Report to the Commissioner

Cairo Shah hurried to report the situation on Aquarius to his employer at the Exploration Guild, Commissioner Siddhartha Li. The commissioner was more than just the wizened, silver-haired, and wily old man who had hired Cairo to do a job. Li was Cairo’s longtime friend and mentor, and one of the few people in all the Worlds who could have asked Cairo to do him the personal favor of postponing his vacation to Babylon Eridani colony, and instead go on an urgent mission to Aquarius.

When Cairo reached his guest apartment, he quickly began making the necessary preparations, both subtle and crude, for a confidential telephone call to the Commissioner. He locked his apartment door; swept the room with an espionage-grade scanner to detect hidden listening devices; and for good measure, swept the adjacent corridors and apartments with his mind to detect nosy eavesdroppers. But after Shah finished his preparations, he inexplicably stopped and looked around the room anxiously as if searching for one more thing to do instead of simply making his telephone call. All he had to do to to initiate the call was tap the pulsing green icon on his tablet computer’s screen. 

But he didn’t.

Cairo knew he was procrastinating, but he suppressed that insight and ensconced himself on a small sofa; pretzeled one angled leg beneath the other; and fidgeted with his tablet computer until he found the perfect angle to cradle it in his lap. All the same, the urgency of his report nagged him relentlessly. Not yet willing to give in to his adversary, common sense, Cairo turned his gaze to the picture-window display on his apartment wall and stared at the computer-generated image of deep blue water streaming past the Hoosegow’s hull. In the distance, shoals of fish passed like dark storm clouds, and the undersea terrain melded into submerged mountains. The view was serene, like a meditation, and it gradually made Cairo calm down enough to face the fear that was preventing him from calling the Commissioner.

A half hour earlier, just after he carried Joshua to sickbay to be attended to by Dr. Susan and fretted over by Olivia, Cairo loitered outside in the corridor for a moment. There, he used his gear’s comm link to call the bridge and speak to Capt. Paul Marshal in private. Marshal was dubious when Cairo said the captain had to get underway as fast as possible for the Hoosegow’s next port of call, the Cedar Rapids city encampment, and warn the authorities there of a probable, imminent, Sea-Devils attack. When Capt. Paul asked how the aquaman knew Cedar Rapids was in danger, Cairo was pained to say he wasn’t at liberty to explain at the moment. “I know I haven’t given you hard evidence to justify my request,” Cairo had said, “but for the sake of the Cedar Rapids encampment, trust me.” 

Captain Paul Marshal’s knee-jerk reaction had been to balk, and wonder why he should turn his boat around as well as terrify the Cedar Rapids authorities just because Cairo Shah—an outlander, a foreigner, a stranger who was clearly keeping secrets of his own—had said so. But then Chief Deputy Paul Marshal’s instincts as a lawman had kicked in. After years of interrogating suspects, Paul’s knack for reading people’s sincerity was as tried and true as the wisdom of Solomon. So even as Cairo was going to Joshua’s bedside, the Hoosegow banked and accelerated toward Cedar Rapids.

Cairo stared at his tablet computer’s screen, but he still didn’t tap the pulsing green icon.

Shah grew up in a small town beside a wadi on the edge of an endless desert that held little promise of advancement, amazement, or adventure. But because he had a profound psychic Talent, he could seize the opportunity to train and hire out his skills to clients on amazing worlds all over colonized space. Compared to the dead-end life his birthplace offered, this aquamarine water-world was a paradise. 

Cairo liked Aquarius. He liked its sea breezes. He liked its warm waters. He liked its snow-white clouds looming over the horizon at every point of the compass rose as if they were the Himalayas or Mons Olympus. He even liked the irascible Aquarians who, like the waitress he met on his first day here, had survived being marooned on a dangerous, inhospitable world for three decades; primarily by being feisty, indomitable, and resolute. And Cairo especially liked one Aquarian in particular: a mermaid with exotic eyes, a sharp mind, and a loving heart. 

But despite his personal feelings, Shah was a professional, and more importantly, an ethical man. He was honor-bound to give a complete and honest report to Commissioner Li, but Cairo knew what was at stake: Because of his report—because of his words alone—Aquarius colony might be shut down, its colonists evicted from their adopted planet, and its exiles scattered across the colonized Worlds. And worst of all—most terrifying of all—because of his report, Olivia Marshal might hate him forever.

The vast distance between Cairo and Siddhartha, combined with the limited speed of light, meant their telephone conversation would normally be doomed to take millennia between one saying, “Hello,” and the other answering, “How have you been?” But the modern version of Alexander Graham Bell’s 1876 C.E. invention provided a solution.

The mouthpiece of Bell’s invention encoded a key property of the speaker’s voice, the volume, as a stream of electrical signals; the stream was transmitted through copper wires to the distant listener’s matching telephone; and then the earpiece of the listener’s telephone used the stream to create a replica of the speaker’s voice.

In a manner similar to Bell’s invention, Siddhartha Li’s computer encoded some of the key proper­ties that made him, him—in particular, his voice, visage, and mind—into a data packet. That data packet was transmitted through normal space between quantum-entangled communication nodes, and through who-knows-what-kind-of-space inside and between star-gates, until it reached Cairo’s tablet computer. Admittedly, the packet had to travel for months, but it was still the fastest way to communicate over such huge distances. 

Once Cairo’s computer had the data packet, the computer could use it at any time to create an artificially intelligent, real-time replica that looked, sounded, thought, and acted on behalf of the real, flesh-and-blood Siddhartha Li. That is, Cairo’s computer could create Li’s doppel­gänger, his telephone avatar. At the end of the telephone call, the difference between what the avatar knew before and after its conversation with Cairo could be encoded into a new data packet and sent back to the flesh-and-blood Li to update his mind with a memory of the conversation. 

All things considered, Alexander Graham Bell would be proud.

Siddhartha Li’s data packet was already stored in Cairo’s tablet computer. In fact, it was that telephone call that had diverted Cairo from his vacation to Babylon Eridani and sent him to Aquarius in the first place. There was only one thing left to do. Resignedly, Cairo tapped the pulsing green icon. 

In a heartbeat, Siddhartha’s three-dimensional avatar was looking out the rectangle of Cairo’s tablet display as if the Commissioner was peeking out a magic window from his office in the Geneva metroplex, Savoy region, Earth. “Hello, Cairo. Good to see you again, my young friend,” the avatar cheerfully started to say. “You look…well, actually…you look like hell. What’s wrong?”

Cairo glumly gave his friend a perfunctory greeting, and then stoically address­ed what was troubling him. “The situation here is worse than what you said,” Cairo answered. “I know you commissioners in the Exploration Guild employ fortune-tellers to forewarn you of future threats to the colony Worlds. So maybe they told you trouble, maybe even a disaster, was coming to Aquarius. Well, it isn’t just a disaster that’s on its way, it’s a full-fledged catastrophe. And I don’t see any way to stop it.”

Li’s avatar turned deadly serious, laced his fingers into a church steeple beneath his pursed lips, and then pressed his agent for details. Cairo quickly briefed him about the players and political situation on Aquarius, and then told him about the Sea-Devils’ attack on Sioux City. 

“Actual sea dragons attacked the city? Leviathans?” said Li’s avatar, looking at turns appalled and disbelieving. “That must have been terrifying. I can see why you would call it a ‘disaster,’ ” he commiserated, and then inexplicably seemed to relax. “But even as bad as a wild animal attack on an underwater city might be, the Guild thought the threat would be much worse. At least judging from how hysterical our usually levelheaded prescients became. No offense, Cairo, but the natural disaster you describe doesn’t quite qualify as a catastrophe.”

Cairo looked sourly at Siddhartha until the commissioner noticed he was being stared at, and felt the anxiety that he had just shrugged off, climb back into the pit of his electronic stomach. “I think your psychics were right,” Cairo said. “The attack on Sioux City wasn’t the whole problem. It was just the beginning.”

“Explain,” Li said.

Cairo took a deep breath, gathered his thoughts, and then said, “The key to what happened next is the boy I mentioned, the untrained psychic.”

“Joshua Marshal? The prodigy?” Li asked. “His transformation into a merman at birth didn’t complete for some reason, right? The lad is amphibious, but he has to wear modified aquaman gear to function fully? So he’s like you. I see. And you say he’s psychic too?”

“Yes,” Cairo replied. “I’ve trained so many years to unconsciously reject intrusive thoughts, I’d forgotten what it’s like to be untrained. To be relentlessly bombarded by everyone else’s thoughts, be they joyful or sad, ecstatic or despairing, beautiful or grotesque. Joshua’s not just a prodigy, he’s a survivor. Most psychics who reach his age without receiving formal psychic training end up going a little mad in one way or another. The fact that Joshua has remained sane is in itself, amazing.

“In any case,” Cairo continued, “in order to teach Joshua how to defend himself from the thoughts of others, I had to consciously drop my defenses and perceive the world as he does. I had to make my mind as open as a child’s.”

Cairo pointedly said to Siddhartha, “You described the assault on the Sioux City encampment as a ‘natural disaster’ caused by a ‘wild animal attack.’ But after the Sea-Devils’ attack, I heard themangrily talking to…each other—telepathically.”

“Them?” Siddhartha said, confused. “Cairo, please, have mercy on a poor old bureaucrat who’s not a mind-reader. Be clear, whose minds did you read? Someone in the crew of the Hoosegow? Or the delegates on board the submarine?”

“Neither,” Cairo said, his expression as lifeless as a drowned sailor’s. “I mean the Sea-Devils. The Sea-Devils were communicating among themselves…telepathically. I heard them clearly. There’s no doubt. The Sea-Devils spoke to each other rationally, and with intent. 

“You know what that means, don’t you, Siddhartha? You know.” 

The Exploration Guild had found plenty of simple alien life, mindless flora and fauna, on other worlds. But this was different. Humankind had dreamed of meeting aliens ever since the Greeks began mythologizing the past, and H. G. Wells began inventing the future. And arguably now it had happened. Cairo paused to let what he had said sink into the quantum electronic mind of Li’s avatar.

“You’re telling me…” Comm. Li said, in an oddly flat voice, “that these Sea-Devils aren’t merely…wild animals?” The simulated commissioner slowly fell back into his simulated office chair. “Then these are the beings the Exploration Guild has been looking for ever since we first sent explorers and colonists into space with our blessings,” he said. “They’re what cavemen covered in tribal markings have been looking for ever since they first crawled out of their dens and gazed at the stars.” Li inhaled and exhaled loudly. “The Sea-Devils are sentient alien life.” 

“Which means,” Cairo said, expanding his point, “this first encounter is actually First Contact. We’ve always thought First Contact would be critically important because it would set the tone for subsequent communications with alien life. But look what happened at this First Contact: The Sea-Devils attacked Sioux City; destroyed the downtown complex; traumatized every man, woman, and child in the city; and then sent those denizens swimming madly for dear life. By now, every Aquarian on the planet has heard over the newsfeeds what happened to Sioux City, and I’m sure they’re both terrified and enraged. 

“I can still feel the subconscious thoughts of everyone aboard this boat crashing into my brain like a tidal wave against the shore,” Cairo said. “The Aquarians might not say it, but they’re all thinking it: They want revenge against the Sea-Devils, not just because of the damage to the city the sea monsters caused, but because of how unbearably small, helpless, and vulnerable the Sea-Devils’ attack makes them feel.

“It doesn’t matter that humanity wants First Contact, or that their scientific pilgrimages to Aquarius will bring renown and an economic boom,” Cairo said, serious as an undertaker. “It doesn’t matter what the rest of the Worlds want—the Aquarians have felt abandoned by the Worlds for over three decades. They could care less about humanity—What they want is simple: they want blood. And right now, it doesn’t much matter that that blood is alien.

“So tell me, Siddhartha, how do you think second contact is going to go between the Aquarians and the Sea-Devils?”

“It will be a massacre,” Siddhartha said softly, more to himself than to his ex-protege.

Cairo grunted in agreement, and then said, “We know next to nothing about the Sea-Devils or their civilization, but let’s imagine the worse. What if the Sea-Devils are allied with other aliens beyond the stars? If the Aquarians attack the Sea-Devils, will any hypothetical survivors and allies counterattack? And will the counterattack stop at Aquarius, or will it stretch all the way to the home world where the Aquarians came from? Is that possible future ‘catastrophic’ enough for you?”

For a few endless moments, the psychic and the avatar sat in their respective spaces, saying nothing. At last, Cairo softened and said, “I’m sorry, Siddhartha. I shouldn’t have snapped at you. I just haven’t been thinking straight lately.” His tone of voice was wretched and hushed. Inside his heart, his professional ethics and personal desires were still snarling at each other like a pair of junkyard dogs. “I can’t remember when I’ve ever felt so miserable and at odds with myself. By simply making this report, instead of lying or keeping my damned mouth shut, I’ve made things worse for the people here.”

To Shah’s surprise, Li didn’t rebuke him, but chuckled instead. “It’s the girl, isn’t it? What’s her name? Olivia?” Cairo didn’t reply in so many words, but his swarthy complexion reddened with embarrassment.

“Good for you, my young friend,” the Commissioner said. “How often have I told you that you work too hard? That you should find a nice girl and settle down, for at least a while. But did you listen to me?” Then, turning serious, he asked, “Have you told the Aquarians yet about what you’ve learned?”

“No, not yet,” Cairo said. “But I’ve called a meeting tonight after dinner of the most relevant Hoosegow senior crew. I figure that after a good meal they’ll be in a better mood to hear bad news. I’m not inviting the political delegates though. I need to talk to and read a few of them first.”

Shah sighed and leaned back in his sofa. “I know that when this conversation is over, you’ll have to send Guild representatives to Aquarius,” he said. “But at least I’ll have several weeks before the XG arrives to try to negotiate a peace between the Aquarians and the Sea-Devils. That’s hopeful news, right?” 

Cairo found himself becoming increasingly anxious when Comm. Li didn’t answer promptly. “Right?” Cairo repeated. “Your people will take weeks of space travel to get here—You have no idea what wonders I can do given a few weeks. Remember how I settled that feud between the Venusian cloud colonies at the last moment?” Silence. “Li? Right?”

Finally, after much more than a meaningless pause, Siddhartha said, “First Contact sets in motion several special protocols. The rules that govern when these protocols take effect are written into specific clauses of the contract that every colonial consortium signs with the XG. Most colonists mistakenly think the conditions that would trigger those clauses are too unlikely to ever occur, but those rules are in the contract for a reason. And the XG will enforce them as vigorously as it enforces peace among the colonies. 

“Regardless of whether a colony is fully owned, as is the case for the colonies on Mars or Luna; or is probationally owned, as is still the case for Aquarius despite it being lost for 30 years; First Contact allows the Exploration Guild to reclaim jurisdiction of the colony.

“You were concerned about reporting to me not so much because you were afraid of alarming all the Aquarians, but because you were worried about upsetting Olivia Marshal,” Sid­dhartha remarked. A nostalgic smile creased his cheeks as he recalled being young and romantic, and meeting for the first time the woman who would eventually become his wife. 

“I assume you were worried because you obviously were too distracted to think through the problem clearly,” Li said, as his bemused smile melted into seriousness. “I’m sure you were worried sick, but you shouldn’t have been. The die was cast long before you set foot on Aquarius.”

Cairo recoiled in surprise, while doubt darkened his face. 

“You have to understand, my young friend,” said Li. “The Exploration Guild employs some of the best sooth-sayers in all the Worlds, and here they were, clutching their skulls, rolling on the floor in the fetal position, wailing about incipient doom emanating from Aquarius. But without specific information about the threat, what were we Commissioners to do? What was the only thing we could do?”

In a tone of voice normally reserved for when you suddenly realize who the murderer must be at the end of a mystery novel, Cairo answered, “You acted proactively.”

“As I said before, my young friend, First Contact triggers several special protocols. Now I can share certain information that I wasn’t at liberty to divulge previously,” Siddhartha said. “We had no way of knowing the nature of the imminent catastrophe on Aquarius, so we had to act in the strongest manner possible. We diverted the fully armed and combat-ready battleship, the Sword of Orion, from returning to Earth after war game exercises and redirected it to Aquarius.”

Cairo countered, “The Aquarians will never accept being intimidated, even by an orbiting battleship hanging over their heads. There’s no love lost between the Aquarians and the home Worlds; that bitterness is embedded in their culture. They’ll fight. They’ll resist, and it won’t be pretty. They’ll—” 

Siddhartha interrupted his ex-protege and said, “The Sword of Orion carries an entire battalion of telephone warriors.” He paused a moment to let his words sink in. 

Throughout history, militaries have scrutinized every new, otherwise benign, technology for its usefulness as a weapon of war. If a person’s telephone avatar on a distant planet is hosted in a humanlike robot instead of a personal computer, the combination becomes a telephone puppet that can act in the physical world on the person’s behalf. But if a telephone avatar is hosted in a hulking, anthropomorphic, heavily-armed and armored robotic tank built like a Japanese anime fever dream, such as each battalion member on board the Sword of Orion, then the combination becomes a never-dying telephone warrior that can level cities, vanquish flesh-and-blood armies, and conquer worlds.

“Successful contact with sentient aliens is of paramount importance,” Siddhartha continued, “even if it means doing something as objectionable as temporarily restraining settlers in their own colony.” Cairo had been cut off in mid-sentence, but now remained silent, dumbfounded, unable to think of a counter to what Siddhartha was saying.

After a few seconds, Cairo recovered his composure. Then he said, half to Li, and half to himself thinking out loud, “Maybe I can persuade the Aquarians to not fight a hopeless rebellion. I am a negotiator after all. Is that why you really sent me here, Li? Anyway, it took me months to travel here. How much time do I have until the battleship reaches Aquarius? Months? Weeks?”

“How about days?” Siddhartha said, dryly, but in all candor. He wasn’t surprised that Cairo looked crestfallen but not taken aback by hearing more bad news. His ex-protege was getting used to hearing the situation go from bad to worse.

“Despite what the Aquarians think,” said Commissioner Li, “the other Worlds did not abandon or forget them. We simply didn’t know where they had vanished. My predecessor was the commissioner responsible for looking after what is now called the Aquarius colony. Now that commissioner was a woman not to be trifled with! She never ceased prodding and coaxing the Commissioners to do everything in their power to find the lost colony. Five years ago, she prevailed. A pioneer drone exploring the network of interconnected star-gates entered the solar system housing the Aquarius colony and heard their planetary identification beacon. 

“Now, as my predecessor’s protege and successor,” Siddhartha said, “it is my honor and duty to help Aquarius colony re-assimilate with the other Worlds. It is important to patiently reassure the Aquarians that the rest of the Worlds are not their enemies. But it was obvious to me that quiet assimilation was endangered by us sending a fully-armed battleship that might possibly impose insufferable martial law. It seemed like a good idea to me, to get someone I trusted on the scene first.”

Cairo listened attentively to what Comm. Li said, but then cocked his head to one side and raised an eyebrow. “Wait a minute,” Cairo said, leaning toward the screen of his tablet computer. “Pardon the pun, Li, but there’s something fishy about your story. You Commissioners had already made the decision to send a battleship to Aquarius, so you had no reason to send for me as well. That means…” Suddenly an enlightened grin dawned on Cairo’s face like the sunrise. “You ol’ scoundrel! You didn’t have permission from the Guild to hire me. That’s why you asked me to come to Aquarius as a favor!”

Siddhartha smiled like the cat that swallowed the cream. “I just didn’t know, at the time, how important your presence would be, Cairo. And like I always say, isn’t it better to ask for forgiveness later, than for permission first?”

Cairo fell back in his sofa and cradled his forehead in the palm of his hand. The wily old bureaucrat had done it again, Shah mused. Siddhartha Li had sidestepped the system to address what he perceived to be an urgent problem.

“Listen. Cairo. I’m sorry. I’ll make it up to you,” Commissioner Li said, contritely. “When this telephone call is over, send the update packet right away so I can work on smoothing feathers before the Sword of Orion sends back its first status report. During the meantime, you have that meeting with the crew of your submarine. Their main job is law enforcement, which means they’ll be in the thick of a conflict of interest when the military arrives and demands cooperation from the civilian authorities. You’re the only one in a position to mitigate the damage when that happens. You must do what you can.”

“ ‘Do what I can’?” Cairo said incredulously. “What do you expect me to do? I can’t work miracles.”

“I know, my young friend. But I have faith in you. I’ve had faith in your abilities ever since I selected you, years ago, to be one of my interns. Perhaps you can do nothing. That would not be a sin. But if anyone needs help now, it’s the Aquarians. And if anyone can help them, it’s you.”

In the remainder of the telephone call, Siddhartha brought Cairo up to speed on the Exploration Guild’s protocol for reclaiming jurisdiction of a colony. And then Cairo updated Siddhartha about who were the participants in the Sea-Devils’ conversation during the Sioux City attack—that last surprise detail being the twist of the knife in an already bad situation. But all the while they were talking, in the back of his mind, Cairo kept revisiting Li’s assertion that he was the Aquarius colony’s only hope, and skeptically asking himself, “Me?”

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