A Prescription for Melancholy

Dr. Susan Marshal checked a readout on the display above Joshua’s bed, then scrutinized the boy with her own eyes to verify the machine’s diagnosis. Olivia sat anxiously by the boy’s bedside, and Cairo walked back in from the adjacent corridor and stood concernedly behind the mermaid. 

The doctor made a chart note then said to the aquaman, “Thank you for bringing Josh’ to me as quickly as you did, Mr. Shah. I gave him a small dose of contra-psilene as you suggested, and it seems to have helped. He’s stable now, and I’ve given him a sedative.” Then she said to him and her daughter, “Why don’t we retire to my work station and let the boy sleep?”

Olivia squeezed Joshua’s hand as lovingly as if she were his real mother, then stood up and reluctantly followed behind her own mother. Cairo paused briefly to regard the boy with half-hooded eyes, and then once satisfied, followed the two merwomen.

As Cairo walked to the work station, he thought he must be learning the normal creaks and vibrations on the Hoosegow because he could tell that the ship had changed course and accelerated to flank speed.

By the time Olivia and Cairo settled in their chairs on the other side of Dr. Susan’s work desk, the physician was already reviewing Joshua’s medical file. She swiped her webbed fingers across the image of the medical file displayed on her desk, and windows displaying the boy’s medical history, current pulse and temperature, and his sleeping image flew out to their places on the desktop. 

“Ma, what’s wrong with Joshua?” Olivia said distraughtly. She should have addressed the doctor by her title or rank, but Susan Marshal was also Olivia’s mother, and right now Olivia needed her mother’s comfort as much as she needed her expertise. “Joshua’s behavior has always been surprising,” Olivia said, “but you didn’t see him on the bridge. He was ranting, delusional, and I…and I…I didn’t know how to help him. I was scared to death.” Olivia’s face contorted with the memory of that moment. “If Cairo hadn’t been able to—I don’t know what exactly; bond with Joshua?—and calm him down, then I’m certain Joshua would have hurt himself.”

“Now, now, Liv,” Dr. Susan said, reaching across her desk to grasp her daughter’s hand. “Josh’s vital signs are all normal now. His pulse, blood pressure, and metabolic panels are all normal, and he’s resting peacefully. Actually, he’s a little better than normal. Before he fell asleep, he clearly seemed more outgoing and communicative, if that makes sense. It’s as if Josh had a seizure, but Mr. Shah’s presence comforted and changed him for the better. As for Mr. Shah himself, I think you’re right. He has an extraordinary knack for putting people at ease—”

“ ‘A knack for putting people at ease’?” Olivia scoffed. “Ma, I was there. I’m a witness. I saw what I saw.” Then she abruptly turned toward Cairo with fire in her green eyes. “Thank you for doing whatever you did to help Joshua. Believe me, I have no words to express my gratitude. But if either of you tries one more time to tell me to calm down, and that you helped Joshua with—What? The laying on of hands?—then I’m going to have a very nasty fit myself!” 

Dr. Susan and Cairo gave each other furtive glances, but they weren’t free to say anything. Olivia caught their secretive looks and demanded, “What are you two hiding?” Then to her mother, “Is there something wrong with Joshua?” And then to Cairo, mere centimeters from his face, “And does whatever’s wrong with Joshua have something to do with you being a psychic?

“Olivia Anne Marshal!” exclaimed Dr. Susan. “What kind of nonsense are you going on about? You know psychics aren’t well thought of. Accusing Mr. Shah of such foolishness—“

“It’s no use trying to cover for him, Ma,” Olivia said, with her jaw firmly set. “I’m a cop, remember? And a damn good one too. I’ve noticed clues ever since we picked Cairo up at the space-elevator port. 

“Besides, who are you to talk, Ma? If Cairo’s a psychic, and he was sent by the Exploration Guild, then as captain of this boat, Pa had to be informed. And if Pa knew, then as commander, you had to know too. The only person here who everyone is trying to keep in the dark, is me!”

Having vented her frustration, Olivia fell back in her chair and fumed silently. Dr. Susan signaled with her eyes that Shah should keep his secret and say nothing, leaving them both to suffer the singeing heat of Olivia’s anger. 

But Cairo couldn’t ignore his growing respect and affection for Olivia, and Joshua as well. Olivia was too smart to ignore, and she loved Joshua too much for Cairo to leave her in doubt. And so, after a while, he hazarded to ask, “Olivia, what do you know about the Academy operated by the New Parapsychology Institute?” 

“Not much,” Olivia said suspiciously, not certain what Shah was driving at. “It’s some sort of school for psychics, isn’t it? Just for Working Class Telepaths?”

“It’s something like that, but quite a bit more,” Cairo said, forgiving Olivia her inadvertent slur. Aquarius had been isolated from the colonized Worlds for 30 years, and it still harbored vile, outdated, attitudes and stereotypes in its culture. “We don’t care to be called ‘Working Class Telepaths,’ ” Cairo said. “We prefer to be called ‘Talented.’

“It’s been decades since the accidental escape of a mutated biomedical virus led to a Worlds-wide pandemic; the subtle, unplanned modification of everyone’s DNA; and the resulting emergence of latent paranormal abilities in some people,” Cairo said. “Profound psychic abilities can manifest as early as childhood, which necessitates training those people how to control their abilities and not harm others or themselves. The Academy is where people learn.”

“And you think this is relevant to Josh’s case?” said Dr. Susan. “You think Joshua is…a psychic?” asked Olivia.

“It’s quite possible,” Cairo said, answering both merwomen’s question with one reply. “Olivia, when we first met you were interested in my aquaman gear because you were thinking about modernizing Joshua’s own gear. But after meeting Joshua, I was interested in why he needed aquatic gear in the first place. The founding Aquarians who genetically reengineered their fellow colonists opted to make their genetic changes heritable. Their changes wouldn’t only transform the original colonists, but would transform the colonists’ offspring so they would be born amphibious. Which made me wonder, what went wrong with Joshua? Why was he born looking human instead of transformed?

“Metamorphosis requires precisely mapping the subject’s genes and how they interact at each stage of the transformation; otherwise, the metamorphosis can fail. But it’s not currently possible to precisely map the genetics that make a person Talented, and so it’s not always possible to reliably engineer their metamorphosis. That exception made me wonder if the reason Joshua didn’t transform is that he’s Talented. 

“That question was answered for me when we were at your home talking and Joshua was lurking behind an aquarium. Did you notice that when he was near the red and blue fish, they schooled and swam in circles? At first I thought they shoaled that way naturally. But when Joshua left the room, the fish swam at random like most other sea creatures. I think Joshua made the fish swim in circles.”

Dr. Susan’s lips curled into the dubious grin all mothers wear when they catch their kids try to pull a fast one by telling their parents a fantastically ludicrous story. “Are you trying to tell me Joshua’s ‘profound Talent’ is that he…talks to fish?”

“No, no, nothing quite so literal,” Cairo hurried to say, as he submissively held his hands palms up. “A psychic can have one or more of the basic paranormal skills, to varying degrees. How those skills manifest depends largely on the personality of the psychic. You told me Joshua is standoffish around people, but loves animals so much he specializes in zoology. 

“My guess is that Joshua is primarily a telepath; a mind-reader like me. That’s how he can, shall we say, ‘encourage’ fish to shoal in circles. But without formal training he doesn’t know how to control his Talent and keep other people’s thoughts and emotions from invading his mind. 

“You have no idea what it’s like for an untrained psychic to try to cope with a power they don’t understand, while trying to hold back the onslaught of other people’s thoughts, every hour of every day, day in and day out.”

The pained look in Cairo’s eyes when he described the trials of an untrained telepath made Olivia suspect the aquaman’s story was more personal than merely general. That look made Olivia think of a child who was hurt and alone, and it made her own heart hurt in turn.

Cairo said, “Joshua had to discover ways to protect himself on his own. The best coping mechanism he had, before I taught him a few tricks, was to keep people at a distance. I believe that’s why he seems withdrawn.”

Cairo turned to Olivia with a strangely somber air about himself. “From what I’ve learned recently,” he said, “I have to give credit to your family, and especially you, for raising a troubled genius for so many years without guidance, and still have him be relatively well-adjusted. 

Believe me—” Cairo said in a way that reverberated deep inside her brain like God’s truth, “some untrained psychics can’t cope with the mysteries and terrors of having a Talent. Some become emotionally disturbed, some go mad, and some…some become something worse. It’s a testament to your love and support that Joshua, by and large, is highly functional, a benefit to your boat, and most of all, happy.”

“Thank you,” Olivia said modestly, quietly, belying her unspoken pride.

A subtle smile graced Dr. Susan’s lips as she regarded her daughter. Then she said, “So you think my patient would benefit from attending this Academy? How can that be arranged?”

“I know some people,” Cairo said, with a mischievous grin. “I can put in a good word on Joshua’s behalf.” Cairo’s aquatic suit unfolded like a construction crane as he stood up to leave. “Besides, I need to make a report to the Exploration Guild to tell them what happened at Sioux City.” 

For an instant, Olivia thought her trained law enforcer’s eye caught sight of a flicker of concern or doubt—or was it apprehension?—that dulled Cairo’s smile. 

“I’ll see both of you at dinner?” Cairo asked in parting. “There’s a lot that I need to tell you; your whole family, actually. But I have to take care of some things first.” Then he left the sickbay, consulted his data goggles for the fastest way back to his apartment, and was gone. 

Meanwhile, Dr. Susan scooped together the separate windows of Joshua’s medical records until they flew back into the image of his file, then swept the file into the image of a filing cabinet on her desktop, and finally double-tapped the cabinet to lock it tight. When she was done, a wry smile crinkled her face as she commented to her daughter, “Well, I can see why you’ve got eyes for Mr. Shah, Liv. He’s sweet and cute. If I was a few years younger—and your father had passed away, of course—”

“Mother!” Olivia exclaimed with embarrassment. But it wasn’t entirely clear whether she was embarrassed by her mother’s ribaldry, or by her shrewd sussing out of Olivia’s true feelings for the visitor from the colonized Worlds.

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