Deep Into the Game
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9 chapter nine
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Deep Into the Game
Author :Saul_Tanpepper
© Webnovel

9 chapter nine

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"The oxygen rebreather was developed by NASA about a dozen years ago," Jake explains, holding the odd-looking mask up so that we can all see it, "and further adapted by the Navy for short-term underwater use."

It's just after eight o'clock in the morning and we're at the Page Mill levee and, except for some fishermen a few hundred yards away, we're all alone. The fishermen don't even bother to glance over at us. They look like they're well into their second case of cheap beer, and by the sounds of their singing, it doesn't appear they really care if they catch anything.

"Where's the air tank?" Ashley asks.

It's such a stupid question that I just know it has to be a set up.

Jake smiles. "I'm glad you asked that, Ash. By the way, I hope you don't mind my saying, but you look really…nice today." He turns to me and adds, "You both do."

Kelly makes a sound of disgust and looks away. Ashley beams. Of course she looks nice, she's wearing a skimpy white Ronnie Marx two-piece bikini that really highlights her red hair and green eyes. Not that any of the guys are looking at her hair or eyes. They're checking out the other assets that suit is also highlighting.

I look down at my own outfit, a pair of dingy oversized gray workout sweats. Underneath, I've got on a relatively modest rainbow-colored two-piece with French-cut shorts. Suddenly I feel like a shapeless blob.

"Thank you, Jake," Ash says, tossing her hair.

"What a loser," Kelly murmurs, too quiet for anyone else to hear, and for once I have to agree.

"As I was saying, the rebreather was developed to take the place of an oxygen tank, but primarily for use in short-term situations and tight spaces, such as between airlocks and docked vehicles."

"Are we traveling through any airlocks?"

Jake's eyes narrow. "You could say the tunnel is one long airlock."

"Just not in outer space."

"No." He clears his throat and continues. "The cartridge is perforated to allow pressure equalization. It's essentially a cage protecting an inner Mylar sack that contains a catalytic converter—beads linked to a chemical that converts CO-2 back into good old fashioned O-2."

"Ah, good old fashioned oxygen. It's so much better than the new fangled stuff."

I snort and hip check Kelly. "Just ignore him, Jake. Go on."

"The rebreather wasn't intended for underwater use, but the Navy has been employing them successfully for strategic missions, rapid insertions and near-surface operations in confined spaces. They're a lot less bulky. Inert gasses, such as nitrogen are simply passed through the matrix, maintaining a proper balance and concentration relative to oxygen. That way your brain doesn't think it's either oxygen-deprived or in surplus. And that's important because either of those scenarios will cause you to faint. I probably don't need to tell you what happens if you faint while under water."


"Maybe you should explain it anyways," Kelly shouts. "You know, just in case Ashley hasn't figured it out."

I slap his arm and tell him to behave. Ashley gives him a dirty look and Reggie chuckles. Micah just sits and stares at Jake, whose confidence has all but vanished.

He disengages a canister from the hose attached to the mask and holds it up. It's about the size of a tub of Cheezy Cheeze. "There's enough chemical converter in one of these to last roughly three hours, give or take. Ample time for us to get through the tunnel and out the other side. But, just in case, each of us will carry a spare on our belt. They're sealed. All you have to do is insert into the hose and twist."

Just in case of what? I think. I don't want to be underwater for more than hour. Then I wonder: How long does it take to swim a mile?

"Why not just use scuba tanks?" I ask.

"You have to be certified to get the tanks," Jake answers. "And it's illegal to rent them out to uncertified divers."

"Isn't what we're doing already illegal?"

"Look, guys," Micah says, inserting himself in front of Kelly, "it's either the rebreathers or we don't go. Jake's uncle would definitely notice six dive tanks missing. But these?" He holds one up. "They're cheap and disposable. They've got cases of them in the store."

"What the hell for?"

"Military surplus," Jake says. "Uncle Joe bids on closed crates at auction. He gets whatever he gets. You'd be surprised what people will come into the store to buy."

"We'll also pack a third set in a waterproof pack for the return," Micah says, steering the discussion back to the trip.

"Talk about overkill," Kelly whispers.

"Better safe than sorry," Jake replies.

"Who put you in charge anyway?"

"Kelly! Stop it! Please."

"The rebreathers work just like the old fashioned masks. Bite down on the mouthpiece and inhale. You also exhale through the mouth, but instead of the waste gas bubbling into the water and going to the surface, it goes into the bag and gets recycled."

He tosses the rebreather into a box and comes up with a pair of goggles.

"Now, with scuba, to clear your goggles of leaks, you'd normally exhale through the nose. With these systems, you don't want to do that because…why? Anyone?"

"You'll lose your air?" Ashley quips.

"Exactly. The canisters don't create oxygen, just recycle it. Lose it and it's gone. So unless you have gills, I'd suggest you pay attention. These goggles are equipped with their own clearing mechanism."

He points to a silver cartridge inserted into the elastic headband. It's about the size of a large hotdog. "This is highly compressed air. Just push the button on the top …here…which releases a puff, thus forcing any water out the bottom. You can get as many as twenty puffs, but then that's it, so make sure your goggles are a good fit. They should be tight and well sealed. Otherwise you'll be looking out through water goggles for the rest of the dive."

"Speaking of the water, are we actually going to get in it today?" Kelly asks. "Or are we just going to sit here and listen to you?"

Jake's ability to ignore Kelly reaches its limit. His face flushes and he fumbles the mask. He was so confident last night, so confrontational, that I almost don't recognize him now. It sort of worries me, because it makes me wonder if he's a little bipolar. There's enough emotional drama in our group without adding his baggage to it.

"I, um," he stutters, "was going to say it's time to get—uh, to put on the equipment." He quickly turns and picks up a box behind him. "There's another crate in my van with wetsuits, weight belts, and fins. Everyone gets a set. I took a guess on the sizes." He looks at Reggie and adds, "Although some might be a little tight."

Reggie grins and turns to Ash and says, "The tighter the better." She slaps his arm and sticks out her tongue. But then she thrusts out her chest at him and laughs.

"Let me know if you need any help getting it on."

"Let me know if you need help getting it off," Ash counters.

The rest of us are used to this, but Jake's face turns so red that I'm afraid he's going to spontaneously combust or something.

To distract himself, he launches into a lecture on fitting and prepping our goggles. The spitting part to keep them from fogging up amuses Reggie, of course. He makes a show of hocking a nasty loogie into the lenses, much to Ashley's disgust.

We don't get to use the rebreathers right away. Rather, Jake has us snorkel around a bit near the shore so we get used to being in wetsuits and flippers and being neutrally buoyant, which I seem to be having trouble with.

At first I have too much weight on my belt and keep sinking. I quickly grow tired from trying to keep myself at the surface. It's frustrating, especially since nobody seems to be noticing. Kelly's ignoring me as he paddles around twenty feet away, as if he can actually see anything in the murky depths below us now that we've stirred up all the mud. Finally I give up and waddle ashore to take some of the lead weights off.

"Here, let me help you," Jake says, startling me. I'd thought he was still in the water. He yanks my belt and it falls from my waist. Holding one end up, he threads a pair of one-pounders off. "You don't need as much weight because you've got so little body fat."

I know what he's thinking. Although I'm not flat-chested, I'm definitely not well-endowed, either. And he obviously hasn't seen my fat ass.

But pointing these things out to him isn't going to make things any better. We're already stressed enough.

He reapplies my belt, checks to make sure it's snug, then waves me back toward the water. "Just let yourself relax," he says confidently.

Without Kelly standing right there, his nervousness has vanished.

I look out over the surface of the lake to where the others are still paddling around and find Kelly's faded blue swim trunks and his lily-white legs. He hasn't even noticed I'm not there with him. So much for buddying up.

After the belt adjustment, staying at the surface turns out to be so much easier. Diving down to the bottom and coming back up for air takes very little effort, too. It's only ten or twelve feet down and, with the flippers, only three or four quick kicks before I'm there. Once I get to the bottom, I relax. My body just sort of sits there, swaying gently with the movement of the water, neither rising nor sinking. It's just as I imagined being weightless would be like.

After a brief break and a light snack, we try out the rebreathers. Ash immediately gets into trouble with hers, complaining that she keeps forgetting and exhaling out through her nose, which means she has to surface to get a fresh lungful of air. I can see it in everyone's eyes: What we're doing isn't just dangerous, it could be fatal if we don't pay attention.

After about the fourth or fifth time this happens, Micah lays into her. He tells her there won't be air pockets inside the tunnels. The frustration is written all over his face. He's worried about her, but I can see that he's only trying to scare her into remembering. "You need to remember not to exhale through your nose, Ash," he practically shouts, "or else you'll be in deep shit."

"I'll try," she says. Her lip quivers. I want to go over and protect her, but I know it's for her own good. She needs to try harder.

"No," Micah snaps. "Don't try. You have to remember. Do whatever you need to do to remember, even if that means sticking corks up your nose."

Ash glares at him and we all stop and wait for it, the inevitable outburst. I can tell she's close to breaking. If there's anything I know about her, it's that she hates appearing weak. That's why she's always got this tough-as-nails exterior. Inside, though, she's fragile.

But then she snorts and laughs. "Anyone got any ABC gum? You know, already been chewed? I can stick that up my nose." And the tension melts away.

After another twenty minutes, during which Ash stays completely submerged, Jake takes us to the other end of the levee. There are some ruins, giving us a chance to explore a little while practicing moving around and through obstacles.

"Make sure you always know where your partner is. The idea is to get used to swimming while watching out for each other. And remember, we're not here to become underwater salvage experts or anything. No wandering off."

He hands us each a waterproof flashlight and tells us to follow him. We all obey, grimly glancing around at each other, yet barely able to restrain our excitement. Even Kelly's eager to give it a go. There's a glint in his eyes that wasn't there earlier, despite his initial reluctance. I smile tentatively at him. He takes my hand and asks me if I'm having fun yet.

"I am now." And I give his hand a squeeze. We quickly kiss, then splash into the water. We're the last pair in.

The ruins are surreal, nothing like anything I've ever seen before! I mean, they're only an old two story commercial structure that happened to be built on a low point of land before the flood, but still. For the first time, I really begin to appreciate the old buildings and stuff we lost when the waters rose and covered the Wastes. Whole worlds of forgotten places where, just a single generation before us, people lived and worked and played. They slept in these buildings. They made love and they…

They died.

My heart falters. I wonder if anyone died in here. Or drowned. I wonder if a person who had drowned would return. What would a zombie do after reanimating underwater?

We emerge from the one ruin and float over to the upper story windows of a second building. All of the glass has been broken out, most likely by the rising waters themselves, but maybe also by scavenger divers and thrill seekers. Nothing's left inside. All the old furniture and fixtures are gone, leaving just an empty shell, which is now caked with mud and lake debris and storm wash.

Jake guides us through the rooms. I feel like I'm in the belly of a sleeping beast. Then a big, black hole opens up before us, an elevator shaft, gaping like the beast's gullet. We crowd around him as he enters it.

He waits until we're all there, then he shines his light down and we hover over the darkness that fills the space below like heavy water. We all look at each other and wonder the same thing: What's down there? Jake's beam of light gets soaked up before it hits bottom. It looks like a bottomless pit. Anything could be hiding in it.

He signals, flips over, kicks and begins to descend. Almost as effortlessly, Micah does the same and follows. Then go Reggie and Ash, just as smoothly, and I think that Jake was right, this is a lot easier than I'd expected. Kelly tugs on my arm and we head down.

The shaft continues for what seems like forever. I can feel my ears popping from the pressure. Some of the others can feel it too, because they're puffing out their cheeks to clear our ears as Jake had shown us earlier. We rest for a moment until everyone's ready again. I notice that Kelly keeps drifting upward and kicking himself back down. I make a note to remind him to use more weight tomorrow. I don't want him to have to waste energy keeping himself down.

Suddenly, a thousand bubbles of air dance their way past me. I look down and see Ashley's panicked face. Her flashlight, now forgotten, drifts down into the inky darkness as her hands flutter near her mask. Now I can see her trying to suck air out of a canister that's mostly empty. Her eyes widen and she starts to kick herself up. She shoves Micah aside. But I can already guess that she'll never make it out in time. We're too far inside the building.

Jake shoots past us and grabs her leg. She kicks and kicks, but he doesn't let go. I feel Kelly brush past me, aiming for Jake, thinking he's trying to keep her from saving herself. But before he reaches him, Jake has yanked Ash's goggles off and is holding it below her face. His thumb pushes the blue clearing button and a rush of air surges out and envelops her head. I see her open her mouth. She stops struggling.

After a moment, Jake gestures upward and we begin to surface. I take one last look down into the depths, to where Ashley's flashlight has settled on the bottom of the shaft, its beam stabbing weakly into the unseen chambers. Then I follow.

"I can't do this," Ashley gasps, as soon as her head pops up out of the water. "I can't. I'm sorry."

Reggie swims over to her and grabs the front of her wetsuit and pulls her close to him. "You can," he says. "You're tougher than the rest of us put together, Ash. You're tougher than me. You can do this."

She looks around at us and we all dutifully nod. None of us wants her to back out now, least of all me. I don't want to be the only girl in the group. But I'm also worried, and not just for her. I don't think Reggie truly understands how difficult and risky this will be.

But to me it's clear. Our margin of error is thinner than the edge of a razor.
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