“Mr. Shah, please come forward to the cockpit as soon as possible,” announced Capt. Billy over his submarine’s “1MC” public address system. “We’re due to rendezvous with the Hoosegow in 30 minutes.”
When Cairo came through the bulkhead from the cargo hold, Olivia, who was sitting beside Capt. Billy at the co-helm, said, “That’s more like it—“ and then paused abruptly. At first, Billy couldn’t tell what had caught his sister’s attention. Basically, Shah seemed to be dressed conventionally, although a bit elaborately, in a full-length, skintight, pale gold drysuit and black kimono. Billy thought Olivia might be judging Shah’s accessories: his tubular collar, gloves, and booties, which were unnecessary in the warm waters Shah was likely to encounter.
It was only when Billy looked more closely that he realized Shah wasn’t wearing a simple, pliable drysuit, but instead close-fitting, waterproof armor composed of several contiguous, sculpted plates. Astounded, Billy exclaimed as if he were the first one to realize it, “Mr. Shah! You’re an ‘aquaman’! I’ve read in our library about armor like yours being developed in the years since we’ve been marooned on Aquarius. But I never thought I’d see some up close. This is brilliant!”
Space travelers who briefly visit marginally inhospitable colony worlds use excursion suits to brave a particular environment, instead of bulkier spacesuits meant for far different, far harsher environs. If a traveler wouldn’t, or couldn’t, transform their body to fit the environment the way the Aquarians did, then they would have to augment their body to fit the environment. A male space traveler wearing a subaquatic excursion suit was nicknamed an “aquaman.”
“Billy, stop gushing!” Olivia chided, although she had to admit she was both impressed and suspicious when she realized Cairo Shah rated having such restricted gear.
“Technically, it’s called a ‘marine excursion suit’,” Cairo said, with an uncritical smile. “The Exploration Guild sent it ahead in anticipation of me accepting their appeal to mediate the conference we’re going to.”
“A marine excursion suit? Liv, have you ever seen such a sweet piece of engineering—?”
“Please excuse my brother,” Olivia said, apologetically. “Aquarius has such a small population, most people have several jobs so we can get everything done. Billy is also a marine engineer, and sometimes he’s inappropriately overenthusiastic about new technology,” she said, emphasizing her words for her brother’s sake. Billy, however, did not seem to hear her tone and continued excitedly.
“—Look at the fine parallel lines on each plate of armor, like barbs on a bird’s feather,” Billy said, effusively. “Those are actually force-field antennae! Instead of resisting water pressure in the deep with a thick, heavy, metal or nano-structured ceramic, the suit uses an eggshell thin, invisible force field. He doesn’t even need a breathing helmet. It’s brilliant!”
Cairo could easily see that Billy’s enchantment with technology had, for the moment, completely dispelled the teenager’s resentment toward people like him who were from the other colony Worlds. If enduring unwanted scrutiny was the price for winning Billy’s approval, Cairo was more than happy to pay the premium.
“But a force field needs lots of power to operate,” Billy said, puzzled. “And what about propulsion? Sensors? Navigation? Where are they? And even though your armor might be as lightweight as possible, it must still be heavy. So, how do you move so gracefully?”
Cairo patiently explained that the hard shell of his marine excursion suit covered a thin layer of the most ingenious engineering that human and artificial intelligences could conceive. He explained that a flatpack micro-fusion reactor near the small of his back powered the excursion suit. Thousands of needle-thin pores covering the suit either took in or expelled jets of water to manage his buoyancy and propel him like a shark through the ocean. Built-in sensors, communication links, and computer cortexes exchanged vital information with his data goggles. His tubular collar housed an oxygen rebreather system. And linear motors as fine as the fibers in the 640 skeletal muscles of the human body enabled him to move as easily as if he was wearing nothing at all.
When Cairo read Billy’s mind to see how he was faring with the young man, he was gratified that the teenager was enthused by what he was learning. But when he read Olivia’s mind, he was surprised that she was deeply preoccupied with something else entirely. All Cairo could mind-read, without being painfully and immorally intrusive, was the non-Aquarian-looking face of a handsome young boy with sun-bleached, curly hair; hazel eyes; skin the color of milk caramel; and a name—a name that kept reverberating concernedly in Olivia’s brain: “Joshua.”
All thoughts either anxious or sublime came to an abrupt halt when an alert beeped and the submersible speedboat automatically throttled back to one-tenth speed. “We’ve reached our rendezvous point with the Hoosegow,” Capt. Billy announced. “All hands strap in and prepare for docking.”
Olivia tapped a control, and suddenly the display panels that tiled the walls and ceiling of the cockpit instead of portholes or windows, showed the endless waters around the speedboat as if the hull was transparent. A trail of the last few supercavitation bubbles slithered past the cockpit displays to reveal aquamarine waters beneath the shimmering surface. Abruptly, the surface twilight was obscured by a silhouette in the shape of a manta ray, but as big as a small cruise liner. As the shadow of a giant submarine cruised beneath the waves and above their heads, a sliver of pale-green light appeared on the belly of the silhouette and quickly widened to become the rectangular hatch to an emerald-lit underwater dock.
“Speed and trajectory synchronized,” said Capt. Billy, checking the virtual glide path painted on the display panel in front of him. “Speed and trajectory synchronized,” confirmed Olivia, checking that their course was the one ordered by the Hoosegow vessel traffic officer. Then with unexpectedly adult solemnity in his voice, Capt. Billy said, “Let’s go home.”