THE INFLATABLE DINGHY BOBBED restlessly beside Ariadne as she floated face down on the cool sea. She was grateful for the warmth of the short wetsuit. Below, through wavering blue shadows, Peter was looping the anchor line around a boulder. A trail of air bubbles rose to the surface. She tightened her lips around the rubber grips and took in a slow, deep breath as he’d instructed her. The echoing sound was strange, but the steady, calming rhythm was something she didn’t need to practice.
A school of fish darted in a synchronized cloud below, filtered sun shimmering over silver scales. They scattered in a burst of bubbles as Peter surfaced through them.
He activated her vest inflator, floating her shoulders and head out of the water. Pulling out his mouthpiece, he asked, “Okay?”
She started to nod, then remembered the signals he’d shown her and raised her hand, index finger joined to thumb in a circle.
He grinned. “Good.” Reaching into the dinghy, he pulled down a coil of thin line, knotting one end to the anchor tether. “We’ll pull this line along, in case there’s an undertow inside. Keep a hand on it and stick close to me. I’ll adjust your vest for you, just remember to clear your ears, and keep breathing out, especially on the way back up or you could rupture your lungs. Got it?”
She nodded, shivering as the sea foamed out from under the ledge behind him, swirling around her legs with the charged ripples of agitated energy she’d felt above on the ridge. It was stronger here, somehow threatening.
He touched her shoulder. She jerked her face to his, blinking through mist inside her mask.
“Sure you want to do this?”
She nodded, clearing her throat. “Yes. You have the tools? You will be very careful making an extraction?”
“You just point out the spot. Better clear your mask again, then we’ll head down.” He waited while she removed the mask, spat in it, and rinsed the glass. “Here we go.” He handed her back the mouthpiece on its hose, then winked and sank below the surface, pulling the cord to release air from her vest.
A moment of disorientation as the water closed over her and she rolled, weightless. He touched her shoulder from behind and guided her slowly down. He turned her to face him and they hovered near the anchor line, surge tugging them toward the rocks and then pushing them away. She looked toward the gleaming, restless ceiling above and glimpsed a sleek shape darting. She made the OK sign. He reached over to snap on the light he’d strapped to her wrist, then gestured her after him.
His fins moved him slowly toward the submerged contours of rocky cliff. She followed closely, fighting the urge to flail against the surge tugging her off-balance. She clutched tighter to the line he pulled. He moved in close to the wall, his light sweeping back and forth. He gestured her closer, jabbing his thumb quickly up and then sideways, pointing at the boil of agitated water in the cave entrance. Before she could respond, he shot ahead, dragging her along on the line.
Hiss of air in her ears. Black rocks. Shadowed water pulling and tossing her back. Her leg slammed against a boulder, sea tumbling her, and she lost any sense of up or down in the maelstrom. Her breath caught in her throat, the suit and vest choking her, squeezing her lungs. She flailed, fighting the frightening force of the water, her fingers loosening on the line.
It suddenly jerked. Her hand tightened on it just in time to be tugged in the split-second pause between crashing surges through a narrow rushing gap and into a dark, open place. The water boiled, sucking back at her, but the line yanked her forward until she was free of the current. She remembered to let out the air trapped in her lungs, and a spill of bubbles escaped.
A light flashed over her face, then flicked away to highlight his hand in the OK? query. She took a careful breath, easing the tightness in her chest, and answered him. He squeezed her shoulder and adjusted her flotation valve, then his light was gesturing, the line pulling her deeper into blackness.
She was still off-balance, disoriented in the buoyant dark, but she flashed her light to catch her air bubbles as he’d told her. Their rising established up and down. She followed the glow of his light, shining her own through the inky water.
She saw only sweeping glimpses out of the darkness: His fins. A low, jagged rock ceiling overhead. A wall of featureless gray stone. She bobbed closer beside Peter and flattened her hand on the wall, closing her eyes. The air feed hissed to the restless energy jittering through her. She could no longer deny her link with the energy fields. The source was close, strong here.
Peter touched her shoulder. She opened her eyes to a diffused glow off the rock, his shrugged question.
She held up her hand, gesturing him back. She moved slowly down the wall, probing with the light, the back of her neck prickling with tension swirled by the trapped water. As she pulled herself across the rock wall, her light caught something that sparkled and gleamed.
She jerked back, throwing herself off-balance. Peter caught her arm and steadied her. She barely noticed. Her heart was pounding furiously, air hissing, skin crawling with the lapping waves of charge. She fought to keep her breaths deep and steady.
The quartz seam was exposed to the sea here, shining white in the dimness, glinting with metallic veins and crystalline flecks. She touched her flattened palm to it, an electric shock running up her arm. She gasped, held there by the jolt of it, the crystalline structure magnetized in opposition to the dominant ambient field. But there were also jarringly disruptive eddies, swirling in serpentine coils that pulled at her.
The dark waves throbbed through her. She could feel the hidden crystal, had to have it to understand . . . what? She couldn’t think. Peter Mitchell’s hand touched her shoulder again, but she shook it off. She moved closer to the wall, sliding her hand over the rough surface—no, as if her hand were being pulled, sucked like a magnet to the right spot.
There. She could feel it beneath the stone’s rough surface. Waves pulsing, pulling—
With an effort, she tore herself away. She jabbed her hand at the spot, gesturing emphatically to Peter, pushing herself back and blinking in surprise that he could be calmly hovering, feeling nothing of the chaos swarming in the dark cave. Jerky swerves of her light beam revealed him pulling out a sealed compression drill. She watched in agitation as he drilled around the sample, then worked agonizingly slowly with a chisel. Chips of rock drifted free, glinting.
Her nerves jittered. Hurry. Careful.
Finally put the tool away and turned in the trembling sweeps of light to hold out a rough oblong of opaque white quartz. Along one side, where the matrix had broken away, the smooth gleam of a buried facet.
Her hands closed around it, and darkness opened its jaws to swallow her.
A crackling surge. Jolting, sucking her into the rock vein. Racing her downward into the earth out of control. Out of her self. Where was she? Was she? Blackness.
She could grasp only a vague identity—Ariadne—but it was ripped out of a body. Flowing along planes and facets of the crystalline deposits. Perceptions flattened, shaped by the weight of stone crushing flesh. Somewhere a silent scream. Then even her terror was ripped away. Identity pressed, heated. Refined. Spread into an alien geometry of pattern and order within the heart of the earth. Its strange imperatives insinuating, replacing human will as the last tatters of alarm shrieked—
A wrenching shift, and the panic fell away. Nothing—no, white silence, humming with vibrant force.
Fear left behind with her body, she could hear now a distant music. The eerie tones swept closer along the glowing branches and veins, the filaments of her distilled self spread infinitely thin. The music deepened, pulsed in silver waves, and somehow in a place beyond thinking she knew there was a harmony to it, if she could find the key.
A black, roaring wave slammed into her, shattering the music, pounding in a burst of pain. Blind whirlpool spinning, sucking her downward into the darkness of disruption. Crashing chaos. Nowhere. Nothingness. The surge ripping her apart—
Ariadne fought. She kicked and clawed to escape the dark churning. The stones of the cave were closing over her, crushing her chest. She lost the last of her precious air.
A terrible roaring filled her ears, pain hammering her head and chest. She was heavy, cold as the black stone pulling her down. Shadowy hands tugged, trying to rip her arms from their sockets. They dragged her deeper, into the lapping heat at the core of the world, the molten lava to melt away her flesh and remake her.
Hard fists slammed into her chest, forcing out a last gush of her human fluids. The roar of chaos gave way to crazy gibbering, “All right, damn you God! Give her back, you bastard. Please.” Wracking nausea, but she had no air, no lungs.
Another jarring shake. Then startling warmth. Soft pressure against her lips, and a gust of air forcing her lungs to expand. The air rushed out. Lips pressed again onto her mouth bringing air, bringing life, the warm flesh a shock of connection.
Ariadne jerked upright, fighting free of the blackness. Her eyes snapped open, and she doubled over the hot rubber side of the dinghy, choking and retching. She gasped. She pulled herself around to stare at her white-knuckled fist still clutching the rough oblong of stone. Her fingers loosened and the stone slid to the bottom of the dinghy. She raised her eyes to meet Peter’s.
“Thank God—” His face was stricken, pale beneath the tan.
He blew out a breath then and shook his head, making a wry face. “You know how long it’s been since I prayed?” His eyes, sharp gold-brown in the sun, belied the joke.
Ariadne coughed again and managed, “Thank you.”
“Had some fight left in you, anyway.” He grinned and displayed a darkening bruise down one muscular thigh.
“It’s nothing, just lie back, take it easy.” He leaned over the side of the dinghy, grunting as he pulled up a tank with flotation vest attached, the little boat dipping and bobbing. He snapped the oars into place. “I hope that rock was worth it.” He shot her a look, then started pulling on the oars.
Ariadne looked numbly at the gleaming white stone. The exposed crystal facet glittered in the sunlight.
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