Thar She Blows
Olivia Marshal led the aquaman through the last wet tunnel leading to the bridge. With each stroke she took, a sinuous flex of muscles rippled through her lean body from her strong, bare arms; through her taut wetsuit; down her long legs; and then spilled off her tapered toes and into the swirling water. Her short, dark-green mane trailed behind her scalp like angel hair seaweed.
At the end of the tunnel, they pushed through a force-field bulkhead that separated wet space from dry, and entered the rear of the bridge. Cairo’s data goggles volunteered an augmented view of the bridge’s layout with classified schematics of the Hoosegow’s command center. Toward the bow was a circular crescent of duty stations manned by a handful of merpeople of various ages and genders. The sensor specialist and weapons officer sat amidships beside a few other stations. Capt. Paul stood at the center of the bridge behind his helmsman, and to Cairo’s surprise, Joshua sat at the navigator’s station.
At the stern of the bridge was the visitors’ gallery where anxious delegates from the Stay party congregated by themselves on the starboard side, and agitated delegates from the Exit party huddled together on the port side. Olivia and the aquaman found themselves in the middle, forming a living barrier between the feuding factions.
A mosaic of displays tiled the walls and ceiling of the bridge, giving the illusion that the hull was transparent. The bottom row of displays, just above the duty station consoles, operated as a heads-up display that superimposed a summary of critical data on the crews’ view into the ocean. And graphical windows on the console displays gave peephole views of the sea beneath the police boat. As the Hoosegow slowed to one-twentieth speed, the view outside became a scene of chaos and devastation.
“What the hell happened here?” muttered someone incautiously, while delegate Trask uttered an anguished groan. Olivia Marshal leaned close to Cairo’s ear and whispered, “Sioux City is Trask’s home town.”
At the Navigation station, Joshua squirmed in his chair as he struggled to maintain his concentration.
The Sioux City metropolitan encampment was built under a shallow, blue-green, tropical sea. Normally, an enormous, transparent, flexible dome resembling an inflated parachute covered a dry downtown space filled with tall office spires footed by broad plazas with Venetian bridges spanning a blue lagoon. Now the dome was torn and tattered, waving like a bedraggled banner in the shifting currents. The downtown area beneath the dome was completely flooded and random clusters of dark flotsam littered the water the way thunderclouds litter the air. Amidst the debris and silt clouding the water; long, thin, cavalcades of terrified merpeople frantically escaped to rescue ships that were close enough to already answer the outpost’s Mayday.
What caught the eyes of the crew on the bridge of the Hoosegow was that the cavalcades were not swimming away at random angles. They were all fleeing in one direction, while something pursued them from behind.
“Multiple contacts; 1500 meters out; approaching fast,” announced the sensor specialist. “They’re heading toward the survivors.”
The Hoosegow banked on its manta wings to get a better view of the stricken city below. As the bridge tilted on its gimbals and hydraulic levelers to compensate for the force of the turn, everyone on the bridge could see a swarm of sea serpents swimming in-between the bones of office towers like sharks sifting through the remains of a shipwreck. On Earth, the blue whale is the largest animal ever known at almost 30 meters in length and 173 tonnes in weight. The sperm whale is the largest toothed whale at almost 21 meters in length and 80 tonnes. The viperfish is a small creature only about 30 centimeters in length, but is one of the most hideous fish in the sea with partially transparent skin, gaping eyes, and an oversized mouthful of fangs.
The sea serpents were a hell-brew of all those other creatures’ worst traits. The sea serpents were scarlet, finned, leviathans three times the size of a blue whale, who undulated through the deep like monstrous eels. Multiple clusters of spiny dorsal, lateral, and ventral fins ran down the length of each serpentine body, and terminated in a spiny fantail. Huge, baleful eyes scrutinized everything in their domain.
Translucent scales covered the sea serpents’ red skin and obscured the long, arcing whorls and slashes that scarred their bodies like tattoos, or were mementoes of battles with less fortunate creatures they vanquished. Their scarifications were made wondrous by them flickering with a subtle bioluminescence; as was the fairy light emitted perhaps by microscopic creatures that attended the sea serpents like pilot fish, and lit sparks in the inky depths as if they were undersea fireflies.
And lest it be forgotten, the sea monsters seemed to have a lust for annihilating whole cities.
“Sea-Devils,” Capt. Paul said resignedly, the way you do when you wish some awful thing was not true, but in your heart of hearts, you know is.
At first, the sea monsters didn’t seem to notice the delta-winged shadow cruising above them. But then they seemed to become aware that they were being observed. They aggregated into a terror of sea dragons and then began slowly undulating up from the depths with their mouths of fangs opened wide.
When Cairo heard every Aquarian on the bridge reflexively join in a collective gasp, he didn’t have to read their minds to know bone-chilling fear had engulfed each of them. Olivia, who was standing right next to Cairo, murmured in a whisper, “I thought the Sea-Devils only existed in scary tales told to children at story time. I mean, I know they were glimpsed by the original settlers, but they vanished into the deepest oceans and haven’t been sighted again in—what?—over twenty years.”
Cairo read fear trying to viciously murder rationality in each Aquarian’s mind, but the crew of the Hoosegow was trained to acknowledge their fear, and then do their jobs anyway. As for himself, Cairo was afraid too; only a fool wouldn’t be afraid of leviathans slowly undulating just beyond the virtual barrier of the display walls. But like the crew, Cairo had also been trained to control his emotions; and unlike them, he had seen things out among the stars and in people’s minds that rivaled the horrors of the Sea-Devils. However, the conference delegates had no such training, and were panic-stricken with fear, rage, and their own helplessness.
“They mean to kill us!” declared Mera McCormick, voicing the fear everyone felt. “We have to defend ourselves!”
“Those monsters destroyed my home!” raged Benito Trask, for the first time feeling something in common with his political enemy. “What are you waiting for, Captain? You’ve got torpedoes. You’ve got drones. Launch them! Kill those monsters!”
Capt. Paul heard Trask, but shot the representative a savage look that instantly told his cronies, the Jones twins, to hold him back and keep him quiet. The captain had no patience for know-nothing politicians. The Hoosegow was a jack-of-all-trades submarine designed for search, rescue, emergency response, and subduing pirates and smugglers, but it was no battleship. If he used torpedoes at this range, the blowback from the explosion would critically damage his boat. Besides, hunting sea monsters wasn’t the most important thing on his mind at the moment.
“Our priority is to protect the survivors,” the captain said, without looking up from his console. “Helm, maneuver us between the Sea-Devils and the survivors swimming to the rescue ships. Weapons officer, launch all submersible attack drones, and then standby.”
Paul’s voice softened, but remained authoritative, as he said, “Navigator, you’re the marine biology expert. How aggressive are Sea-Devils? They normally inhabit the deepest parts of the ocean. What would make them come near the surface? Navigator…?” Capt. Paul was displeased that he did not get a snappy response to his questions, and started to look up sourly from his tactical console. “Navigator? Joshua? —Joshua!” When Paul looked up, he saw his grand-nephew in the throes of a convulsive fit.
“Stop it!” Joshua cried wildly, as he squeezed his eyes shut and tried to jam his balled fists into his temples, not his ears. “Don’t hurt anyone! Don’t be angry,” he babbled, even as his body and limbs twitched spasmodically. “Stop screaming at me! Be quiet. Be quiet!”
Olivia scrambled to unshackle her seat restraints and go to Joshua’s aid. Frantically, she slid on the tilted deck floor, grabbing handholds along the way, until she finally got to Joshua’s side. “Josh’, calm down. Calm down. It’s me, cousin Liv, I’m right here,” she said. “It’s alright, no one’s trying to hurt you,” Olivia said, but Joshua wasn’t responding to her assurances. In his convulsive state, he alternated between pounding at his skull and thrashing at something no one else could see.
An old joke describes a drunkard who could not avoid weaving crazily when he tried to walk a straight line over level ground, but walked perfectly straight when he walked over rolling ground during an earthquake. Cairo Shah’s aquaman suit counteracted its cumbersome bulk by automatically activating as needed the linear motors that served as the suit’s muscles. Cairo released his seat restraints, and without a thought, leaned steeply to one side and walked in a straight line across the tilted deck to the Navigator’s station.
When Cairo reached Joshua, Olivia frantically pleaded to the aquaman, “Help him! He’s having one of his attacks. He hasn’t had one for so long I thought he was better. Please help!”
For a moment, Cairo read a flash of memory in Olivia’s mind when Joshua was an infant, a teen-aged Olivia was Joshua’s babysitter, and she loved and cared for the boy for many years as if he were her own child.
Cairo firmly held the convulsing boy’s shoulder and quietly said, “Joshua, what’s wrong?” But as before, the boy did not respond to the spoken word. Seeing that verbal communication was useless, Cairo tipped his head forward slightly, half-hooded his eyes, and opened his mind. Then Cairo thought to the boy, «Joshua, what’s wrong?»
Suddenly, Joshua stopped convulsing and stared fixedly at the aquaman. The boy still didn’t speak, but thought to himself, “Did Mr. Cairo just…say…something to me?” To which Cairo thought to the boy, «Why, yes I did. Tell me, what’s causing you so much distress?»
Cairo noticed Joshua’s mind was inundated with a tidal wave of thoughts that were washing away Joshua’s sense of self, and that those intrusive thoughts were not Joshua’s own. «It’s awfully noisy in your head, isn’t it?» Cairo thought, «You can hardly hear yourself think. Is that what’s so painful to you?»
Wide-eyed, Joshua silently nodded, Yes. Olivia flinched with surprise when Joshua seemed to respond to the aquaman, even though they weren’t exchanging a word between them.
«If you would like,» thought the aquaman to the young lad, «I can teach you a few simple tricks to quiet the voices in your head when they get too loud. Would that be alright with you?»
Now this time, Joshua both nodded and said aloud, “Yes. Please show me. I can’t stand all the anger and noise.” Olivia had no idea what Joshua was talking about. She was just grateful he was talking at all.
The aquaman tipped his head left and right as if he were preparing to make a swan dive, then he thought to Joshua, «Alright, this first trick to mute thoughts is pretty simple once you get the hang of it—it’s one of the first things we teach kindergarteners, in fact. Now pay close attention, and do as I do…»
The mind is quicker than the tongue, and in real time only a minute or two had passed since Joshua started convulsing and Cairo Shah grasped his shoulder. Now the boy had stopped shaking, stopped staring into the abyss, and stopped babbling like a madman. Then in an infinitely weary voice, Joshua said to his cousin, “Liv? How long have you been here?”
Olivia’s heart burst with joy, and she couldn’t help smothering Joshua with hugs and stroking her webbed fingers through his sandy hair. “Josh’, do you feel alright?” she cried. “I was so worried about you.”
“Mr. Joshua, are you back with us?” asked Capt. Paul, concealing his heartfelt relief.
“Me? I’m fine, I’m fine…I think I’m fine…Yes, I’m fine,” the boy said dazedly. Joshua didn’t seem to notice that Cairo’s hand was still clutching his shoulder, and that Cairo’s eyes were still as hooded as a meditating Buddha’s. “I’m just so tired. So sleepy,” the boy said. “Let me lay down for just a minute. Just one minute…”
“You can’t go to sleep quite yet, Joshua” said Cairo, while never letting go of the boy’s shoulder. “We’re in danger. The Captain needs your help. Look around. We’re surrounded by Sea-Devils. You know best about sea creatures. Should we fight or run?”
Joshua craned up his head as if it weighed a tonne, and then swiveled it back and forth as he perused the terrifying creatures beyond the hull. The Sea-Devils had swarmed up from the shattered city to confront the Hoosegow, the only barrier between them and the fleeing survivors of their attack who were scrambling aboard a flotilla of rescue vessels. Whenever the wall of squirming red sea serpents tried to slither past the Hoosegow or its attack drones, the vessels maneuvered to block the way. Even though the sea serpents were giants by comparison, they kept their distance. It was a tenuous standoff between metal and flesh adversaries that could not last forever.
“I don’t understand,” Joshua said, turning to the captain. “Sea-Devils were first discovered living in the deepest, darkest, most silent parts of the ocean. That’s were they thrive. That’s where they belong. What could possibly drive them to the surface?”
“I can’t answer your last question,” said Capt. Paul, “but now I know how to fight them. Bridge, rig for search-and-rescue, and don’t forget the attack drones,” he said to his crew members in general. “Sensors, rig for a long-range, wide-spectrum sonar sweep. Helm and Weapons, keep up the good work blockading those creatures until we’re set up.”
“Captain, Joshua’s doing alright for now,” said the aquaman, “but he needs to get to sickbay as soon as possible.” Without thinking, Cairo took his hand off Joshua’s shoulder for a moment and suddenly the boy cried out, wincing, as he clutched his forehead. Quickly, Cairo put his hand back on Joshua’s shoulder and the boy relaxed.
“I’ll take him, sir,” Olivia volunteered without being asked, “if that’s alright.”
“Alright, go,” Capt. Paul told his daughter. “Mr. Shah, please help her. She’ll show you the way.”
“Captain,” the duty officer interrupted, “we’re rigged and ready whenever you are.” The duty officer and the sensor specialist hunkered over their consoles like two hungry bears hanging over a stream full of coho.
“There’s no better time to try this than the present,” Captain Paul said with a shrug. “Alright, boys and girls, let’s light the fireworks and bang the pots and pans.”
Cairo’s aquaman suit had enabled him to easily lift Joshua to his feet and help him along. But he and Olivia paused before leaving the bridge to see what would happen outside.
In the water, the Hoosegow was a nearly silent silhouette of a manta ray gliding over the mysteries of the deep. But when the submarine performed a search-and-rescue operation, underwater searchlights embedded in the belly of its hull illuminated the sea floor like antiaircraft searchlights blazing into the night over some war-torn World. And when the Hoosegow did a long-range, wide-spectrum sonar sweep, it emitted a series of cacophonous underwater blasts that could be heard hundreds of kilometers away. Now all that flash and fury was aimed directly at the Sea-Devils.
It would be wrong to say that the Sea-Devils were frightened by the brilliant lights and trumpeting sounds assailing them. Rather than being afraid of the Hoosegow’s attack, or injured by the police boat’s nonlethal weapons, the Sea-Devils were startled. For a long while, they swarmed around each other like recursive fish in an Escher painting, caught in the glare of searchlights far brighter than any bioluminescence in their dark domain at the bottom of the ocean; and far noisier than the loudest clicks and snaps of blind shellfish, or roar of belching black smokers.
“What are they doing?” Olivia muttered to Cairo, as she examined the patterns the Sea-Devils made as they swam around each other. “Maybe I’m seeing meaning where none exists,” Olivia said after a few seconds. “And I know the Sea-Devils are just dumb animals, albeit alien dumb animals. But something about the pattern they’re weaving looks…almost intentional; almost as if they’re… as if they’re….”
“They’re arguing with each other,” Joshua said dreamily, completing his cousin’s speculation with a certainty rather than a conjecture.
Cairo scrutinized Joshua closely, as if he were an exotic seashell he had found washed up on the shore. After a while, Shah tipped his head slightly, half-hooded his eyes, and opened his mind in a way he normally would not have, had he not had been obliged to rummage around Joshua’s mind. Cairo turned his head slightly to and fro, as if he were looking at something although his eyes were half-closed, and listening to something although there was nothing to hear except the clipped murmurs of the bridge crew and the grumbles of the delegates.
Suddenly, Cairo’s head snapped back, his jaw fell slack, and eyes opened wide. Olivia had not seen many un-metamorphosed humans before; she was more used to people with pale green skin. But when she saw the blood drain from the aquaman’s face and turn his caramel brown complexion ashen, she cried, “Cairo, what’s wrong? You look like you’ve seen a ghost!”
“What? Oh. No. No, I’m alright,” Cairo said, struggling to regain his composure. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you,” he said, pretending to be calm. “I was just caught off guard…by something.”
Before Cairo, Olivia, or Joshua could say another word to one another, a whoop and holler erupted on the bridge.
“Look! The Sea-Devils are running away!” shouted Emily Miller, one of McCormick’s fellow delegates. “Who would have believed it? Those bright lights and loud noises worked!”
Outside, in the shallow blue-green ocean, the Sea-Devils stopped swarming chaotically, then almost magically fell into an orderly school, and began lazily undulating like scarlet sine waves toward deeper water. The other delegates immediately began shouting triumphantly and congratulating the bridge crew. “We beat them!” Trask said, although the victory belonged to Capt. Paul and the Hoosegow. “They’ll think twice about messing with us again,” Trask blustered.
Cairo reached under Joshua’s arm and around his back to get a better grip, then told Olivia, “Joshua still needs medical attention as soon as possible. We’d better take him to sickbay now.”
As Olivia led the way toward the aft bulkhead, the aquaman glanced back just in time to see the enormous red Sea-Devils majestically swim away, accompanied by flickering fairy lights, and disappear, one by one, into the deep, dark, mysterious ocean.