Cairo Shah swam into the midst of the red leviathans and came to a stop. The water around him was cold, bottomless, and clear sapphire until it faded into a spherical black void at the limit of his vision. No silt, or detritus, or seaweed, or any sea creature that could flee in fear from the Sea-Devils was in these waters. As Cairo’s own harsh breathing vied to drown out the thump of his heartbeat in his ears, it occurred to him that a man might choose to even swim with sharks, but only a madman would choose to swim with Sea-Devils.
The sea serpents were vaguely curious about the tiny creature with its wan running lights and puny sonar circling in the center of their swarm, and they gradually huddled close together to get a better look with their baleful eyes. Their giant heads and massive jaws full of spearlike teeth formed a wrought iron fence of white pickets surrounding a drifting piece of flotsam.
Cairo knew the biblical story of Jonah and the Whale, and how that sea creature had swallowed Jonah whole. Cairo always regarded that story as a flawed myth since he knew the gullet of a terrestrial whale is far too narrow for a man to pass through. And yet, that knowledge did not put him at ease amongst these luminescent, crimson sea monsters. After all, they were four times bigger than a blue whale, and who knew how much bigger their gullets might be? And who knew, yet again, what sea monsters liked to eat?
There was method to Cairo’s madness, albeit slim. He was a mediator by trade, and the Sea-Devils were sentient, despite having proven hostile so far. Cairo was gambling that these sentient beings were rational enough, in enough of a humanlike way, for him to find common ground with them.
Cairo thought his plan might have a chance until one of the sea monsters stared straight at him and thought to its companions, «That is one of those vermin! One of those disgusting pests.» The minds of the Sea-Devils began to roil. «The filthy thing slithered out of its metal traveling shell, probably to further pollute the waters we live in.» The other Sea-Devils began to get agitated; to get angry; to get hostile. «Don’t the rest of you just float there. Do something. Kill it!»
The first thing a mediator does when they enter a negotiation, is read the temperament of the room, including their own. What Cairo felt was cold fear shooting through his belly. This negotiation was about to end—suddenly and violently—before it even began. Shah had to act now.
Taking a deep breath of recirculated air, Cairo exhaled smoothly, and then thought at the Sea-Devils: «Stop! I am neither vermin nor a pest. I am a mediator who has come, in peace, to resolve the hostilities between your people and mine. My name is Cairo Shah.»
Cairo could feel the Sea-Devils’ attention rivet on him. He slowly turned in the water, staring down the enormous eyes staring at him, defying them to attack, challenging them to comprehend something they had not expected. As Cairo turned full circle, the same Sea-Devil that had wanted him killed, thought to its kindred, «Is it my imagination, or did that…Cairo-Shah creature…just—think—at us?»
Again, Cairo struck while the iron was hot and his opponents were thrown off-kilter. «Yes, I did think at you. That is your normal mode of communication, is it not?» he thought, embellishing his mentation with confidence and authority. «You’ve attacked our encampment that we call Sioux City, and have been provoked, by one of my kind, to attack our Cedar Rapids encampment.
«We mean you no harm, and yet you’ve terrified and harmed us—We didn’t know you were interested in us until your attacks. I’ve come to ask you to stop. And I’ve come to ask you who of my kind has incited you to attack his own kind.»
A mediator knows a negotiation is going well when the participants are busier asking questions than attacking and recriminating each other. By that measure, this negotiation was good, but peculiar. «I don’t understand,» thought one of the Sea-Devils, whose unique way of thinking was characterized by images of circular cycles and semicircular epicycles, «we didn’t know there was sentient life in your encampments. We thought your cities were uninhabited, but infested with pests and vermin. The Angry Man said all the creatures there were evil, rapacious, intent on destroying this world, and only deserving extermination.»
Cairo was puzzled. «You thought the cities were uninhabited?» he remarked. «Didn’t you sense the people there?»
«What people?» asked the Sea-Devil whose way of thinking identified it as being the one who originally wanted to kill him. «The only ‘people’ we’ve sensed recently is a juvenile, who we sense is still in your metal traveling shell; the Angry Man, who is there too; and now you, here. There are no other people.»
The other Sea-Devil, who Cairo identified as Cycles-and-Epicycles, interjected, «The juvenile’s mind has until recently been disorderly and fearful. We have no idea why his fear and disorder have abated, although his way of thinking is now somewhat like yours.
«But it is the Angry Man’s mind that overwhelms us with its rage and fury,» thought Cycles-and-Epicycles, with an air of regret. «His mind infects us with disquiet, and drives us into a frenzy. I am ashamed. I do not think we would have attacked those cities if we had not been driven to madness.» Cycles-and-Epicycles had seen the face of the Angry Man through portholes in the Hoosegow, and the face in the sea serpent’s mind was as clear as the countenance of a portrait by Rembrandt. Cairo gasped as if he were choking, then triggered his communication link to send a prerecorded message to Olivia.
Usually, telepathy makes meaning perfectly clear. There are no words or grammar in telepathy as there are in spoken language, but Cairo perceived the Sea-Devils’ meaning in his mind as clearly as if they were whispering words in his ear. However, just as meaning in spoken languages is colored by context and culture, so can meaning in thought. Case in point, consider beautiful but obscure poetry. Sometimes meaning requires a moment of reflection.
Cairo knew exactly what the dominant sea serpent, Kill-the-Vermin, said, but it made no sense. There were thousands of merpeople in Sioux City and Cedar Rapids. Surely the Sea-Devils had sensed them. The only thing that was different about the inhabitants was…
«What a minute,» Cairo thought to Kill-the-Vermin, «do you mean you didn’t sense people in the cities because they weren’t…telepathic?» Cairo berated himself for not anticipating the obvious. What else would a telepathic species believe? «The only beings you consider ‘people’ are telepaths like yourselves.»
«Of course,» Kill-the-Vermin replied, surprised that there could be any confusion. «How could you consider someone a person, even sentient, unless they were telepathic? Surely you must feel the same. After all, aren’t all your kind telepathic? But now that you mention it, why is a person like you associating with non-sentient creatures like the ones in the cities? Are they pets or dray animals?»
Cairo laughed in his mind. «No, you misunderstand,» he explained to Kill-the-Vermin. «I and the inhabitants of my traveling shell and the underwater cities are all one species. We don’t look alike because they’ve transformed their bodies to be amphibious. We don’t think alike because my species has evolved so its ancient psychic abilities have become latent. I’m only telepathic because my species’ genes were accidentally mutated a few decades ago, enabling a very few of us to regain our latent abilities.»
«What, you’re all the same?» thought Kill-the-Vermin, not believing what it was perceiving. The Sea-Devil was beginning to feel uneasy, and wonder if its people had done something horribly, horribly wrong. «Then what is your species, Cairo-Shah?» it thought, thinking his name as if it was one word.«Where do you come from?»
«We call ourselves human,» thought Cairo, matter-of-factly. There was no reason to be evasive. He knew the minds of the Sea-Devils, and they knew his. «We come from a planet you obviously have never encountered. It’s called Earth.»
«You…you’re… human?» Kill-the-Vermin asked, haltingly. Cairo was taken aback. It appeared to Shah, almost impossibly, that if the sea serpent was a human speaking, he would sound rattled. But before Cairo could ask the Sea-Devil why, his attention was grabbed by Cycles-and-Epicycles beginning to mutter in a monotonous singsong, «City. Vermin. Destroy. City. Vermin. Destroy….»
Alarmed by what he read, Cairo asked Cycles-and-Epicycles why its thoughts were so violent, but the sea serpent didn’t answer. It seemed spellbound. Then Cairo heard the other sea serpents around him chanting louder and louder, and more enraged with each repetition, «Vermin. Destroy…Vermin. Destroy…»
«What’s wrong with Cycles-and-Epicycles?» thought Cairo to Kill-the-Vermin. But before the aquaman could get an answer, a dull ache welled up in the middle of his head; a pain he couldn’t ease by reaching through his force field helmet and rubbing his temples. Frustrated, he spun around in the water trailing a veil of bubbles like the fantail of a betta fish, and gaped at the sea monsters surrounding him. Cycles-and-Epicycles, and all the other Sea-Devils—and one additional mind—were thinking in unison a chorus of hate: «Vermin. Destroy…Vermin. Destroy…»
Revolving back around to face Kill-the-Vermin, Cairo thought apprehensively, «The city that you’re thinking about; you mean the last city in the Hoosegow’s route, don’t you? You mean, Snafu City.»
Snafu City was the metropolis next to the Safe Harbor space-elevator port, and where Cairo’s journey on Aquarius had begun. Its sardonic name was an eternal reminder of the mistakes and misfortune that had marooned the Des Moines consortium in what the settlers at that time considered a backwater of the galaxy. Snafu City had more than 25,000 inhabitants now, and a Sea-Devils attack there would be truly catastrophic.
Cairo surveyed the scarlet swarm swimming around him, and in amazement asked the leader of the Sea-Devils, «What’s wrong with everybody?»
Kill-the-Vermin didn’t respond right away. At first, the sea serpent seemed as spellbound as its companions, but Cairo’s entreaty cut through its enchantment. «It is the Angry Man. He is back,» Kill-the-Vermin thought to Cairo. «He is thinking at us—no, screaming at us!—to ignore this fleet and infested city, and go destroy the next, the most important, city. His hatred engulfs our minds.»
The Sea-Devils were not swimming around Cairo in an orderly formation. Instead, they swarmed chaotically, wildly, mindlessly in erratic trajectories. Their rippling coils churned the water until it turned into a froth of ghostly bioluminescence.
«We do not want to do this. We do not want to lose our volition. We do not want to destroy,» Kill-the-Vermin muttered in a daze. «But the Angry Man’s thoughts are so strong, so overwhelming, that his thoughts become our thoughts.» Cairo shuddered inside when he began to understand what was happening. Only a few times in his paranormal training at the Academy had he heard the term, “psychic plague.”
«We have never encountered a way of thinking from—you call it an ‘adult human’ mind?—like the Angry Man’s. His mind overwhelms us with its sheer, raw…hatred. It is so, so…alien,» Kill-the-Vermin thought, struggling to find the right embellishment of meaning to its thoughts. «We have no natural defense against it.» Then the sea serpent’s thoughts began to wander, and like the rest of its terror, it too began to chant, «City. Vermin. Destroy…»
The urgency of the moment made Cairo’s stomach clinch. Telepathic communication is faster than the spoken word, so it had only been a few minutes since he had sent the name of a person of interest to Dep. Olivia Marshal aboard the Hoosegow. Now he frantically called her again on his comm link. “Olivia, hurry! The Angry Man is whipping the Sea-Devils into a frenzy. I’ll do what I can to calm them down, but you must find the Angry Man!”
The most powerful Working Class Telepaths are trained how to either enhance or constrain their psychic abilities by using the two variants of the espergenic drug, psilene. The left arm of Cairo’s aquaman suit contained a medi-pak, which combined with medical nanobots in his blood stream, formed a miniature hospital and pharmacopeia wrapped around his arm. Cairo ordered his medi-pak to diffuse a transdermal dose of pro-psilene that passed through his skin, entered his bloodstream, and surged into his brain. When the liquid fire finished igniting his mind, Cairo blasted a thought at Kill-the-Vermin like an archmage countering an evil spell.
Cairo’s thoughts were like the ones he used to teach Joshua how to resist intrusive minds. However, these mentations were more concentrated, more intense, more potent. The blast of thought hit Kill-the-Vermin, and the sea serpent gradually came to its senses. The Sea-Devil shook its head, suddenly aware it had been enthralled, and suddenly ashamed of how easily it had been bereft of its free will.
«Kill-the-Vermin, are you all right?» Cairo asked.
«Yes, thanks to you, Cairo-Shah.»
«I was glad to help. As I told you, my people are usually peaceful,» thought Cairo. «But there are too many in your terror for me to disenchant by myself. Can you do any better?»
Kill-the-Vermin tried communicating with his people, but they were too enthralled to respond. «They do not hear me. I failed—all my people have failed—in so many ways,» the sea serpent thought, despondently. «We did not realize your species is people, too. We did not realize most of your people are not angry and invasive. And we did not realize that you are…humans, from…Earth. Because of our failings, I fear my people have made a terrible mistake.»
Cairo read the tenor of Kill-the-Vermin’s concern. It was a hodgepodge of fear, shame, secrets, and contrition so out of proportion to the events Cairo knew had happened, he was stunned. «What do you mean, you’ve made a ‘mistake’?» Cairo thought. But he could sense Kill-the-Vermin resolutely avoid thinking any more about the subject.
Cairo was relieved that Kill-the-Vermin was rational again, but the Angry Man was still whipping the other Sea-Devils to hysteria. If their feverish minds gave way to frenzy, Cairo knew there was nothing he or anyone else could do to prevent them from attacking Snafu City. What Cairo needed now was a miracle. Which is why he was thunderstruck when one occurred.
Shah’s communication link opened with an ascending sigh, and Olivia Marshal’s voice announced, “Cairo, I and Dep. Billy have detained the person of interest you identified. And Dr. Susan has put the detainee into a medically induced coma and administered contra-psilene as you asked. Does that help?”
Even as Olivia spoke, the frenzied swarm of Sea-Devils calmed like the eye of a hurricane. In mere seconds, the sea serpents resumed circling Cairo in a calm, orderly formation. And when he read the temperament of the minds surrounding him, Cairo sensed only serenity. Then a gust of air blew through Cairo’s rebreathing apparatus so loudly it gave him a start. It took him a moment to realize that he had been holding his breath without being aware of it, and that the sound he heard was himself heaving a sigh of relief.
“Yes. Yes, Olivia. It does help,” Cairo replied, gratefully. “Thank you. And thank your team.” Then Cairo ended their exchange, and his communication link closed with a descending sigh.
«Thank you, Cairo-Shah,» Kill-the-Vermin thought, embellishing its meaning with feelings of friendship, gratitude, and admiration. «Our minds are at peace now. We are ourselves again, because of you.
«You have taught me how to resist the Angry Man’s invasive thoughts. I will teach what I have learned to my people.» Kill-the-Vermin paused to ponder, philosophically. «You have also taught me your heart, and your burdens, Cairo-Shah. You belong to a community of people who think like you, do you not? You and they have been fighting the harm caused by people like the Angry Man all your lives. I think that is the most valuable lesson I have learned from you.»
Kill-the-Vermin shifted focus. «I will lead my people home now. We must confer and decide what to do next about you…human…people.»
All around the aquaman, the Sea-Devils began swimming away and down toward the depths. Slowly, majestically, their enormous, scarred, luminescent bodies undulated toward the underwater interface between clear indigo water and the ebony unknown beyond. One by one, the sea serpents faded to black and disappeared into the deep. Finally, Kill-the-Vermin approached the darkness and thought, «Farewell for now, Cairo-Shah. We will meet again.» Finally, the enlightened Sea-Devil slipped into the darkness and its thoughts cut off as abruptly as someone slamming a door behind them.