Art Pact 216 - Underwater

Bigger by far than the tanks I was towing were the two huge air tanks attached to the side of the little drone. It buzzed along behind us, its motors making a low thrumming noise quite unlike the high-pitched electric whine they'd made at the surface. The tanks either side of it were almost as large as the drone itself, man-sized tanks with heavy-duty connectors at each end. At the forward end the connectors had been used to attach multi-regulator heads, attachments that would allow two men to breath from the front of the tank - purely a precaution in case any of our suits went out, although we had used them briefly when the time came to change over Alexander's tank and refresh his supply. We'd left the empty sitting on the seabed with a responder beacon, a super-bright bulb that would flash when it received a ping from a friendly device. It would lay hidden until we came to retrieve it, helping to keep our mission secret. I was much more worried about the sound of the drone, but since it was necessary if we were to establish a long-term base within the wreck, there was not much I could do about it.

We were deep enough down not to be seen from above - especially not with our camouflaged suits - but there was a constant fear of detection, so that every time someone pointed up and made the signal for "boat" we froze in place and Louise (piloting the drone) cut the engine and let the thing drift forward until it stopped. The first time she did that we'd stopped where we were so suddenly that the nose of the drone hit me in the small of the back - not painful, but certainly a surprise. I almost popped the regulator out of my mouth. What was worse was that the drone's headlamp (out but not yet cooled completely) had burnt a strip of the wetsuit near my leg, and I knew that there were going to be some interesting (read: painful) times to come when I stripped down.

Ahead of us Alex - still swimming hard, scouting around us in circles and burning through his oxygen and energy as though they were going out of style - darted in and out of little ravines, behind coral stands, around rocks and detritus so that from one moment to the next I could never be quite sure where he was. I was still unconvinced of the utility of the little man, his attitude to Louise made me even more nervous, but I had to admit that if there were something to find his manic dashing this way and that was far more likely to find it than our slow plod to the site of the wreck. The question of whether there was anything to find was something else. If, as Louise thought likely, Nigel had been plucked up by the coastguard before getting to the wrecked ship, then probably all was lost. They might be waiting for us when we got back to land, or they might be waiting for us over the horizon. They could easily have some sort of monitoring device on the wreck proper, a camera or something that would alert them when we had arrived and begun our work. Then they could swoop in and pluck us up at their leisure. None of us could outswim a speedboat. Even the drone was limited to a couple of knots by the huge tanks on its sides - tanks that would take a good ten minutes to release underwater, making them as good as cannonballs on chains.

I let the drone overtake me so that I could hang onto the back of it, the little robot submersible's slipstream bubbling past me. Louise was tucked into the little operator's canopy on the back, steering the thing with a joystick in one hand and hanging on with the other. She'd taken off the harness that would have kept her attached to the canopy with both hands free, but as she saw me she took her hand off the joystick for a moment, looped that arm through the dangling tendrils of webbing fabric and pulled, her right arm now wrapped up so that she could be pulled along and still work the joystick. With her free hand she signalled "hello" to me.

"What distance?" I signalled back. She flashed her open hand at me three times: fifteen kilometres. "All good?"

"Yes. Go ahead."

Behind the goggles I could just make out her eyes, but it was impossible to gauge anything from them - not without the rest of her expression, which was of course distorted madly by the regulator valve and mostly covered up anyway. I wondered whether she wanted be back on lookout or whether she was still fuming over Alexander's earlier bullshit. Either way, I decided, best to do as she said. She wasn't a talker at the best of times, and there was no way she could vent any anger underwater except by punching or spear-gunning something. If that was going to happen, I did not want it to be me on the respective blunt or sharp end.

Alex, having made another of his big loops around us, was in front by the time I got back into position, and waving wildly. He was off our main course by about thirty degrees, so I swam off to him without signalling, reckoning that we could easily catch up with the main body of the group if they passed us by. As I got closer I could see that he was waving me a "look here" gesture and pointing with his other hand down at something on the sea floor. Closer still, I could see that it was a regulator valve.

There was a hose still attached to it, but about six or seven inches from the mouthpiece it had been severed - not cleanly, as a knife would have done it, but more like it had been bitten off. I took my own regulator out and held it down by the one on the seabed. They were the same make. Neil.


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