Caz half groaned and half whimpered in protest, but waded further in to the chilling water.
“It’s slick,” she complained.
“That’s the algae on the bottom. When the slippery part ends, you know the drop-off is coming.”
“Drop-off?” she asked. She no longer moved her feet in normal steps, but slid each foot forward a little at a time, holding her arms above the surface. Maddy, as if to be contrary, kept splashing the water on his arms and chest with his free hand while holding onto the metal box with the other.
“Ready for this?” he asked, handing her the box.
“No,” she grunted, as the weight of it pulled her arms down far enough that her chin splashed. Adjusting to the load, she stood tall again, but did not lift the box out of the water. “I take it this is sealed tight.”
“Very,” said Maddy. “Okay, the ground is changing. Take a deep breath and—”
Caz let out a yowl as her foot slipped over the edge, scraping the back of her thigh on the way down. She just missed cracking the back of her head on the stone ledge, and left both her eyes and mouth open in surprise. A second later, her burning lungs urged her forward. Her feet touched down on an uneven surface, and she immediately pushed upward, but the heaviness of the box and the pressure of the water held her down. In panic, she screamed into the murkiness and saw bubbles rise before her face. Above her, a dim blue glow beckoned her. Her ears hurt and she knew she needed air soon. Dropping the metal box, she pushed again for the surface, remember Maddy’s suggestion to keep her hands above her. Something obscured the blue glow from view and she found herself up against the wall mountain wall. Clawing her way upward she broke the surface, coughing and crying.
She had missed passing under the wall and clung now to a tiny outcropping of rock. If she let go, she would sink into the deepest part of the pool again. Out of breath and spitting up water, Caz searched desperately for a way out.
“Maddy!” she called. “Help!”
Her voice echoed off the wall and rang to the relative silence of the trees. Caz steadied herself and found another handhold. Her fingers were so cold, they were losing strength, and she squinted up at the rock for a way to get out. Carefully, she turned to look over her shoulder at the pool. Ringed ripples fanned out from where she held on, but there was no sign of Maddy.
Closing her eyes and steeling her courage, Caz tried to look into the water. She could not see much past her own feet, but thought she saw a faint blue line of light.
“What is that?” she wondered aloud. “Must be the bottom of the wall…” Taking a deep breath, she shoved downwards against the rock she had been holding. She dropped quickly, and skimmed the rock with her hands on the way down, cutting a finger on something sharp. A moment later, the rock gave way, and the water before brightened. Using the bottom of the wall as leverage, she once again pushed to the surface on the other side, her arms outstretched. Before she broke the surface, Maddy’s hand caught hold of her wrist and pulled her up onto a stony landing.
Caz lay on her stomach with her eyes closed, her legs still dangling in the water. She breathed in the air of the cave and opened her eyes slowly.
“Why is it blue?” she asked.
Maddy laughed. “I thought I’d lost you down there! Where did you go?”
She leaned up on her elbows and pulled her legs out of the water. “I thought I’d say one last good-bye to the jalopy,” she said. On all fours, she looked at Maddy.
“What? No thanks?”
“I’ll wait to see if your actions merit that,” she said. “Huff, I lost a shoe. And I’m bleeding.” She looked around as if for something to stop the blood. “Why is everything blue?”
Maddy removed his shirt and wrapped the sleeve roughly around her finger. “I’ll be right back,” he said, and jumped feet first into the water, making almost no splash.
“Wait! Don’t leave just yet, you…” Caz’s voice lifted in a shrill wail of frustration, and she stood on the platform of rock, staring angrily down into the water. “Now I’m trapped in here for who knows how long, and—”
Maddy broke the surface, holding the metal box. “Quick! Take it,” he grunted.
Caz kneeled and picked it from his hands. He immediately slipped below the water again. “Maddy! Don’t leave me in here. I will drop this on you if—”
He burst up and grabbed the platform with both hands, pulling himself out of the water easily. In his mouth was her missing shoe.
“What? How did you find that?”
He grinned. “I’m a gypsy diver. I thought we’d already established that.”
Caz felt a laugh bubble inside of her. She took the shoe and hit him playfully on the back. “Well, you get a thanks for that,” she said.
“Good,” he said. “I was starting to think you were an ill-mannered delinquent.”
He said it teasingly, but Caz felt the sting of his words. “Sorry,” she said. “I guess I’m not a very nice person.”
The seriousness of her tone made Maddy stop wringing his clothes out. “Don’t say that,” he said. “I was only joking.”
“It’s a common theme for jokes about me,” she grumbled. “And jokes always contain a little truth, yeah?”
Maddy looked as if he wanted to say something but thought better of it. Rising to his feet, he spread his hands wide. “What do you think?”
Caz stared for a second at his strong shirtless body before realizing he meant the cave. Snickering at herself, she looked around. “It’s very blue.”
“You keep saying that,” said Maddy. “It’s the etak crystals. They have some kind of reaction to the little bits of light that get through the water…”
“Like refracted chemoluminescence?”
Maddy gawked at her and then laughed deeply. “That would be the Rik leaves talking, and I’ll take their word for it.”
Caz’s hand went absently to her forehead. “I lost my crown.” She moved closer to the cave wall, measuring the space with her eyes. “We’ve got about 1600 cubic meters of air in here. Is there a fresh source?”
Maddy shook his head. “I don’t know how you…Yes, there are at least two small air shafts that I’ve found. You notice when it rains because it drips.”
“Over there,” said Caz, pointing to a worn circle of rock that slanted into the pool.
“Yes,” said Maddy. “All right, Caz. You’re plenty intelligent enough for me to leave you alone.”
“I’ll only be gone a few hours. Eight at the most, if all goes well.” He unlocked the metal box with a few quick spins of a dial. “There’s a fire starter in here, and some space food.” He made an apologetic grimace. “Sorry. It’s easier to pack.”
Caz shrugged. “It’ll taste like home.”
“Do you remember how we heated things in the pot?”
“Yes, but there’s no dry wood here,” said Caz.
“You’re cooking for one,” said Maddy. “The fire starter alone should be enough. It won’t get cold in here, so you should be comfortable enough.”
“On stone,” said Caz, rolling her eyes.
“We make do,” he said. “Actually, a little further back, there’s a place where we stow blankets and some other comforts. They’re out of sight in case someone ever comes in here accidentally.”
“Right. All the crazy divers in the area,” said Caz.
“Surface kids camping for fun.”
“Surface kids are crazy.”
“You’re a Surface kid now,” said Maddy almost sternly. “At least until we get off-planet.”
“One thing at a time,” said Caz. “Let’s get Ninetta and Alf, yeah?”
Maddy smiled. “Yeah. Can I have my shirt back?”
“Huh? Oh…of course.” Caz handed up the wadded up bundle of wet cloth back to him and examined her finger. “It’s all better any way.”
“Good,” he said. He pulled the shirt back on and fastened the clasps. Sighing, he stood with his hands on his hips and looked down at the water again. “Eight…nine hours at the most,” he said.
“And if you don’t come back?”
“I’ll come back.”
“And if you don’t?”
“Wait two days and make your way…No. I’ll be back.”
Caz touched him on the arm. “Maddy…Thanks. And be safe.”
He winked. “Anything for King’s crowned queen.” A second later, the dark water reflected the blue light like an eerie mirror. Caz sat at the water’s edge and hugged her knees and tried not to imagine what would happen if he did not return.
What will happen while she waits for Maddy? What things have been stored by the gypsies, and will she find anything that helps her understand the fanep and/or the pearl cycling better? What comes next? Let me know and come on back for the next installment.