Stranded By the Highlander – Rebecca Preston

Well, what d’you think, Nancy? Any sea monsters down there?” Nancy Kane beamed, jumping out of the back of the truck and taking eager steps toward the edge of the flooded quarry. Her friend and old teacher, James was waiting by the edge for her, grinning as he gestured for her to join him. They’d known each other a long time — she was well past being bothered by his constant ribbing about her fascination with mythical creatures and paranormal zoology. “The shore’s maybe two minutes down the road,” their driver Hannah called from behind the wheel of the truck. “Do you want me to just meet you there, or —” “Hold your horses, woman. Just come and look at this.” Heaving a melodramatic sigh — Hannah does like to stick to a plan, Nancy thought with a grin — the woman hauled herself out of the truck and slouched over to join them. She was itching to get into the water, that was for sure. Nancy couldn’t blame her. She’d been looking forward to this trip for weeks, ever since James had let her know that there was a hitherto undiscovered network of caves at the bottom of a flooded quarry north of Raleigh. It had been flooded for a long time, but nobody had looked too closely at the loose stones at the bottom… not until James, on a whim, had taken one of his scuba classes up to the quarry as a change of pace from their usual training grounds. To his surprise, one of his students had off-handedly mentioned that there seemed to be a ‘secret tunnel’ at the bottom of the quarry, covered by rocks and debris. Further inspection had revealed a deep passage that seemed to plunge into the rock for a considerable distance. He’d followed it long enough to discover that it wasn’t just a tunnel — there was an attached network of caves there as well — before turning back, resolving to return with a more qualified team than the curious bunch of students he’d been with. And Nancy Kane was certainly qualified.

Ever since she was a kid and her dad had taken her swimming at Falls Lake, she’d loved the water more than anything. She’d practiced holding her breath every chance she got, always desperate to swim deeper, to find what was hiding at the bottom of the lake… she was convinced, as a young girl, that there were mermaids waiting for her down there, and that if she could just spend enough time down there under the water, they’d come out to play with her. As she’d grown, she had grown out of that conviction… but not completely. She was still fascinated by stories of paranormal creatures, of monsters and myths, of the unknown, creatures that were still out there to be discovered. Who could really say mermaids weren’t real, after all, when so much of the sea floor hadn’t been explored yet? “Don’t get your hopes up too much,” Hannah warned James now, peering down at the unruffled surface of the flooded quarry. Always a cynic — a realist, she called it — Hannah was a good person to have on a mission like this. She was rigorous when it came to safety checks, almost to a fault — sometimes Nancy felt like triple-checking every last piece of equipment was excessive. But she’d never had an accident in all her time spent diving — and she’d been on some pretty dangerous expeditions. It took a special kind of person to willingly submerge themselves in pitch dark, freezing water, to explore underwater cave systems that nobody had explored before. And when it came to uncharted territory, it made sense to be as safe as possible.

Hannah was in her forties, Nancy suspected, though she wasn’t quite sure… the dark-haired older woman had a distinct air of mystery, and rarely discussed her personal life. Whether that was because she was keeping it to herself, or she legitimately didn’t have much of a life outside of diving, Nancy wasn’t sure. She’d mentioned having a cat, once. “I’m not getting my hopes up,” James said with some dignity — then tipped Nancy a wink that made her giggle. He was absolutely getting his hopes up. James had always had a strong sense of whimsy — it was part of why he and Nancy got on so well. “I just think there’s probably millions of dollars’ worth of buried treasure down there, that’s all. Is that so much to ask? Just a little bit of buried treasure?” “Or an undiscovered species of fish,” Nancy put in thoughtfully. “Maybe a sea monster? A dinosaur that escaped extinction? Anything like that would be just fine.” “If there’s a dinosaur down there you’re on your own,” Hannah warned them, her expression not changing.

“Dinosaur wrangling equipment wasn’t on the brief.” She could never quite tell when Hannah was joking, Nancy thought with a grin as the short-statured woman stomped back toward the truck. James punched her on the arm. “Who’d have thought that excessively dedicated young girl I met a decade ago would’ve blossomed into such an intrepid explorer?” “Me,” Nancy said, matter-of-fact. “You know I would’ve been taking scuba classes in kindergarten if your school didn’t have an age limit.” “I don’t doubt it.” James grinned. Nancy had spent a lot of her childhood impatiently waiting to get old enough to be allowed to take scuba classes — the school usually required their students to be twelve or older, but had made a special exception for Nancy, allowing her in when she turned ten. She’d had a countdown on her wall for months, carefully marking off each day with a specially selected mermaid sticker with her amused father looking on. There had been no question of going to school on her birthday… they’d been up, bright and early, headed to the scuba school in Raleigh.

And sure enough, she’d been as diligent a student as James could have dreamed of. He’d been in his thirties at the time, just getting started with the school, and as Nancy had grown, so had the school. She’d been first on the list to get her teaching certification, and once she’d finished high school, she’d started teaching classes full-time. She was young, but any doubt that her age raised in the hearts of her students was banished straight away by her clear dedication to the art of scuba diving. For her twenty-first birthday, they’d joked about setting up an underwater bar, piping beers in through the equipment somehow. That hadn’t quite materialized, in the end, but she had celebrated her birthday in style… in a pool with a swim-up bar at a fancy local hotel, all her friends and family in their most formal bathing suits. It had been a wonderful night — made all the better by James approaching her halfway through the party to tell her that there was a newly-discovered underwater cave system to explore. Now, as always, she couldn’t wait to get into the water. She had her drysuit ready to go, packed and waiting for her in the truck. It had been a gift from her father on her eighteenth birthday.

He’d always known what was important to her, his strange, waterobsessed little daughter. A Navy SEAL in his younger days, her father had been put out of the service by a back injury that also, unfortunately, stopped him from being able to do much swimming beyond recreational paddling. He’d always joked that Nancy had inherited all of her father’s interest in water, and all of her mother’s complete disinterest in the military. Perhaps he’d wanted a military daughter, Nancy often thought… but he’d never let on that her chosen vocation disappointed him. On the contrary, he’d always been her biggest support when it came to scuba diving — even indulged her fascination with stories and myths about paranormal creatures. She thought of him fondly every time she pulled on the drysuit and took scrupulous good care of it. It was a good quality piece of equipment, and as James was fond of drilling into his students, taking good care of your equipment wouldn’t only save your life… it’d save your wallet. “Do you want to buy a cheap one every year, or an expensive one every decade?” he always asked whenever she was examining the scuba school’s wares. Staff discount or no, the gear did run into the expensive range… but it wasn’t just salesmanship from James. He was a stickler for quality, and often refused to even stock lower-end gear.

She and James walked quickly now, heading down the track in pursuit of the truck that Hannah had started up shortly after their brief reconnaissance of the surface of the quarry. It was still early, the sun not yet close to its high point in the sky — they’d set off just before dawn, wanting to get a good head-start on the day. The water was going to be cold regardless of when they dove in, but the earlier they started, the more of the warm middle-of-the-day weather they’d be able to get. Not that Nancy minded the cold — not when she was underwater, anyway. There was something exhilarating about it. All that water, pressing down on you. When they reached the little cove — the preferred entrance to the lake that had been formed years ago, when the quarry had first been flooded — they found the truck, neatly parked, and Hannah, already climbing into her own drysuit. The conditions were calm and mild, with only a light wind ruffling the surface of the water, and Nancy was ready to get in the water. More than ready, in fact — she’d been keen for this day since her birthday. It wasn’t as if there were many other thrills in her life, she thought ruefully as she started to put her gear on, working steadily and carefully under James’s watchful eye.

Even though she’d been training for over a decade now, and she was one of his most trusted colleagues, the guy never could shake his ‘teacher mode’ when he was around other divers. It used to annoy her, especially as a teenager, but now she took it for what it was — a sign that he cared about her. After all, even the most seasoned divers could make oversights and mistakes, and his watchful eye reminded her that he’d catch her if she slipped up. If only the other men in her life were so reliable. Well, calling them ‘men in her life’ may have been a bit of an exaggeration. Though she’d dated a few guys in high school, and there’d been one or two little romances at the scuba school, since she’d turned twenty-one, Nancy had been wanting to branch out a little, romantically. Find someone to get serious with. After all, her career was exactly where she wanted it to be — she had her own place, the next step was a proper relationship. After all, plenty of girls her age — including half of her friends — were already in serious relationships. One of them — Annie, her best friend from primary school — was even engaged.

Unfortunately, though Nancy was ready to get serious, the men around her didn’t seem to have gotten the memo. At her birthday party, she’d asked her friends to set her up on blind dates with the most eligible men they knew. In the six months since her birthday, she’d been on eight truly terrible dates. She was beginning to think she was going to find a real-life sea monster before she found a man who was worth her time. “You look sour.” James was looking at her, one eyebrow raised as he adjusted his drysuit. “Thinking about my love life,” Nancy said, rolling her eyes. She’d regaled everyone at the scuba school with the tales of her terrible dates — especially the guy who’d spent half an hour (incorrectly) explaining basic diving techniques to her. Eventually, she’d interrupted him to tell him that she was a qualified scuba instructor — one of the youngest in North Carolina, actually. Not only had he not stopped talking, he’d chastised her for interrupting him, warning her that talking over people didn’t make a great impression on a first date.

“Give up on men,” Hannah said cheerfully as she checked the line they intended to use as their guideline. “Spend all the time and money you save on diving.” Nancy laughed. “I’m beginning to come around to that opinion.” “So young to be so cynical,” James said, shaking his head. “You’ve got nothing but time, kid. Love’ll find you when you’re not looking for it. Why, I didn’t meet Suzie until —” “— you were thirty-three and ready to give up on love,” Nancy and Hannah finished for him in perfect unison. “Exactly,” he said, unruffled as he brushed a fleck of dust from his goggles. “So, your Mr.

Right is out there. You just might have to give it a year or twelve. That’s the problem with you damn young people, no patience.” “Speaking of patience, are we going in the water or just looking at it?” Hannah asked. “The guideline’s ready to go, and so am I. Let’s see if Nancy’s Mr. Right is at the bottom of this lake, shall we?” With a whoop, Nancy finished fastening her gear, then turned to the lake, ready for action. A CHA PTE R 2 big part of what Nancy loved so much about being underwater was the silence that enveloped her. There was something so unbelievably peaceful about it. The rest of the world always felt so noisy and chaotic after she’d spent some time underwater.

And as they swam as a team toward the bottom of the lake, she sighed with pleasure at the way the silence rushed in. It was fun, diving with friends. They all looked a little like space aliens — masked, covered by the sleek drysuits, their short flippers extending their legs and gloves keeping their hands safe. James was carrying four lights — three was the recommended number, but he always kept an emergency, emergency, emergency backup on him, just in case. He had a horror story about a dive in which he was left in complete darkness, miles under the earth, because of a combination of his main light running out of battery, his second backup breaking and his third backup getting dropped into a crevasse and lost forever. It had been the closest he’d ever gotten to panicking during a dive, he’d told them. Ever since, he’d brought four lights — more for the psychological reassurance than out of any real concern that another disaster like that would happen. Nancy herself carried three lights… but she always checked their battery levels four times. Hannah was in charge of securing the safety line behind them. They reached the mouth of the cave, the sunlight already much weaker than it had been closer to the surface — Nancy switched her main light on, ready to enter the cave, and she and James waited as Hannah secured the safety line outside the cave.

“The good divers always live,” James drilled into all of his students. It was a reassuring statement, but it was also a mnemonic device for remembering the essentials of dive safety — training, guideline, depth, air and light. The guideline would stop them getting lost and be their way back out in case they got turned around or disoriented. Additionally, if too much silt or debris was kicked up, it would allow them to leave the cave even if they couldn’t see. Nancy brushed against the line as they began to swim down, deep into the heart of the cave. It was a reassuring sight when she turned back to look at the mouth of the cave — a lifeline, stretching back up toward the surface, where there was light and air aplenty. Not that there wasn’t air down here. They each had a full tank, and the training that meant they’d make the absolute most of it. James usually operated by the rule of thirds — when your tank reached two-thirds capacity, it was time to turn around and head back. One third of the air for the trip down, one third for the trip back, and one third for emergencies — like if one of your buddies needed to share your air.

Thankfully, the stringent safety protocols followed by the school meant Nancy had never been in that situation… but nevertheless, it paid to be prepared. The deeper you dove, the more quickly you’d consume air — so Nancy, who loved being under for as long as possible, was thrilled to see that the cave system was reasonably shallow. It extended horizontally, rather than vertically, which meant that they could spend a good chunk of time exploring before they’d need to turn around and head back for the surface to change tanks. They’d brought enough equipment for three or four dives, depending on how they went for time. Hannah was in charge of maintaining the guideline, making sure it didn’t snag on anything or fall into any traps. James had claimed the role of photographer — it made sense, Nancy thought with amusement, what with his obsession with lighting. He was photographing the initial cavern they had swum into, and she added her own light to his, making sure that the photos would be clear. They’d start sketching out a map when they got back to the surface. For now, it was wonderful just to be exploring. Nancy checked her air — only a tenth down.

Heaps of time left. She grinned under her mask, scanning the cave, then signaling to James and Hannah that they should move on to the next area. She could see a passage in the north wall of the initial cave space that looked promising — even bigger than the section they were in. A little part of her had never given up on the idea of finding some strange creature that nobody had seen before… not just a new species of fish or plant life, as some of her colleagues had successfully discovered on some of their cave-diving missions, but honest-to-God cryptozoological specimens. Her hopes weren’t high, of course, and she wouldn’t mention them to James — he teased her enough as it is — but still, that was part of the buzz of each new cave that she explored, that maybe there’d be a mermaid or a monster waiting for her around the bend. Hannah knew how much she liked being the first one into a space — the woman handed her the guideline, giving her a wink behind her mask. Nancy didn’t notice, as she swam through the entrance to the next cave with the guideline safely held in her gloved hand, that the rocks above the passageway weren’t as secure-looking as the others. And by the time she felt the frantic yanking on the safety line — Hannah, behind her, who’d seen something she hadn’t — it was too late. Halfway into the new cave, Nancy turned, her eyes widening behind her mask as she realized that the movement of the water stirred up by her passage had triggered a partial collapse in the rocks above the passageway. Nancy had trained for this.

She didn’t scream, as the rocks fell — just flipped her body around and made sure that she swam beyond where the rocks were falling. A cave-in was one thing — getting your body stuck under the rocks was quite another. Before the rocks had even settled, she was running calculations in her head, scanning the space she was in. No time to panic about being separated from her group, about being trapped in an underwater cave with no clear route to the surface… the only thing she had time for was solving the problem. It was a lot of rocks, that was for sure — maybe more than ten minutes’ work to clear them, which mean that air supplies would be running low. But at least the cave-in had stopped there. She could tell her companions on the other side were safe — the guideline moved in her hand, a sign that Hannah was tugging on it from the other side. The best-case scenario, Nancy decided, would be to find air down here. It wasn’t unusual to find pockets of air trapped in cave systems like this, and if she could surface and breathe that air instead of what was in her tanks, she’d have that much more of a chance of survival. On the other side, she knew James and Hannah would be doing everything they could to get her out.

She just had to trust them, do what she could to look after herself, and hope that one day soon, this would all be an exciting story she could tell her students. Nancy yanked the line a few times, grateful that the rocks hadn’t prevented the giveand-take on the line that was allowing her to communicate with her fellows on the other side of the cave-in. Then she started scanning the inside of the cave she was in, her light dancing off the walls of the space. Despite the situation she was stuck in, she wasn’t immune to the fact that she was in a previously unexplored space… a cave nobody had ever been in before. And that nobody ever would be in again, if I die here, she scolded herself. Look for air, not mermaids, you idiot. Bringing the guideline with her — the others would understand from its movement that she was pressing on in search of natural air to breathe to save her tank — Nancy started swimming on, moving cautiously through the branching network of caves. It would be no good at all to get lost… but it also wouldn’t be good to panic and drown. She consciously slowed her breathing to conserve the air she had, telling herself to remember her training. A panicky diver could go through all her oxygen in a couple of minutes.

But Nancy wasn’t a panicky diver. She’d trained for this. She could regulate her heartbeat at will, keep her body in an efficient, low-oxygen state for as long as she needed to. Nancy frowned, narrowing her eyes a little as her light glanced off something strange. Was that a reflection? Some kind of iridescent plant? Strange… it was almost as though there was a light ahead of her in this cave. She swam a little further, surprised to find herself in an even bigger cave than the one previous — it seemed that this network of caves got bigger the deeper they entered, which was fascinating, given the structure of the rocks around it. She focused on what she knew of the geography of the area, trying to compare the maps of the mountains that surrounded the quarry to her understanding of her current position. Could there be another way out, a way to open water on the other side of the cave? That would certainly be helpful now… though she didn’t like the idea of leaving Hannah and James on the other side of that cave-in, worried that she’d drowned in there once they ran out of air and were forced to the surface. She trusted them, though. They’d look after themselves — they were seasoned divers, too, and wouldn’t do anything reckless, even if they thought they were saving her life.

James had a few sad stories like that… he’d lost a friend, once, on an ocean dive, a friend who had neglected the twothirds rule in the interests of pursuing a particular species of fish. James had waited for him, furiously beckoning for him to come back, to resurface, knowing how much air he had and how much he was risking by staying down… but when James had a third of a tank of air left, he knew that he faced a choice between heading for the surface alone… or staying with his friend and drowning along with him. He had surfaced, full of anger and grief. His friend hadn’t. They had recovered his body not long after, still down among the fish he’d been so determined to find. Stop thinking about drowning, Nancy, she instructed herself stridently. Curious about what she could see ahead of her, she switched her handheld light off — and to her surprise, realized that it wasn’t the only light source in the cave. Sure enough, up ahead was a light… a clear, white light, glowing strangely through the water. What on Earth could that be? She’d seen phosphorescent species of fish — this was too still to be one of those. It looked for all the world like the light at the top of a lighthouse, beckoning her onwards.

She hesitated, a little unsure — but there was nowhere else to go, no other passages that branched off the cave she was in. So she swam on, toward the light. Then — without warning, and to her great shock — the light expanded, engulfing her.

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