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“Hysterical,” Melanie said.
“The next member is mechanical, I hope,” Gaspar said. “Suppose the phase equipment breaks down when we’re a mile under? Do you know how to fix it?”
“N-no.” Don shuddered. “I wish you h-hadn’t brought that up.”
“We’re going to click out for about five minutes, Melanie,” Gaspar said. “Nothing personal. Man business.” Before she could protest, he turned his set off, gesturing Don to do the same.
“Your stutter,” Gaspar said then. “Does it affect your decision-making ability in a crisis? I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t suspect that my life may be subject to your ability to act, at some point.”
Don could appreciate why Gaspar had an undistinguished employee record. He was too blunt about sensitive issues. “N-no. Only the v-vocal cords. Only under stress.”
“No offense. Ask me one now.”
“Not n-necessary,” Don said, embarrassed.
“Well, I’ll tell you anyway. My friends—of which I have surprisingly few—all tell me I’m nice but stubborn and sometimes insensitive. The less tenable my position, the worse I am. They say.”
Don shrugged in the dark, not knowing the appropriate response.
“So if it’s something important, don’t come out and tell me I’m crazy, because if I am I’ll never admit it. Tell me I’m reasonable, jolly me along—then maybe I’ll change my mind. That’s what they say they do.”
“Okay!” Don didn’t laugh, because he suspected this was no joke. Gaspar had given him fair warning.
They turned on their radios again. “Okay, Melanie,” Gaspar said. “We’re turning in now. No point in leaving the sets on; might run ’em down, and anyway, all you’d hear would be snoring.”
“Oh,” she said, sounding disappointed. “I suppose so. I need to sleep too. I’ve been hyper about listening for the contact, but now it’s done. They do run down; you have to keep the bike moving, for the radio, too. Check in the morning, will you? I do get lonely.”
Don felt sudden sympathy for her. She sounded like a nice girl, and Gaspar was treating her rather callously. Did he have something against women?
“Good enough,” Gaspar said, clicking off again. Don reluctantly followed suit. Now that the ice had been broken, he would have liked to continue talking with Melanie. But of course he would be meeting her tomorrow, and they would be able to talk without the radio. If his nerve did not disappear in the interim.
It was hard to sleep, though he was quite tired. Don had never cycled such a distance before, and the muscles above his knees were tense, and the rest of his body little better off. The tiny ripples against his face that were all he could see or feel of small fish swimming disturbed him by their incongruity and made him gasp involuntarily. The temperature bothered him as well; he was accustomed to a drop at night, but here it still felt about 80°F.
“Are you as insomniac as I am?” Gaspar inquired after a while.
“Dead tired and wide awake,” Don agreed. “I’m afraid I’ll poop out tomorrow and miss the rendezvous, and that doesn’t soothe me much either.”
“I was thinking about your inedible food. I said it was an accident, but now it strikes me as a pretty funny mistake. Now I wonder whether there are any other mistakes.” He paused, but Don offered no debate. “Tell me if this is paranoid: we both have the same kind of food packs. They should have come from the same batch. Could yours have been deliberately spoiled?”
Don’s jaw dropped. He was glad he could not be seen. “That does seem farfetched. What would be the point?”
“To test us, maybe. See just how resourceful we are.”
“Why should anyone care? We’re just ordinary folk.”
“White rats are selected to be absolutely ordinary. That’s the point. How would regular folk survive in a really strange, isolated situation?”
“B-but that would be—be inhuman!”
“What do we really know of the motives of our employer?”
“B-but to just assume—”
“So it’s paranoid.”
“But m-maybe we should keep a good watch out,” Don said. He had been shaken by Gaspar’s conjecture; it had a horrible kind of sense. If there were dangerous new conditions to test with uncertain equipment, how would a company get volunteers? Maybe exactly this way.
“That’s my notion. I don’t think it’s the case, but there’s this ugly bit of doubt in my mind, and I thought I’d discuss it with you in private before we join the lady.”
“Th-thanks,” Don said without irony.
After that he did drop off to sleep, as if the awful notion had actually eased his mind. Maybe it merely gave his fears something more tangible to chew on.
In the dark morning they ate again and moved out. They gradually ascended, but the slope was generally slight and Don found himself moving better than he had. Gaspar’s presence seemed to give him strength; perhaps he had been dissipating some of his energy in nervous tension, and now was more relaxed. Or maybe it was that Gaspar seemed to have a knack for picking out the easiest route. That made sense; the man was conversant with the sea, after all.
As the day ended, they were back in the offshore shallows, having traveled a hundred and twenty miles in about ten hours of actual riding time.
Now it was time to rendezvous with Melanie. Don felt his muscles tightening. It had become excruciatingly important to him that she match his nebulous mental image of her. He might be riding hundreds of miles with her. Suppose—?
Gaspar turned on his radio. “You there, Melanie?”
“Yes,” she replied immediately. “Are you close?”
“Close and closing,” Gaspar said.
The next contact was upon them.
CHAPTER 3 (#)
Proxy 5–12–5–16–8: Attention.
Situation developing. First recruit has discovered his defective food supplies, and the second recruit conjectures that this was an intentional lapse. They suspect that it is a test of their survival skills. They are now linking with the third recruit.
Each recruit has a liability?
Yes. The third recruit’s liability is inherent; I did not need to interfere with her situation.
This seems like a devious way to convert a world.
The direct approach has been known to fail.
Apology, Proxy; it is your show. Proceed as you see fit.
I have no assurance that this approach will work. Only hope. Much depends on the interaction of the recruits, and how they react when they learn the truth.
They zeroed in on Melanie, proceeding from radio range to voice range, until she came into sight. She was a figure in a blouse and skirt, standing with a loaded bicycle.
A skirt, under the sea? But Don realized that his reaction was mistaken; a skirt was as sensible as any other clothing, here in this phased state.
As they came up, he saw that not only was she female, she was quite attractively so. She was not voluptuous, but was very nicely proportioned in a slender way. Her face was framed by curls so perfect they could have been artificial, and was as pretty as he had seen.
All of which meant that it would be almost impossible for him to talk to her. This was exactly the kind of woman who had no business noticing a man like him.
“Well, hello Melanie!” Gaspar said without any difficulty. “I’m Gaspar, and this is Don.”
“I recognize you by your voice,” she said. She turned her eyes on Don. They were as green as a painting of the sea. “Hello, Don.”
He tried. “H-h-hel—” He gave up the effort, chagrined.
She smiled. “Were you the one who kept cutting me off?”
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