“Good afternoon, Doctor Wyzer.” The consultant in the open-top tank rested his arms on the Plexiglass shelf above the water, sliding a bookmark into his paperback.
The doctor closed the door behind him and crossed to the center of the room, seating himself at the table and nodding a greeting at the consultant. He removed his glasses long enough to polish a lens on his tie and sighed. “I wish you’d refer to me as Alan, Nomad. Don’t you think twenty-two years as colleagues has earned us a little informality?”
In the tank adjacent to Nomad’s, another of the genetically altered agents splayed her webbed fingers against the glass and eyed Wyzer quizzically. She glanced at Nomad, her water-muted sound of query answered by Nomad’s bald head nodding in affirmation. I will tell him.
Nomad set his novel aside and watched Wyzer replace his glasses. An auburn-haired man of middle age and average height, the doctor was a near caricature of every fictional psychiatrist ever portrayed on film. A bit thin, frazzled of brow and possessed of a neatly trimmed beard and mustache peppered with gray, he fidgeted often but spoke in a tone of quiet self-assurance.
Whatever other faults the Institute of Truehuman and Marihuman Relations had, their selections for the role of specialized handler were impeccable. Instruction in the art of setting people at ease went only so far; Wyzer himself was innately gifted and his education had simply refined the ability.
As Nomad watched Wyzer, the doctor regarded the agent floating upright in the freshwater tank with his now-customary mixture of puzzlement and admiration.
Of all the second-generation Marihumans, Nomad was, perhaps, the most successful result of the Unified Government’s experiments - capable of existing either completely inside or outside an aquatic environment. His skin was adapted to both, pores sealing while submerged to prevent internal heat loss and water absorption but open to the air when not. He had sweat glands - a rarity among the genetically altered - which would allow him not only to live freely above water but to withstand warm climates. His skin’s appearance reflected his heritage, an almost non-color interwoven with sunken purple veins and the hint of gills below the collarbone, but it would serve well enough in the world outside the Institute. Few had been born with enough Truehuman traits to survive among unaltered humans without significant accommodation and all who had save Nomad had chosen to make lives for themselves in Truehuman society.
Nomad himself had declined Truehuman integration in his youth and had refused repeated offers for over two decades. Save for his skin, the fins on his feet and the backs of his legs, his hairlessness, and the uniform bioluminescent blue of his eyes, he was very nearly a Truehuman. Despite the relatively easy path he’d have into the regular world, he chose to remain at the Institute.
It confounded Wyzer to no end.
The consultant's voice was strangely dry for a man often immersed in water. “To answer your question, Doctor, our association would merit informality were our association informal. We have a sound working relationship and I’ve no desire to upset the balance of professional courtesy.”
Wyzer raised a tufted eyebrow. “And you think our working relationship would change if you referred to me by my first name?”
Nomad nodded. “A small liberty, but the first liberty taken invites a cycle of them. First names, nicknames, small favors, gifts and expectations, special dispensations, and then come the requests that fall well outside the borders of professionalism. I don’t dislike you, Doctor, but I respect boundaries a great deal. The Institute has been good enough to adhere to mine and I choose to uphold that standard by doing the same.”
Wyzer smiled, although Nomad noticed the undercurrent of hurt beneath the expression and felt a pang of regret. “All right, Nomad. I think you’ve taken the slippery slope argument a bit far, but if you’re determined then I’ll let it go.” He looked to the second tank and its occupant, nodding in her direction. “Is Razwan all right? She’s not usually this interested in my visits.”
Unlike Nomad, the other Marihuman in the room didn’t present with practical hybrid qualities. Instead she was very much the fanciful artist’s idea of a “mermaid,” having a piscine tail with dull silver scales, humanoid upper body, and sporting a mass of black hair on her head. Gunmetal scales served instead of eyebrows, and she’d developed the needle-like teeth of an angler - albeit small enough so they showed only when she wished. Thin, irridescent webbing connected her fingers, and her eyes were black pits most visitors - and a few handlers - found disconcerting. She was limited to aquatic environments, never having developed Nomad’s hybrid respiratory system.
She wore a reef diver’s suit top in deference to everyone else’s sense of modesty, although it had taken the combined efforts of Phoenix, Wyzer, and Nomad to convince her it was necessary.
They’d paired her with Nomad after several other attempts at “roommates” as she’d done everything within her ability to irritate, insult, and terrorize the other Marihumans with whom she’d been assigned. After she’d stored the fish bones and leftover kelp from her meals in a lump behind a decorative fern for a week, she’d dumped the foul mess in her last roommate’s tank. The filtration systems had clogged, her companion becoming extremely ill before the maintenance crews could discover and remove the blockage.
She’d nearly been assigned a room of her own before Nomad's offer to take her on. Their arrangement hadn’t begun well, but Nomad’s patience and kindness had won her over and the entirety of the Institute’s staff had breathed a collective sigh of relief when the "pranks" ended. His involvement had resulted in her understanding some limited English, and they communicated well enough with that, some sign language, and the largely image-based telepathy shared by most genetically altered humans. She’d gone from a burden to an asset for the Institute within a month of moving in with Nomad, the latter discovering the former’s uncanny ability to discern subtle patterns and codes in seemingly nonsensical sounds. Their little hellion had become a recognized name in audio code breaking.
Nomad spared a glance at her before answering. “She tells me that the handler delivering her food has been… unpleasant with her when I’m away or asleep. Ken Renard, I believe his name is. Rude, taunting, and sloppily dumping her meals into the tank rather than the dispensary. If I understand what she’s telling me, he’s also… exposed himself to her.” He grimaced in distaste.
Both Wyzer’s eyebrows raised, then furrowed. “If that’s true, Renard will have some difficult questions to answer. If you both are willing I’d like to install a camera in here so we can catch him in the act.” He turned to Razwan. “Would that be all right?”
One of Wyzer’s finer characteristics, Nomad mused, was how he’d never spoken condescendingly to Razwan or spoke to or of her dismissively even if she very likely wouldn’t understand him. He treated her as a sentient being, something the handlers often bungled in ignorance. It elevated Wyzer to something very close to a friend in Nomad’s mind despite his earlier protest. He closed his eyes, sending his companion an image of a small device, a panoramic view of the room, and a video screen playing a recording of the view.
She seemed to understand, curling thumb and forefinger together in a webbing-obscured “okay” gesture to Wyzer. Nomad nodded to the doctor, who wrote something in his notebook with hard strokes before returning his attention back to the consultant.
Nomad’s eyes searched Wyzer. “You look like a man with more than a routine visit in mind. I’d almost say you’re a little nervous. Is there something else?”
The doctor leaned back, sliding his notebook aside and revealing a manila envelope. “There is. Remack has uncovered some evidence that one of the archipelago’s less scrupulous businessmen is planning something here. Possibly something dangerous to our residents and staff, and he’s asked me to make a request of you.”
Nomad’s hairless eyebrow ridge lifted. “Sydney Silk?”
Wyzer nodded. “None other. He’s built some kind of archaic carnival attraction on the shore of the center island with very exotic, ah... features. There are rumors that some of his headliners may not be there of their own free will. Remack would like for you to go there and assess things, investigate what you can, and return to us.” The doctor stood, approaching Nomad and passing the envelope to him before returning to his seat.
Nomad opened the envelope, removing a glossy black-and-white photo and several pages of a report. “Silk. If Xander Remack himself is interested in him, this evidence he’s found must be moving, indeed.”
The photo was a laminated glamour shot of Silk, an almost boyishly handsome man with a widow's peak and straight black hair falling past his shoulders and clad in a long tunic of what was almost certainly real reptile skin, patterned in lightning strips of white over a darker color. Silk himself looked exotic, menacing, the lightness of his irises encapsulated by a dark ring echoed in the eyeliner and mascara around his eyes. The tunic was long, but lifted to one of his knees. It revealed an impossibly high stiletto boot encasing his leg at least that far and probably farther. The material of the boot was shiny and uncomfortable-looking, much like the wide strap of material around his neck. A leash hook hung from it.
Nomad shook his head and set the photo aside. His own tastes favored simple and well-tailored suits in dark colors, plain ties, and pork pie hats if the sun was out. He couldn’t imagine wearing Silk’s bizarre getup even if his fins would fit inside the boots. It looked absurd, but he supposed it was de rigueur somewhere in the Truehuman world and it wouldn’t be the first time something patently ridiculous had become fashionable during the course of his life.
He looked up at the doctor.
Wyzer’s gaze was weighted. “If you won’t take friendship, do take some friendly advice - don’t accept this job. You’re able to refuse. Whatever Sydney’s doing, it’s almost certainly dangerous and given what he’s set up on the island-”
“-I’m probably being assigned to it as bait to draw Silk out. I know, Doctor. I’ve worked for the Institute and for Remack when it’s been asked of me and Remack’s interest in our well-being is questionable at best. However,” he held up a hand, forestalling Wyzer’s interjection, “if I refuse, I may be jeopardizing lives here. Mari- and Truehuman lives. Remack may view us as somewhat dispensable when it suits him, but I’ve come to appreciate many here and it would not sit well with me to risk them rather than myself.”
Smiling sadly, Wyzer nodded. “I figured you’d say that, but I had to try.” He stood. “The information we have is in the report. I’d recommend reading it, and maybe picking something a little more daring than your usual to wear. If possible, Remack wants you to register on Silk’s radar, and you dress,” he gestured absently in the air and smiled again, “like a gumshoe in one of your detective novels.”
He waved at Razwan who waved back cheerfully, and left through the door he’d entered.
Nomad turned at the sound of a light knock against the glass separating his tank from Razwan’s. She was waving him to her and he went, the photo still in his hand. She lifted her hand out of the water and over the clear partition toward him, and he clasped it carefully with his free one. She made a questioning sound from beneath the water.
He sent her an image of himself dressed for the Truehuman world. Mission.
She grimaced at him, lip curling enough to show a hint of her angler’s teeth. He squeezed her hand. I know, but it’s important. You are in danger.
Don’t care. Stay. She grinned, displaying the frightening teeth. I fight with you.
Nomad shook his head. “I will come back. Phoenix will stay with you until then.” He showed her the photo of Silk, and she withdrew her hand and crossed her arms over herself, eyes closed and rolling in the water in her version of laughter.
Ugly. Wears kelp. Razwan stuck a finger between her teeth and imitated gagging.
Nomad chuckled. “I know.” I will be back soon. He sent her the image of Phoenix, the Avihuman hybrid with vivid red and violet feathers that served in lieu of hair.
Razwan nodded. I stay with ‘Nex.
Nomad retreated to the back of the tank, resting his hands on the Plexiglass and lifting himself from the water. In the modestly furnished apartment was a bed, a small refrigerator, a writing desk with a lamp, and a walk-in closet where his work and casual clothes hung organized by color and style. He padded with wet feet into the closet and closed the curtain, removing his his diver’s shorts. He draped them over a wall-mounted hook and eyed his wardrobe critically.
Register on Sydney’s radar. His clothes tended toward the subtle, and he certainly owned nothing like Silk’s incomprehensible fare from the photo.
His eyes caught on a shimmering blue shirt from a suit he’d purchased for one of the Institute’s Halloween parties, a brilliant color that matched the bioluminescent glow of his eyes. The suit itself was black, threaded with something that glimmered silver in low light. It had been an unusual selection but Phoenix had insisted he attend in something besides “that Dick Tracy crap” - as she’d called it - and helped him pick more festive attire. He chose and donned them.
On his way out of the closet, he pulled a black pork pie hat with a silver band from the shelf above him. Silk or no Silk, Nomad had certain standards.
Passing Phoenix on the way out the door, he nodded a greeting. “Phoenix.”
The vividly-plumed Avihuman grinned at him, wide eyes admiring everything from the polished shoes to his hat. “Suh-mokin’ duds, Nomadcakes. You’d better take a cane so you can beat the ladies away.” She winked, passing him.
He turned, jumping when a hand clapped him soundly on the ass.
“Get you some!” She'd already skipped halfway to Razwan’s tank when he turned back to reprimand her.
No point in it now.
Nomad grumbled something unintelligible and walked through the door, closing it behind him.
If he could endure ‘Nex’s strangeness, Sydney Silk would be a walk in the park.