Chapter 24

Ascent

They did not remain in the flooded cavern for long after recovering the gem. Jeanne wrapped the gem in two layers of waterproof bags, more as a symbolic gesture of protection than out of any fear it would be damaged by the water, and secreted it away in a pocket on her left leg. While she did this, Oliver rifled through the remaining parcels in the crate. He found several dozen pieces of fine jewelry, ranging from loose gems, to rings, to finely crafted and jewel-studded necklaces. These he pocketed without bothering to wrap them in waterproof bags. If Jeanne was who she claimed to be, then her family would appreciate receiving these as well. In the more likely case that she was lying about her identity, the jewels would serve as his payment for this job.

They took turns checking one another’s rebreathers for signs of external damage, then dropped over the railing of the barge together and quickly descended to the bottom of the flooded cavern. They swam across the rubble-strewn floor, through the tunnel, and paused at the elevator shaft.

“This is going to take a while,” Jeanne said. “A safe ascent speed would normally be about thirty feet per minute, but we’ve been down here so long that we should probably halve that.”

“So give ourselves about twenty minutes to reach the top of the shaft, then take our time going back up the ramp,” Oliver said.

“That should be sufficient,” Jeanne replied. “Let’s not press it. You probably breathed in far too much oxygen when your mask was off.”

Oliver looked upward through the long shaft of sharp, rusted metal, illuminated at intervals by the soft green glow of the chemical lights that they had left floating. “We’d best get started then.”

He gave a gentle push with his flippers and swam out into the center of the shaft, then paused and extracted a weight from the side pocket of his suit. He dropped the weight and felt his body slip slowly upwards as he kept his eye on the depth gauge readout on his HUD.

“I wish we didn’t have to drop weights. It’s such a waste,” Jeanne said.

“And leaving all our equipment behind on the ship isn’t?”

“You’ve got a point.”

“I’d rather use an air ballast too,” Oliver said, “but we are already going to be cutting it close on our breathing mix supply. We need to save the ascension tanks for an emergency reserve when we’re up in shallower waters.”

Jeanne dropped a weight and ascended to join Oliver about fifteen feet above the floor of the shaft. She floated beside him, looking up into the yawning cavern above. “I don’t like waiting under that lift motor.”

“I don’t like that you’re still lying to me.”

She looked down at Oliver. Behind the glinting curve of her faceplate Oliver could see that she was scowling at him. “Don’t start that again Oliver.”

“It’s true though,” he said. Before Jeanne could reply, Oliver shed another weight and drifted up the shaft. He waited until Jeanne reached him and said, “I had a friend looking into your past while we went over the maps. You don’t exist.”