Olivia Marshal swam through a water-filled tunnel from the emerald-lit harbor deck, with Cairo Shah swimming behind her, and Billy Marshal pulling up the rear. Olivia looked back and was surprised at how well the water jets in the aquaman’s excursion suit amplified Shah’s swimming motions and enabled him to easily keep up with her. “How are you doing back there?” she asked.

“Fine,” Cairo said as his electronically augmented voice adorned with the appropriate subsonic whistles broadcast through the water. “Where are we exactly?”

Olivia said, “We’re taking the tunnels to the Village deck, which is where all our families and guests live. You can get anywhere you want on the Hoosegow by going through the dry corridors or wet tunnels, but the tunnels are best if you want to get somewhere in a hurry. We’re almost there.

“The Village deck is a big, multi-story, ellipsoidal open space in the middle of the Hoosegow between its dorsal and ventral bulges. Relative to the village, most of Engineering, Weapons, Propulsion, and the sea docks are on the deck below. The Science and Med labs, communal galley, and schoolhouse are around us. And the deck above contains the Bridge, Operations, the Brig, and the Tactical hangar.” 

Billy Marshal swam faster until he and Olivia bracketed Cairo. “A lot of people are anxious to meet you,” Olivia said, “including the captain and his primary advisor, the ship’s doctor and commander; the handful of delegates we’re transporting to your conference; and most everyone who’s off duty and relaxing on the beach. I guess the captain and the doctor figured that after such a long trip to Aquarius, you might want to relax a little tonight before starting work.” 

Olivia noticed a bright halo of light ahead. “Looks like we’re here. We’ll come up through the moon pool and—”

“—Let them get a load of you!” quipped Billy.

Beach Party

Olivia, Billy, and the aquaman walked up the ramp from the moon pool’s midwater to its shore, and together they breached the surface like Venus attended by a brace of Tritons. Water spilled off their glistening bodies as they stood on the shore of the pool, surrounded by what looked like a small Mediterranean coastal village on Earth. Two tiers of tall, shallow, close-fitting apartments formed a ribbon of homes between the shore of the moon pool and the overarching hull. To make a more neighborly space, apartments on the second tier stepped-back to form a promenade on the roofs of the apartments on the first. 

The village was bustling with life. Most of the merpeople who were off duty and not sleeping were on the narrow shore, mingling with friends and family and guests who ranged in age from giggling infants to wise old elders. The residents of the Hoosegow chatted, or lounged, or picnicked, or played games beneath an artificial sky displayed on the ceiling above. As the synthetic image of twilight set, the night sky, stars, and moon of Aquarius began to rise. Yellow porch lights started to brighten and cast reflections across the surface of the moon pool. On shore, multi-colored balloon lanterns and fairy lights shone while cheerful music played. 

Amidst the crowd, but respectfully separated by an implicit no-man’s land, stood a pair of dignified but otherwise easygoing officials, bracketed by two ragtag clusters of surly-looking merpeople.

“Mr. Shah,” said Olivia, suddenly being formal again, “allow me to introduce my father, Chief Deputy and ship’s captain, Paul Marshal; and my mother, Supervisory Deputy and ship’s physician, Commander Dr. Susan Marshal.” 

Cairo wryly mused how Olivia had conveniently buried the lede when she failed to mention who the captain and doctor were in relation to Billy and herself.

“Hello Mr. Shah,” said Paul and Susan Marshal, both beaming warm, sincere smiles. “My wife and I are so glad you’ve come. Allow me to introduce some delegates from the Stay party on your left, and the Exit party on your right.” A flurry of names and greetings exchanged back and forth, but nothing could disguise the obvious tension crackling between the two factions of delegates. “But let’s not talk politics tonight; tomorrow is soon enough,” Paul said.

Susan joined in and told Olivia and Billy, “Thank you, children, for escorting Mr. Shah. You did well. 

“Mr. Shah, if you can keep your eyes open awhile longer after such an exhausting trip, we’ll mingle a bit, eat a little, laugh a lot, and introduce you to the rhythm of life aboard the Hoosegow. Then we’ll let you get some sleep.

Cairo was impressed with how well Paul and Susan used their charm to set the mood for the evening. But Cairo was a mind-reader, and the onslaught of ill feelings he sensed behind the delegates smiling faces made him wonder what was really going on.

The leader of the Exit party delegates was a stocky merman named Benito Trask, who had a facial feature Cairo had never seen before, which reminded him of a catfish’s mustache. “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Shah,” Trask said in a deep voice accompanied by an obligatory smile. However, he was thinking, «Here we are trying to make everyone see reason and get off this cursed cesspool, and the best those bastards from the Exploration Guild can do to help us fight the Stay party is send some useless paper-pusher—And an aquaman no less; a natural-born drowning risk; an air-breather on a water-world!—What good is he?» 

The leader of the Stay party was an athletic, middle-aged merwoman named Mera McCormick. “A pleasure, Mr. Shah. I’m sure you’ll be able to settle this silly family squabble in no time,” she said with another obligatory smile. But what she was thinking was, «How are we going to get around those bottom-feeding delegates from the Exit party and save our world if we have to depend on some clueless bureaucrat—A newborn aquaman who probably knows nothing about our history, or how hard we’ve had to fight to build this world—who’ll probably do nothing but spout useless platitudes and empty promises?»

Trask was accompanied by Davey and Ricky Jones, a pair of burly twins who looked more like cronies and henchmen than assistants. While McCormick’s own retinue, consisting of tall, lanky Emily Miller; and diminutive, mousey Agnes Gooch were selected because of their studiousness and skill researching facts and figures.

But even from Paul and Susan Marshal, Cairo read thoughts of, «There’s blood in the water. This feud between the political parties is sure to eventually erupt into a feeding frenzy. Is Shah really the man to fix the problem?»

For Cairo’s part, he had no doubts about his mediation skills, but he couldn’t help wondering what kind of dogfight had the Exploration Guild dropped him into.

Cairo’s mind-readings and musings were interrupted by Susan Marshal saying, “It’s almost story time, Mr. Shah. We have a long-standing tradition of an elder sitting on the shore, calling our young children and adults alike to gather around the warmth of the glow-globes, and telling tales of fantasy, wonder, and history. I have the honor of being tonight’s storyteller.

“You should come too, Mr. Shah. You’re sure to learn something new about us. Paul can keep you company. And after awhile, you and he can take a walk and talk in private.”

“Then you might learn something else new about us,” Paul said.

Not being a fool, Cairo took the hint and simply replied, “I’d like that.”

“Ma,” Olivia interjected, furtively, “is Joshua coming out to listen too? I think he’d like to…meet…Mr. Shah.” 

There was that name again, “Joshua”, thought Cairo. And in Olivia’s worried mind, there was also, for some reason, a vague idea centering on Cairo being an aquaman. Ma Marshal looked pensively at her daughter, trying to imagine what was troubling her child, when the same vague idea in Olivia’s mind was suddenly inspired in Susan’s mind. 

“He’s off duty,” Ma Susan said, “but I don’t think he’s come out of his room. You know how he hates crowds. Why don’t you check on him?”

“Sounds like Ma’s got everything under control,” said Paul. “Aquarius is both a beautiful and terrifying world,” he told the aquaman. “It would do you good to hear Susan’s story about it.”

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