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“And I specialize in marine impact craters. Want to know what there’re none of, here in the Florida shallows? If they had taken us down to the coast of Colombia, as I had hoped—” He shrugged.
“What’s there?” Don asked.
“You don’t know? No, I suppose that’s no more obvious to you than Crete is to me. That’s where we believe the big one splashed down: the meteor that so shook up the Earth’s system that it wiped out the dinosaurs.”
“The extinction of the dinosaurs!” Don exclaimed.
“Right. But the site has about sixty five million years worth of sediment covering it. So it will take an in depth—no pun—investigation to confirm it, assuming we can. But instead of sending me there, they sent me here. We’d have to bike across the Puerto Rico Trench to reach it, which is pointless and probably impossible. So either they have some lesser crater in mind for me, or they don’t care whether I see a crater at all. I’m out of specialty, just as you are. See what I mean?”
Don nodded soberly. “Maybe we’re expendable.”
“Maybe. Oh, I’m not paranoid about it. This phase thing is such a breakthrough that I’d sell my watery soul for the chance, and I think I mean that literally, to explore the ocean floor at any depth, unfettered by cumbersome equipment—that’s the raw stuff of dreams. But why me? Why you?”
“I can’t answer that,” Don said. “All I can do is say how I’m here. I wasn’t the bright boy of my class, but I was in the top quarter, with my main strength in deciphering. The lucrative foundations passed me up, and anyway, I wanted to go into new territory. Make a real breakthrough, somehow. Too ambitious for my own good. The prof knew it, and he made the contact. Swore me to secrecy, told me to buy myself a good bicycle and ride it to the address he gave me—well, that was two days ago, and here I am.”
“All the way single. My father died about five years ago, and my mother always was sickly—no s-sense going into that. I’ve got no special ties to this world. Maybe that’s why the ancient world fascinates me. You, too?”
“Pretty much. Auto accident when I was ten. Since then the sea has seemed more like home than the city. So nobody is going to be in a hurry to trace down our whereabouts. I think I see a pattern developing. We must have had qualifications we didn’t realize.”
“Must have,” Don agreed. “But you know, it’s growing on me too. I don’t know a thing about the sea, or even about bicycles, but I do know that the major archaeological horizon is right here. Not that I have the least bit of training for it. I guess I just closed my mind to the notion of going to the sea. But now that I’m in it—well, if I have to risk my life using a new device, maybe it’s worth it. All those ancient hulks waiting to be discovered in deep water—”
“Sorry. No ancient hulk is in the ocean,” Gaspar said. “Not the way you’re thinking, anyway. Ever hear of the teredo?”
“Otherwise known as the shipworm, though it isn’t a worm at all. It’s a little clam that—”
“Oh, that. I had forgotten. It eats wood, so—”
“So pretty soon no ship is left. Modern metal hulks, yes; ancient wood hulks, no.”
“What a loss of archaeology,” Don said, mortified. “I could wring that clam’s neck.”
Gaspar smiled. “Of course the ship’s contents may survive. Gold lasts forever underwater, and pottery—”
“Pottery! That’s wonderful!” Don exclaimed.
For the first time Gaspar showed annoyance. “I’m just telling you what to expect.”
“I wasn’t being sarcastic. Pottery is a prime tool of archaeology. It breaks and gets thrown away, and so it remains for centuries or millennia, undisturbed, every shard a key to the culture that made it. Who wants broken pottery—except an archaeologist? There is hardly a finer key to the activities of man through the ages.”
Gaspar gazed at him incredulously, or so it seemed in the fading light of the headlamps, whose reservoirs were running down now that the bikes were stationary. “It really is true? You do collect broken plates and things? You value them more than gold?”
“Yes! Gold is natural; it tells little unless it has been worked. But pottery is inevitably the handiwork of man. Its style is certain indication of a specific time and culture. Show me a few pottery shards and let me check my references, and I can tell you where and when they were made, sometimes within five or ten miles and twenty years. It may take time to do it, but the end is almost certain.”
Gaspar raised his hands in mock surrender. “Okay, friend. If we find a wreck, I’ll take the gold and you take the broken plates. Fair enough?”
“I’ll have the better bargain. You can’t keep the gold, by law, unless it’s in international waters; but the shards could make me famous.”
“You archaeologists may be smarter than you look!”
“I should hope so.”
Gaspar smiled. “Let’s sack out. We’ve got a long ride tomorrow, I fear.”
“What’s the position?”
“The coordinates for the next rendezvous? I thought you had them.”
“N-no. Only this one. The same one you had, it seems, so we could meet.”
Gaspar tapped his fingers on his coordinate meter. “What a foul-up! They should have given one of us the next set.”
Don’s eyes were on Gaspar’s fingers, because he couldn’t meet the man’s eyes. “I guess I should have asked. I just assumed—” He paused. Next to the meter was the radio. He had been about to ask Gaspar about that, when they had been interrupted by the sawfish. “Maybe the—did you check your radio?”
Gaspar snapped his fingers. “That must be it. I just came out here, gasping at the sea-floor and fish, never thinking of that.” He flicked his switch.
“Leave it on!” the female voice cried immediately.
Startled, Gaspar looked down. Unlike Don, he was not dismayed, and he did not turn it off. “Who are you?”
Don kept silent, relieved to have the other man handle it. Maybe he should have had more confidence in his own judgment about both this and the bad glop, but he couldn’t change his nature.
“I’m Melanie. Your next contact. Why haven’t you answered before?”
“Sister, I just turned on my set for the first time! What are your coordinates?”
“I’m not going to give you my coordinates if you’re going to be like that,” she responded angrily.
“M-my fault,” Don said, “I—I heard her voice, and thought—no one told me it would be a woman.”
Gaspar looked at him, comprehending. Then his mouth quirked. “Give with the numbers, girl,” he said firmly to the radio, “or I’ll turn you off for the night. Understand?”
She didn’t answer. Gaspar reached for the switch.
“Eighty one degrees, fifty minutes west longitude,” she said with a rush, as if she had seen him. “Twenty six degrees, ten minutes north latitude.”
“That’s better,” Gaspar said, winking at Don. “What’s the rendezvous time, Melanie?”
“Twenty four hours from now,” she said. “You did make it to the first rendezvous point?”
“Right. We’re both here. Just wanted you to know who’s in charge. Don, turn yours on so we can all talk.”
Don obeyed. Gaspar had covered nicely for Don’s prior mismanagement of the radio, and he appreciated it. Why hadn’t he realized that the woman could be one of their party? He had simply assumed without evidence that it was to be three males. Maybe he just hadn’t wanted to face the prospect of working with a woman, especially a young one. He wished he could do something about his shyness.
“A day,” Gaspar said. “Ten miles an hour for twelve hours, cumulative, and we can sleep as much as we want. That’s in the vicinity of Naples, Florida, you see.”
Don hoisted up his nerve. “Are—are you—have you gone through the tunnel already? You’re in phase with us?”
“Yes,” she replied. “I’m still on land, but I’ll come into the water at the right time to meet you there.”
“D-do you have the coordinates for the next one?”
“Yes, for all of them. I’m your coordinate girl. But I’m allowed to tell only one rendezvous point at a time. You just be thankful you’ve got company. I’m alone. That is, alone in phase. It’s weird.”
“Wish you were here,” Gaspar said generously.
“Did they tell you what the mission is?” Melanie asked him.
“Nope. They told us no more than you. I answered an ad, believe it or not, and they checked my references—which were strictly average, and sent me out to get a bike. Same as you, probably.”
“Yes,” she agreed.
“I think this secrecy kick is overdone.”
“It certainly is,” Melanie agreed. “I never even applied, actually. But here I am.”
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