Tough Audience

Cairo’s status meeting with the senior crew members of the Hoosegow went pretty much as he expected; that is to say, it was a near riot. “You’re telling me those sea monsters are really aliens? And now those know-nothing desk-jockeys at the XG are sending jackbooted troops to take over our colony? Over my dead body!” said most everyone in their own, sometimes polite but usually more colorful, way. Cairo, who had far more experience with outraged complainants than his tender age might suggest, took their anger in stride until it was spent, like a surfer riding a wave that he knew would eventually break.

The meeting took place in the Captain’s ready room, a small, multi-purpose conference room aft of the bridge and forward of the captain’s private office. A goodly number of experienced or expert specialist crew, ranging from adolescents to octogenarians, were crammed into the ready room alongside the key players, Capt. Paul, Cdr. Dr. Susan, Dep. Olivia, Dep. Billy, and Science Dep. Joshua Marshal, whom he had already briefed. 

Before Cairo told the crew why he had called them together, he told them they were likely to experience a string of unexpected feelings and reactions after he explained what was on his mind. He told them they would feel shock and denial; guilt; the desperate need to bargain for a way out; depression; hope; and finally, acceptance. The crew looked at each other out the corner of their eyes with poorly concealed skepticism. “Why is this outlander, this aquaman, inter­rupting their evening with this cloak-and-dagger nonsense, and presuming to tell them what they would feel? Who does he think he is?” thought, more or less, everyone to themselves. Cairo knew—literally—what they were thinking, but paid that no mind. Instead, he plunged ahead and told them the redacted version of his and Siddhartha Li’s telephone call.

After the crew’s initial cries of, “Sentient aliens? Impossible!” and “The Exploration Guild expects us, just because we’re also lawmen, to prevent people from avenging the Sioux City raid? Never!,” a handful of crew members happened to notice that they were refusing to accept facts. And when they finally did, they felt guilty about doing their clear duty.

By the time the bulk of the crew finished shouting, “Maybe we can convince the telephone warriors to stand down. This is our world, and we’re the local authorities,” and then morosely counter-arguing, “But no. They’re hard-as-nails combat troops. They’ll never listen to us,” more than a handful of crewmen realized they were vainly bargaining with the inevitable, and sinking into depression. 

By the time most of the crew members thought through the situation and began saying, “Mr. Shah, you’re respected by the authorities on the home Worlds. Won’t you speak on our behalf?,” they realized Cairo’s prediction had come true. And because Cairo had almost magically demonstrated that he knew what he was saying, only the most headstrong members of the crew remained skeptical. But of course, the young are by nature, the most headstrong of all.

Dep. Billy Marshal liked Cairo Shah in a way; the aquaman represented a universe beyond his imagining. But despite that, Billy didn’t take anything for granted. And so, putting on a breastplate of bravado, said, “I understand that you ‘heard’—is that the right term?—the Sea-Devils talking among themselves telepathically. And what they said made you ask my father to rush us off to the Cedar Rapids encampment. But you seem to have conveniently left one key detail out: What did the Sea-Devils say that made our new mission so urgent? What did those sea monsters actually say?” 

Olivia stared daggers at Billy and leaned forward sharply. “Little brother, remember what I did when we were kids and you’d start popping off? I hope you’re not being rude and insinuating Cairo is hiding something.” 

“You two mind your manners,” Cdr. Dr. Susan said sternly, scowling. “I raised you better than to squabble at the table.” Then turning to Cairo, she said in a calm, warm voice, “I’m sorry, Mr. Shah. Everyone on board this boat can speak freely at open conferences, provided they follow the rules of etiquette. But I think we’re all on edge. 

“Aliens. Martial law. Perhaps being forced to restrain our fellow citizens. Maybe even losing our colony, our home. It’s a lot to take in. But my kids understand that now—” The mother of the two siblings glowered at her momentarily childish children in a way only a mother can. “—And they won’t do it again…now will they?” 

“ ‘Not a problem, Commander,” said Cairo, releasing the pent up pressure in the conference room. At the same time, he did not let on how surprised he was when Olivia leaped to his defense, and used his friendly name, and how unexpectedly happy that made him feel. 

Cairo turned to face the meeting, but now that Billy Marshall had let loose Doubt from Pandora’s Box, it lingered in everyone’s mind, like the stench of rotting flesh—Cairo could read it. If doubt was allowed to fester in the crew’s minds, it would erode all the trust he had fought so hard to establish. He knew he had to deal with it, and deal with it now.

“It’s reasonable to ask what the Sea-Devils said,” Cairo began, “but what I’ve been struggling to understand is who said it.” 

Cairo took his time, not speaking right away, but taking the opportunity to read the tenor of thoughts in the room to make sure everyone’s attention was on him. “Joshua has skills similar to mine. He heard the speaker I’m referring to first, but he didn’t have the proper training to clearly read the speaker’s mind. To Joshua, the speaker was just ‘the Angry Man’ whose raging thoughts were so loud they made Joshua’s mind hurt. When I adjusted my mind to think like Joshua, I heard the Angry Man too. But my training enabled me to hear those raving, violent, haranguing thoughts more clearly.”

“Wait a minute, Mr. Shah,” Billy Marshal said, squinting and holding up the palm of one web-fingered hand to pause Cairo’s narrative. “Your choice of words is confusing. When you say the ‘Angry Man,’ you mean you’ve named one of the Sea-Devils the Angry Man, and that Sea-Devil is the one who incited the others to attack. Is that what you mean?”

“No, it’s not,” Cairo said gently. “I said exactly what I meant to say. It was not another Sea-Devil who incited the other Sea-Devils to attack. It was a person, a human being—most likely a man, but in any case another telepath like Joshua or me—who stirred the Sea-Devils to violence. I think Joshua must have been hearing the Angry Man from a distance for some time now.”

“Another telepath?” Billy said in exasperation. “I thought psychics were supposed to be rare. Just how many of you are there?” Billy was understandably frustrated by things he didn’t understand, so Cairo forgave his rudeness, but ignored him all the same.

“It was the Angry Man who goaded, and agitated, and whipped up the the Sea-Devils to such a frenzy that they attacked Sioux City,” Cairo said. “It was only the courageous actions of you aboard the Hoosegow that shocked the sea dragons and drove them off. But as they began swimming back into the depths, I heard the Angry Man scream at them to ignore their failure at Sioux City, and instead head to their next target.”

Cairo paused for dramatic effect, and to read the room again. Satisfied, he said, “The Angry Man told the Sea-Devils to make their way to their next target, the Cedar Rapids encampment, and attack immediately. That’s what I heard. That’s why we changed course. That’s where we’re going.” 

Cairo let the hubbub of excited reactions crescendo and then die down. “You all saw how fast the Sea-Devils swim, and you all know better than I how much faster than that the Hoosegow can go. Our intent is to beat the Sea-Devils to their target. Captain?”

Capt. Paul glanced at the chronometer in his communication wristband, and said, “We expect to arrive at Cedar Rapids within the hour, well ahead of the Sea-Devils, assuming they actually show up. But if they do approach the city, we and every emergency force I’ve alerted will be ready to fight.”

The conference room became clamorous again. Capt. Paul gave them a few moments to vent, then spoke in a low-key but authoritative voice that cut through the din like the long-handled, razor-sharp blade of a Maguro bocho tuna knife. When the room came to a hush, Paul said, “Mr. Shah, why are you and Joshua so uncertain about the identity of this Angry Man? You said you ‘heard’ him, and you’ve met all the crew and passengers, and I doubt there’s anyone else near this boat for hundreds of kilometers. Which means whoever this mystery person is, he or she is likely to be on board. So, whose voice is it?”

Cairo forced a smile on his face. It was the same tactfully patient smile a parent paints on their face when they have to explain a difficult concept to a naïve, but otherwise bright, child. “When a telepath says they hear a voice in their mind,” Cairo said, “it’s not the same as hearing a spoken voice in their ears. A spoken voice has a certain tone and timbre, and you can tell where it’s coming from by turning your head. When we say we hear the ‘voice’ of a person’s thoughts, what we mean is we hear the ‘way’ the person thinks. The way a person thinks is shaped by the unique experiences in their life, and so the way each person thinks is unique. 

“When I said that I’ve been struggling to identify the Angry Man’s telepathic voice, what I mean is that I can’t find anyone who thinks the way he or she does. I can’t find that raw anger and hatred in their psychic voice that would identify them.”

“How can that be? Like the captain says, there’s no one else for kilometers around,” Olivia said. “Could you be mistaken?” The look of doubt on her face made Cairo’s chest ache.

“I’m not sure what’s wrong, Olivia, but I’m sure I’m right,” Cairo said. “With that in mind, I spent the entire afternoon re-interviewing delegates and crew members I didn’t spend much time with before. But I still couldn’t find the Angry Man.”

Cairo looked glum. Helping the Aquarius colony, helping Olivia and Joshua, depended on Cairo finding the Angry Man and getting him to confess how and why he had provoked the Sea-Devils to attack his own colony. Everything depended on Cairo, and he had failed.

Cairo stared at the floor and hooked the palm of his hand around the aching tension building up on the back of his neck. Olivia leaned close to him, looking sympathetic. “I can only think of one way a hidden telepath, and probably someone who was untrained at that, could avoid me detecting them,” Cairo muttered, more to himself than Olivia. “If that’s so, then there’s only one way to find them. But doing it that way is crazy; even suicidal,” he said under his breath. And yet, Olivia still heard him. 

“There’s a way to help?” Olivia said, as the surprise in her voice glissandoed into hopefulness. Cairo quickly begged her off, saying, “No, I was just thinking out loud. It was a foolish idea.” But Olivia pressed, “Now is the perfect time for even foolish ideas.” Suddenly, Cairo got a glimpse of how dogged a lawman Dep. Olivia Marshal could be.

Cairo was trying to think of a better strategy for evading Olivia’s persistence when the blare of a klaxon came to his rescue. As the alarm sounded, the officer of the day, who was command­ing the bridge while Capt. Paul was busy in the conference room, announced over each primary crew member’s wristwatch communication link, “Emergency! All hands report to the bridge!”

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