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“But how can we pass?” Don asked. “What is it, anyway?”
Gaspar smiled. “Coral reef. Isn’t she a beauty!”
Don, not wanting to admit that he had never seen a coral reef before, and had had a mental picture of a rather pretty plastered wall with brightly colored fish hovering near, merely nodded. It looked ugly to him, because he couldn’t see how they were going to get across it. There might be a hundred feet of climbing to do, scaling that treacherous cliff—and how were they going to haul up the bicycles?
He glanced at Melanie, who had not spoken since her revelation. Could she be likened to a coral reef? His mental image suddenly disabused by the reality? Unfortunately, it was the reality that counted.
They did not have to scale the reef. Gaspar merely showed the way east, coasting down the bumpy slope to deeper water. This was why they had come this way: to go around the reef instead of across it. Don was now increasingly thankful for Gaspar’s knowledge of the geography of the sea. When they struck reasonably level sand they picked up speed. They went another ten miles before he called a halt.
“We’re within a dozen miles,” Gaspar said, breaking out the rations. “I guess we’d better get inside the reefs, next chance. Rendezvous is only a couple miles out of Key West.”
“Get inside the reefs?” Don asked, dismayed. “I thought we already went around them.”
“No, only part way. But this is a better place to cross them, I think.”
“Why is the rendezvous so close to civilization?” Don mused. “Can this next person know even less about the ocean than I do?”
Melanie remained silent, and Gaspar discreetly avoided the implication. “The reefs are rough—literally. The edges can cut like knives, and the wounds are slow to heal. It’s no place to learn to swim, or ride. So we’ll have to guide him through with kid gloves. He probably does know less than you—now.”
A left-footed compliment! “So how do we get through?”
“Oh, the reefs are discontinuous. We’ll use a channel and get into shallow water. Have to watch out for boats, though; we’ll be plainly visible in twenty foot depth.” He considered briefly. “In fact, as I recall, there’s a lot of two fathom water in the area. Twelve feet from wave to shell in mean low water, which means barely six feet over our heads. That’s too much visibility.”
Don agreed. He would now feel naked with that thin a covering of water. He was tired, and wanted neither to admit it nor to hold up progress, but here was a valid pretext to wait. On the other hand, he was increasingly curious about this close-to-land member of the expedition. If the man were not knowledgeable about the marine world, why was he needed at all?
But Melanie wasn’t knowledgeable either. What was her purpose here? Unless this really was a testing situation, a maze for average white rats. How would those rats find their way through? How well would they cooperate with each other? He remembered reading about a test in which a rat could get a pellet of food by striking a button. Then the button was placed on the opposite side of the chamber from the pellet dispenser. Then two rats were put in the same chamber. When one punched the button, the other got the pellet. That was testing something other than wit or mechanical dexterity. Could this be that sort of test?
They cut into the reef. This time Don observed the myriad creatures of this specific locale, and the reef began to align better with his former mental image. The elements were there, just not quite the way he had pictured them. The fish in the open waters had generally stayed clear of the odd bicycle party, probably frightened by the lights and machinery, so that he had ignored them with impunity. But this stony wall was well populated. Yellow-eyed snakes peeped from crevices, teeth showing beneath their nostrils, watching, waiting.
Beside him, Melanie seemed no more at ease. She tried to keep as far from the reef as possible without separating from the human party.
Gaspar saw their glances. “Moray eels,” he said. “No danger to us, phased—but if we were diving, I’d never put hand or foot near any of these holes. Most sea creatures are basically shy, or even friendly, and some of the morays are too. But they can be vicious. I’ve seen one tackle an octopus. The devilfish tried to hide, but the moray got hold of a single tentacle and whirled around until that tentacle twisted right off. Then it ate that one and got hold of another.”
“Why didn’t you do something?” Don asked. He had no love of octopi, which were another group of childhood nightmares, but couldn’t bear the thought of such cruelty.
“I did,” Gaspar admitted. “I don’t like to interfere with nature’s ways, but I’m not partial to morays. Actually the thing took off when I came near. Good decision; I would have speared it.”
“The-the octopus. Did you have to—kill it? With two arms off—”
“Course not. Tentacles grow back. They’re not like us, that way.”
“I guess not,” Don agreed, looking again at the morays. They might not be quite in his phase, but he would keep clear of them regardless. Certainly there were prettier sights. He spied zebra-striped fish, yellow and black (juvenile black angelfish, Gaspar said), red fish with blue fins and yellow tails (squirrelfish), purple ones with white speckles (jewelfish), greenish ones with length-wise yellow striping—or maybe vice versa (blue-striped grunt), and one with a dark head, green tail, with two heavy black stripes between (bluehead wrasse). Plus many others he didn’t call to Gaspar’s attention, because he tended to resent the man’s seemingly encyclopedic nomenclature. Melanie seemed similarly fascinated, now that they had gotten among the pretty fish instead of the ugly eels.
“Good thing you didn’t ask me any of the difficult ones,” Gaspar said. “There’s stuff in these reefs I never heard of, and probably fish no man has seen. New species are discovered every year. I think there are some real monsters hidden down inside.”
But the surface of the coral reef was impressive enough. They passed a section that looked like folded ribbon (stinging coral-stay clear), and marveled at its convolutions.
Then the reef rounded away, and they pedaled through. Melanie almost bumped into a large ugly green fish and shied away, still not completely used to the phaseout. But that reminded Don of something.
“We ride on the bottom because that’s inanimate,” he said. “The living things are phased out. But aren’t the coral reefs made by living creatures? How come they are solid to us, then?”
“They’re in the phase world,” Gaspar said. “They’re part of the terrain. They may not be the same reefs we see, but they’re just like them. So we have to take them seriously. Otherwise we could have ridden straight through them, and saved ourselves a lot of trouble.”
Of course that was true. Don was chagrined for not seeing the obvious.
They climbed into the shallows, passing mounds and ledges and even caves in the living coral. For here it was not rocklike so much as plantlike, with myriad flower-shapes blooming.
Gaspar halted as the ground became too uneven to ride over. “Isn’t that a grand sight?” he asked rhetorically. “They’re related to the jellyfish, you know. And to the sea anemones.”
“What are?” Don asked, perplexed.
“The coral polyps. Their stony skeletons accumulate to form the reef—in time. Temperature has to be around seventy degrees Fahrenheit or better, and they have to have something to build on near the surface, but within these limits they do well enough. They strain plankton from the water with their little tentacles—”
“Oh? I didn’t see that,” Melanie said, finally speaking. Apparently her revelation of her condition had set her back as much as it had Don, and she had withdrawn for a time. Now she was returning, and maybe it was just as well.
“They do it at night, mostly,” Gaspar explained. “We’re seeing only a fraction of the fish that live on the reef; night is the time for foraging.”
“You certainly seem to know a lot about sea life,” Melanie said. “Are you sure you’re a geologist?”
Gaspar laughed. “You have to know something about the flora and fauna, if you want to stay out of trouble. Sharks, electric eels, poisonous sponges, stinging jellyfish—this world is beautiful, but it’s dangerous too, unless you understand it.”
“I believe it,” she said.
“And there are practical connections to my specialty,” Gaspar continued, gazing on the coral with a kind of bliss. “I could mistake coral for a limestone rock formation, if I didn’t study both. Actually it is limestone—but you know what I mean. It tells me about historical geology, too. Because of the necessary conditions for the growth of coral. If I spy a coral reef in cold water, and it’s five hundred feet below the surface—”
“Say!” Don exclaimed, catching on. “Then you know that water was once seventy degrees warm, and that the land was higher.”
“Or the sea lower. Yes. There are hundreds of things like that. Fossils in sediments, for example. They account for an entire time scale extending through many hundreds of millions of years. Check the fossils and you know when that material was laid down and what the conditions were.”
“Like pottery shards!” Don said. “Each one typical of a particular culture. Only your shards are bones and shells.”
“You’re right,” Gaspar agreed, smiling. “Now I understand what you do. You’re a paleontologist of the recent past.”
“Recent past! I wouldn’t call several thousand years exactly—”
“Geologically, anything less than a million years—”
“Maybe we’d better make our rendezvous,” Melanie suggested.
They moved on, drawing nearer to the surface. The water inside the reef was barren in comparison: pellucid, with a flat sandy bottom. Don did spy a number of swift-moving little silvery fish scooting across the floor, and once something gray and flat flounced away as his front tire interacted with its bones.
Then they hit a field of tall grass—except that it wasn’t grass. Some was green and flat, some was green and round. The stalks offered little effective resistance to the bicycles, but Don still had the impression of forging through by sheer muscle. It was amazing to what extent sight, not knowledge, governed his reactions.
He glanced covertly at Melanie. She looked perfect: still slender and feminine. Had she not shown him her bald head …
Finally they came to the “patch” reefs that marked their rendezvous. Between these little reeflets and the shore he knew there was only more grass flat.
“Maybe if someone comes—a boat, I mean,” Melanie said, “we could lie down and be hidden by that grass.”
Gaspar nodded. “Smart girl. Keep your eye out for suitable cover.”
They drew up beside a great mound of coral, one of the patches. All around it the sand was bare. “So much for my smarts,” Melanie said ruefully.
This section was as bald as her head, Don thought, and wished he could get that matter out of his mind.
“Grass eaters,” Gaspar explained. “They graze, but don’t go far from their shelter. So they create this desert ring by overgrazing.”
“I would never have thought of that,” she said. “But it’s obvious now that you’ve pointed it out. Penned barnyard animals do the same.”
“Yes, the absence of life can be evidence of life,” Gaspar agreed.
The two were getting along together, Don noted with mixed feelings. He had talked with Gaspar, and he had talked with Melanie, but so far there had not been a lot of interaction between Gaspar and Melanie. Yet why shouldn’t there be? It was evident that Gaspar, though surprised by her hairlessness, had not really been put off by it. He had broader horizons than Don did, and greater tolerance. Why should Don be bothered by that?
“Rendezvous is at dusk,” Gaspar said. “To let him slip into the water unobserved, probably. We’re early, so we can rest a while. Out of sight, if we can. Should be an overhang or maybe a cave.”
“Is it safe?” Melanie asked. “We aren’t entirely invulnerable.”
“Not much danger here, regardless,” Gaspar said confidently. “Why would the little fishes use it, otherwise?” He began pedaling slowly around the reeflet. The others, disgruntled, followed.
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