Several seconds before the exceptional man heard with his ears someone call his name, he heard with his mind two people wondering if he was the man they were looking for. “Mr. Shah? Mr. Cairo Shah?” said one of them in a voice as melodious as a Siren.
Cairo turned to identify himself to two uniformed merpeople approaching from across the terminal. The speaker, who clearly was in charge, was a tall young woman as lean and graceful as a fairy tale selkie. The upswept taper of her pale green face and angled black eyes struck Cairo as strange and exotic. The woman’s companion, who stood beside and a step behind her, was a strapping, almost grown teenaged boy who affected a stern adult demeanor, but whose thoughts revealed teenaged angst layered beneath irritation for being put on this trivial assignment.
“I’m Senior Deputy Olivia Marshal,” the merwoman said without a smile as she gestured toward herself. Then nodding toward her younger partner, she began, “And this is—“. But between one word and the next, a fleeting thought too vivid for Cairo to ignore darted beneath Olivia’s conscious mind: «—my little brother—”». An instant later, she concluded, saying, “—Deputy William Marshal.”
Cairo was puzzled. He could understand why Olivia’s unconscious thought of her brother and teammate was associated with feelings of family. What he couldn’t understand was why he sensed, as ephemerally as the kiss of a ghost, that her feelings of kin included all her immediate family, friends, and colleagues. Of the two most likely answers, it seemed as improbable that those disparate domains of feeling overlapped, as it did that hard-nosed Olivia Marshal’s heart harbored an abundance of affection deep beneath her tough exterior.
As if the two deputies’ titles and bearing weren’t enough, the way they dressed told Cairo they were members of regional law enforcement. Like many other Aquarians, the Marshals wore sleeveless long johns wetsuits under their kimonos. However, the dark blue-green monotone of their wetsuits wrapped around their bodies and faded in a gradient until the color became a pale blue-green stripe down their torsos, like the belly of a shark, and then bled onto the lapels of their kimonos. In contrast, a small, bright-red badge affixed near their collars indicated their ranks.
Olivia stood confidently toe to toe with Shah and explained, “We have a speedboat waiting to take us to our rendezvous with our home vessel, police headquarters. When we arrive, the captain will set sail on a circle route to your conference. Some of the delegates are already aboard, and we’ll pick up a few more along the way.”
Turning to her partner, Sr. Dep. Olivia said, “Billy, why don’t I keep Mr. Shah company while you bring our speedboat back here to the oceanside dock?” With all the enthusiasm of any teenaged boy taking orders from his older sister, Billy Marshal jogged to the plunge pool at the center of the terminal, jumped in, and disappeared with a splash and froth of foamy bubbles.
Olivia joined Cairo at his table, forced a smile, and then failing to think of a single thing they might have in common, asked uneasily, “Did you have a good flight from Earth, Mr. Shah?”
Cairo replied, “I’m happy to say the trip was comfortable and uneventful, which is just the way I like it—”
Between one word and the next, Cairo’s data goggles volunteered to his mind through synthetic telepathy, relevant bits of culture, local facts, and because he wasn’t the mere businessman he appeared to be, well kept secrets. When Cairo glanced through the confidential dossier on his hosts, he found out “Marshal” was an occupational name, in the same tradition as Thatcher, Smith, Farmer, or Tailor. The entire Marshal family’s profession was regional law enforcement on behalf of the Exploration Guild, and that became their adopted surname. Most of the family’s original surname, which they adopted as their middle name, was “Johnson”, the second most common surname in Iowa. But none of the data Cairo saw explained why he mind-read such resentment beneath Olivia Marshal’s politeness when she mentioned Earth. Curious, he decided to press and learn more.
“—although I spent most of my journey asleep in hibernation,” Cairo said, finishing his sentence. “But I didn’t travel from Earth. After my last assignment, I was on my way to Babylon Eridani colony for a much-deserved vacation. That’s when the Exploration Guild diverted me to your world.
“Which reminds me that I’ve been remiss in not thanking you yet for giving me a lift to the conference,” Shah said. “I know your job is really law enforcement and not giving out-of-towners rides.” Cairo surreptitiously read Olivia’s mind again as she thought, «Well, that’s a surprise. I didn’t think Mister-High-and-Mighty Shah cared one bit about how he’s inconvenienced the marshals while we’ve got our hands full trying to keep peace between the colony’s feuding factions.»
“Good,” Cairo thought to himself. He was beginning to win her over. “And please,” he said aloud, pressing his luck, “don’t stand on formality by calling me ‘Mr. Shah.’ My friends call me ‘Cairo’—“
«That’s what your friends call you?» Olivia thought to herself. «Since when did we become friends? This Shah character is starting to sound like a con man.»
“Oops! I pressed too hard,” Cairo thought to himself. “She’s sharp. I like that. But I mustn’t forget that she’s a cop—a beautiful cop, but a cop all the same—who’s been trained to read people’s sincerity as well as I’ve been trained to read minds.”
“—Of course, perhaps we should stick to formal titles,” Cairo quickly said in spoken words, seeking to correct his mistake, “until I’ve officially met your family and the conference delegates. If that’s alright with you, Deputy?”
Cairo didn’t have to read Olivia’s mind again to know all was forgiven. The way her body language relaxed told him that he and Olivia were in a good place. He decided to leave it at that for the moment, and was surprised at how happy that made him feel.
Cairo and Olivia didn’t have much time to chat before the seaside docks next to the patio began to boil with white foam, and the tall, dark, finlike sail of a submarine rose up through the froth.
“Oh, good, Billy’s brought our speedboat around,” Olivia said. “Let’s get you and your gear aboard and squared away.” A short while later, the sail turned toward deep water and slipped beneath the waves.
On board the submarine, in the cockpit, young Billy Marshal was captain and gave the orders. “Strap in for high-speed running,” Capt. Billy announced.
Cairo noted that Billy was thinking uncharitable thoughts about him like «landlubber,» «old timer,» and «he’ll probably drown himself if we don’t hold his hand.» But Shah let the captain hold on to his misconceptions and didn’t correct him.
“Liv, will you make sure that our… guest… is secure?” said Capt. Billy.
Hearing the captain give orders, Cairo couldn’t help wondering how Olivia felt about the reversal of her and her brother’s authority. Cairo thought she was too hard-nosed to take it well. But to his surprise, all he could read was Olivia’s mental scorecard of Capt. Billy’s command skills so she could write his performance review later, and her selfless determination to train Billy for a greater command some day. Cairo began to wonder if, perhaps, he had misjudged her.
Obeying her captain promptly, Olivia left her seat and kneeled over Cairo. Self-consciously, she ran her hands over his chest as she checked his restraints, then sat back down, strapped herself in, and softly sighed in relief. “Captain,” she said, “how long until we rendezvous with our police boat?”
Capt. Billy perused his instruments and said, “Estimated time until we dock with the Hoosegow is two hours and twenty minutes. We have to skirt a typhoon brewing 100 klicks out, but we can make up for the lost time by running at full speed.”
Billy looked kitty-corner over his right shoulder at Shah, who was sitting in the passenger row behind the helm, and across the center aisle from Olivia who was keeping their guest company. With a mischievous lilt in his voice, the captain said, “Better hang on tight, Mr. Shah.” Then he tapped a virtual control on his dashboard and his submersible speedboat lurched forward like something alive.
Cairo’s data goggles volunteered that this was a supercavitation submarine that converted ocean water into a cocoon of superheated steam that wrapped the hull and eliminated turbulence and friction with the surrounding water. When its twin micro-fusion rocket engines ignited, the submarine hurtled toward its rendezvous with the Hoosegow at 300 kilometers per hour.
“Autopilot engaged,” Capt. Billy announced after awhile, and then swiveled his chair to face his guest and sister. Now that everything was running automatically, responsible Capt. William Marshal relaxed into being simply teenaged Billy Marshal again. “I’m starving,” he said, which Cairo thought was the accepted perpetual state of teenagers. “Liv, I think Aunt Jenny put a care package in the storage bin by your knee.”
Olivia rummaged through the refrigerated bin, found a bento box of lunch items, and began distributing its contents. “Care for something to eat, Cai’—“ Olivia began to say, as she came face to face with her guest. Feeling uncharacteristically awkward, she concluded, “—I mean—Mr. Shah?”
“Thank you, you’re very generous,” her guest said, “but I have to confess that my stomach is still uneasy from being in hibernation so long.” Then taking advantage of a teenager’s default state and the opportunity to be diplomatic, he said, “Perhaps Billy would like my portion?”
William needed no further prompting. He politely replied, “Thank you,” and thought to himself, “He’s not so bad after all,” as he grabbed a handful of California and deep-fried shrimp rolls.
Billy’s eyes closed as a satisfied grin crossed his face. “You don’t know what you’re missing, Mr. Shah. Aunt Jenny is a great cook, when she’s not preoccupied with all her other jobs. We don’t often get a chance to eat dishes that she makes especially for a dry room.”
Cairo looked quizzically at Billy, and then Olivia. Sympathizing with his confusion, Olivia explained, “Aquarius is a water-world, but our elders were born and raised on dry land. So, ever since we’ve been marooned on Aquarius, we’ve had to adapt. We reengineered our bodies through pantropy to be amphibious, and now we take advantage of that opportunity. When we need a simple way to construct something massive but waterproof, we work in the relative weightlessness of a ‘wet room’ flooded with water. But when our projects require electricity, chemistry, or fire, such as when we work with electronics, chemical manufacture, or to simply cook a savory meal, we work in a ‘dry room’ filled with air.”
Olivia’s description made Billy stop in mid-bite and peruse Shah’s fussy business attire from head to toe. Olivia caught her brother’s gaze and began to scrutinize their guest as well. Cairo leaned back from their pensive stares and wondered why their thoughts reminded him of desert ravines near his childhood home when they were inundated by flash floods.
“Mr. Shah, you do realize that the Hoosegow contains a mix of dry and wet rooms, don’t you?” Olivia asked sheepishly.
“What she means is,” said Billy, with a shrimp roll stuffed in one cheek, “do you have a change of clothes? Something less… formal? Something more…well…waterproof?”
Recalling his three cases of luggage stowed two bulkheads away in the cargo hold, Cairo confidently replied, “Why, yes. Yes, I do.”