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She smiled. “Were you the one who kept cutting me off?”
Don nodded, miserable.
“Because you were shy?”
He nodded again.
“That’s a relief! It makes me a whole lot less nervous about meeting you. I thought maybe you had a grudge.”
“N-no!” Don protested.
“You’re like me: single, unemployed, no prospects?”
“Y-yes.” She had answered a question he had been too timid to ask, while seeming to ask one. But Don was unable to follow up on the conversational gambit.
“What’s the coordinate for the next person?” Gaspar asked when a silence threatened to develop.
“Twenty four degrees north latitude, thirty minutes,” she said immediately. “Eighty one degrees, fifty minutes west longitude. Twenty four hours from now.”
“Key West,” Gaspar said. “We’ll have to move right along, but we can do it.” He looked around. “That’s just about due south of here, but it should be easier riding downhill. Why don’t we coast out to deep water where it’s cooler? That way we’ll make some distance, even if it isn’t directly toward Key West, and we can sleep when we can’t stay awake any more.”
Melanie shrugged. “Why not? As long as you know how to find the way. I memorized the coordinates, but I don’t have much of a notion what they mean.”
Don was glad to agree. His earlier fear of the deeps seemed irrelevant, now that he had company. Gaspar would not have made the suggestion if he had thought there was any danger, and the man did know something about the ocean.
“Of course we’re a good distance from the edge of the continental shelf,” Gaspar continued as he started moving. Melanie fell in behind him, and Don followed her. It was easier to hear him even at some distance, because of the carrying capacity of the water. “Too far to get any real depth. But we might make it forty or fifty fathoms. Extra mileage but easier going. Worth it, I’d say.”
That reminded Don of something. “Key West—how did you figure that out? Do you have a map?” He was able to speak more readily to Gaspar than to Melanie.
“I know the coordinates of places like that. Same way you know types of pottery, I suppose. Nothing special.”
“Oh.” Stupid question.
“You know pottery?” Melanie asked.
“Y-yes. I-I’m an a-arch-archaeologist.”
“I envy you. I have no training at all. I don’t know why they wanted me here.”
Ahead, Gaspar turned on his headlight. They followed suit. The trend was down, and it did make the cycling easier, which was a relief. Melanie might be fresh, but Don wasn’t. The temperature did seem to be dropping.
She had spoken to him, and Don wanted to answer. But it remained difficult. What could he say about her lack of training?
Gaspar saved him the trouble. “I’m a marine geologist, and he’s an archaeologist, but we’re both out of our specialties here, so we’re essentially amateurs. We thought we were selected for our skills, but that may not be the case. Maybe we just happened to be available. Were you out of work, Melanie?”
“Yes. But I didn’t even apply. I just got a phone call telling me that there was a job for me that would be interesting and challenging and paid well. I was suspicious, but it did seem to be an opportunity, and the more I learned about it, the more intriguing it seemed. So here I am.”
They rode twenty miles southwest before quitting. Don felt ashamed for looking, but he admired Melanie’s form during much of that travel. It was easy to watch her, because she was right ahead of him. He wondered why she had been both out of work and unmarried. She should have been able to get work as a receptionist readily enough, and any man she smiled at would have been interested.
Gaspar called a halt at what he deemed to be a suitable location. Then they broke out the rations, and Melanie learned about Don’s bad food and expressed sympathy, and shared hers with him. She was very nice about it, not prompting him to talk.
They took turns separating from the group in order to handle natural functions. This was in one sense pointless, as each person was self contained in this respect, but the protocol of privacy seemed appropriate to accommodate the two sexes.
Then they lay down beside their bicycles for sleep, in a row of three, Melanie in the middle. Don lay awake for a while, appreciating the proximity of the woman though he knew her interest in him was purely that of mission associate. Then he slept, for suddenly the night-period passed.
They proceeded to a point seventy five miles west of Key West, moving well. “To avoid the coral reefs,” Gaspar explained. “We’d have to cross them, otherwise, to get to the rendezvous, and it’s a populated area. No sense scaring the fish there, either. Also, it’s cooler and less cluttered here in deeper water.”
“You’re the geologist,” Melanie agreed.
Indeed, he was. Their depth had, in just the past few miles, changed from forty fathoms to two hundred, and the coasting had allowed Don to recover some strength in the legs. He had seen the colors change from orange to green to blue-black, and the headlights were now necessary at any hour. The fish, too, had changed color, whether by the dim “daylight” or the headlamps. First they were multicolored, then two-tone—black above, light below—and finally silvery.
Camouflage, he decided. Near the surface all colors showed, so color was used to merge with the throng. Farther down only the silhouettes showed from below, so the bottoms were light to fade into the bright surface, and the tops dark to fade into the nether gloom when viewed from above. In the truly dim light, color didn’t matter much.
But the crawling crustaceans had become bright in the depth, and he saw no reason for that. Unless they used color to identify themselves to each other, like women with pretty clothing. Maybe they were not easy for fish to eat, so did not have to hide.
“However, we should keep alert,” Gaspar said. “There aren’t many dangerous things on the Gulf side of Florida, and you can’t fall off the shelf. But here below the Keys we’ll hit deep water.”
“I noticed,” she said.
“I mean five hundred to a thousand fathoms—on the order of a mile. We’re still fairly high.”
“D-dangerous things?” Don managed to inquire.
“Living things can’t touch us, of course. But rough terrain might.”
They didn’t talk any more, because now they were climbing, gradually but steadily. Don shifted down to second, then to first, and that gave him plenty of power. Melanie had only three gears, and was struggling. Gaspar, who had just the one ratio, stopped.
“Tired?” Don called, surprised, for Gaspar had seemed indefatigable despite his lack of gearing. Don had survived only because of those five speeds.
“Broken chain,” Gaspar said.
So it was. “Too bad,” Don said. “But not calamitous. You have a spare chain, don’t you?”
“Do. But I want to save that for an emergency.”
“This is an emergency. You can’t ride without a chain.”
“I’ll fix this one.”
“But that will take time. Better to use the spare, and fix the other when there’s nothing to do.”
“No, I’ll replace the rivet on this one.”
“But you don’t have t-tools.”
“I have a pen knife and a screwdriver and a bicycle wrench,” Gaspar said, taking out these articles and laying them on the ground beside the propped bicycle. “Haven’t done this since I was a kid, but it’s not complicated.”
“B-but it’s unnecessary.”
Gaspar ignored him and went to work on the chain.
Belatedly Don remembered the warning about stubbornness. He had been arguing instead of thinking, and now he was stuttering, and Gaspar had tuned him out. His first “but” had probably lost his cause, and he wasn’t certain his cause was right. Why not fix the chain now? They did have time for that, and he needed a rest. The muscles of his legs were stiff again.
He saw that Melanie was being more practical: she was lying beside her bicycle, squeezing in all the rest for her legs she could. Her skirt had slid up around her full thighs. Oh, her limbs looked nice!
Don returned his gaze to Gaspar’s bicycle, before he started blushing or stuttering worse. He tried a new approach. “A chain shouldn’t break like that. It must have been defective, or—”
“Oh, it can happen. Stone tossed up—”
Gaspar laughed. “Got me that time! Stone couldn’t do much unless it was phased in. But this is an old bike—I never was one to waste money, even if Uncle Sam or whoever pays the way. Ten dollars, third hand. Got to expect some kinks.”
Ten dollars! A junker would have charged that to haul the thing away! Yet it was now loaded with what might be a hundred thousand dollars worth of specialized equipment. “S-so you don’t think that anyone—” But it sounded silly as he said it. How could anyone sabotage a third-hand bicycle that hadn’t yet been bought? And what would be the point? It was obvious that it could readily be fixed, so that was no real test of the man’s survival skills.
He walked his own bike back to where Melanie lay, wishing he had the courage to start a dialogue with her. He turned around so that he would not be peering at her legs when he lay down, though he wished he could do that too.
“I heard,” she said, though he had not spoken to her. “What’s this about something happening?”
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