It was barely a day later when Cairo Shah found himself on the bridge of the Hoosegow, in the gallery, sitting askew in his chair, next to Dep. Olivia Marshal. Cdr. Dr. Susan was in sickbay tending to her patients, but monitoring the bridge through a display wall. Sci. Dep. Joshua Marshal was manning the Navigation station. And Capt. Paul Marshal was sitting imperiously on his throne behind the helm. Before them was a panorama of ocean displayed across an array of display walls. Teal blue streamed past their view, and sunlight and shadows from the surface overhead rippled across the anxious faces of the bridge crew. In the far distance, the rocky foundations of the ridge that supported Snafu City rose up from the seabed.

Cairo had told Capt. Paul that this was the day the Sea-Devils would return. Cairo couldn’t explain exactly how he knew; he could only say by way of explanation, that if the captain were psychic, if he were sensitive to the ebb and flow of thoughts beyond the notice of good but ordinary men and women, then the way Cairo knew the unknown would not seem a mystery.

Cairo lowered his head, balanced it on the tips of his fingers, and said, “They’re coming. They’re almost here.”

Capt. Paul shot a look at his sensor specialist, but she said, “There’s nothing on the scope for kilometers. There’s nothing except clear ocean ahead.” The captain looked questioningly at Cairo, then turned to Joshua who was calling his attention. “Captain,” said the boy genius, “our standard sensors don’t show any unusual contacts, but our affiliated sensors show something suspicious.” 

The artificial intelligences inhabiting the Hoosegow’s quantum electronic cortexes were linked to affiliated external cortexes, sensors, and instruments on the planetary information network. Of the many duties the Hoosegow’s cortexes performed simultaneously, one was to look for suspicious readings from affiliated sensors. The cortexes normally ignored readings from the orbiting LIGO observatory because they were the result of gravity waves created in deep space by enormous concentrations of energy, or colliding black holes or neutron stars. Normally, such readings were irrelevant to the Hoosegow. But this time, the cortexes noticed the origin of the faint ripples in space-time were nearby, on Aquarius, under the sea. And those space-time distortions matched recordings from just before and after the Sioux City and Cedar Rapids attacks. 

“They’re coming…” Cairo said, without looking up. Sitting beside him, as she was, Olivia could not help comparing the contemplative aquaman to Rodin’s most famous sculpture. “They’re coming…” Cairo repeated. And then he abruptly looked up toward the forward display wall and murmured, “They’re…here.”

Suddenly, the sensor specialist shouted out, “Captain, sonar contacts five kilometers out!” The sensor specialist checked the combined sonar, lidar, and affiliated sensor readings. “One, five, ten…now dozens of Sea-Devils. They’re coming out of nowhere!”

“How many exactly?” demanded Capt. Paul.

“More than I can count,” she said, “but I can confirm there’re hundreds of them now.” Sud­denly the specialist felt outnumbered by something much bigger than herself. “And they’re all bearing down on our position.”

Light doesn’t travel far in water, and out of the indigo murk ahead of the Hoosegow, one Sea-Devil after another began to appear. Hundreds of them. The captain soon began to feel the same apprehension that was permeating his bridge. But that anxiety did not make him forget how to be a good leader. “Steady,” he murmured soothingly to his crew. “Everyone attend to your post and keep alert.”

Capt. Paul swiveled around in his chair to face the smattering of guests in the gallery. To the captain’s surprise, the aquaman had already risen to his feet. “Mr. Shah, do you have any advice?“ asked the captain. “Should I go to battle alert?”

Cairo’s attention was focused forward, not on the display wall at all, but through it and beyond. He reached his senses out to the Sea-Devils, and read the collective temperament of the hundreds of sea serpents. “I don’t think we’re in danger,” Shah said dreamily. It was obvious to those who knew Shah well, that he was halfway in some sort of trance. “This is a different kind of summit,” he said.

«Greetings, Cairo-Shah,» thought the leader of the Sea-Devils, who stopped in the water, fang to bow with the Hoosegow.

«Greetings, Kill-the-Vermin. It is good to see you again,» thought the aquaman. Cairo noticed that Kill-the-Vermin’s thoughts were embellished with feelings of formality and ceremony, and he instinctively began responding in kind. «Who have you brought with you? And to what blessing do we owe your visit?»

«These are my people,» thought Kill-the-Vermin. A terror of hundreds of Sea-Devils swam in an enormous circle behind Kill-the-Vermin. Their bioluminescent markings, which normally flickered only wanly and occasionally like incandescent scars or tattoos, now glowed brightly in intricate patterns and modulations along their bodies. And the microscopic fairy lights in the water that accompanied them were flashing so bright the water itself glowed like a biolumi­nes­cent tide. 

«We have conferred to decide what to do about you humans who are overrunning our planet,» Kill-the-Vermin continued, «and we have come to a decision.» 

The distasteful tone of Kill-the-Vermin’s thought, “overrun,” put Cairo on edge. It was a peculiar, unfriendly meaning to choose. And the ominous tone of “we have come to a decision,” made Cairo feel no better. Suddenly, he was not sure this meeting would end as peacefully as it had begun.

«We have told you that we made a mistake in not recognizing you merpeople as people,» thought Kill-the-Vermin. «It was the most terrible of mistakes.» 

Kill-the-Vermin’s thoughts were embellished with a kind of creeping fear, a dread, that Cairo had never encountered before in a Sea-Devil. Meanwhile, amidst the terror of sea serpents circumnavigating Kill-the-Vermin, Cairo could occasionally read one particular fleeting thought embellished with fear and dread. The thought was a name: “Monsters-in-the-Dark.”

Kill-the-Vermin thought to Cairo, «Because we did not recognize your kind as human, we mistakenly engaged with you too soon. We must correct our mistake before it is too late.» In the swarm of sea monsters swimming round-round in the distance, a random chorus fretted, «Monsters-in-the-Dark! Monsters-in-the-Dark! Monsters-in-the-Dark…!»

«‘Too soon’? ‘Before it’s too late’? Who are you afraid of?» Cairo thought back. It was rare to be confused in a telepathic conversation, but Cairo could tell Kill-the-Vermin was intentionally concealing the deeper meaning of the name, Monsters-in-the-Dark. But whether Kill-the-Vermin was concealing the whole truth as a way of making amends for some unexplained mistake, or for fear of making another, Cairo could not tell. 

Behind Kill-the-Vermin and the terror of sea serpents was a wall of light as opaque as the white mist of a waterfall.

«Even though we have an entire planet where we could establish separate domains, an entire planet is not big enough,» thought Kill-the-Vermin. «We are sorry, but one of our peoples must go, and we have decided who.»

Alarmed by what Kill-the-Vermin was thinking, Cairo thought, «Wait! Let’s talk about this. Let’s negotiate a compromise…»

But Kill-the-Vermin thought back, regretfully, «Compromise is not allowed.»

Kill-the-Vermin twisted end for end in the water, in a nervous gesture like a pack of hungry killer whales coming upon a raft of fat sea lions.

«Did you know, Cairo-Shah, that my people share something fundamental with yours?» thought Kill-the-Vermin. «My people are not indigenous to this planet. We are space travelers, vagabonds, ‘Gypsies’, I think you call them. We migrate from world to world, enjoying whatever water-world we settle on as long as it pleases us, and then move on when it does not. 

«It is only by chance that we migrated to this world, and settled in its depths, before circumstance forced your kind to migrate here as well, and settle in its shallows. How strange is it that of all the worlds in the galaxy, chance should bring us both here, now. How strange—and how unfortunate.» 

Cairo could feel the mental aether between him and Kill-the-Vermin grow cold. «Our mutual presence is a conflict,» thought Kill-the-Vermin. «You cannot engage with us, and we cannot engage with you,» the sea serpent thought. «It is too soon.»

Kill-the-Vermin turned and started swimming toward the globular maelstrom of light its fellows were stirring up in the waters beneath Aquarius. Each flick of Kill-the-Vermin’s tail churned turbulence in the water, that combined with the turbulence created by its hundreds of fellows. If a hurricane is a circular storm of air, then the maelstrom the Sea-Devils were generating beneath the surface, was a circular storm of light. 

«I’ve enjoyed engaging with you, Cairo-Shah. But I’m afraid that time has passed.» 

«And I’ve enjoyed engaging with you,» Cairo replied earnestly. But all the while he was frantic to fix whatever was wrong. Cairo tried to read deeper into Kill-the-Vermin’s mind, but the Sea-Devil meticulously hid its other thoughts. 

«The way you are thinking frightens me,» Cairo thought. «We are at peace now. We could be at peace going forward. So, why are you thinking so grimly? What are you going to do?»

«What we must, Cairo-Shah,» thought Kill-the-Vermin, as it joined its fellows swimming round and round the great vortex of light. «What we must.» Eventually, Kill-the-Vermin was a mere speck among hundreds of others silhouetted against a stormy, incandescent, mystery.

From Capt. Paul’s viewpoint, very little time had passed since Cairo Shah began conversing telepathically with the crimson leviathan. But now the instruments aboard his boat were flashing madly, rip currents threatened to drag his submarine toward the vortex, and he had no idea whether he and his crew were safe or in peril. 

“Mr. Shah,” Captain Paul Marshal said authoritatively, “what’s going on? I need an answer—now!”

Cairo was a telepath and could just as easily write his thoughts into the minds of others as he could read them. Normally he would never force his thoughts on anyone without their permission. That would be supremely unethical. But he was afraid that the people he cared about aboard the Hoosegow were in imminent danger. And so he chose to gingerly, telepathically, tell the captain, Olivia, and Joshua everything he and Kill-the-Vermin had discussed. When he was done an instant later, he answered the Captain’s question in words. “I have no idea what’s going on, Captain, but I think we’d better retreat now. And fast!” 

“Sound battle alert!” commanded Capt. Paul. “Helm, get us out of here, flank speed!” In seconds, the Hoosegow was picking up speed and charging away from the Sea-Devils.

Cairo was relieved that the captain was pursuing the better part of valor, but he was not satisfied. He still had no idea what the Sea-Devils were hiding from him. Was it yet another of the catastrophes Siddhartha Li feared? Was it the mysterious Monsters-in-the-Dark? Was it something he had said or done, or failed to say or do? 

Desperate to understand Kill-the-Vermin, Cairo chose to take a risk and activate the medi-pak wrapped around his left bicep. In an instant, a strong dose of pro-psilene was coursing into his bloodstream. And then his brain caught fire.

“Captain,” warned Joshua, “the Sea-Devils are doing something…strange. The affiliated sensors show the faint gravity waves are continuing and getting much stronger.” On each display wall, an inset window showed the whirling ball of light astern the boat. “The light and the gravity wave are both intensifying,” said the boy genius, “but neither I nor the cortexes can explain what that means.”

“Mr. Shah?” said the captain, but Cairo didn’t reply. Instead, his eyes stared unblinkingly into the unknown. 

“Pa!” Olivia exclaimed, ignoring protocol. “Cairo just went into a trance—a deep one. He told me! He said he had to try one more time to contact the Sea-Devils. He said he had to try to prevent them from doing something…fatal.”

As the Hoosegow retreated as fast it could, the Sea-Devils’ vortex of light grew to its maximum, and then changed character: The light began stretching upward toward the surface. In moments, the light-storm roiled the surface of the ocean like a witch’s cauldron. The light didn’t stop there, though. The light-storm became a solid white beacon that stretched up into the sky, past the clouds, and into the black of space. Then one by one, the Sea-Devils swam into the storm. 

And disappeared.

“Captain,” Joshua said, as breathlessly as a baby discovering for the first time that water is wet and ice is cold, “I think I understand.” Joshua wasn’t merely a boy, he was a boy genius. His preference was for marine zoology, but as science officer he studied many disciplines, including the latest ideas in theoretical physics making their way to Aquarius from the other Worlds. 

“At first, I thought the markings on the Sea-Devils and the fairy lights in the water glowed because of bioluminescent parasites or symbiotic organisms. But according to Mr. Cairo’s meeting with Kill-the-Vermin, the Sea-Devils are space travelers. But we’ve seen no sign of machinery or instrumentality, let alone starships. So how can they travel between the stars?

“But what if the Sea-Devils don’t travel in starships? What if those glowing markings and fairy lights are machines, and those machines provide propulsion and life support and navigation? Why not? We wouldn’t know truly alien technology if it stared us in the face. Do you understand? What if, with those markings and lights, the Sea-Devils are themselves their starships? And what if the paths they take from place to place are not necessarily in this space-time? Then the gravity waves we detected might be signs of their passage. That could explain how they beat us to Cedar Rapids and Snafu City.”

“If that’s so,” Olivia said, still incredulous but too sharp to ignore the ramifications, “then what are they doing now?”

While the bridge crew made their speculations, Cairo projected his thoughts as far and as strongly as he could, until he finally made contact with Kill-the-Vermin. He had already read Joshua’s latest speculations about the sea serpents’ markings, and reevaluated his fears about the Sea-Devils. Their plan seemed obvious now; inevitable, actually. «Kill-the-Vermin, you and your people are leaving, aren’t you?»

«Yes,» replied Kill-the-Vermin, as if from very far away, although Cairo knew the sea serpent’s physical body appeared to still be racing around the light-storm. «You came back? To say goodbye? I’m surprised, but gratified as well,» thought Kill-the-Vermin. «But there’s nothing more I can tell you. It is too soon for your people and mine to meet. And so, my people and I have decided to cede this world to you. We will find another. This was a good home for us. Hopefully, it will be a good home for you.» 

While they spoke, the Sea-Devils had been disappearing into the light-storm, one by one. First Circles-and-Epicycles, then others, until only one remained. Kill-the-Vermin was the last to go. As the sea serpent approached the wall of light, it thought to Cairo, “Until we meet again, Cairo-Shah.”

«How long will that be?» Cairo thought back. Cairo sensed the Sea-Devil was already as far away as the stars. «Do you mean soon? In my lifetime? Or a thousand years from now?»

«Now that’s an interesting question,» Kill-the-Vermin replied. But the Sea-Devil didn’t explain itself before it slipped deeper into the white veil, and disappeared too.

Cairo fell back in his chair in the gallery of the Hoosegow. He had been on an excursion in his mind, but now he was back. “Are you alright?” Olivia asked the aquaman, concernedly, as she held his hand in hers. 

“I’m fine,” Cairo replied, “I’m fine.” 

“Is it over?” Olivia asked.

“Yes,” said Cairo, and nothing more.

Capt. Paul took damage reports from all around his boat, and was grateful there was no loss of life, serious injury, or major damage to his boat. It could easily have been otherwise. 

 Capt. Paul turned to Joshua for his report. “They’re gone,” said Joshua, “they’re all gone from everywhere. There’re no traces of Sea-Devils anywhere on the planet. It’s as if they never existed.”

Joshua suddenly became thoughtful. “Captain, the only signs that we actually made First Contact with sentient aliens are some sensor readings we can’t explain, catastrophic damage to one of our cities caused by rampaging sea creatures we already knew inhabited the planet, and the unverifiable testimony of two telepaths. There’s no physical evidence that skeptics can’t dispute or explain away as a hoax. 

“Researchers will certainly still want to come to Aquarius to prove or disprove our claims, but there will always be doubt. Is that what we want, Uncle?” he said, falling into the familiar. “Do we want them to come, or do we want them to leave us alone?”

Capt. Paul took a long moment to stare at the deck and consider his reply. Although Joshua’s question seemed simple, its answer would affect Aquarius for decades to come. In Paul Marshal’s view, the essence of the argument between the Stay and Exit parties was whether the colonists should remain on Aquarius, or go to other Worlds. But the Sea-Devils had introduced a third option: The other Worlds could come to Aquarius.

It might be impossible for future visitors to determine whether First Contact had actually occurred on the water-world. Before the founders of the colony that would eventually become Aquarius left their ancestral home and set off for the stars, they asked the Exploration Guild, as a matter of life and death, whether the hushed and hidden rumors of space travelers occasionally encountering sentient alien life were true. If the rumors were true, then it was the Exploration Guild that had concealed the truth. 

The Guild had said the rumors were unverified and unverifiable. But space was a dangerous place, and regardless of the rumors’ validity, wise colonists should keep their eyes open. Despite more than 30 years having passed; despite the colonists’ encounter with the Sea-Devils, be it proven or not; the Exploration Guild’s advice still stood rocksteady.

Visitors from other colony Worlds would bring new ideas, new attitudes, and new culture. So the deeper question inside Joshua’s question was, Is change a good or bad thing?

Finally, Capt. Paul looked up at the boy and said, “To be honest, Josh’, I’m not sure either.”

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