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“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.
“Don Kestle, archaeologist,” Don responded. “Minoan.”
The bicycles drew together and the men reached across to shake hands. Don was phenomenally relieved to feel solid flesh again. He found himself liking Gaspar, though he had never met the man before. At this stage he liked anything human. The specters of his loneliness had retreated immeasurably.
“S-so you know about the ocean,” Don said, finding nothing better as conversation fodder at the moment. He had never been much for initiating a relationship, and hoped Gaspar was better at it.
“I know almost nothing about the ocean,” Gaspar said, “compared to what remains to be discovered. I can’t even identify half these fish noises I’m hearing. They’re much louder and clearer and more intricate than normal.”
Don smiled weakly. “Oh. Yes.”
“That’s why I welcome this opportunity to explore,” Gaspar continued, warming. “This way we don’t disturb the marine creatures, so they don’t hide or shut up. Think of it: the entire ocean basin open to us without the problems of clumsy diving suits, nitrogen narcosis, or the bends.”
“You know. Rapture of the deep. Nitrogen dissolves in the blood because of the pressure, and this makes the diver drunk. This can kill him faster than alcohol in a driver, because it’s himself at risk, not some innocent pedestrian. So he comes up in a hurry, and that nitrogen bubbles out of his blood like the fizz in fresh soda, blocking blood vessels or lodging in joints and doubling him up like—”
“You’re right,” Don agreed quickly. “Nice not to have to worry.”
“Hey, have you eaten yet? I’ve been so excited just looking around I haven’t—”
“W-well, I—” Don was abashed to admit his problem with the food, so he concealed it. “I haven’t eaten, no.” Gaspar was carrying the conversational ball, and that was a relief. Don was happy to go along, letting his compliance pass for social adequacy. Once he knew a person, it was easier.
“Great.” Gaspar hauled out his packages and chose one. “Steak flavor. Let’s see whether it’s close.”
Don dug out a matching flavor from his pack, not commenting. If Gaspar could eat this stuff …
They squeezed the bulbs and the packages ballooned. Gaspar opened his first and took a bite. He chewed. “Not bad, considering,” he said. “Not close, but not bad. Maybe it would be closer if it didn’t have the texture of paste. Better than K-rations, anyway.”
Don got a grip on his nerve and opened his own. The same rotten odor wafted out.
“Hey, is your converter leaking?” Gaspar inquired.
“Not that I know of. Why?” As if he didn’t know!
“That smell. Something’s foul. No offense.”
Wordlessly Don held out his package.
Gaspar sniffed, choked, and took it from him. In a moment it was in the converter. “You got a bad one! Didn’t you know?”
“They’re all like that, I thought. I was afraid—”
“They can’t be! These things are sterile. Let me check.”
“B-be my guest.”
Gaspar checked. “What a mess! I can tell without having to use the water. Did you actually eat that stuff?”
Gaspar laughed readily. “You’ve got more grit than I have. What a rotten deal! Have some of mine.”
Don accepted it gratefully. Gaspar’s cherry glop tasted like cherry, and his steak like steak. Texture was something else, but this wasn’t worth a quibble at this stage.
“H-how do you think it happened?” Don asked as his hunger abated.
“Oh, accident, I’d say,” Gaspar decided. “You know the government. Three left feet at the taxpayer’s expense. We’ll share mine, and we’ll both reload at the first supply depot. No trouble, really.”
The man certainly didn’t get upset over trifles. But Don wondered what kind of carelessness would be allowed to imperil this unique, secret mission, not to mention his life. For a man had to eat, and they could only assimilate food that had been phased into this state.
“Is it a government operation?” Don asked. “I thought maybe a private enterprise.”
Gaspar shrugged. “Could be. I wasn’t told. But somebody went to a pretty formidable expense to set us up with some pretty fancy equipment. If it’s not the government, it must be a large corporation. This looks like a million dollar operation to me, apart from what they’re paying us. But you’re right: the big companies get criminally sloppy too. It could be either. Let’s hope their quality control is better on the other stuff.”
That reminded Don about the female voice on his radio. Had it been mistuned, so that it connected to someone not with this mission? If so, he had been right to cut off contact, though that was not why he had done it. Obviously that person wasn’t Gaspar. Did she speak on both their radios, or only his own? Or had he imagined it? Should he ask?
Yes, he should. “D-did you t-turn on your—?”
“Say, look at that!” Gaspar cried.
Don looked around, alarmed. It was a monstrous fish, three times the length of a man, with a snout like the blade of a chain saw.
“Sawfish,” Gaspar exclaimed happily. “Isn’t she a beauty! I never saw one in these waters before. But then I never rode a bike here before, either. My scuba gear must have scared them away. What a difference that phase makes. Not that I’m any ichthyologist.”
“I thought sea-life was your specialty.”
“No. The sea bottom. I can tell you something about rock formations, saline diffusion, and sedimentary strata, but the fauna I just pick up in passing. I know the sawfish scouts the bottom—see, there she goes, poking around—and sometimes slashes up whole schools of fish with that snout, so as to eat the pieces, but that’s about all. Relative of the rays, I believe.”
That ugly chill returned. The fish was horizontally flattened, with vaguely winglike fins. It did resemble a skate, from the right angle.
“Y-you know, w-we aren’t completely apart,” Don said. “The bones—they interact—”
“Oh, do they?” Gaspar asked, as if this were an interesting scientific sidelight. As of course it was, to him. “I suppose they would, being rigid. There has to be some interaction, or we would sink right through the ground, wouldn’t we? In fact, I’m surprised we don’t; it isn’t that solid, normally. Sediment, you know.”
The sawfish vanished, and Don was vastly relieved. “You’re right! If we intersect the real world by only a thousandth, why don’t we find the sand like muck? If anything, it’s harder than it should be. My tires don’t sink into it at all. And how is it we can see and hear so well? I should think—”
“I’m no nuclear physicist, either. I have no notion how this field operates, if it is a field—but thank God for its existence.”
“Maybe it isn’t exactly a field,” Don said. He was glad to get into something halfway technical, because it was grist for conversation, and he was curious himself. “Why should we have to ride through that tunnel-thing—you did do that?—to enter it, in that case? But if we were shunted into another, well, dimension—”
“Could be.” Gaspar considered for a moment. “Maybe one of the others will know. I’m just glad it works.”
“Others? I thought this was a party of three.”
“Oh? Maybe you’re right. I wasn’t told, just that there would be more than one. I thought maybe four.” Gaspar seemed to sidestep any potential disagreement, inoffensively. “Do you happen to know his specialty?”
“Me? That official was so tight-lipped I was lucky to learn more than my own name. And we’re not supposed to tell each other our last names, I think.”
“Necessary security, I suppose,” Gaspar said. “I clean forgot. Well, you just forget mine, and I’ll forget yours. Did you get to see anyone?”
“No, it was just an interviewer behind a screen. A voice, really; it could almost have been a recording.”
“Same here. I responded to this targeted ad on my computer, and the pay and conditions—I was about ready for a job change anyway. I still don’t know what the mission is, but I’m already glad I’m here.” He glanced at Don. “How’d you get into this project, anyway? No offense, but archaeology is mostly landside, isn’t it? Digging trenches through old mounds, picking up bits of pottery, publishing scholarly reports? There can’t be much for you, under the sea.”
“That’s a pretty simple view of it,” Don said, glad to have a question about his specialty. His reticence faded when he was in his area of competence. “But maybe close enough. The fact is, a great many archaeologists have combed through those mounds and collected that pottery, on land. They’ve reconstructed some fabulous history. If I could only have been with Bibby at Dilmun …” He sighed, knowing that the other would not comprehend his regret. No sense in getting into a lecture. “But I came too late. Today the major horizon in archaeology is marine, and the shallow waters have been pretty well exploited, too. No one knows how thoroughly the Mediterranean Sea has been ransacked. So that leaves deep water, and I guess you know better than I do why that’s been left alone.”
“Pressure,” Gaspar said immediately. “One atmosphere for every thirty four feet depth. A few thousand feet down—ugh! But I was asking about you. I don’t want to seem more nosy than I am; I just think we’d better have some idea why and how we were picked for this mission. Because the sea is formidable, even phased out as we are; make no mistake about that. The depths are a greater challenge than the moon. So it figures that the most qualified personnel would be used.”
Don laughed, but it was forced. “I—I’m the least qualified archaeologist around. My only claim to fame is that I can read Minoan script, more or less—and there’s precious little of that hereabouts.”
“I’m not the world’s most notable marine geologist, either,” Gaspar agreed. “Any major oil company has a dozen that could give me lessons. But what I’m saying is that for this project, they should have used the best, and they could have, if they cared enough, because they evidently do have the money. Instead they placed little ads and hired nonentities like us, and maybe we aren’t quite even in our specialties. You’re—what was it?”
“Minoan. That’s ancient Crete.”
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