Man to Man

After story time was over, Paul Marshal leaned over to Cairo Shah and said, “Let’s go for a walk up on the promenade. We can speak in private while we walk to my home.” A short while later, the aquaman and the merman were slowly ambling around the promenade, while Billy Marshal and another young deputy marshal—one leading, one trailing, and both out of earshot—directed the occasional passersby to please find another route. 

“I feel a lot like the commander in Susan’s story,” said Paul Marshal. “She and I were both policemen stationed at the Acidalia Planitia colony on Mars before we married and retired young to a little farm back in Iowa. We never expected to leave Earth again, or get back into police work. But the Des Moines consortium looked like a wonderful opportunity, so we packed up like all our neighbors and went to the stars. After the disaster and we were marooned, there was a need for those of us with law enforcement backgrounds to temporarily volunteer to maintain the peace in the hastily renamed Aquarius colony. Three decades later, Susan and I are still here.”

Cairo was silent for awhile, then eventually said, “You have a lifetime of experience, and yet you saw fit to not merely ask publicly for the Exploration Guild to send a mediator to settle the dispute between the Stay and Exit parties, but to privately ask the XG to send a mediator who was also a Working Class Telepath—someone who could read minds. And yes, before you deny anything, I did personally see the paperwork. So my first question is, why did you send for someone like me?”

“I asked,” Capt. Paul said, “because this isn’t just a political fight between two pig-headed political factions who’re convinced only they are right.” Paul’s pale green eyes looked fixedly into Cairo’s eyes of dark baharat. “For many months now, we have been investigating reports of increasingly destructive attacks by some sort of huge, indigenous, aquatic animal vandalizing isolated unmanned infrastructure. Undersea cables, sensor stations, and automated aquaculture farms have been torn apart, with no clue remaining except enormous, man-sized gouge marks left in the bent rubble. 

“Recently, we noticed an unexpected pattern in the attacks. Prior to the grand conference we’re going to, the Stay and Exit parties have been barnstorming around the planet holding debates to stir up support for their positions. The pattern Olivia and Joshua noticed was that the vandalism happened nearly simultaneously and nearby each debate. More troubling, at the last few debates multiple eyewitnesses claimed to have been stalked—that’s the word they used, ‘stalked’—by some sort of huge, dark brownish red or purple sea creature lurking just beneath the surface or hiding in the kelp forests.”

In an unconscious gesture, Paul stroked his webbed fingers through the soft, pale, filaments that had been transmogrified from what on an ordinary human would have been hair. “I don’t have a sixth sense like you, Mr. Shah, but all those years of experience you mentioned, scream at me that something connects the reports of vandalism and stalking. Some­thing strange, something eerie, something…frightening. 

“Mr. Shah, some­one in those feuding factions knows more than they’re letting on. I can feel it in my bones. That’s why I need some­one who can explore the two factions’ deepest, darkest secrets.”

“You need a mind-reader,” Cairo said, finishing Marshal’s rationale for him. If Marshal’s revelation had been news to Cairo, he might have been offended at being used merely as a tool to further an investigation. And it was certainly unethical for a Working Class Telepath to cavalierly rummage through anyone’s mind. But the Exploration Guild had already sussed out Paul Marshal’s concerns and was just as concerned about an imminent threat. That was why the XG had offered Cairo Shah this assignment; and that was why Cairo Shah had accepted.

For a few moments, Cairo mulled over what Paul said, and then replied, “You said you suspected something ‘frightening’ is happening. But nothing you’ve said sounds that severe, that dangerous.”

Now it was the Chief Deputy’s turn to mull over his words, and try to explain why, what was currently only a pattern of random events, added up in his mind to something more sinister. Finally, he said, “Mr. Shah, in all your experience on other Worlds, in all your background research about Aquarius, did you ever come across the term…’Sea-Devils’?”

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