switch. There was no tuning dial or set of station buttons; all he would get from this thing would be an operative hum.
“Hello,” a soft feminine voice said.
Surprised, Don didn’t answer.
“Hello,” she repeated. Still he was silent, having no idea what to say, or whether he should speak.
“I know your set is on,” the voice said. “I can hear the sea-noises in the background.”
Don switched off. There wasn’t supposed to be anybody on the line! Especially not a woman. Who was she, and what did she want?
By the coordinates, he had come barely ten or twelve miles. It was hard to figure, and not important enough to warrant the necessary mental effort. Three or four miles an hour, average. On land, the little distance he had gone, he was sure his rate had been double or triple that. He could have walked as fast, down here. And with less fatigue.
No, that was not true. He had to be honest with himself. He was carrying considerable weight in the form of food and clothing and related supplies. He even had a small tent. Then there was the converter: portable plumbing. And complex miniaturized equipment to keep the humidity constant, or something. His instrumentation was formidable. That coordinate meter was no two-bit toy, either. He had not known that such things existed, and suspected their cost would have been well beyond his means. Regardless of their miniaturization, they weighed a fair amount. His bicycle weighed about forty pounds, and the other things might total a similar amount. Half his own weight, all told. He would have felt it, hiking, and would not have been able to maintain any four miles an hour.
Naturally the bike was sluggish. Even the quintuple gearing could not ameliorate weight and terrain and indecision. Once he found a good, smooth, level stretch without weeds or shells, he could make much better time.
Even so, he was on schedule. Fortunately he was in good physical condition, and recovered quickly from exertion. How good his mental state was he wasn’t sure; small things were setting him off unreasonably, and he was hearing female voices on a closed-circuit radio.
He unpacked the concentrates, having trouble finding what he wanted. These were supposed to be packages of things that expanded into edibility when water was added.
He had a bulb of water: a transparent pint-sized container. There was a second pint in reserve. After that he would have to go to recycled fluid, a prospect he didn’t relish.
There were a number of things about this business that did not exactly turn him on. But two things had overwhelmed his aversions: the money and the chance to be involved in something significant. The mission, he had been told, would be done within a month, and the pay matched what he would have had from a year with a good job in his specialty. And if he did not agree that it was a mission he was proud to be associated with, that pay would double. The money had been paid in advance, in full; there was no question about that. So he had been willing to take the rest on faith, and to put up with the awkward details. They were, after all, necessary; he could not drink the water of the sea because it was both salty and phased out, and he could not eat the food of it either. He had to be self sufficient, except for the supplies which would be found in depots along the way.
Don inserted the syringe into the appropriate aperture of his food-packet and squeezed. The wrapping inflated. The principle was simple enough; he could have figured it out for himself if he had not been told, and there were instructions on the packets. He kneaded it, feeling the content solidify squishily. He counted off one minute while it set. His meal was ready.
He tore along the seam, exposing a pinkish mass. Cherry flavored glop, guaranteed to contain all the essential nutrients known to be required by man, plus a few good guesses. Vitamins A, B, C; P and Q; X, Y, and Z? It looked like puréed cow brains.
Don brought it cautiously to his nose and sniffed. Worse. Had he done something wrong? This smelled as if he had used urine as the liquid ingredient. He would never make his mark as a chef!
He suppressed his unreasonable revulsion and took a bite. After all, what could go wrong with a prepackaged meal? He chewed.
He spat it out. The stuff was absolutely vile. It tasted like rotten cheese laced with vinegar, and his stomach refused to believe it was wholesome. He deposited the remains in the converter, for even this must not be wasted.
Now he had sanitary needs. The hard labor of travel had disturbed his digestion. Or was it the experience with the foul glop? No, neither; it was the emotional strain of traversing the ocean floor in this remarkable phase state. He had practiced breathing in that tank of water, just after tunneling through, so that he had known it was feasible. But that had hardly prepared him for the psychological impact of pedaling a bicycle under the heaving sea.
He had to admit that this was an interesting adventure, even in its bad aspects. He knew already that he would not be demanding double pay. He had not been told he would like every aspect, just that it would be significant, and that it was.
He wound up with a plastic bag of substance. He hesitated, then reluctantly deposited it, too, in the converter. This stuff was in phase with him, and there was not much way to replace it; it must not be wasted. The unit would process it all, powered by a spur from his pedaling crank just below, reducing the solids to ash and filling another pint container with potable water.
Water, water, everywhere—how odd that he should be immersed in it, yet have to conserve it rigidly lest he dehydrate. There was a dichotomy about this phaseout that he wasn’t clear about. The sea was like air to him, yet it remained the sea to its denizens. Fish could and did swim right through him and his bicycle without falling or gasping for gill-fluid. So it wasn’t air at all, merely water at one one-thousandth effective density. So how was he able to breathe it? That little matter had not, in the rush, been clarified.
Don was no chemist, but he knew that H
O did not convert to—what was it? N
O? No, air wasn’t that kind of combination, it was just a mixture of gases. Anyway, the O, for oxygen, in H
O could not be asssimilated for respiration. He knew that much. Water vapor wasn’t breathable. Even the fish had to sift their oxygen from the air dissolved in water, not the water itself. Yet even if he could have breathed the water, he would have been getting only one thousandth of the oxygen it contained, or maybe one five-hundredth what he was accustomed to. That was extremely slim pickings.
He was wasting time. He had perhaps forty miles to go yet—a good four or five hours even on a decent surface. Twelve hours at his present rate. Which left him no time at all to rest or sleep. He had to keep moving.
Maybe his contact was expecting him. Was he in radio range? He flicked the radio switch.
“Now don’t turn me off,” the female voice said, “before I—” But he had already done so.
Now as he rode he tried to analyze his motive. Why did he object to hearing from a woman? So maybe she had somehow tuned in on this private band; that did not make her a criminal. She evidently had some notion where he was. What harm would there be in talking to her?
He got under way and tuned out the scenery. Not that he had paid much attention to it so far. What had he seen, actually? Fish, sponges, a blur of water, the shift of digits on the meters, and the irregular terrain of the sea floor.
Somehow the radio voice seemed one with the scenery. Both needed to be tuned out. Yet he knew that this was nonsensical. The scenery was already over-familiar, but the woman was a stranger. Why wouldn’t he talk to her?
He realized that he couldn’t blame it on the secrecy of the mission, because he knew no secrets yet, and was not responsible for radio security. It was the fact that she had caught him by surprise, and that she was a sweet-voiced young woman. That voice conjured a mental image of an attractive creature—the kind that paid no attention to a studious loner like him. So he had tuned out immediately, rather than get involved and risk the kind of put-down that would inevitably come. It was a virtually involuntary reflex.
So now he understood it. That didn’t change it. He was afraid to talk to her.
He moved, he rested, he moved less, he rested more, he ground on, he tried another meal—and quickly fed it into the converter. It couldn’t be his imagination! That food was spoiled. Fortunately his appetite was meager.
Don woke from his travel-effort oblivion to see to his dumbfounded joy that he had picked up on his schedule and could afford an hour’s break. So he propped his bike, lay down on the strangely solid sand, and sank into a blissful stupor until the alarm went off. The world outside his little sphere became as unreal as it seemed.
Just so long as he didn’t miss his rendezvous. He thought of himself as a loner, but that was mainly with respect to women. He had been alone more than enough, in this odd region on this strange mission.
He made it. He was on 83°15’ west longitude already, and bearing down on 27° north latitude. It was a few minutes (time, not distance) before nine in the morning. Nothing was visible, of course. It was dark above, and even with his headlight on he could not see far enough to locate anything much smaller than an active volcano. Water in his vicinity might feel like air, but it still dampened vision in its normal fashion. Except that the lamp restored full color, blessedly. Even if he could have seen for miles, the problem of pinpoint location would be similar to that in a dry-land wilderness. His meter was not that precise.
As his watch showed the moment of scheduled contact, Don stood still and listened. The ever-present noises of the sea crowded in annoyingly. Sound: there was the key. Here in the ocean, sound traveled at quadruple its speed in air, and it carried much better. Light might damp out, and radar, but sound was in its element here. Make a noise in the sea and it would be heard.
Don heard. It was the faint beep-beep of a signal no marine creature made—he hoped. It was Morse Code. And it had an echo: the slower arrival of the impulse through the air of the phase?
When it paused, he answered. He did not know Morse himself, except as a typical pattern of dots and dashes, so he merely sounded three blasts on his whistle. After a moment the same signal was returned.
Contact had been made.
CHAPTER 2 (#)
Proxy 5–12–5–16–8: Attention.
The first three recruits have been sent through the phase tunnel and the fourth alerted. The mission is proceeding as designed.
The first recruit refuses to hold a radio dialogue. This may indicate an intellectual problem that did not manifest itself on the initial screening. He is otherwise normal, and seems to be pursuing the mission in good faith. The second recruit is more assertive, and may override this attitude or incapacity in the first. This foible does not appear to pose a threat to the mission.
There are always peculiarities of local situations. If this is the extent in your case, you are well off. 5–12–5–16–9 has a suicidal recruit.
That world may be lost!
Not necessarily. A suicidal person may be in a position to understand the loss of a world.
And may not care.
True. But what we offer does seem preferable to complete destruction.
“Gaspar Brown, marine geologist,” the man said. He was short and fairly muscular, dark-haired and swarthy and looked to be in his mid thirties.
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