Aquaman and the Sea-Devils


Tim Allen

Lesser Heroes:

Original tales inspired by appalling characters from the Silver Age of comics

A bodiless robot, speaking in a crisp, lilting, feminine voice, announced over the space-elevator’s public address system, “Last stop, Main Terminal, Safe Harbor Station, Aquarius colony. Passengers, please collect your carry-on luggage at this time and proceed to the forward exit. Follow the holographic signs in the terminal to baggage claim, pass­enger pickup, private submersibles parking, and public shuttles to Snafu City. Last stop, Main Terminal….” 

After descending for days from Nick-of-Time space station, the impatient elevator passengers surged into the departure lounge like wild salmon thrashing upstream to spawn. Everyone was excited and anxious to start what would, for most of them, be the last leg of their journey home. Everyone, that is, save one man—one exceptional man—who lingered in his seat in the lounge and waited for the boisterous crowd to pass. The man’s name was Cairo Shah.

Compared to the majority of humanity, Cairo Shah didn’t look exceptional: He had a thirty-ish-year-old face, nutmeg-brown skin, wavy black hair, and penetratingly dark eyes dramatically framed by a pair of data goggles. In an effort to not draw attention to himself, the ex­cep­tional man wore ordinary, unexceptional business attire. The lines of his kimono business jacket flowed down to his wide-leg pants and ended at his calf-high boots. A crisp, white, standing collar tunic tied with an obi belt completed the look. Unfor­tu­nately, the reconnaissance briefing he had received about Aquarian fashions was woefully off target. 

Shah’s traveling companions were mostly furloughed asteroid-belt miners, workers from orbiting zero-gee factories, and off duty technicians from space stations like Nick-Of-Time. And as was apparently local custom, they wore brightly-patterned kimono jackets with inside pockets stuffed with used boarding passes, bags of half-eaten snacks, and media gadgets loaded with the latest games, music, and literature. Under their kimonos, they sported sleeveless, short johns wetsuits on their well-toned, muscular torsos; and strappy, open-toed sandals on their bare feet. 

For fear of making an already awkward situation worse, Cairo avoided lifting his gaze to stare at his traveling companions’ slender fingers and toes connected by thin, triangular membranes of webbing. Or the small dorsal fin on back of each of their calves. Or the fan-shaped, spiny fin that took the place of their earlobes. Or their pale green, dolphin-smooth skin.

 Shah smiled ruefully at the irony of the situation. Even though the pale green colonists looked strange to him, they each thought he was the stranger here; the oddity; the outsider. For them, he was yet another annoying outworlder constantly getting under foot and fin ever since Earth reestablished contact with Aquarius colony five years ago. As the other passengers bustled past Shah, each tried to not be too obvious as they gave him curious, sidelong glances—but they were all pathetic at hiding their thoughts. Each of them unconsciously arched an eyebrow; curled their lips into a contemptuous, sideways integral sign; and thought to themself in what they mistakenly believed to be the privacy of their own mind, «He’s not from around here.» 

 Cairo pretended to not to be aware of the hostility inundating him, but the hooked barbs of their thoughts cut deep all the same. Why had he agreed to come to Aquarius, he asked himself. He had been working too long and too hard for too many months. He was tired. He needed a rest, not another mission. But then Cairo re-evaluated his own thoughts and realized he couldn’t take comfort in self pity. He had taken this mission because Siddhartha Li had asked him to, and that was reason enough. Cairo sighed resignedly. He had no counterargument to his own rationale. Of course he had to come to Aquarius. He was doing it for the Commissioner.

As the swarming school of weekend travelers distanced themselves ahead of him, Shah finally stood up, collected his hand luggage, and cautiously ventured out the exit. To his surprise, the first thing he noticed when he set foot in the Main Terminal was the fresh, scent of salt sea air wafting through Safe Harbor Station. As a balmy ocean breeze whispered across his skin, a self-deprecating grin creased Cairo’s face. “Well,” he thought to himself, “what else did you expect to find on a world named Aquarius?”

Under the terminal roof, a dazzling square of sunlight streamed down from a skylight and made Cairo squint. Noticing his discomfort, Shah’s data goggles obligingly darkened to shade his eyes as well as mask him from curious onlookers. Data goggles were clever that way. They communicated with their wearer through a limited form of “hallucination I/O”; that is, the same synthetic telepathy technology that starship pilots used to interact with the computer cortexes that helped fly their ships. 

Cairo disdained the watered-down psychic ability of his goggles compared to real telepathy, but his goggles could still read his moods and commands; and in response, display tactical infographics across the inside of their glassy surface, or speak wisdom into his ear, or if feasible, write huge chunks of knowledge to his brain in an instant. All the same, it is noteworthy that a typical civilian could legally only acquire consumer-grade data goggles, while Cairo’s goggles were the much more clever espionage-grade usually reserved for military spies.

Eventually, the space-elevator passengers made their way to baggage claim, where they trawled for their belongings, and then began dispersing. The passengers who had little or no luggage quickly departed; some by walking through the terminal corridors, but most by gracefully stepping or plunging into the circular pool at the center of the terminal. The pool provided a shortcut to submerged tunnels leading to private parking and the public shuttle. But like a clumsy sea turtle waddling on dry land, Cairo awkwardly collected his three pieces of luggage, which ranged from a small suitcase of personal belongings to a large crate of specialized equipment. 

The other passengers watched Cairo surreptitiously, but he could hear them think to themselves, «Why does he need all that luggage? Who does he think he is? Some sort of celebrity who hauls around his entire wardrobe?» 

Cairo ignored the milling crowd’s curiosity and arranged his three wheeled cases in a line, gave them a command through his data goggles, and then started walking toward a nearby waiting area where he could mark time until his escort arrived to take him to his last stop. He hoped his transport would arrive soon. He understood why people were gawking at him, but he didn’t like it; he would be more than happy to get to his destination and start mediating the contentious negotiation that had ostensibly brought him to Aquarius. In the meantime, Cairo’s luggage rolled close behind him like three obedient ducklings following their mother. 

The waiting area contained a small restaurant situated between islands of seating stretching from inside the terminal to outside on the seafront patio. Cairo found the perfect middle ground where he could watch for his escort while enjoying the view beyond the patio’s edge. He hailed the only waitress on duty, an older woman—or was the correct term, merwoman?—who had obviously seen a lot of passengers come and go. He ordered a large glass of seltzer water with bitters on the rocks, but when the waitress came back with his fizzy drink he noticed that she had included a tall stack of plain crackers with his order.

“Here you go, hon’,” she said in a voice as wise as the laugh wrinkles around her mouth and eyes. 

“Thank you,” Cairo said, “but I didn’t order crackers…”

“Don’t worry about it, hon’. They’re on the house,” said the waitress with a flick of her webbed hand. “You came off the elevator, right? You’ve been in hibernation a long time? And now you’re feeling a little queasy? All you folks have that same faraway, haunted look in your eyes after a long trip and you finally set foot on solid ground. The seltzer water is a good cure, but you really need the crackers to help settle your stomach.”

Cairo thanked her sincerely for her kindness. She was right. His stomach had started to feel uneasy, and the seltzer water and crackers helped immediately. While he crunched the crackers and sipped the bubbly, the waitress stood nearby not minding him, but staring out the aircraft hangar-sized portal overlooking the patio, and beyond that, the ocean. She was in no rush. After the other space-elevator passengers went on their way, no one else would be in the restaurant for awhile.

Shah followed his waitress’ gaze. It was a beautiful day and the view was magnificent. Safe Harbor Station was a giant platform on stilts bridging an archipelago of small tropical islands. When Cairo looked to his right, he could see the far end of the station and amphibious aircraft landing or taking off for distant cities. When he looked to the left, he could see the space-elevator landing pad where a cab seemed to hang on a thread in midair before it accelerated like a rocket to return to Nick-Of-Time space station. And when he looked straight ahead, he saw a vast, shallow, aquamarine equatorial ocean; a turquoise sky only a little less green than the sea; and dozens of white cloud banks on the horizon that seemed as big and solid as snow-covered mountains. 

“You have a beautiful planet,” Cairo said softly, voicing his heartfelt opinion rather than a hollow compliment. “You’re fortunate.”

“That’s why I have to stop every once and awhile and look at everything we’ve accom­plished. It makes me feel good,” the waitress said, as she watched slanting rain fall from a dark cloud sitting on the horizon between two white, sunlit cloud banks. “It took more than good luck to colonize this world while we were marooned for the last 30 years. Survival was hard won. It took a lot of blood, sweat, and tears,” the merwoman said. “I think we must have made it so far because we’re just so darn ornery.”

Cairo didn’t expect the waitress to be particularly eloquent, but she made herself perfectly clear. But despite his intention to be polite and not intrude on her privacy, he couldn’t help reading her mind because their conversation had created an unstoppable torrent of memories and nostalgia streaming from her brain. There were thoughts of hope and fear and loss and triumph; of a young son who died of disease and decades later a beloved husband who died lost at sea; of her other children and their families, tribulations, joys, and losses; of a new husband, who was a good man, but who never lessened the memory of her first mate; of typhoons and tsunamis and meteor storms and other natural disasters that threatened to destroy the civilization the colonists were trying to build; of being widowed again, and growing old, and staying up late at night unable to sleep in a home beneath the sea while looking up at moonlight dancing on the surface of the water and wondering if it was all worthwhile. 

The exceptional man knew all this in an instant because he was a psychic, a true telepath among those gifted people whom laymen generally, and misleadingly, called Working Class Telepaths. Unlike the feeble synthetic telepathy afforded by hallucination I/O devices, which were best used as a convenience to operate starships and heavy machinery, Cairo’s natural telepathy provided him with deeper, richer, and more profound insights into the minds of people he met. Those insights prodded him now to take a chance and press.

“I can only imagine how much effort it took for this colony to survive the last 30 years, but that’s what I don’t understand,” Cairo said, honestly perplexed. “Tell me if you don’t want to answer, I won’t be offended, but I’ve heard about the debate between the Aquarians who want to give up, abandon this colony, and retire to Earth or some other World; and the opposing Aquarians who want to stay and earn permanent ownership of this planet. They’re calling it a ‘culture war’ back on the other colony Worlds—an actual war! They say the opposing sides will need a middleman to make peace. But when I see all you colonists have accomplished, compared to all you’ve gone through, I don’t understand how you’ll be able to decide whether to stay or go.”

The old waitress tipped back her head and loosed a laugh that was a mixture of hard years, late nights, stale coffee, and subsonic whoops that Cairo could not hear but could feel reverberating in the back of his skull. “You don’t understand? No, hon’, you understand plenty! The debate is goin’ on because we can’t decide either.” The waitress chortled again, and then finally regained her composure and said, “Looks like the shuttle from Snafu City just came in. I’ve got to get back to work.”

The waitress turned to meet her next wave of customers, but stopped to look back kindly at Cairo. “You know, hon’, it’s been a real pleasure talking to you. You seem to have a… knack…for listening to folks. You’re good people. 

“Well, like I said, I’ve got to get back to work,” she repeated with a sigh as she wiped her hands down over her apron. Then she added with a smile and a wink, “You want a refill on that seltzer water, hon’?”

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