You met some weird people in academia, and for the most part Carlos was able to roll with it by now. But even by his standards, Cecil was pretty weird.
He got fascinated with the plastic fork dispenser at the Arby's, and had made about eight of them pop out before Carlos gently pulled him away. At the counter he tried to order three different species of fish that even Carlos had never heard of, until Carlos gently suggested that he try a beef burger with cheddar instead — which he ate slowly and warily, as if he'd never had hamburger before. Maybe he hadn't even been in a fast food place before, judging by how he had no clue where to find the bathrooms.
Not only that, after Carlos pointed them out, Cecil tried to go into the ladies' room. With anyone else Carlos would have withheld judgment, but at this point he figured it was likely Cecil just didn't understand the signs. Sure enough, when Carlos drew his attention to them, Cecil looked from the "person in a skirt with legs together" figure to the "generic person with legs apart" figure and said "Oh, right! Sorry, didn't even notice" before disappearing into the men's.
Most of the Ocean Bluffs natives paid them no attention. Maybe it was that over-the-top local politeness in action. Or maybe excitable people wearing sails-and-rope tunics were an everyday sight after all, and Carlos just hadn't been out among normal people enough lately to notice.
He offered to let Cecil borrow some of his clothes for the next couple of days anyway. No matter how fashionable it was, Cecil couldn't just wear the same outfit constantly while he waited for the rest of them to arrive.
Carlos gave Seacil a complete tour of the lab and the apartment above. It had four bedrooms, one of which was full of Carlos' things; the rest of them just had a few pieces of bare furniture, which gave Carlos a start when he first saw.
"Someone must have come by to pick up the last team's possessions while we were out," he said, not sounding happy about it. "Wish they'd let me know first...I guess that means you can have your pick of rooms. Do you want the first shower?"
A "shower", it turned out, was when you went in a small room and made a contraption pour water over you. Seacil wasn't entirely clear on the point of this. Like, either go all the way and become a water-dwelling creature or stick to the dry open air, just make up your mind, you know? But Carlos thought it was a good idea, so Seacil went along with it.
The shower room had a bunch of bottles with different liquids in them. Reading the labels, Seacil started to get excited. Some of them were things you put in your hair! Could this be Perfect Carlos' secret? Would it be a faux pas if Seacil tried them on himself?
Pondering this, he took a drink from the water conveniently falling down over him...
...and spat it out instantly. It tasted awful. Nasty, almost sour...what was in this stuff? Was it safe?
Seacil wrenched the handle that turned off the water, stumbled out of the tub it had been pouring into, and grabbed the big fluffy rectangle of cloth hanging on the wall. There was a pile of Carlos' clothes folded on the toilet, but he didn't want to waste time figuring out how to get into them. (Besides, the fluffy cloth was a lot more comfortable. Why didn't humans just wear these?)
(He had finally figured out why humans wore clothes in general. It turned out this body's sexual organs didn't retract at all. You had to resort to artificial coverings to keep the things safe.)
"Carlos!" he yelled down the hall, wrapping the fluffy cloth around his waist and tucking it into place. "Carlos, there's something wrong with the water!"
Carlos was out of his room in a flash. "What's—" He gave Seacil a quick once-over, and stuttered over the words. "What is it? What happened?"
"I don't know!" said Seacil plaintively. There were drips of the possibly-toxic water still dripping from his hair, running down his torso. "It tastes weird. That's all I know. This is your area! Do some science and figure it out!"
"I will. I promise. It's gonna be okay, Cecil." The warm caramel tones of Carlos' voice were soothing, even if he kept pronouncing Seacil's name slightly wrong. "Grab the clothes and go ahead and change in your room, okay? I'll bring up the equipment and start running some tests."
The water sample Carlos tested from the bathtub faucet came up with the first normal readings he'd seen since coming to Ocean Bluffs.
He was immediately suspicious.
The next three samples tested as roughly the same, and well within normal tap-water parameters. For comparison, he tested one from the bathroom sink. Same deal. Maybe it wasn't a fluke or a trick. The town might be creepy, but it was only the ocean that insisted on being impossible.
Still, he'd better test a few from the kitchenette too, just in case.
Cecil stayed in the room he'd picked, for so long that Carlos thought he must be taking a nap. This was student housing during the year, so at least the rooms came pre-stocked with cheap beds. A bare mattress would still be a step up from where he'd slept last night, and by this evening Carlos should be able to dig out a sheet from somewhere to tide him over....
"Carlos? How's it coming?"
"So far, so...normal," said Carlos, trying not to stutter this time. It might be forgivable when surprised by a nearly-naked young man with a strikingly attractive torso, but it was definitely not okay with a fully clothed co-worker. Even if the clothes were yours. And even if the blue flannel really brought out those (intriguing) mussel-shell hues in his dark hair.
Cecil frowned. "Normal is good, right?"
"Right! I mean, in theory it's good. In practice, I can't swear all the equipment is actually working." Carlos indicated the sensors, the laptop where he was taking notes, the stack of chemical test strips, the rows of carefully-labeled sample bottles...and realized that he'd taken over the entire kitchenette table. "Sorry, I'll clear some of this stuff away so you can sit."
"No, don't go to any trouble! Leave it out. It all looks very interesting." Cecil took the chair across from Carlos. "Why are you afraid the equipment's not working?"
It turned out Cecil already knew that Carlos and his ever-rotating team kept getting weird data; he just didn't yet grasp exactly how weird. Carlos started to explain the basics, bracing himself for the inevitable criticism: That's obviously not possible. You need to replace the equipment. Oh, you just replaced it? Then you must be doing the tests wrong. Or interpreting the results wrong. Newly-arrived scientists in the area always had to run a few experiments with their own hands before it started to sink in.
But the criticism never came. Cecil listened, and nodded along, and asked for details or clarification when he hadn't followed something, and never once suggested that Carlos might be the problem.
The respect did wonders for Carlos' self-confidence. He found himself admitting to some of his theories, the ones that sounded crazy even to him, but that were the most realistic explanations he could think of. Ideas about chemical testing, and polluted runoff, and radiation, and Strexcorp drilling, and other less-public Strexcorp activities.
Somewhere in the middle, he got up to turn on the light, because the view out the window was dimming as the sun set.
Cecil didn't say it sounded crazy. Cecil admitted he didn't know much about the town, but they could be very inconsiderate with their pollutants — the plastic bags alone were a huge concern! — and if Carlos thought it might be even worse, well, maybe they were! "I mean, you're so smart, anything you come up with must be a good idea," he said with total conviction, making Carlos' face heat up. "That doesn't always make it the right idea...but aren't good wrong ideas what most of science is about?"
Carlos was way too self-conscious to just take the compliment directly. "You sure do have a way with words, Cecil."
"I do?" breathed Cecil, slipping back into rapt-adoration mode. "You really think so?"
"Well, yes." Carlos really needed to change the subject before his new colleague melted into a happy puddle on the floor. "Hey, speaking of good wrong ideas...."
"We need independent confirmation to find out if this equipment is good. We don't have a second set of equipment this sensitive." Carlos was up again, opening the cupboards, pulling out a couple of mugs. "But we do have a second set of equipment, designed to provide general information about chemical makeup. Besides, I need a drink."
So saying, he poured half of one of the sample bottles into a mug (captioned "If You're Not Part Of The Solution, You're Part Of The Precipitate"), and took a sip.
Cecil gaped at him in mute, openmouthed horror, pearly eyes opened wide.
"Tastes fine to me," announced Carlos. He took a more normal swallow. "Yes, data continues to suggest that this is normal water. And now I have a hypothesis. But I'll need you to taste the same sample first."
The fact that he wasn't dropping dead of poison seemed to blunt the shock for Cecil, but he still eyed the half-empty sample bottle with distaste. "Do I have to? What's the hypothesis?"
"I can't tell you. It'll bias the data. Please? For science?"
"...Okay," said Cecil. "For science. But you're lucky your hair is so perfect, that's all I'm saying."
Carlos poured the rest of the sample into the other mug (this one featuring a blue line of waves over the block letters "Oceanographers Do It by Going Deep") and handed it across the table to him. Cecil used both hands to hold it, and moved it gingerly to his mouth, grimacing all the while.
"Nothing's changed!" he announced after the first sip. "It's still terrible. Almost sour."
Carlos sank back into his chair, laughing.
"What is it? What's so funny? This is very serious, Carlos!"
"I'm not laughing at you, I promise," giggled Carlos, overwhelmed with relief. "I spent all this time searching for dangerous chemicals, worrying about health risks, imagining different conspiracy theories...and skipped right over the obvious: you're not used to the local tap water."
It didn't sink in at first. Carlos had to explain about the way different environments could affect water tables, everything from the minerals in the local bedrock to the atmosphere where rain clouds formed changing the composition of the groundwater, and, ultimately, the reservoirs. At last Cecil had absorbed enough of it to say, "You mean...I made you do all this science for no reason?"
"No, Cecil, it's fine, don't think like that!" said Carlos. "It was a nice break. Doing some old-fashioned school-level chemistry, where you get results that make sense and get to eat the experiment afterward...it was fun."
Cecil's face had all the sweet hopefulness of a concerned seal pup. "Really?"
"Really." Carlos smiled at him, forgetting for once to be self-conscious. "Speaking of eating, if you want dinner, help yourself to whatever's in the fridge. Me, I'm overdue for a shower."
After dinner Carlos showed Seacil the "computer" with the "programs" that were used to study the audio samples, Seacil stayed up late into the night trying to figure out how to use it. His newfound command of local Humanish was strained to the limit, absorbing new terminology and navigating unfamiliar interfaces.
He read a lot of help files.
But even with the strange new systems to get used to, Seacil had one major thing going for him. He hadn't been kidding when he told Carlos that sound was his field.
It was child's play to work out how, in theory, his old broadcasts could be extrapolated from the recordings of random-seeming static. The only trick was in finding the right steps to make the computer understand what he wanted it to do...and then to reintroduce just enough white noise to garble the language so that no intrepid human translators would have any chance of deciphering it.
At last he queued up half a dozen files, set the computer to rendering, and went back to his room.
The "bed" turned out to be pretty easy to sleep in. Certainly easier than the deck of a boat. And in the morning he got to wake up to Carlos, perfect hair mussed in a way Seacil could never have imagined in his wildest dreams, smiling and asking if he wanted "coffee."
Seacil had no idea what that was, but he was too starstruck to think much about it. "Sweet, generous Carlos," he sighed. "I would love some."
Giving Cecil coffee had been a mistake.
He practically bounced around the lab, overflowing with ideas, nearly tripping over the legs of the pants Carlos had lent him today (which were an inch or two long on him, and the cuffs kept unrolling). "This feels amazing!" he bubbled, trying to stay near Carlos but completely unable to hold still, while Carlos opened the folder he had apparently spent the night populating. "If you drink this every day, no wonder you're so brilliant!"
"You get acclimated to it after a while," Carlos pointed out. "Quiet down for just a minute so I can listen to one of these files, okay?"
"Okay!" said Cecil, and clamped his mouth shut, though he couldn't help rocking back and forth on his heels.
Carlos opened the converted file with the first timestamp...and the speakers began to play the staticky but unmistakable sound of the ocean from beneath.
"This is incredible," he said, and meant it. "I thought all we'd gotten that day was random noise. How on earth did you do it?"
Cecil didn't answer. When Carlos looked at him, he tapped meaningfully against his closed mouth.
He was adorable. "You can talk again," said Carlos, breaking into a small smile that had nothing to do with their technical success.
"Algorithms!" said Cecil brightly, grinning back. "That's one of my new words. I'm learning all kinds of new words. The distortion sounded familiar, you see, and it had a ring of —"
Here he broke into an improbable squeaky chittering noise that sounded more like it belonged on the underwater audio track than coming out of a human mouth.
Carlos stared at him. "What does that mean?"
Cecil caught himself and coughed, visibly flustered. "It's. Well. Sorry! It's sort of a...traditional exclamation of my people! It translates to...to...you know what, I don't think it actually translates. Sorry again! Don't worry about it!"
That sounded kind of fishy, but Carlos wasn't about to start interrogating the man about his heritage. Cecil probably got that enough already, given his face shape and features that suggested a dozen different ethnicities without committing to any one, and his skin's nice neutral shade of brown that could have been anything all the way down to "heavily-tanned white guy."
"No problem," he said instead. "However you worked it out, I'm just glad you did. Anything else you need for now, or can I leave you to it?"
"All I need, dear Carlos, is your reassuring presence and your melodious voice!" said Cecil. "But if you must...if there is other science calling you to be done...then of course you can go do it."
As the caffeine rush wore down, Seacil ended up sitting by the computer with an old-fashioned non-interactive book in front of him. The title was Topics in Organic Chemistry, one of the authors was Dr. Carlos Ramirez, Ph.D. (with a photo of perfect Carlos on the back, missing just the distinguished streak of grey in his otherwise perfect hair), and so far he didn't understand a word of it.
Which just went to show how smart Carlos was.
"Hey, Cecil!" called Carlos from the computer across the lab. "What's your last name?"
"What?" said Seacil, freezing up yet again. He really had to start preparing better for these things.
"Last name," repeated Carlos. "If you mentioned it before, I never caught it."
Seacil stared down at the page the book was opened to. Baldwin's rules are a series of guidelines outlining the relative favorabilities of ring closure reactions in alicyclic compounds, it said helpfully.
"Baldwin!" he told Carlos. "Why?"
"University needs to know which Cecil you are before they can forward your credentials," Carlos explained. "And besides, it would be kind of weird if I didn't know, wouldn't it?"
"Yes," said Seacil automatically. "Weird." He was supposed to have known Carlos' name all along, he realized. Good thing the book had cleared that up for him too.
But wait. What would happen when the the "university" replied to let Carlos know that there was no such person as "Cecil Baldwin"? How would Carlos react? Would Seacil's charade fall apart a day too soon?
"Let's go out!" he exclaimed.
It was Carlos' turn to be confused. "Out?"
"Not on a date!" said Seacil quickly. "I mean, it could be a date. If you wanted. But it doesn't have to be. I just meant, out on the water."
Carlos let the whole "date" part slide right by. "Not today. Our long-term boat rental met an untimely end...and it's not worth it to rush to set up a new one. We have more than enough data to process in the lab for now."
"But...I think I know how to fix the recording equipment!" It was about time Seacil started coming up with bright ideas again. "And I could really use clearer audio, you know, the stuff I've reconstructed here is so crackly — you have to at least let me test it. We could rent a boat just for the day. Just for a couple hours. Please?"
The scientist was staring at a fixed point on his keyboard. Seacil couldn't read his expression.
"I'm not ready," said Carlos. "Okay? I don't know how much you heard about the storm that made your predecessors leave the project, but...if we go out there it could get bad, and it could get bad really fast, and...I just don't have it in me to deal with that right now."
Seacil's lone human heart did weird fluttery things in his chest. Apparently saving Carlos' life from the storm in the moment wasn't enough. He still needed help working past whatever hold the storm had gotten over him.
(Also, Seacil himself had to get down near the water, because he'd managed to pocket a dinglehopper — or, in Humanish, a "fork" — and needed a chance to drop it where Intern Ariel could retrieve it.)
"How about the pier?"
"We can do the testing off the end of the pier!" explained Seacil. "I'll get my data, we won't have to rent anything, and we can walk straight back to land if a storm comes up. Which it won't. Not today." Weather was also his field.
"You don't need me along for that, do you?" pointed out Carlos. "I mean, I'm happy to drive you over, but...."
"No, you have to be there too! So you can get used to being around the ocean when it's safe again. You don't have to go out on the water at all. All you'd have to do is sit on the pier."
Carlos thought about it for what felt like a long time. Seacil really wished he understood human facial expressions better, because Carlos sure was making a lot of them.
He guessed the last one was determination, because what Carlos said next was, "Give me a couple minutes to copy this dataset onto my iPad, and I'll be ready to go."
The Ocean Bluffs pier was a long, wide wooden structure with benches along the center and railings on both sides. A couple of guys had fishing poles set up at the far end. Other people, locals and tourists alike, walked the length of it in couples and small groups, taking in the view over the edges.
Carlos kept taking in the view too, making sure the clouds that skidded overhead weren't turning dark and thunderous.
He was on a bench while Cecil crouched by the railing across from his feet, adjusting settings on the hydrophone recorder. The output was going to the noise-isolating headphones, this time over Cecil's ears rather than Carlos's, so Cecil could give his full attention to the audio. Every once in a while he would laugh, or mutter something disapproving, or have another frankly unusual reaction; there was a point when Carlos seriously wondered if he'd tuned in a local radio station.
Then Cecil transferred the output to the mini-speakers, and sure enough, it was the sound of undersea waves. No mystery mammal singing or calling today, but nice all the same.
For his part, Carlos was trying to use the fluid dynamics data to model the local vertical ventilation circulation as it affected the distribution of chromophoric dissolved organic matter. It was, as usual, suggesting results that were physically impossible and unequivocally deadly. He didn't panic about things like that these days.
Presently Cecil joined him on the bench. Sitting at a polite distance, hands folded in his lap, he said, "Can I ask what you're up to?"
"Right now?" said Carlos. "Not emailing the National Ocean Service about how the ocean here is soon going to be coated with a thick layer of zombie matter, blocking out essential sunlight and devastating the marine ecosystem."
"Huh," said Cecil. "Why not?"
"First, because it's a prediction based on solid scientific observation, which this place tends to treat as optional. And second...because the Internet connection is out again."
They sat in silence for a while, listening to the waves.
It was surprisingly comfortable. Carlos had never been around anyone who, well, admired him with so much enthusiasm; but while Cecil's mouth seemed to have no filter, the rest of him was as restrained as Carlos could have asked for. Even during the shower incident, the nearly-naked Cecil hadn't done a thing to impose himself on Carlos' attention.
(The attention Carlos had been paying was entirely on his own initiative.)
"I used to hate how impossible this part of the sea was being," he said. "Then I started to think it could be a good thing. You could hit that site with pretty much anything, and that reef, those fish, the seals, the creature that sings, they would come through it just fine. When you're worried about your own mortality, it's kind of comforting to know that at least there's one thing you can count on."
Cecil nodded. "I know what you mean."
The sun was far across the sky, gleaming behind the edge of a low cloud. It would be setting soon.
"If you have all the data you need, we should be getting back to the lab," said Carlos. Part of him wanted to stay at the pier much longer...maybe watch the stars come out...but he was supposed to be the leader of this little project, and a project head is disciplined. That's the first thing a project head is.
"Oh!" said Cecil. "Yes, sure. Of course."
While he was winding up the cable of the hydrophone, Carlos added, "Cecil?"
Disciplined, Carlos told himself. Keep it professional. "Thanks. For bringing me out here."
Cecil beamed like Carlos had just given him the moon. "Carlos, I would come out here with you any time."