Red Fish, Blue Fish

The night’s beach party around the moon pool had broken up and the attendees were drifting towards their homes. Just as the Chief Deputy stopped at the upper-tier entrance to a two-story, multi-generational apartment, Olivia Marshal came racing out the entrance chasing a young boy who was making a beeline for Paul Marshal. 

“Joshua, stop! Your uncle’s busy!” Olivia shouted. But the boy was so focused on his goal to welcome his uncle, that he was deaf to what Olivia, his older cousin, was saying. The two deputy marshals escorting the Chief Marshal didn’t expect a flank attack from his home, and were too far away to prevent the interruption.

“Pa, we’re so sorry for intruding on you and Cairo—I mean—Mr. Shah,” Olivia said, finally catching up with the fair-haired, human-looking boy. The boy looked as unmodified as Cairo himself, down to the antiquated oxygen rebreather around his neck. The boy was ecstatic about something, and completely oblivious to anyone else until he proudly shoved his computer tablet into his uncle’s webbed hand. It was only when he had done so and was impatiently waiting for his uncle’s reaction, did he glance aside and actually notice the outworlder staring down at him.

Cairo was not so surprised by meeting the boy, the only person he had met who didn’t look like one of the merpeople. If there was a boy in Olivia’s mind, one whom she was so worried about, then he had to exist somewhere. Nor was Cairo too surprised that the boy had not uttered a single word since he rushed onto the promenade. The boy seemed intelligent, with bright, inquisitive eyes; but he also seemed to determinedly turn a blind eye to anything that might distract him. But what did surprise Cairo was the torrent of wildly unrestrained thoughts pouring out the boy’s mind. 

«I solved it. I solved Uncle’s challenge. It required a manifold transformation combined with a four-dimensional geodesic, but I solved it,» the boy thought to himself. «Now, will Uncle acknowledge that I won our bet?» 

Cairo realized these were not merely cognitive thoughts like the ones that flow through any sentient person’s mind. These were unrestrained, radiated thoughts that spilled willy-nilly from the boy’s mind. «Hello,» Cairo thought at the young boy, and abruptly the boy stopped thinking and stared blankly at the aquaman.

The boy could obviously shift his attention if he wanted, Shah concluded. He wasn’t as compulsively shy, antisocial, or rude as he appeared. In which case, it occurred to Cairo, the boy’s behavior might result from him defending himself from unwanted, intrusive thoughts the way some children on the autism spectrum cover their ears to defend themselves from unwanted, intrusive noise.

Olivia apologetically blurted to her father, “Joshua is so excited about some mathematical proof he worked out, that he couldn’t restrain himself from telling you. He rushed out of the house before I could stop him. I’m so sorry.” 

However, instead of being angry at his grand-nephew, Paul Marshal examined Joshua’s tablet with genuine care, then smiled down at the boy, and said, “Good work, Josh’, I think you solved it! I’m a bit busy talking to Mr. Shah right now, but I promise to discuss your work later. Deal?” 

Susan Marshal gingerly joined her family on the promenade and gently pried Joshua from her husband’s side. Overhead, the synthetic moon in the projected night sky cast faded blue shadows over the promenade. “I’m so sorry about this interruption, Mr. Shah. Joshua is so eager to please his uncle. Joshua is a bit of a scientific prodigy, although he prefers marine biology. Paul’s been helping him develop his statistical analysis skills.”

Ever the diplomat, Susan Marshal said, “It’s late, everyone. Why don’t we go inside the house so the neighbors can get some sleep?”

Paul’s and Susan’s tastefully appointed townhome was compact and functional, but still larger than most other apartments, as befit their status as chief and supervisory law enforcement officers as well as captain and commander of their police boat. 

Cairo politely stifled a yawn. The background information he was being briefed on was relevant and useful, but the last leg of his journey to Aquarius had been long and tiring. Olivia noticed him yawning and smiled sympathetically, while Ma Susan regarded her daughter’s smile with motherly interest. Off in one corner, almost hidden from view by a tall, cylindrical aquar­ium, Joshua sat saying nothing, as was his custom, and stared attentively at the aquaman. Paul Marshal, on the other hand, seemed to have boundless stamina and curiosity. This night’s discourse could get very long, Cairo feared.

“I’m curious about the gear your wearing, if you don’t mind me asking,” Paul said. “Considering the length of your trip, and how long ago I requested a mediator, you had time to arrange traveling here in a medical hibernation tank and arrive transformed into a merman. Instead, you chose to forgo metamorphosis and use technological adaptation. I just wondered why.”

Cairo suppressed a chuckle. He found it strangely amusing how innocently a policeman phrased an interrogation question. Apparently Paul Marshal wasn’t entirely trustful of the Exploration Guild since it had taken that organization decades to reestablish contact with the marooned Aquarius colony, despite their protests that they had done the best they could. Nor did Paul entirely trust the infamous Working Class Telepaths. And yet Cairo would have to be careful how he answered. Paul, and probably Susan, were already privy to some of Cairo’s psychic abilities, but not even they knew the full extent of his powers.

“I didn’t bother trying to transform because I knew it wouldn’t safely work on me,” Cairo said in all honesty. “Metamorphosis requires reengineering your genetic code. While most human genetics and epigenetics are well understood, the genetics of a small percentage of humans exhibit critical differences that defy analysis and understanding.” Which was strictly true, although the small percentage of humans he was referring to were exclusively psychics. 

However, while Cairo was being scrutinized by his interrogator, he was scrutinizing his interrogator in turn. And what Cairo found most interesting when he read Paul’s mind, was that while Paul was intentionally keeping his surface thoughts blank, his eyes kept involuntarily glancing into the corner where his nephew, Joshua, was lying low like a camouflaged cuttlefish.

Joshua was hidden, more or less, behind a tall, cylindrical aquarium that contained several types of non-sentient, alien fish indigenous to Aquarius. Joshua’s face was distorted as in a funhouse mirror, and hidden behind what looked like a school of addlepated red and blue goldfish that for some reason swam round and round in a circle, like mounts on a merry-go-round. “One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish…,” thought Cairo, recalling an old children’s book.

Cairo concluded, telling Paul, “Without an accurate map of those people’s genetics, any attempt at a major transformation could lead to anything from no transformation at all, to a hideously disfiguring transformation. I didn’t think it was worth taking the risk.” 

This statement too was true. Sometimes a transformation wouldn’t work at all on a Working Class Telepath. But sometimes a transformation would mangle a psychic’s ability—the most hideously disfiguring metamorphosis of all—until, and if, the transformation could be undone.

There was no doubt in Cairo’s mind that Joshua was the reason for Paul’s line of questioning. Amidst a civilization or merpeople, Joshua stood out as the only untransformed human. Apparently something had gone wrong with the somatic and germline genetic engineer­ing that had transformed the colonists from Iowa, as well as their offspring, into merpeople. For some reason, Joshua had not metamorphosed. He didn’t have the physical attributes of a Triton, and he needed breathing apparatus to survive for extended periods of time underwater. Which meant Cairo’s advanced aquaman gear would be of special interest to the Aquarians. Of course, that didn’t answer the question of why Joshua’s transformation didn’t work.

Cairo was about to broach the subject of the boy when the communication wristbands on all the merpeople began to blink madly, and simultaneously a breathless messenger burst into the living room. “Captain, you’re needed on the bridge. We just received a Mayday distress call from the Sioux City encampment. They’re under attack.”

Paul was incredulous. Sioux City was a big, self-sufficient, metropolitan encampment. He could think of few kinds of attack that would justify them sending an urgent distress call to anyone nearby. Or would justify the bridge sending a personal messenger to tell him. “Who attacked them? Pirates? Smugglers?”

“No, sir—” said the messenger, “—Sea-Devils.” Suddenly, a chilled silence fell over the room.

The affable Paul Marshal suddenly became the decisive captain of the Hoosegow. “Deputy, return to your post on the bridge. Tell the officer of the day to take us to flank speed and lay a course to the distress signal. I’ll be right behind you. 

“Commander,” Capt. Paul said, turning to his wife, “it’ll be about four hours until we arrive from here. I’ll take the watch for the first three hours. Get some sleep and join me then. Mr. Shah, I’m afraid…“

“Don’t worry about Mr. Shah,” said Cdr. Dr. Susan. “Get up to the bridge, dear.” The Captain and Commander gave each other reassuring smiles and a peck on the cheek, and then went about their duties. “Mr. Shah, I’m certain my husband was about to say that he was afraid our evening has been cut short. We’re going to be preoccupied for the next four hours, and you look like you could use some sleep until then.

“Billy, take Mr. Shah—“ Susan began to say, then stopped in mid-sentence as she reconsider­ed her plan. “On second thought, Olivia, take Mr. Shah to his apartment. Settle him in, and later bring him to the bridge when we reach Sioux City. Is that alright, Mr. Shah? Good. During the meantime, I’ll secure things here, make sure sickbay is prepared, and then get some sleep myself. 

“Josh’, come with auntie Sue, dear. I think this is going to be a very long night. And for the next three hours, I want you as snug as a bug in your bunk.”

As Joshua was hurried out of the living room, Cairo noticed that the red and blue fish in the aquarium, which he assumed naturally schooled in circles, were now swimming at random in no particular pattern. Just like any other school of fish.

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